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26 Jun 2006 : Column 15

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I know that my right hon. Friend is well aware that Lancashire and the entire north-west is a very fertile recruitment area for the armed forces. However, has the time not come to ensure that, in addition to good recruitment, we enjoy good retention in the north-west by moving Army bases from the south to the north, which is where the families live? That is much overdue and much needed, and the time has come to recognise the needs of our troops.

Mr. Ingram: It is about recognising the need of the armed forces overall—in this case, the Army. Part of the basing reason is to be close to training areas, and that is why we still have extensive basing in Germany and in the south—to be close to those training areas—but my hon. Friend raises a good point, which he should follow with interest in the months and years ahead. Super-garrisons are being considered as part of the future Army structure, but it is too early to say where the lay-down of such garrisons will be—whether in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the north-east, the north-west, the midlands or the south. However, all that work is under way. Moving troops involves spending an extensive amount of money on infrastructure and has to be planned for. That will not happen overnight, but work is under way to achieve some of those objectives.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am very pleased indeed to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) in emphasising the importance of the north-west to Army recruitment. Will the Minister accept that the TA makes an increasingly important contribution to our armed forces, and certainly in respect of recruitment? He recently admitted to me that there has been a problem with the payment of the bounty to TA soldiers in the north-west, in that soldiers who deserve the bounty have not been awarded it. Will he ensure that that matter is corrected at a very early date?

Mr. Ingram: I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s comments: the TA plays a substantial part in all that we do, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but elsewhere. In many ways, that is perhaps why we are beginning to see, once again, an increase in recruitment. In fact, we are getting indications that people want to join the TA because deployment is becoming a feature of the role, whereas before, that was not necessarily the case. The rebalancing of the TA is about restructuring it to make it more usable and better focused on the regular service, so we have attended to some of those issues. I do not recollect saying to the hon. Gentleman what he said that I said about the bounty, although I might have done so in a written answer, of which I write hundreds in a given period. I do not think that I have given that answer, but I will check whether I have, and if there is an issue to be addressed, it will be.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Recent figures that I have before me show that only one infantry battalion in the whole Army is now at full strength; on average, each battalion is one third below combat strength. Can the Minister confirm that the infantry
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battalion soldier manning deficit is about 3,000, and that the Government’s own prediction is that that will worsen while we are deploying more troops abroad? If that is not overstretch, just how would he describe it?

Mr. Ingram: I do not accept that overall analysis from the hon. Gentleman. I have given an indication of the trends and we are beginning to see some benefit from our intensive marketing campaign. I do not deny that we are under-strength, that we find it hard to hit our targets, or that we are under-target, but I should point out that, historically, that has always been the case. What we have tried to do through the new future infantry structure and future Army structure is to get the balance right—to set realistic targets and then to try to achieve them.

In my reply to the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), I said that the recruiting environment is difficult. The economy is very strong and we face a lot of competition from elsewhere in the marketplace, so to speak, which is why we are now investing so heavily in the marketing campaign. We can measure the impact in two ways: one of our marketing strategies led to 15,000 expressions of interest, and the Everest west ridge campaign led to an additional 15,000 expressions of interest. What we have to do now is turn those expressions of interest into actual enlistment. That is the next objective.

Iraq

10. Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): If he will make a statement on recent ground operations in Iraq. [79719]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Coalition operations across Iraq continue to uphold security, to develop robust, self-reliant and capable Iraqi security forces, and to promote effective governance, economic growth and reconstruction. Increasingly, Iraqi security forces are taking the lead in such operations.

Patrick Mercer: The Secretary of State will be aware that 20 Armoured Brigade was recently deployed for ground-holding operations in Iraq, expecting to be there for slightly more than six months. No sooner had its personnel arrived than that tour was extended to seven and a half months. I do not doubt that the soldiers and airmen of the brigade will take that on the chin, but the decision has come as a hammer blow to their families, wives and children, many of whom are isolated in Germany. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that no Ministry of Defence that knows its business could have allowed such a nonsense to occur. Will he tell the House how he will stop that piece of routine planning being made a complete nonsense of again?

Des Browne: I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has significant knowledge of these matters, but I do not accept that such decisions are an indication of the Department or the military not knowing what they are doing. On occasion, as he is aware, there is a need to review decisions and to change them. I have met many soldiers on both of my visits to Iraq and I know that they will do the job that they are asked to do, but I
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accept entirely that we must keep their families constantly in mind. The families face as much pressure in the absence of their family members in theatre as do the members in theatre doing what they are trained to do as British soldiers. I undertake to ensure, as far as it is within my power to do so, that in future planning is conducted in a way that gives families the maximum possible degree of certainty, subject of course to the fact that circumstances may cause us to review decisions that have been made.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Earlier the Secretary of State said that there would be an immediate review of the types of vehicles used by our armed forces in Iraq. When is that review likely to report to the House? Does he agree that, although winning hearts and minds is important, keeping our troops on the ground safe is even more important? Is it not time that we moved them out of Land Rovers, reduced foot patrols and got our troops into Warrior armoured vehicles?

Des Browne: We have already agreed to supplement Snatch with a new patrol vehicle, Vector, which will come into service in 2007. We are currently upgrading the protection on the FV430 to allow it to be used more widely, and we have already upgraded the protection on the Warrior, the Saxon and the CVR(T). Such issues are being considered day-to-day, on an ongoing basis, and the steps that can be taken are being taken. As a consequence of my own observations and information that has been brought to my intention, I asked for a review of the matter. That review is ongoing, but I am not able to give the hon. Gentleman a specific date for its completion. I accept that the protection of our armed forces is my most important priority as Secretary of State for Defence.

Cadet Forces

12. Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): What recent steps his Department has taken to support the cadet forces. [79721]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): The cadet forces organisation offers a vast range of personal development and educational opportunities for young people, allowing them to increase their self-esteem, build their confidence and ultimately realise their full potential. It is widely recognised that in addition to this, they act as a force for good in their communities.

The MOD invests £95 million a year in the development of the cadet forces and furthermore the armed forces support the cadet forces with a significant benefit in kind in the form of training facilities, material and manpower resources.

Mrs. Moon: I thank the Minister for that response. I am fortunate in my constituency in having active sea, air and Army cadet forces. So much so, that this weekend the 5 Cadet Battalion of the Royal Welch was presented with a new banner by Colonel David Cox on behalf of past members.

Back in April, I was pleased to be present when 2117 Squadron of Kenfig Hill air training corps was presented with state-of-the-art communication
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equipment by Selex Systems. Will the Minister join me in thanking those armament businesses that support cadet forces by giving them equipment and by allowing them to experience the latest equipment and the latest technologies? Also, will—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Will the hon. Lady resume her seat? I used to be a corporal in the cadets and I am enjoying what the hon. Lady is saying, but we must get on with the questions. I think that the Minister will be able to reply.

Mr. Watson: I will be brief, corporal. [Interruption.] Sorry. I meant no disrespect, Mr. Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) is right to congratulate local businesses that build partnerships with local cadet forces. The situation that she describes is one that we would hope could be replicated throughout the country. Such gifts help broaden even further the range of opportunities and experience that is open to our young people.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): The Minister will be aware of the importance of cadet forces in personal development for young people, but they are important also in terms of recruitment to the armed forces. What assessment has the hon. Gentleman made of the poor state of repair of many of the premises occupied by cadet forces? What will he do to improve matters?

Hon. Members: Private Watson!

Mr. Watson: This chastened Private Watson will take away the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion and consider it. There is not a deep pot of money for our cadet forces, but they do remarkable things with small pots of money. Wherever we can help them, we do so.

Iraq

13. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Iraq. [79722]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier today to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley).

Mr. Hammond: I listened carefully to the answers given by the Secretary of State. In response to one of the earlier questions, he said that there is a threat posed to the security situation in Iraq and to our forces by infiltrators in the security services and the police force. Could he confirm whether he has spoken to the new Iraqi Defence Minister about this? What steps will the UK take in conjunction with the new Iraqi Government to eradicate infiltrators?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is correct that I identified that threat, which I do not think will be news to anyone in this place. I think that it was well known that the Iraqi police service had been infiltrated by militia and other organisations.


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As part of the Basra security plan, and particularly for the Multi-National Division (South-East), although I am sure that the arrangement will need to be run in other parts of Iraq, the Army is being deployed to create the opportunity to arrest from the police force those officers who are corrupt or those officers who are involved in violent gangs and use their position in the police to perpetrate violence.

The hon. Gentleman asks me whether I have spoken to the new Iraqi Defence Minister about these matters. I have not only spoken to the Defence Minister, but also to the new Iraqi Minister of the Interior and with the Prime Minister. He can be reassured that all of them explicitly recognise that this is a problem and that something needs to be done about it. We have, with the Iraqi security forces in Basra, been doing something about it over the past week or thereabouts, and have arrested individuals.

Veterans

14. Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): If he will make a statement on Government support for veterans. [79723]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): The Government provide a comprehensive programme of recognition and support for veterans. This includes an excellent resettlement package for service personnel returning to civilian life; high-quality pension and compensation schemes; measures to meet veterans’ health and welfare needs; and initiatives such as Veterans’ day and the veterans badge, recognising veterans and the debt of honour that we owe them.

Mr. Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. I attended an excellent Veterans’ day in my constituency on Saturday with more than 50 veterans, who welcomed the badge that the Minister has announced. However, one group of individuals in my constituency, which is a former mining community, have been left out—the Bevan boys, who contributed to the war effort
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and deserve the recognition that other veterans have received. Will my hon. Friend look at the issue to see whether those brave people, many of whom lost their lives in the mines, can receive recognition?

Mr. Watson: There is great merit in my hon. Friend’s suggestion. Other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), have raised the matter in the House, and I agree to ask my officials to look at extending the scheme.

Colchester Garrison

16. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Whether provision has been made under the private finance initiative contract for the new Colchester garrison to house all members of Her Majesty’s armed forces who require accommodation in Colchester. [79725]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The accommodation that is being provided under the Colchester PFI is sufficient to meet all current endorsed requirements for Her Majesty’s armed forces personnel who are permanently based at the garrison. Those requirements are, of course, kept under review.

Bob Russell: I am grateful for that answer, which is on the record. I shall watch the Ministry of Defence—I hope that the Minister will confirm that he, too, will do so—to make sure that it does not seek to rent houses from the private sector to accommodate soldiers whom they cannot accommodate within the garrison.

Mr. Ingram: Usually, the hon. Gentleman gives credit to the PFI. Stage 1 will provide 1,145 bed spaces out of a total of 2,231. The scheme is ahead of schedule, and delivery will probably be complete in September this year—three months early—so significant progress has been made. As for his specific question, 56 single personnel are currently living in substitute single living accommodation—SSLA—and it is anticipated that there will be no new requirement for SSLA after phase 1 is completed.


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Orders of the Day

Charities Bill

[Relevant documents: The Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Charities Bill of Session 2003-04, HC 660, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6440.]

Order for Second Reading read.

3.32 pm

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Hilary Armstrong): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is part of a renewed drive by the Government to break down the barriers that face the charitable sector. Charities and voluntary organisations play a fundamental role in the fabric of our society, and provide a vital service to individuals and communities. By creating the office of the third sector and introducing the Bill, we have underlined our commitment to the growing importance of charitable endeavour in our society by helping to release charities’ potential for further public good. There are about 190,000 charities on the public register in England and Wales, with a combined annual income of over £39 billion.

The sector has significant social and economic weight, but as society evolves, so our charities must be given the freedom to meet the challenges of the modern world. The Bill will enable them to keep pace with the modern social landscape while ensuring that they are accountable to the public whom they serve. One of the most important ways in which the Government can support and enable the charitable sector to develop is to create a framework within which charitable endeavour can thrive.

We have three clear aims for the Bill. First, we wish to provide a legal and regulatory environment that enables all charities, however they work, to realise their potential. Secondly, we wish to encourage a vibrant and diverse sector, independent of Government, and thirdly, we wish to sustain high levels of public confidence in charities through effective regulation.

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con) : Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Hilary Armstrong: It is a bit early, but yes. I have not got into my speech yet.

Andrew Selous: The right hon. Lady is very gracious. I apologise for intervening a little early on. Will she assure the House that nothing in the Bill will remove the presumption that religion is a public benefit?


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