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Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): The sad long list of names that the Secretary of State for Defence read at the beginning of his statement demonstrates that, while the House talks about sailors selling stories, soldiers face death and danger on a daily basis on the streets.
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Yet still they do not have the correct armoured vehicles in which to patrol and they expose themselves to unnecessary danger from Iranian weaponry and munitions. When will those soldiers get the tools to do the job?

Des Browne: I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views on these matters because of his experience in, and contribution to, our armed forces. He regularly engages with me on such issues and knows my commitment to ensuring that we live up to the undertaking of giving our commanders what they need to do the job on the ground. He also knows the advances that we have made in the past 12 months on getting additional protected vehicles in place, especially in southern Iraq. However, the experience of the attack on the Warrior makes it very clear that the type of device that is being deployed against our forces is such that it is unthinkable that we could find an armoured vehicle that would stand against that and with which we could do a job. As he knows, this is about not just vehicles, but tactics, intelligence and other operational requirements. As events over the weekend have shown, all those things have improved exceptionally in Basra. Our troops there are literally fighting back against the risks with significant success.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): As far as I am concerned, we should be packing their bags and bringing them all back home. However, may I ask the Secretary of State a question about the Royal Marines who were captured? They never went running to the press like the Royal Navy did, so were there different orders for the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines?

Des Browne: I am sure that my hon. Friend knows that both the Royal Marines and the seamen are members of the Navy, so the same rules applied to both. The decisions that people made in relation to the offers available were a matter for them. I do not have the detail of who was offered what, and even if I did, I do not think that it would help the question of my accountability to the House to discuss such issues.

My hon. Friend’s views about our operations in Iraq are well known. It is my intention that those who serve in our armed forces in Iraq will come home as soon as possible, but that will be when the conditions are right and we can say that the Iraqi forces are able themselves to address the threat that continues to exist in that part of the world.

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): Should the Secretary of State have been more mindful of the thousands of the people in the armed services, including special forces, and in the intelligence community who have to accept the discipline that they do not talk to the press about their work? They are helped in doing so if the rules are clear and undermined if stories are sold. There are many difficult decisions that the Secretary of State has to take, but surely, given the predictable outcome, this was not difficult.

Des Browne: People should be clear that the same Queen’s Regulations apply to all three services. It was to ensure that there was not differential interpretation of the regulations in the future that I structured the announcement that I made on Monday in such a way.

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Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): The news management of returning detainees is nothing new, as anyone who read John Nichol’s account in yesterday’s edition of The Observer would know. When he returned in 1991, he was told:

whether they wanted to or not. He wrote that a few days later “someone changed their mind.” I do not need to remind people that the Ministers in 1991 belonged to the so-called honourable Conservative party—I do not recall hearing calls for resignations. Of course, what has changed is the climate, because we now have mobile phones that can send pictures instantly. Will the new regulations that my right hon. Friend will introduce take such new technology into account?

Des Browne: That is part of the changed circumstances that will be addressed by the review. Without any great furore, we are regularly treated to the broadcasting on our media of film that has clearly been taken on mobile phone cameras by serving personnel in the heart of operations, and nothing like such concern has been expressed about that. Perhaps, just as the whole of the 1991 episode revealed, it is long overdue that such issues are addressed in the way in which I have set out.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): The Secretary of State has said that he is awaiting a signal from PJHQ in respect of the recommencement of boarding operations. Is that something for him to note, or to decide?

Des Browne: We will restart boardings when PJHQ has reviewed the operational environment and has issued further direction on exactly when, where and how such operations should take place. My understanding is that that matter will come to me for decision.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I realise that one or two Conservative Members are former cavalrymen, but there seem to be far more hon. Members looking down on the situation from very high horses. It seems likely that some parts of the Queen’s Regulations will be examined, but does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever the regulations eventually state in black and white, it is essential that senior officers and Ministers have fair room to exercise their proper judgment?

Des Browne: As someone said from a sedentary position, that is a good question. It is true that the inflexible application of regulations sometimes results in inappropriate outcomes. However, a far more important part of the lesson of last weekend is that clear consistency regarding the interpretation of the regulations is needed across all three services. I am determined that that will be achieved. It is important that those who serve in the armed forces know exactly where they stand and that there is no doubt about whether they should be required to resist the sorts of payment that were put in front of those young people.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): What we cannot escape is that we endured an operational humiliation at the hands of Iran, followed by a self-inflicted
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humiliation for the reputation of the Royal Navy at the hands of its own board. These wretched events are symptomatic of a collapse of the covenant between the nation and its armed services. The Secretary of State must give serious consideration to whether in the present circumstances, having given the apology that he has given to the House, he is the right person to try to repair and put that covenant back together.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman exaggerates in several respects. First, not all operations are successful. As senior military officers often say to me, in the vocabulary that he will recognise, “the enemy get a vote”. That is why we need to review the operation and those of a similar nature to ensure, to the extent that it is ever possible to do that, that what happened does not happen again. However, I do not accept that the operation was a humiliation for the Royal Navy.

On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, the people must judge my record in the whole of the past year. This is a challenging time for the MOD—perhaps the times are always challenging for the MOD—I have an important job to do, and I intend to get on with it.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): It is very refreshing for a Secretary of State to come to Parliament, to admit full responsibility, to say that he is to blame and to say that he is sorry. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on doing that. I genuinely want to ask him, because it is the sort of question that the public will be asking, if a Secretary of State has made mistakes and admits that he has done something wrong, what sort of mistake does it take for him then to decide that he should offer his resignation? I am asking for my right hon. Friend’s view.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend’s opening remarks are no mean praise and I accept them in the spirit in which they are offered. I decline her invitation to set out the parameters and thresholds for ministerial resignation.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s contriteness in now—belatedly—accepting the principle that service personnel join up to serve their country, not their pocket. Nevertheless, it remains disturbing that the 15 captives, who included two officers, were so easily manipulated into making apologies that were not due. I suggest that, instead of trying to wash his hands of the whole incident, the Secretary of State should accept that he is ultimately responsible for the armed services. He should examine the situation carefully to ensure that it does not happen again, because it has been a disgrace to this country.

Des Browne: I accept my responsibility, but I say very clearly, as I have already done twice in the House, that I do not think that I or anybody else in the House should volunteer themselves into a situation in which they can condemn those young people for their behaviour, and for their exploitation in circumstances of which, as far as I am aware, nobody in the House has any experience at all. The hon. Gentleman asks that I accept responsibility; I have accepted responsibility, and there is nothing belated about my doing so. I have nothing further to add in relation to the conduct of the young people involved.

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Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): A constituent of mine was one of the 15 members of our armed forces captured by Iran. May I say to my right hon. Friend that the overwhelming feeling in my community is one of relief and joy that the safe recovery of those brave people was secured? My constituent chose to say very little to the press, but of all the other commentators who have piled in on the issue, both inside and outside the House, is it not a pity that more did not choose to thank those responsible for, and involved in, the peaceable resolution of the matter?

Des Browne: Clearly, in securing as we did, through the means by which we did, the safe return of the people concerned, the Government were doing their job. I have to say that in my time in government, I have long moved away from expecting anybody to recognise something as being other than what is expected from the Government, and that is exactly how it should be. May I take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent, whose identity I do not know, for the service that he has given, the job that he was doing in difficult circumstances, his ability to sustain himself in detention, and the way in which he has conducted himself since he returned?

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Modernising Medical Careers

4.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the progress that we are making in relation to modernising medical careers. As I explained to the House in my written statement on 27 March, the independent review group continued its work over the Easter recess, which included making two important announcements to applicants for training places. Copies of those announcements are being placed in the Library today. The review group decided that it would be wrong to abandon the process of interviews now under way and concentrated instead on how to change the process in order to meet the needs of junior doctors and the NHS as a whole. Furthermore, it concluded that the problems that have arisen relate in the main to the implementation process, and not to the underlying principles of modernising medical careers.

Following the review group’s recommendations, recruitment to general practice training programmes, which has not generally given rise to problems, will continue as planned, although the timetable may need to be revised to make sure that it is co-ordinated with the revised timetable for other specialties. The review group is undertaking further work on recruitment to academic medical programmes, and it will make a further announcement on that shortly.

On recruitment for speciality training, which is where most of the recent problems arose, the review group’s statement on 4 April sets out the changes needed. The group’s proposals have the support of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association and are now being implemented by the NHS with the postgraduate deaneries. For applicants who have already been shortlisted, all interviews already conducted in round 1 will be honoured and the outcomes will count. Eligible applicants will also be able to revise their preferences later this week in the light of published competition ratios, and they will be offered an interview for their first preference post, if they have not already had one. Eligible applicants who were not previously shortlisted will also be able to revise their preferences and will be guaranteed an offer of an interview for their first preference.

We expect job offers to begin to be made in early June, but not all jobs will be filled at that point. There will then be a second round of recruitment for applicants who do not get a job in the first round. That second round will be based on a revised short listing and interview process, which will include a structured CV.

This has been a time of great distress for junior doctors and their families, and I apologise to them unreservedly for the anxiety that has been caused. I believe that we now have the right way forward for this year’s recruitment to general practice and speciality training, and that applicants can be confident that they will be treated fairly. I want to record my thanks to Professor Neil Douglas and his review group for the very considerable amount of time and expertise that they have already contributed. They will continue their work and, as I have said previously, we will publish
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their final report. I want to thank, too, the NHS consultants and deaneries who are being asked to conduct a large number of extra interviews within a short space of time. We will keep the timetable under review. The Health Departments in the other home countries will be making their own announcements on the arrangements that apply there.

Finally, the review group was set up to deal with this year’s recruitment process. We are now some two years into the modernising medical careers programme that began with the successful launch of foundation programmes in 2005. The time is now right to undertake a wider review, to clarify and strengthen the principles underlying MMC and to ensure that, where necessary, we make further changes for future years. Historically, Britain’s medical education and training system has been rightly regarded as second to none. The creation of a competence-based training system that is widely accepted remains the right way forward, but all involved must be confident that the pursuit of excellence remains at the heart of the system. I am therefore establishing a second independent review to consider those and other broader issues. I am very pleased that Professor Sir John Tooke has agreed to chair the independent review. Sir John is dean of the Peninsula medical school, chair of the Council of Heads of Medical Schools and chair of the UK health education advisory committee. We are working with Sir John on the terms of reference and membership of the review, and I will make a further announcement shortly. Modernising medical careers is a UK-wide programme, so the devolved Administrations will be fully involved in the process. We will, of course, publish Sir John’s report.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for her statement and for the chance to see it beforehand. I am glad that she volunteered a statement on this occasion, instead of being dragged to the Chamber, as she was on 19 March. She has had to eat three helpings of humble pie this afternoon—first, in making an apology, which she should have done on 19 March, but I am glad that she has done so now; secondly, in saying that at least in the second round of interviews there will be access to a structured CV, which, she maintained, would be true in the first round, when she spoke to the House on 19 March; and, thirdly, in accepting the need for a further strategic review, which she has not been willing to concede previously.

In her statement, the Secretary of State said that it was the implementation process that went wrong, not modernising medical careers itself. She is right that MMC has attracted support in principle, including from the Opposition, but questions about implementation were raised by the British Medical Association and the royal colleges, which she and her Department have overridden—if only she had listened. When Professor Alan Crockard resigned as national director of MMC he said that the medical training application service

He went on to say:

namely, MTAS—

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Subsequently, when Professor Shelley Heard resigned as the MMC national clinical adviser she said that the principles that the Secretary of State says have so much support

There have therefore been two resignations by people who hold others responsible. Who, then, does the Secretary of State hold responsible?

The way forward this year is still fraught with difficulty. Does the Secretary of State believe that it is sustainable to offer applicants up to four interviews in the first place, but to make them choose only one? She said that the second round will be based on a revised shortlisting and interview process, including a structured CV. Does that mean abandoning the absurd scoring system for shortlisting? Will interviewers in the first round have access to a full CV and references or, as I understand it, will the first interview still be conducted on the same basis as was first proposed, with all the attendant problems?

Will the Secretary of State say how many posts will be available—18,500 have been loaded on MTAS so far, and there were originally 33,000 applications? What are the two respective figures now?

Clearly, there were more applicants than the Department expected. On 19 March, I asked the Secretary of State whether she would create extra training posts by reclassifying trust grade posts. Will she now confirm that her Department has subsequently asked trusts to do as I proposed? And how many such posts is she willing financially to support?

Will the Secretary of State ensure, not least by creating new training posts, that the lost tribe of senior house officers are not forced into a dead end? She must know that they were disadvantaged under the MTAS scoring system, and if they do not gain ST3 posts this year, they will be ineligible in future years. For example, she must know that 1,829 surgeons have been shortlisted for ST3 posts and that only 534 posts are available. Will the Secretary of State promise that they will be able to access training posts this year, even if only on a one-year basis, and that they will be eligible for run-through training posts next year and potentially the year after, so that there is a viable transition for them?

Finally, I welcome Sir John Tooke’s appointment to head a full review, which we also called for. It is time for the medical profession to reassert its responsibility for the education and training of future medics. MMC is needed to reflect a changed world in which trainees are no longer expected substantially to deliver NHS services, but the principle has been undermined by lamentable implementation. The Secretary of State and her Department must accept responsibility for that, and in the light of the appalling shambles that they have made of the situation, will she promise to listen and to let the medical profession give the lead in future?

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