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26 Apr 2007 : Column 1049

Point of Order

12.18 pm

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At Education questions earlier today, I raised the issue of apprenticeships and said that some were being completed without a foot being set in the workplace. The Minister who replied denied that, and I fear that he may have inadvertently misled the House, as the adult learning inspectorate warned in 2006—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Speaker has ruled on more than one occasion that a point of order cannot be used as a means of continuing an argument and that other ways are open to him to correct the record if he believes that that is justified.

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Defence in the UK

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Tony Cunningham.]

12.19 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I welcome this opportunity to debate defence in the United Kingdom. I know that the House will echo the sentiments that the Prime Minister expressed at yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions, marking the recent loss of service personnel in Iraq. The three personnel were brought home earlier today, and our thoughts are with their families at this difficult time.

The House often—and rightly—discusses military operations abroad. I again pay tribute to the tremendous work that personnel from all three services are doing in the most difficult of environments in Iraq and Afghanistan and to their achievements there and elsewhere serving on our behalf. We should not forget that they could not achieve so much overseas without the right training and support at home. Nor should we overlook the huge contribution our forces make to this country, its success and its prosperity.

First, second and last, defence in the UK is defined by the people of the armed forces and the civilians who support them: almost 390,000 in all, nearly 200,000 of whom are regular military personnel. If we include their families, the community is very substantial indeed—probably about 1 million. When the wider community of veterans and their families is included, defence in its wider sense represents a very significant proportion of our society.

I want to focus on issues related to people: how we look after them, train them and respect them. Above all, defence in the UK is about people and their communities. Military bases the length and breadth of the country, from Lossiemouth to Portsmouth, Brize Norton, Catterick, Harrogate and Winchester—north, south, east and west—make a major contribution to local communities and local economies.

The backdrop to all that is that all three services are in a state of major change, as is the Ministry of Defence itself. Each of the three services is reviewing its structures and basing. The naval base review is currently ongoing to establish the most effective way—in terms of capability and cost—for the Royal Navy to meet its future requirements. It is a complicated and wide-reaching review, and when it is completed later this year the House will be duly informed of our findings and conclusions.

The restructuring of the Army, through the future Army structure and the future infantry structure, will enhance the operational effectiveness of the Army as a whole, ensuring that it is properly configured in this era of joint and expeditionary operations. It will also improve stability for our soldiers and their families in the long term. When the process is completed, Army personnel will no longer be subject to constant relocation. We are planning the establishment of super garrisons, with comprehensive modern facilities. That will help to make life more stable for personnel and their families, improving continuity in schooling and access to dental and medical care, and helping our people to put down roots.

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Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): When does the Minister envisage bringing back the British Army on the Rhine, given the extra costs of those personnel serving there rather than here? If he is thinking of super garrisons, will he please consider Bicester in the list? It was a super garrison for the Romans, and it would be an ideal super garrison location for the UK Army in the 21st century. [Interruption.]

Mr. Ingram: As the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) says, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, however, and we are considering relocating a sizeable number of personnel back from Germany. We benefit greatly from our presence in Germany, not just because of the quality of our basing there, but because of the extent of the training estate. Clearly, having people close to good training environments is essential. All 22,000 personnel in Germany will not be returning, but we are considering relocating a sizeable component, and the German authorities at both federal and local level have been notified of that. We have employed many people there over the years, and we must also consider the impact on their communities.

As for Bicester, nothing is ever ruled in or out. If a defence estate is available, we always consider whether it is where the best fit can be achieved. Off the top of my head, I cannot say whether anything has been specifically planned for Bicester along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman, but I will always consider any good ideas.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Minister is right that the super garrisons must be based near the best possible training facilities. I can think of no better place, however, than RAF Lyneham, which he has announced will close in 2012. Has he given any thought to what will happen to Lyneham after the RAF pull out in 2012?

Mr. Ingram: I think that the hon. Gentleman knows that we are considering Lyneham, and a number of options, and one main one, have been examined. All of this is in the early stages, however, and I will deal later with the extent of the process, the way in which assets are released and how best to allocate them. As ever, we will keep all those who have a shopping list on what we should do in defence up to date as best we can. I have initiated a proactive process, because sometimes in the past we have tended to be behind the curve in notifying local communities and in planning. Clearly, that is not desirable, and if there is an early indication of a possibility of relocation, we should talk about that as early as possible, as it may save the closure of a school or something else. We are conscious of that issue, and the response of communities is helpful.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I feel obliged to get involved in this debate about new training facilities, as it is an important one. Recruitment in the north-east is probably the strongest in the country, so should not any new training establishment be in the north-east, and particularly in Stockton, which had an RAF base that was second-to-none during the second world war?

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Mr. Ingram: I may not get beyond page three of my speech if I accept every intervention on the quality of existing or past bases. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, however, and, as I said, we consider what assets we have and where the best fit is. We try to consider the quality of life of the families involved, as well as value for money. Sometimes, we might be prepared to make a move at a later stage than when a particular asset is available, and an asset cannot have a planning blight on it. Defence Estates and its broader reach involves a complicated picture, and that is why a committee of senior personnel in the MOD considers all those matters. It is a complex grid, but intense effort is put into trying to get the best solution. But, as ever, the request made by my hon. Friend has been absorbed.

In addition to the Royal Navy and the Army, the Royal Air Force has been conducting a review of its airbases to ensure that service units are combined for maximum efficiency and operability. The aim is to reduce running costs by seeking to rationalise around fewer sites, while continuing to deliver operational outputs and meet future challenges. Twelve airfields have been, or are being, disposed of, two more have been closed, and we are planning to dispose of a further 10 by 2010.

The House will be aware of some of the decisions that have been taken on long-term basing of our RAF aircraft: Lossiemouth will be the base for the joint combat aircraft; Kinloss for the Nimrod fleet; Brize Norton for the air transport fleet; Leuchars and Coningsby will host Typhoon; and Waddington will be the base for our intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets. The underlying drive is to maximise the resources available to the front line, to deliver operational effect rather than administrative overhead. All three services have made great progress in that. The Navy and RAF have combined their operational and personnel commands and the Army is following suit.

In the interim, that has meant significant upheaval for a large number of our personnel, military and civilian. The long-term gain, however, is to achieve the best military fit and the best solutions for our service families. All those decisions and others that will follow will define the long-term lay-down of our defence estate. We generally welcome the good and harmonious relations that we have with the communities neighbouring our bases. In a number of cases, the defence presence is a major part of the local economy, sustaining communities and improving the quality of life in the area.

For the vast majority of our personnel and their families, the United Kingdom is home. I am aware that despite the huge sums that we are investing in accommodation—£700 million in this year alone, and £5 billion over the next decade—there is much more to be done. In the past six years 20,000 new single living bed spaces have been provided, and a further 20,000 will be delivered in the next five years. In the same period, we have upgraded 12,000 family quarters across the United Kingdom. In the past six months we have opened new single living accommodation at Colchester, Honington and Woodbridge, to name just three locations. This is all part of our commitment to deliver better homes to our people and their families.

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Getting the whole estate up to the required standard will not be achieved overnight; a long history of underfunding means that it will take years to put things right. However, after a difficult start the new maintenance regimes for service family accommodation in England and Wales have made real progress, and we will continue to refine and improve them.

We also recognise the need to improve the support that we give personnel who wish to buy their properties. We have worked with the Department for Communities and Local Government to gain access to the key worker living programme, which has given service personnel a new way of gaining access to affordable housing in all English regions and, to an even greater extent, in London and the south-east and east of England.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Can we learn from the mistakes of past Governments as well as the present Government? We should think very carefully when we sell off married quarters because bases are closing. The Minister mentioned the new accommodation that we have built at what was RAF Woodbridge, but we have just sold much accommodation—for instance, at RAF Bentwaters, just a few miles down the road. That seems completely illogical.

Mr. Ingram: I think it has been recognised that it was a fundamental mistake to sell off all the housing.

Mike Penning: It was done under this Government.

Mr. Ingram: I will not engage in a debate about the apportioning of blame. The hon. Gentleman asked whether we could learn lessons, and the answer to that is yes. There is an imbalance between the location of some accommodation and the location of our requirements, and we need to think about innovative solutions. I mentioned the key worker living programme, which allows personnel to buy properties with considerably less capital than they would otherwise need. They can buy between 25 and 75 per cent. of a property on which they will pay a mortgage, and pay subsidised rent on the remainder.

As the hon. Gentleman implied, no one has a monopoly on good ideas, and we are still looking for good and better ideas. We must be imaginative and innovative, and think not just about the here and now but about the profile of the next 10, 15 or 25 years. We must find better answers than we have so far, because this is undeniably an important issue.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I accept what the Minister is saying, but may I ask for a degree of flexibility in budgets? I accept that some RAF stations will close over the next 15 or years. There is little point in investing in SLAM—single living accommodation modernisation—for those stations, but if budgets were flexible enough, existing accommodation could be upgraded slightly to meet the purposes of the next 15 or 20 years.

Mr. Ingram: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We need to take a hard look at this,
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because I do not think we have got it right yet. We know the extent of the problem, as do service personnel. I know the hon. Gentleman served in Afghanistan, although I assume that he does not live in service accommodation.

There is a great deal of catching up to be done, and we do need to be flexible. We cannot deny that money is an issue—some of the improvements involve considerable cost, and if we did spend money and the improvements proved nugatory people would say we had misspent—but I take the view that it is better to look after people now as best we can, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should think of better ways of doing that.

We have a duty to provide our personnel, both at home and on operations, with the very best medical treatment, and I believe that that is exactly what they get. The Royal Centre of Defence Medicine, which is fully integrated with the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, gives our personnel access to a world-class pool of expert consultants. The priority for our wounded personnel is the best possible treatment, and nowhere is better equipped and able to provide it than the centre at Selly Oak. As people begin to recover, a military environment becomes increasingly important. As and when patients’ clinical needs allow, they are brought together in a military-managed ward.

The use of military doctors and more military nurses, and the bringing together of military patients, enables personnel to benefit from a military environment while still having access to the resources and facilities that are available in a leading NHS hospital. There has been much comment, often well-intentioned but ill-informed, on whether that is the right approach. The service medical community believes that it is, and having seen the excellent facilities myself and spoken to staff and patients, I agree. As the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said in March:

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The Minister is absolutely right to say that a military environment is far the best environment for the recovery of those who have been injured fighting for our country. Does he acknowledge, however, that we are talking about not just a military-managed but an exclusively military unit where all the patients are military, rather than there being a mix of military personnel and civilians?

Mr. Ingram: Yes. We are thinking about how such a facility could best be delivered. It is definitely ruled in, not ruled out. Obviously there are staffing and other issues to be addressed, but any such facility, if it is established, is likely to form part of the Selly Oak centre. The train has left the station; we are simply trying to find the best solution.

The Ministry of Defence’s Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court is the premier facility for the rehabilitation of injured service personnel. There is nothing quite like it in the national health service, and facilities and staff are second to none. Its main purpose is to provide rehabilitation for those with complex injuries, including amputees and
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brain-injured patients. It also houses a new complex rehabilitation and amputee unit, which provides high-quality appropriate prosthetics and adaptations, manufactured on site and tailored to individual patients, for service personnel who have suffered amputations.

At the heart of our responsibility to the armed forces is ensuring that they are trained to meet every situation that they may face. The training that our forces receive must be tough to prepare them for the demands of operations. We are always looking for opportunities for improvement, and ensuring that training adapts to reflect the increasingly joint nature of military operations.

The defence training review will transform the way in which we undertake specialist training for all three services. Earlier this year we announced the decision to centre the engineering and technical training currently carried out at various locations around the United Kingdom at St. Athan in south Wales. That will reduce the number of sites for specialist training by a third. St. Athan will become a centre of excellence, with modern facilities and modern living accommodation. The process will begin in 2008, and will last five years. Our ambition is that by 2013 the new training academy will be fully operational. The result of the changes will be continued world-class training for our personnel, but in world-class facilities.

I must emphasise the importance of training, tactics and procedures—TTPs—for the protection of our forces on operations. Too often, discussion of force protection becomes a debate about equipment. There is no doubt that that is important, but TTPs are as important, if not more so. The theatre-specific training that our people receive at UK facilities before they deploy—on Salisbury plain, or at Stanford or Hythe—is crucial to minimising the risks they face in Basra or Helmand. An important part of our commitment to our people is making sure that new recruits are properly looked after. They find themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, and often they are having their first experience of living away from home. The scale of this issue is significant. Last year, we recruited more than 13,000 to the Army alone, and 19,000 people across all three services. We have had to learn the tragic lessons of Deepcut—but learn them we have. I recognise and accept that there were deficiencies in resources and funding, but now we are doing a huge amount to ensure that those deficiencies are avoided in the future.

The second report of the adult learning inspectorate—an independent body which we asked to look at what we did in training—was published on 6 March 2007. It identified areas of concern where further improvement was required, and I assure the House that we are focusing our efforts on finding answers to those concerns. However, the report also recognised the “extraordinary strides” forward taken in the past two years in the welfare of recruits. Against a backdrop of fiercely competing priorities, not least operations, we have invested some £73 million of additional funds in trainee welfare alone to date, with a further £50 million planned in the coming four years. One important recommendation was that there should be an independent service complaints commissioner. We are now in the process of recruiting for that post.

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