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26 Apr 2007 : Column 1082

and so on. The charity is an excellent organisation. I commend the early-day motion to the Minister, and urge him to consider whether it could be given Government support. In relation to veterans, too, I should like to stress the importance of working with local authorities and a range of other organisations to ensure consistency in the treatment of war pensions in means-testing for housing benefit and council tax purposes. There ought to be a formula so that every local authority recognises that and deals with it on an equal basis.

I should like to discuss reservists, because, as has already been mentioned, their contribution plays an important part in defence in the UK. I endorse those comments and commend the reservists, who play a vital and integral role in the operation of our armed forces, especially given the current manning shortfalls. Reserve forces have been deployed at unprecedented levels over the past 10 years. They are highly adaptable, and bring skills from civilian life to the forces. I should like to place on record—and I am sure that the House concurs—our appreciation of employers of those individuals, whom they allow to become reservists, and provide time for them to train and be deployed when they are called up. However, the reservists are still below strength, and although there have been improvements, there is a high turnover, so we must ensure that we can maintain the necessary manning levels of reserve forces.

The welfare and well-being of our troops are vital to retention and recruitment. In political debates and the media, much of the focus rests on the politics of war, conflict zones and the conditions in which our armed forces find themselves. Much less attention is paid to other aspects of life in the forces—life on the home front, so to speak—including the conditions in which the troops live, their welfare and care, and the issues that they face daily. It is therefore essential to ensure that, as well as looking after their welfare and safety in conflict zones, their physical and psychological well-being is provided for once they return and are away from the firing line.

On accommodation, I pay tribute to the Government for the new accommodation in the Colchester super garrison. We could have a separate debate about whether the private finance initiative is the right route but, nevertheless, the housing that has been provided is first class, and the regiments are fortunate enough to have a very high standard of accommodation. However, that is not the case across the country, and soldiers still live in accommodation in many places that is well below standard. There are increasing concerns about the standard of housing and of married quarters in various places, and the issue was recently raised by General Sir Mike Jackson and, at the beginning of the year, by Lieutenant-General Freddie Viggers. The standard of some of our single accommodation is particularly alarming.

Although it is clear that not all accommodation is bad, recent MOD figures concede that about 49 per cent. is considered to be of bad quality. That is not satisfactory: we must ensure that Army housing is up to a good standard, and that we support personnel and their families. Ultimately, issues such as poor, substandard accommodation impact on the morale and well-being of our troops. Concerns have been raised, too, about
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the availability of housing for armed forces personnel and their families on leaving the Army. That is not a new issue, but it is much worse than it has ever been in all my many years of living in a garrison town. It is the soldiers who are paying the price of the ill-conceived and disastrous proposal by the Tory Government to sell the houses to Annington Homes, yet not include the upkeep of the accommodation in the deal. I invite the Minister to work out the sums. It may well be cheaper to use some of the Iraq money to buy back the MOD housing, using the pricing formula that was used for the sale, so that proposal is not quite as expensive as it might appear at first sight. Of all the privatisations, in percentage terms, that has got to be the biggest rip-off of the lot.

Mr. Hancock: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a bizarre contradiction of what we are trying to do with married quarters for Annington Homes to sell off homes that they bought on the cheap from the MOD while, not half a mile away, the MOD is building at great expense new married quarters because of the inadequacy of such quarters in the Portsmouth area?

Bob Russell: I am not surprised to hear that. The whole scenario and saga of that privatisation, the small print and so on are a rip-off of public funds. We need a full inquiry into what happened, and what is happening. It is quite ridiculous that the public purse is required to spend many millions of pounds maintaining, improving and upgrading houses that the MOD does not own which, in some cases, may soon be declared surplus to requirements and sold off at a massive profit. For example, in my own town, Annington Homes sold 40 houses, which it purchased for an average price of £15,000 each, and made a gross profit of £4 million—that was on just 40 houses. While the Tories plan to highlight their priorities for the armed forces in their manifesto, that should be a key concern, given that the Tories are the originators of the current situation.

Our men and women deserve more, and so do their families. Living standards are of fundamental importance to the well-being and welfare of troops. More needs to be done now, not 10 years hence. I pay tribute to the Army Families Federation, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. I had the pleasure of meeting some of its leading officers on Tuesday this week as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. They have a key issues list, from which I will read out a sample: housing, lack of upgrade programme, delivery of repairs and maintenance, problems on move in and move out, injured soldiers—the need for support for families—and dentists and their availability, or probably more accurately, non-availability.

Families are an integral part of forces life. Not only do we have a duty of care for the personnel, but we should take care of their families and make sure that they are supported as best they can be while their loved ones are on tour. The provision of good quality education for the children of personnel and support for Army schools is an issue that cannot be ignored. Army life can have an impact on the education of Army children. That was highlighted by one in three soldiers interviewed in 2005.

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Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the problem in relation to statemented children? Army personnel have to move around the country a great deal. They battle to get their child statemented in, say, Catterick, but when they move to Colchester they have to go through the whole process again. Would it be possible to have a passport that could be used for statementing?

Bob Russell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. He is on the armed forces scheme with me and that was a subject that we discussed on Tuesday. I concur 100 per cent. with his observation. There must be a mechanism whereby a statement goes with the child when the parents move to a different education authority. The point is well made.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that that was a key recommendation of the excellent Select Committee report last year? It was a top priority that the Government should try and get co-ordination between the MOD and other Departments more finely tuned.

Bob Russell: I am aware of that, and I am grateful that the Select Committee made the recommendation, which I endorse. The hon. Gentleman should be asking those on his Front Bench what has happened since the recommendation.

Right hon. and hon. Members who were at Education questions today will recall that I asked a question to do with the school meals service, and I named the three Army schools in Colchester which had their hot meals service taken away in April 2004 by Conservative-controlled Essex county council—admittedly, using legislation handed to it by the Labour Government. The simple fact is that while their dads are in Afghanistan or Iraq, the children back in Colchester are not able to have a hot school meal because the three Army schools, for whatever reason, do not provide it.

My question to the Ministry is this: those schools are within minutes of the massive new kitchen arrangement in the super garrison that has been built, and if the MOD can organise troops to go to Iraq and Afghanistan, can it not organise a system whereby hot meals can be taken from the garrison kitchens to those schools, so that the children of military personnel can have a hot midday meal, if that is the parents’ wish? I leave the thought. It is not beyond the wit of the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Education and Skills to work together on that one.

Service children often have very different lives from other children and are frequently moved around, according to where their parents are stationed. That can cause instability. It is important that there is as little disturbance to their education as possible and that staff understand the demands placed on them. Again, the Defence Committee should be commended for its recent inquiry on the subject. The turbulence factor is a vital part of the life of children of military personnel. I had an Adjournment debate on that a few years back. It is worth reading the record to see what the Minister at the time said and what action has been taken.

Two or three years ago when the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) was Secretary of State
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for Education and Skills he had a meeting in my constituency, which I heard about an hour after he arrived, with the heads and chairmen of governors of the Army schools, and he pledged additional money for the those schools. There were photographs and newspaper articles. It is interesting that every time I have pursued the matter, the upshot is that no additional funding has ever been forthcoming. Indeed, because of the fluctuation in the school rolls, which can be more pronounced in schools attended predominantly by children of military personnel, those schools have fewer resources than they had when the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills promised more.

Another issue which I would like the Government to take seriously are the cuts in the strength of the Ministry of Defence police. There has been a 40 per cent. cut at the Colchester garrison, which means that the military families, the military schools and the garrison areas outside the wire have less Ministry of Defence police cover than they had before. That does not help the situation. The Essex police are called upon to provide additional cover to make up for the MOD police cuts. That means that civilian areas elsewhere have their cover diluted.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Like me, the hon. Gentleman has in his constituency an important interface between the Ministry of Defence police, the military police and the Home Office constabulary. Last autumn I discovered that in the midst of two reviews of the Ministry of Defence police, there had been no discussion at all with the Wiltshire constabulary about the impact on the constabulary of withdrawing services of the Ministry of Defence police. They have been pushed from pillar to post, from Larkhill to Tidworth. There are many important places there, including Porton Down. There has been a woeful lack of co-ordination, and the Ministry of Defence police on the ground feel very bruised by that, because half the time they do not know what they are meant to be doing.

Bob Russell: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. If anything, his scenario sounds worse than that in Essex. At some stage there was a consultation between the Ministry of Defence police, the Royal Military Police and the Essex constabulary, but I have never found out exactly when that took place. As the Minister knows, because I have asked parliamentary questions on the matter, there is now a joint police station out of which the three police forces operate. It could be said that that is a good idea. There has always been co-operation between the Royal Military Police, the Ministry of Defence police and the Essex constabulary. There is nothing new there, but sticking them in one building is almost a bit of bluff to give the impression that something new has happened. Yes, something new has happened, and it is to cover the fact that there has been a 40 per cent. cut in the Ministry of Defence police. That is not very sensible.

I shall deal briefly with two further items. First, can the Minister comment on the issue of drug use among soldiers? I recognise that, in percentage terms, it is
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probably very low, but can he say whether it is true that the equivalent of a battalion or more a year are discharged because they have failed drug tests?

Secondly, this year is the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war. Can the Minister advise the House in due course on what the precise commemorations or celebrations will be to mark that? Will he ask colleagues to look again at the position of those who served on RMS St. Helena and two other vessels? RMS St. Helena is the only means of communication to the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic, which gave up its only means of communication to support the liberation of the Falkland Islands.

It was not the fault of RMS St. Helena and its volunteer crew that they were outside the exclusion zone for as long as they were. They wished to play their part; they did play their part, but they were outside the zone for whatever the magical number of days the Ministry of Defence decided constituted justification for the award of a medal. It would cost nothing and put right a wrong if people who volunteered to serve to help liberate the Falkland Islands could have the medal that common sense says they should be awarded. That would cost nothing. Good will cannot have a price.

On the defence of the UK, it was said earlier that few people now have direct knowledge of serving in Her Majesty’s armed forces. The reduction in the size of the armed forces and the closure of many garrison bases and Territorial Army bases mean that there is less of a military footprint. The Government need to revisit the issue to see whether there is any way that they can try to get a military footprint or at least a military presence so that more people see soldiers, sailors and airmen even if not on a daily basis—clearly, that can happen only in places such as Portsmouth and the super garrison towns. The country would benefit if the military footprint were bigger than it currently is.

2.31 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): To follow on from the point made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), it is always a pleasure to take part in these debates, but it is a pity that there are not more Members here from constituencies that do not have a military footprint. Their presence would be one way of ensuring wider knowledge of the issues that we debate.

I want to talk about some procurement and welfare issues and to conclude with some points about the naval base review. I start by noting, on a strategic level, the publication by the Cabinet Office on 27 March of its capability review of the Ministry of Defence. As well as outlining the areas where significant improvements can be made, I want to note where it recognises the many strengths and successes of the MOD.

The capability review says that the MOD is highly regarded both domestically and abroad. I do not think that that will be news to many in the Chamber, but the review says that the Defence Management Board has not always clearly articulated how this links to strategy and delivery. The report recommends that the board take a

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The review also notes that the Department has made significant progress towards the creation of an integrated MOD by joining up work among the three armed services and civilian staff and that it is very much open to change. However, it also says that the DMB needs to articulate how to link the vision of the Department with strategy and delivery. It needs to create a “corporate narrative” that will unify Department purposes and give clarity to its missions.

The report recognises that a vision has been set out in the strategic defence review and the 2003 White Paper on defence strategic guidance and the defence industrial strategy, which provide help in carrying out this vision. However, more needs to be done. Although the MOD has been very focused and successful in delivering short-term outcomes, the review says that that is sometimes at the expense of its long-term planning. Although planning and resource allocation, as well as processes to inform decision making, are in place, there is a lack of clarity around roles, accountability and authority. It draws attention to the way in which approvals and decision making are often multi-layered and tend to get mired in paperwork. The Department’s intensity and focus on short-term tasks inevitably impacts on the time available to consider, and deliver on, the longer-term issues.

The capability review concludes that the permanent secretary has already recognised the need to drive through a series of changes designed to achieve improved MOD efficiency, as well as effectiveness. It identifies three key areas for action that will complement his programme of reform and help to achieve the step change in departmental capability which he seeks and which he has outlined to the Defence Committee in his appearances before us. The recipe that the review lays out includes a review of leadership behaviours, governance and accountability. It says that the Defence Management Board must become a more corporate body and find ways of communicating as one voice. It needs to promote the defence agenda more effectively—an aspect that has featured in several debates in the House—and has a role to play in engaging with other Departments to promote a wider understanding of defence and the wider context in which the operations that we often debate take place. It should market its work and build upon its strengths in analytics and operational research. It also needs to build human capacity, and the report outlines how it might better do that.

As a member of the Defence Committee, I look forward to seeing the fruits of the change programme in delivering better support—perhaps, in light of the compliments paid by our report, I should say even better support—to those working in logistics, in procurement and in theatre. It is of course the role of the Committee to scrutinise delivery in all those areas. In the debate in February, I spoke about the range of inquiries in which we have been involved. We have before us several interesting areas for scrutiny, including health, defence estates and strategic lift, as well as visits and inquiries into deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. I hope that there will be plenty of opportunity to debate the findings of those inquiries. Although the Committee is careful to praise the Department when praise is due, it is of course looking for areas that need to be put right or improved.
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Media and parliamentary interest in our reports naturally tends to focus on those aspects.

I want to use the time that I have today to reflect on some of the advances made in matters that have been of concern to members of the Committee and, given the importance of defence to our constituents, to many Members on both sides of the House who do not serve on the Committee. The first topic that I want to examine is that of health services. We will be carrying out an inquiry on that, but I have briefed myself on where things stand at the moment, and the latest information that I have to hand deals with some of the matters that have been raised in the debate. Personnel returning from operations for treatment in the UK usually go to University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation trust, which is one of the country’s top performers and home to the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine. On average, the number of military in-patients—this is relevant to the question of how to achieve an all-military treatment centre for returning officers in NHS hospitals throughout the UK—totals about 60 to 75 personnel: not a very great number.

Last year, the Government announced a multi-million-pound package of benefits for injured service people and their families, including community psychiatric and nursing support. That was criticised earlier. Nevertheless, the value of the contract with the Priory Group for in-patient psychiatric services is some £4 million per annum; and 15 military community mental health departments have been established across the UK so that such services can be delivered to personnel near to their home, unit or base. I hope that that has been mentioned as an important part of the support to our returning service personnel and that we will include it in our forthcoming Select Committee inquiry.

Whenever practical, military patients in Birmingham are allocated to one of the 12 military consultants co-located at the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, and the Government have introduced improved travel and accommodation arrangements for families who visit patients at Selly Oak. The military-managed ward was mentioned earlier, and I understand that it has reached initial operating capability. It is based in a trauma and orthopaedics ward, where a significant proportion of military patients are treated. Since August, the Government have more than doubled the number of military nurses on the military-managed ward at Selly Oak and, by the end of the month, there will be 26 military nurses and health care assistants—up from 12 last August. By the summer, the number will have increased again.

That advance is reflected in the words of the Chief of the General Staff in March. He puts it better—and perhaps more credibly—than any of us might. He said:

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