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I spent most of yesterday at Selly Oak on a planned visit as I go fairly regularly to see the progress that were making. There are two bays, six bed bays substantially filled with soldiers, they are now together, they are bantering as soldiers like to do and they are getting better because they are together. Six months ago that was not the case.
I and others raised that to peoples attention, its been changed and quite shortly it will be going a little bit further than that and the end of the ward where most of the military patients are will be partitioned substantially off. Therell be 14 beds predominantly available for military people. There was an issue, we have responded to it, it is getting better, and its really
important that that message goes across because it affects potentially morale of the soldiers on the front line, it affects potentially morale of medical staff and critically it also potentially affects the morale of the civilian National Health staff at Selly Oak who I desperately need to do what they do to make our soldiers better.
There is a message in that quote to us, which is that we need to be careful about the way in which we raise such issues and that we must debate them constructively. We also need to keep up to date with what is going on and progress on the matter that I have just considered is only one example of the problems that the Secretary of State and his team are effectively tackling.
Looking forward to another review, I acquainted myself with the scale of the Ministry of Defences contribution to providing property through the Defence Estates agency. I realise that the Ministry is Britains largest property manager, maintaining and upgrading 49,000 houses and 150,000 single-bed living spaces, spread over dozens of sites in 16 countries from the Falklands to Germany. That presents a huge challenge.
In 2005-06, the Ministry spent some £700 million on housing and other living accommodation. In some areas, it appears to be exceeding its improvement targets, as I said in an intervention. For 2006-07, I understand that good progress is being made towards the target to upgrade more than 1,200 service family houses. The Ministry will spend £5 billion in the next decade on housing and other living accommodation, with plans for a further 35,000 improved bed spaces in barracks and to continue to improve approximately 1,000 service family properties a year.
Defence Committee members will examine the value for money that Defence Estates provides. Armed forces personnel and their families deserve decent accommodation as well as the other decent services to which hon. Members have referred. The widely reported problems must be tackled. That is a top priority and it must continue to be one. That is why the Defence Committee has made accommodation one of its top priorities.
The Government are improving our support to service personnel who wish to buy property. We heard about the difficulties of accessing education and health services. As service personnel leave the armed forces, they often experience difficulty in getting on to council housing lists. Several hon. Members and I have signed an early-day motion on that subject. However, the answer to the problem is often to assist service personnel who wish to buy their own property. There is an ongoing programme of work with the Department for Communities and Local Government and private companies to give personnel access to shared ownership and joint equity housing schemes: for example, through participation in the key worker living programme.
The issue of helicopters has preoccupied the Defence Committee in a number of its inquiries. As I understand the current situation, commanders on the ground have said that they now have enough helicopters to do what they need to do. During his recent visit to theatres in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, the Secretary of State for Defence decided to
provide more helicopters and increased flexibility. Perhaps because that is good news, it has not received the heightened press coverage that some other issues have had recently.
I certainly welcome the Secretary of States announcement last month that 14 additional helicopters will be made available for military operations over the next couple of years. I understand that the MOD is buying six new Merlin helicopters, which will be available within a year, and converting the eight existing Chinook mark 3 helicopters to make them available for deployment in theatre in two years. The complete package represents an investment of about £230 million.
The Chinook mark 3 helicopters were ordered under the previous Conservative Government in 1995, and delivered in 2001. Since then, they have been unavailable, due to well reported technical problems. The Secretary of State has decided that, given the high priority attached to supporting current operations, and the many representations that he has received from across the House, the best solution is to convert those helicopters to a battlefield support role and get them into theatre for use.
The Defence Committee continually urges our NATO partners to do morea subject on which the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who is just about in his place, engaged in lively debate earlier. The Committee is, of course, conducting an inquiry into NATO and its future, and sometimesparticularly when the Committee is devoting resources to the questionit is worth waiting for the outcome of such inquiries before shooting from the hip on certain issues.
Vehicles have been of great concern over the past year. Again, the Secretary of State has ensured that such requirements are attended to with the urgency that they deserve. Last summer, he implemented a rapid review of our protected patrol vehicles, after concerns were expressed that they were not suitable to withstand improvised explosive devices at roadsides. In July, after only a month, he announced a range of new or accelerated vehicle programmes to meet the evolving threat. Those vehicles are now in theatre. In Iraq, the UK forces in Basra are equipped with a mix of Warrior armoured infantry fighting vehicles, the Bulldog and the Mastiff, as well as retaining some of the Snatch Land Rovers that were the subject of such controversy but remain suited to tasks due to their manoeuvrability and low profile.
Harry Cohen: I want to take my hon. Friend back to her comments about the Chinook helicopter being bought by the Conservatives and this Government having to convert it for a battlefield role. Is she saying that the Conservatives bought a helicopter for defence purposes that could not operate properly in the battlefield? Is that not incredible?
Linda Gilroy: It is a matter to be deplored. I can only say that it is a mark of the current Secretary of State that he has decided that the controversy, and the difficulties of attributing responsibility, should be set aside in the interests of getting capability to the front line.
Mr. Arbuthnot: I understand that it is all my fault. I understand that on my first day as Minister of State for Defence Procurement, I bought those helicopters. The first I heard of it was about three years ago, when apparently they would not fly in clouds.
I gather that one of the problems was the change in requirements that was introduced after the Conservatives unfortunately left office, along with the fact that at a time when new digital helicopters were in operation, these helicopters were part-digital and part-analogue, which made them extremely difficult for everyone to manage. If anyone must take the blame, however, it must be me.
Mr. Kevan Jones: As we have entered a new era in which the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) bares his soul, may I ask whether it was not also the right hon. Gentleman who sold Army accommodation when he was a Minister?
I was noting the advances made under the current Secretary of State and the 10-year stewardship of the Labour Government. A mixture of armoured and non-armoured vehicles have been deployed in Afghanistan, including Snatch vehicles, WMIK vehicles, White Fleet vehicles and CVR(T) light-weight combat reconnaissance vehicles, which the Royal Marines deployed with Viking vehicles to provide additional protected mobility. There has been very good feedback on those vehicles from theatre, and it has been decided that they will remain now that the Marines are returning. They have been supplemented by Mastiffs and Vectors, andas the Secretary of State announced on 26 Februaryby a company of Warrior fighting vehicles from 1st Battalion Scots Guards.
I am pleased that the pay of the 13,000 lowest-paid servicemen and women is to rise by 9.3 per cent. as a result of the latest pay round. A further 6,000 in the next-to-lowest pay range will receive a 6.2 per cent. increase, which is well overdue. A total of about £350 million more per year will go into each years operational bonus. However, I still find it shocking that the pay of a junior soldiera trained privatewill start at just over £15,500 a year following the pay increase, welcome though it is. A newly promoted corporal will receive a 4.2 per cent. increase, taking his annual pay from £23,500 to £24,300. These are very young men and women with huge responsibilities, and when representations are made to us by newly qualified nurses and teachers, I sometimes tell them that those young people are going into some of the most dangerous circumstances imaginable.
Nevertheless, the 2007 armed forces pay award is a good one, and I am pleased that the pay review body has confirmed the tax-free operational allowance of £2,240 for eligible personnel completing a six-month operational tour. It is backdated to 1 April, and I understand that proportional amounts will be paid to
those undertaking shorter and longer tours. It is better than tax-free payfor the lower paid, much betterbecause it is fairer, providing the same tax-free benefit for everyone. The amount is pitched to ensure that the more junior personnel on operations are compensated for their tax bills while they are deployed. In addition to their basic pay, those deployed on operations and training will now qualify after 10 days, rather than 110, for the separation allowance of at least £6.22 per day. The top rate of that allowance has been doubled from £12 to £25. We should thank the Chancellor for all those benefits, as well as the Secretary of State and his team. It is also important that the review body awarded new financial retention incentives to address the key operational pinch pointsreferred to earlierfor the infantry, other ranks, the Royal Marines and RAF aircrew.
Linda Gilroy: It might be. However, although they say that, they have thus far refused to say how much money they would spend on that. They have announced on at least three occasions that they will have a forces families manifesto, yet they have failed to explain the detail of it, and I noted that there was no mention of that in the introductory remarks of the hon. Member for Woodspring. They have also failed to explain how much money they will invest. The comments of the Leader of the Opposition in a recent webcam interview served to expose the emptiness of their promises:
Well, the first thing to say I have to be frank, there is no magic pot of money we can dip into to spend a lot more on our armed services, much as we would like to
There just isnt and we have to show to people that wed be careful and prudent in terms of the money that were going to spend going ahead.
In contrast, the Government are getting on with the job of improving the welfare of our forces and their families. We have increased the defence budget by, on average, £1 billion a year over the past five years. We are increasing pay, improving equipment, investing in constantly updating medical care, implementing a military-managed ward and spending £5 billion on accommodation over the next decade.
The Tories must start spelling out in which of those areas they would cut spending in order to increase spending elsewhere. Would they spend more money overall? If not, what would they spend more and less on? The defence budget has risen by £1 billion a year over the past five years, in contrast to the past five years under the Tories when it was cut by £500 million per year. They say that at the current level of 2.5 per cent. of GDP, defence spending is at an historic low, but 2.5 per cent. is the same level as in 1997. Who cut defence spending as a percentage of GDP?
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con):
May I remind the hon. Lady that the only reason why the figure of 2.5 per cent. is being bruited abroad rather than the 2.2 per cent. that the rate actually is, is the
Prime Ministers spin which is that the proportion remains roughly constant at 2.5 per cent. if the costs of operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are included? As we all know, those costs should be met separately from the Treasury reserve.
Linda Gilroy: I was about to come on to that. The hon. Gentleman is not taking into account the fact that the cake is substantially larger. Therefore, that represents a significantly larger slice20 per cent. more in real terms. Larger cakes give larger slices. A large-print health warning should be attached to any forthcoming Conservative commitments, because if the proceeds of growth strategy were to be followed by a Conservative Government and there were a smaller cake in real terms and the cost of the ingredients continued to increase, a 2.5 per cent. increase maintained could well be the same as 3 per cent. of such a smaller overall cake. That point should also provide a political health warning for those who think that the Navy will fare better under the Tories.
Finally, I turn to the Navy and the naval base review. I spoke about the review in the February debate on defence in the world, and my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) has also spoken about it in this debate. I said that we were happy with the way that things were going in terms of both the review and the framework that had been developed except in one important respect, which was the benchmarks for socio-economic impact assessment. That is essential to ensure that any changes are considered on a like-for-like basis. As my Front-Bench colleagues know, we are still discussing that as much as possible to avoid unnecessary fudgesor, indeed, challengesin terms of obtaining long-term value for UK plc as well as the Ministry of Defence.
We have certainly had every opportunity to put that case loud and clear, and in the months to come we will see whether note has been taken of it. In essence, we continue to believe that Devonport has a lot to offer if the centre of gravity of the provision of support for the fleet is shifted in our direction. Incidentally, I, too, would never talk of closure of naval basesmerely of changes that should take place to provide value for money for the MOD and Her Majestys Government. In that respect, I hope that the Minister replying to the debate will encourage companies that are actively exploring buying DML to meet local MPs and other civic leaders, so that they can fully share in our community perspective on the importance that the city of Plymouth attaches to activities at the dockyard, and to its synergy with the naval base.
I was very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North acknowledged the importance of the recent decision on the Trident submarine, and of taking that decision now to maintain the skills base. In order to deliver value for money and to keep that still very fragile skills base intact, it is necessary to realise the important synergies between the naval base and the dockyard.
Although there is much more that could be said on this and other matters of concern to many of my constituents, I will conclude. I look forward to the period between now and the next such debate in this
Chamber, during which further progress on the important issues that we are debating today will have been made.
Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): It is obvious from the way in which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) spoke that she does an enormous amount of extraordinarily valuable work both on and outside the Defence Committee, and it is a great pleasure to follow her. I will refer to some of the things that she said a little later in my speech, which will be brief.
This is a debate on defence in the UK, but since the strategic defence review our strategy rests on an expeditionary policy, so we try to project our defence way beyond the UK. In some ways, defence in the UK is no longer as much of an issue as it once was. It is not regarded by the public as a particularly high priority because NATO has been a victim of its own success. Because NATO has been so successful over the decades, most people feel reasonably secure in defence terms. The result was that we took the peace dividend at the end of the cold war, which has been a serious mistake. My own view is that we should be spending significantly more on defence, but the trouble is that no Chancellor of the Exchequer, Labour or Conservative, will spend significantly more on defence unless the public demand that they do exactly that.
However, that demand is beginning to come about, and one of the people most responsible for that was Sergeant Roberts, who died because he had to give up his armour to somebody else. He did not die in vain, because his death generated a sense of unfairness among the British people about the way in which we were treating our troops. I am delighted that there has been a real increase in support for defence spending in opinion polls across the country.
We took the peace dividend, and since then the defences of Europe have never really recovered. America has gone a different and I believe more sensible way, and we in Europe need to go much more along the American defence spending line. I entirely agree with the point made by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell)not his outrageous attack on my sale to Annington Homes, of course, which was all nonsense, but his point on the need for a bigger military footprint. It is essential that our armed forces should be encouraged more to wear uniforms in the streets and on the trains, to establish that they are part of the ordinary community. It would bring them closer to the community of British people whom they serve so well and so bravely.
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