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Annington Homes

3. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What estimate he has made of the rent to be paid to Annington Homes for service personnel accommodation in 2008-09. [210790]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Rent to be paid in the financial year 2008-09 is £150 million. That represents 42 per cent. of the agreed market rental price for the properties listed from Annington Homes.

Bob Russell: I pay tribute to the five soldiers from the Colchester garrison who lost their lives in Afghanistan in the last week, and I extend condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of those five brave young men. The town mourns, but there is immense pride in the knowledge that the Army is doing an excellent job. They did not die in vain.

As for Annington Homes, will the Minister confirm that over the past 12 years, the Government have paid more rent to Annington Homes than the Tory Government received during the privatisation in 1996? If that money could be invested in upgrading the homes of Army families, instead of lining the pockets of Annington, perhaps retention would be better than it is.

Derek Twigg: As the hon. Gentleman knows, the amount paid for the sale was around £1.6 billion, and I have written to him with the details of the rent that is being paid. The key thing is that most people now accept that that deal, which was done by the previous Government, was not in the interests of armed forces personnel or their families, and we have had to deal with a legacy of decades of underinvestment. After 18 years in power, the Opposition could not solve that problem. We are spending a significant amount of money on housing—more than £8 billion in the next 10 years—and we are making inroads and improving a large amount of family accommodation and single-living
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accommodation. There is more to do. We are not complacent about the matter, and we will continue to press for improvements.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Not only does that deal not represent good value for money, as my hon. Friend confirmed, but Annington Homes must be making a handsome profit out of the arrangement. People are always looking to the Government for such things, but it is right to look to industries that make handsome profits out of the defence market. What discussions has the Under-Secretary had with Annington Homes to ask what it can do to put money back into the armed services?

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I know that she takes a great interest in the matter. There is a contract, which was signed under the previous Government, to pay a set amount of money to Annington Homes under a deal that most people now recognise as pretty disastrous for accommodation for armed forces personnel. We have met representatives of Annington Homes to discuss what more we can to do to improve the housing position of our armed forces personnel. They are willing to discuss things with us—we are considering several ideas with them at the moment. When we reach a conclusion, I will be happy to report further on the matter.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): But does the Under-Secretary agree that what matters to our armed forces and their families is the quality of the management of those homes? The Defence Committee found lamentable shortcomings in everyday management—taps working, loos flushing—issues that matter so much. In the new supergarrisons, will there be a new housing management system, which is an improvement on the current system? Will polyclinics be considered with the Defence Medical Services, as is happening in Tidworth in Wiltshire?

Derek Twigg: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a great interest in the matters that we are considering. The response, repair and maintenance service in England and Wales now shows sustained performance levels, with more than 96 per cent. of service family accommodation meeting the move-in standard. More than 99 per cent. of emergency calls are dealt with in 24 hours, and customer satisfaction with the response, repair and maintenance service is consistently above 90 per cent. However, I accept that more needs to be done. We must ensure that we stop the problems occurring in future and that services continue to improve. We will obviously examine a variety of ways in which to do that, but I stress that we are considering a relatively new contract. There were many teething problems when it came into being, but significant improvements have been made. I reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that we will continue to monitor the position and put a great deal of effort and work into ensuring that we get the further improvements.

Forward Equipment Programme

4. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): What assessment he has made of the consistency of the forward equipment programme with the Department’s expenditure plans. [210791]

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The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The Department reconciles the equipment programme and the available resources through its regular planning round process, which enables us to adjust priorities, not least in response to the experience of operations. To inform the 2009 planning round, we are undertaking a short examination of the equipment programme to look at our planning assumptions in the next 10 years. That aims to bear down on costs and shift the balance of defence procurement to support operations.

Mr. Blunt: But the truth is that that short examination confirms what everyone knows: the forward equipment programme is inconsistent with the state of the defence budget. Will the Minister confirm that the examination is therefore likely to conclude that salami-slicing will no longer be enough and that a major amputation of an entire programme is probably required?

Mr. Ainsworth: We need to try to ensure that we have got the focus on our current operations right and that it is sufficient. We need to ensure that we do more for our people, if we can. To do so, we need to examine the cost issues in the equipment programme to ascertain whether we can bear down on them. A review is necessary, sensible and exactly what we are doing.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister assure me that any such review will not delay signing the contract for my aircraft carriers? Will he further confirm that, if the future of the Scottish naval shipyards is to be assured, it is essential that they maintain access to the United Kingdom market—no Union, no shipyards?

Mr. Ainsworth: The commitment to the carrier—not my hon. Friend’s carrier, but the carrier—

Mr. Davidson: Carriers.

Mr. Ainsworth: The commitment to the carrier programme is clear, and that will not be part of the review that we are undertaking.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): Is it not clear that a review of the major equipment programme is just another opportunity for the Government to push decisions “to the right”, as the Ministry of Defence jargon goes, in order to delay expenditure for as long as possible, in the hope that the Government can get through a general election before they have to cancel anything? Is it not time for the Government to accept that they will not be able to deliver the capabilities that they originally promised in the strategic defence review under the current defence budget?

Mr. Ainsworth: I saw the hon. Gentleman talking to his hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), who is sitting in front of him, so it is surprising that he should stand up and say exactly the opposite. His hon. Friend said that the review will expose certain things; he says that it is a way of delaying them. The review is a short review. If the hon. Gentleman had paid any attention to what I said, he would know that the review is there to inform our decisions in the 2009 spending round.

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Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend give us some detail on the essential Airbus A400M programme? How many aircraft do we intend to procure and what is his best estimate of its in-flight date?

Mr. Ainsworth: We need to consider our equipment programme, with the exceptions of decisions that have already been taken, through the review, although I cannot pre-empt those decisions. We shall aim for the minimum of delay in decision making. The review will not take that long, but it needs to be conducted, and we need to look further on than we were able to during the 2008 spending round.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): In looking at the forward equipment programme, perhaps the Minister can look at the past equipment programme, too. We all want to see value for money, but does he really think that it is value for money for this country to have bought eight Chinooks that are now lying idle in a hangar? [Hon. Members: “You bought them.”] Having said that— [ Interruption. ] I know exactly what the Minister is saying, but can he give the House an assurance that he will look at all the contracts on which we are now expending money, to ensure that there is no waste whatever in the equipment that our armed forces need?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman knows that those eight Chinooks were ordered by the previous Conservative Government. That procurement was found to be completely within the terms of the procurement procedures. We could not go back to Boeing, because it had done what it had been asked to do, but those Chinooks were not compatible with our safety requirements. That was a pretty disastrous situation. We have decided to make those Chinooks fit for purpose, so that we can get them into theatre as quickly as possible. It was a pretty complicated mess in which we found ourselves in the first place, and yes, it has taken some sorting out.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): To have the most accurate correlation possible between a complex forward equipment programme and the associated budgets provided, the MOD needs the highest order of financial advice available at its top levels. In the light of the two National Audit Office reports—one relating to the Chinook helicopter disaster, the other to the flog-off of QinetiQ, where senior management enriched themselves by ensuring that the price was well below the market value—what quality of financial advice are Ministers receiving in this benighted Department?

Mr. Ainsworth: Hindsight is a wonderful thing. With the benefit of hindsight, one can see the huge success that QinetiQ has been, but that was not guaranteed at the time. However, the Government made nearly £1 billion—an 800 per cent. profit—on their shares in QinetiQ.


5. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What progress has been made in providing protected patrol vehicles for armed forces personnel operating in southern Afghanistan. [210793]

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The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We have procured a substantial number of protected mobility vehicles over the last 12 months and invested heavily in further improvements to their physical protection as threats have emerged. We have delivered Mastiff and Vector protected mobility vehicles to Afghanistan and they are on the streets saving lives now. We are procuring a total of more than 450 of these vehicles, which is clearly a significant investment. In addition, the Prime Minister has recently announced the procurement of 150 additional protected vehicles for operational use, which will be known as Ridgeback.

Mr. Kidney: A number of constituents have expressed to me in the strongest possible words their deep concern about the number of our armed forces personnel who have died as a result of explosive devices at the roadside, and ask me whether that might be due to a lack of sufficient protective vehicles. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House today that when commanders take decisions in matching operations and vehicles, their choice of vehicle is not compromised by an absence of sufficient protected vehicles?

Mr. Ainsworth: A number of commanders have been able to say to us quite clearly that over the last few years the equipment provided to our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq has fundamentally improved. The House needs to ensure that we do not try to second-guess decisions that are quite rightly taken by commanders about which vehicle is appropriate for use on a particular operation. We need a range of vehicles; we cannot do everything from a Mastiff. Our responsibility is clearly to ensure that there are sufficient of all the different kinds of vehicle available to commanders so that they have a free choice to pick the right vehicle for the right job as they see it at the time. That is what we are seeking to do and I hope my hon. Friend would appreciate that we have done so with a substantial degree of success over the last couple of years.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I commend the Secretary of State for ordering the Ridgeback vehicles—the four-wheeled version of the Mastiffs, which have an outstanding track record in Afghanistan and are very popular with the troops. Does not the Minister accept, however, that with the arrival of the future rapid effect utility vehicles, the balance between vehicles designed for blast deflection rather than blast absorption will be tipped too much towards the latter type?

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, of course we have to ensure that we have the right balance in the range of vehicles available. The hon. Lady should not be under any illusion, however, that in the development process of FRES——future rapid effect system—adequate mine protection will not need to be proven and tested to destruction as appropriate. Our problem is that we are not able to expose those tests in the same way as civilian organisations because that would put our troops at risk. But we need a vehicle with a high degree of mobility, which will of course need to be set off against the essential requirement for mine protection and blast deflection to be built into the vehicle’s design.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): But does not the Minister share my sense of concern and, indeed, embarrassment that those brave soldiers
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who willingly and enthusiastically drive those vehicles in their protective duties are paid so much less than those drivers of trucks who are currently holding the nation to ransom?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I think that the hon. Gentleman missed the earlier question about soldiers’ pay and he is now trying to bring the matter into this one. It was a good try.


6. John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the extent of overstretch in the armed forces. [210794]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The armed forces are stretched, but the chiefs of staff advise me that the current situation is manageable. Some of our people are working harder than is the ideal. We are, however, taking steps to alleviate the pressures on individuals through a number of financial and non-financial measures aimed at improving retention and balancing manpower in areas of current risk.

John Barrett: This weekend, President Bush stressed the importance of listening to our generals when making decisions about troop deployment. Has the Minister listened to General Sir Richard Dannatt’s warning that overstretch has left us with “almost no capability” to deal with the unexpected? Does the Minister agree with the general?

Mr. Ainsworth: I just said that we talked to the chiefs of staff, and they have assured us that, although there is stretch in the armed forces, the situation is manageable. The Chief of the General Staff is one of those chiefs. He is part of those discussions. Of course he has been consulted; of course he continues to be consulted. The opinion that I have just given is the opinion that is expressed by the Chief of the General Staff as well as the other chiefs.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Our armed forces would be stretched beyond breaking point had it not been for the dedicated and courageous service of non-UK nationals. A decade ago, there were just 600 non-UK non-Nepalese soldiers in the British Army. Today, there are around 7,000 and rising. Will the Minister be sorting out his manning difficulties by making a career in the Army more attractive to young people or will he continue to buck the UK labour market in favour of overseas recruitment?

Mr. Ainsworth: Our recruitment in the last couple of years has been pretty buoyant. We are able to get people into the armed forces. Recruitment figures achieved in 2007-08 were nearly 1,500 higher than in the previous year, but we know that retention is a problem, which is why we have brought in the various allowances—most recently, the commitment bonus of £15,000. It is not the intention to depend on overseas recruits. It is the intention to be able to recruit within the UK. Let us make it clear: the package available to a young infantryman is worth, by any estimate, £25,000, which is more than that for a parking attendant.

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Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Following on from that, about 10 days ago I was privileged to be on HMS Bulwark, where morale was exceptionally high, and I want to use this opportunity to send my congratulations on that to Captain Jeremy Blunden and the ship’s company. We came across a number of Commonwealth citizens—some on secondment, some direct recruits. What assessment has the Department made of the extra training that we can give to increase the strength of the Royal Navy among our allies and thus help the campaigns that we have to face?

Mr. Ainsworth: The Royal Navy co-operates with all our allies in trying to assist whenever it can. Anyone who goes down to Flag Officer Sea Training at Plymouth will invariably see other navies participating alongside our own and trying not only to develop their interoperability, but to learn any lessons that they can from us, as we should learn any lessons we can from other nations.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister not accept that retention is a serious problem and that many experienced, trained soldiers are leaving the forces early, for whatever reason? That was highlighted to me recently when my wife and I attended beating the retreat on Horse Guards as guests of the Army Benevolent Fund. Those soldiers said to us both that retention is very difficult. Can we not do more to try to retain those whom we have trained at great expense and who are of huge value to our armed services?

Mr. Ainsworth: Retention is a huge issue—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—but pay in itself is not the only answer to it. There are many complexities to the retention issue. We lose an awful lot of people during training and the Army is actively considering whether it can lose fewer during that process—without lowering standards, but by looking at its procedures.

There is also the issue of the soldiering that our people do today. They willingly face complex and dangerous circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq, and if one talks to them in theatre, they say that they enjoy what they do. But they get their soldiering experience much quicker, over a shorter time scale, than previous generations. Therefore, retention will remain a difficult, complex issue. We must continue to strive to do everything that we can to meet that challenge. The hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot afford to lose the skills in which we have invested so much.

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