HC Deb 08 November 1999 vol 337 cc683-4
8. Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

If he will make a statement on the progress of the Learning Forces Initiative. [96129]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

The learning forces range of measures is giving armed forces personnel enhanced opportunities for self-development, linked to achievement of academic, vocational and professional qualifications. By fostering service people's lifelong learning, the initiative is preparing them for their eventual return to civilian life. Our learning forces programme forms an important aspect of our policy for people in the armed forces.

Mr. Rapson

Although the initiative is very welcome, will my hon. Friend acknowledge that a substantial number of naval personnel are away at sea for extended periods? There is a need for more information technology and distance-learning facilities. My constituency has a substantial population of Navy personnel. Can the Minister assure me that the learning forces initiative will facilitate their needs?

Mr. Spellar

I thank my hon. Friend for that question because he highlights the different circumstances that apply to different services. We recognise the special difficulties for lifelong learning imposed on the Navy by the necessity of service at sea. That is why enhanced information technology-based learning facilities are being trialled on HMS Invincible. Depending on that trial's success, we will look for further opportunities for IT-based learning on ships.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

The Minister knows that I represent many serving and retired officers. Despite the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir P. Tapsell), several of them told me this weekend of their concern that the Government are concentrating in the strategic defence review on what they say are their policies for people, such as the learning forces initiative, to prevent the service people who have been leaving in droves in response to the Government's overstretch policies from leaving the services. It would be better to concentrate on looking after the men and officers already serving than to take desperate measures such as trying to recruit from the criminal classes.

Mr. Spellar

Oh dear! Things have degenerated slightly. The hon. Gentleman is not only wrong about recruitment policy but underestimates the considerable advances that are being made on retention measures, whether through the service task force initiative, the work that we are doing with other Departments to improve the position of service families, the learning forces initiative or the work that we are undertaking so that our service men and women can have qualifications that are recognised externally so as to be portable to their future careers in the civilian world. If he talked not to the retired service men who may be putting that view but to active service men and women about the greater educational opportunities that already exist and the further developments that are taking place, he would have a different perspective.