HC Deb 27 November 2000 vol 357 cc621-2
5. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

If he will make a statement on developments in education and training for the armed forces. [138575]

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

As has been well demonstrated by the recent deployments to Sierra Leone and in the Balkans, the training of our armed forces is of a very high standard. To maintain that standard and ensure that our training and education arrangements for the armed forces and Ministry of Defence civilians continue to meet defence needs in the 21st century, my noble Friend Lord Robertson, when Secretary of State for Defence, announced a wide-ranging and fundamental review of education and training in the Department. This review is due to complete next spring, when I will make a further statement to the House.

Fiona Mactaggart

Can my hon. Friend assure me that the review will make a high priority of ensuring that service personnel obtain qualifications that they can use in their future careers when they leave the armed forces, so that they can participate fully in civilian life, which in the past people leaving the armed forces have often had difficulty in doing?

Mr. Spellar

Yes; there is no doubt that the level of training that we provide for our service men and women is superb, as demonstrated by the number of employers who are often actively trying to poach many of our trained personnel. There has been a difficulty when qualifications do not necessarily match civilian qualifications, and are less portable in civilian society, which these days is far more certificate based. We are working with the relevant agencies to ensure that the training that our people undertake in specific skills and more general areas are properly recognised with qualifications that they can carry. That is good for the armed forces and very good, as my hon. Friend has said, when service men and women re-enter the civilian employment market, when they are able to capitalise on the training and experience that they have gained.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Can the Minister explain what the effect has been on the throughput of trained pilots into the Royal Air Force of the grounding of the Tucano aircraft? What are the technical problems; when will they be solved; what will the additional cost to the defence budget of rectifying the problems be; where are they being sent; and is this part of the problem with the shortfall of RAF fast jet pilots? Is the problem a lack of training facilities or is it something much more fundamental?

Mr. Spellar

There has been a failure of a part, and we are working with the aircraft's manufacturers to rectify the problem as soon as possible. That introduces a training gap, so those who are in training will undertake part of their training in Australia. We have already reached an agreement with the Royal Australian Air Force to cover that, so we hope to be able to maintain training. However, the hon. Gentleman identifies, rightly, the difficulties facing all air forces throughout the world: there is a shortfall of pilots, especially because of the extremely buoyant civilian air transport industry. We are working on several measures to alleviate the problem, some of which have been implemented, with others to follow shortly.

Ms Sandra Osborne (Ayr)

My hon. Friend will be aware that the search and rescue function of HMS Gannet in my constituency is under review and might be removed. Is he aware that the site has the potential to provide an excellent education and training centre; and will he consider that as an alternative use?

Mr. Spellar

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are considering suitable alternative defence uses for the site and, as usual, discussing with appropriate local authorities alternative uses in the event that defence has to vacate the site. We recognise the contribution that the Prestwick area has made to defence and, as always, we want to assist the area as much as possible in dealing with the inevitable and unfortunate consequences that arise whenever we reduce a capability. However, I take my hon. Friend's point and will draw it to the attention of the defence training review.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Will the Government, on behalf of the whole nation, give their wholehearted support to the Royal British Legion campaign to construct an education centre on the site of the battle of the Somme, where 420,000 patriotic British soldiers laid down their lives? Is the Minister aware that the French department of the Somme and the European Union have each promised £300,000, but that the British Government, reluctantly, have promised only £30,000?

Mr. Spellar

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we hold regular discussions with the Royal British Legion on a number of issues. I am not aware that the issue he raises has been discussed by Ministers and the Royal British Legion, but I shall certainly check. We shall look into the matter and we thank him for raising it.