HC Deb 15 December 1999 vol 341 cc213-4W
Mr. Keetch

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what provisions have been made to ensure family contact on 25 December 1999, 31 December 1999 and 1 January 2000 for those members of the armed forces who will be separated from their families on those dates. [101728]

Mr. Hoon

We recognise the importance of Service personnel away from home being able to keep in touch, particularly during holiday periods. To this end, all personnel deployed on eligible operations are given 20 minutes worth of free welfare telephone calls home each week. In the past, this facility has been provided using a mix of private and military services, and, whenever operational constraints have allowed, has also been made available to personnel to allow them to make additional telephone calls home at their own expense. All personnel deployed away from home over the Christmas and New Year period will have access to this minimum level of service, either as their primary means of calling home or as a fallback when other systems are not working.

We are currently in the process of deploying a new communication system, called Project WELCOME, which is being introduced to give personnel who are deployed away from home on operations guaranteed access to a welfare telephone, whatever the operational situation. This new system will be fully operational in the Gulf by Christmas and will be introduced into other theatres as soon as the necessary equipment is available and appropriate contractual arrangements can be made.

In addition to this, to cope with the increased demand over the Christmas and New Year, we have:

Purchased eleven additional mobile phones for the Gulf.

Introduced 'electronic blueys' into the Falkland Islands, following a successful trial in the Balkans.

Arranged for the deployment of seven extra satellite phones into Kosovo.

Negotiated with The Sun newspaper, BT and Siemens to provide a video conferencing link which will enable troops to book a 10-minute slot free of charge to link up with their families at home and talk on camera. The service will operate in Kosovo during the period 22 to the 26 of December and in Bosnia during the period 29 December to the 2 of January. It is anticipated that approximately 1,000 troops in each theatre will be able to take advantage of this service.

Agreed with BT to provide all troops serving in isolated locations throughout the Balkans who are having to use the BT satellite phones with a free five minute phone card valid for use on or after the 25 of December.

Agreed with Cable and Wireless that all single and married unaccompanied personnel serving in the Falkland Islands will be given 20 minutes of welfare telephone calls free.