Armed Forces (Education)

Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th January 2001.

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Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood 12:00 am, 15th January 2001

If he will make a statement on developments in education and training for the armed forces. [143717]

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

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 to 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 individual training in the Department. This review is due to be completed this spring, when I will make a further statement to the House.

Photo of Joan Humble Joan Humble Labour, Blackpool North and Fleetwood

My hon. Friend will be aware that the armed forces recruit many young people. Will he assure me that when they leave, they take with them appropriate transferable qualifications that they can take out into the wider world of work?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

We certainly recognise that the vast majority of our people will go on to other careers and occupations. We are talking to the appropriate authorities and qualifications bodies to ensure that when people leave they take with them qualifications that recognise their attainments, and what they have achieved while they have been with the armed forces—not only in traditional technical areas but in the high level of training in leadership and management qualities that the armed forces give to our people.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce Conservative, South Dorset

Will the Minister place in the Library, or at least supply to the Select Committee on Defence, details of the training that our armed forces have been given in handling depleted uranium and vehicles that might have been hit by depleted uranium shells? Will he comment on the fact that in his statement on Tuesday he made no mention of the Royal Navy using depleted uranium in its Phalanx guns? I was always told that that was non-hazardous ammunition, but the Americans are now withdrawing it in favour of a more expensive ammunition. Why did the Ministry of Defence announce on Saturday that it was withdrawing the ammunition because the Americans were no longer manufacturing it? Why did it decide to withdraw it?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

We have not yet made the decision to withdraw it. We are phasing out depleted uranium ammunition on Phalanx because the Americans have found that the tungsten round has a further reach and greater accuracy, leading to a higher probability of knocking out a missile. The difference between the role of Phalanx and land-based or air-launched depleted uranium weapons is that the former is for missiles launched at our ships. Therefore, by definition, Phalanx is unlikely to be used against heavy tank battle armour, against which depleted uranium is the only effective weapon.

Not only this Administration but a previous Administration published quite a bit of information on depleted uranium, which, with the advent of internet technology, has been placed on our website. A wide range of information is available. The instructions given to our forces in theatre are exactly consistent with what we have said throughout, including in my statement last Tuesday, and reflect our responsibility for ensuring, in the particular circumstances outlined by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that people take adequate precautions, while also looking at the very low level of risk in other circumstances.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I welcome the review of training to which my hon. Friend referred. As someone who has served on the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I know that there is concern about the extent of health and safety training with respect to depleted uranium. Several people in Staffordshire who served in the Gulf were not aware— or appeared not to be aware at the time—of any need for health and safety training, particularly for the use of depleted uranium. Will my hon. Friend give special consideration to how the precautionary principle can be included in that aspect of health and safety training?

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

We certainly take that very seriously, which is why there has been a series of instructions. It is fair to say that depleted uranium was used for the first time in combat in the Gulf. The evidence is that that information did not get through to some units at the time. However, there is no evidence of a higher level of illness arising from such occurrences.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend referred to her membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Ms Ward).

They demonstrated, once again, the enormous value of the scheme in enabling Members on both sides of the House to hear the views of the armed forces and to gain a much better understanding.

Our understanding, from the figures rightly identified by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, is that there is no increase in illness as a result of the use of depleted uranium, and epidemiological statistics bear that out.