To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to maintain the parachuting capability of the Armed Forces.
My Lords, the Government intend to maintain a parachute capability for the Armed Forces for the foreseeable future. The level at which it is maintained will be kept under review to ensure that it is consistent with operational priorities, but parachuting remains a key part of our defence doctrine.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply but the reality is that at the present time there is a serious overstretch problem with availability of aircraft. Noble Lords visited 16 Air Assault Brigade in July, before the Recess, and discovered that on many occasions soldiers were turning up at Lyneham prepared to jump, only to find that the aircraft were not available, out of service or had been retasked on higher priority, and therefore they had to turn back and return to base. We discovered that, overall, something like 41 per cent of the members of 16 Air Assault Brigade are not now parachute qualified because of lack of jump availability. As for newer recruits, those who have completed the pre-training course have not jumped for more than two years. What plans do the Government have to remedy the situation?
My Lords, there is indeed a shortfall and we acknowledge that, as has been made clear in the replies that I have given, not least to the noble Lord, Lord Lee. We believe that we have sufficient training for the core tasks that are in hand. Operational requirements have to take precedence, but we have made provision to use Skyvan. The contract with the private contractor that was used until 2004 is now being reinstituted, which should help to ease the situation.
My Lords, I was on the visit and I was very concerned that the Paras did not have any wings—they had lost their pride. We are short of aircraft but we have 40 countries co-operating with us in Afghanistan, many of which have Hercules and other aircraft. Perhaps they might be able to lend them to us so that our parachutists could learn how to jump.
My Lords, we have looked at the possibility of making arrangements with other countries, such as some of our allies. There are some technical and practical problems with the configuration of the aircraft, even if it is basically the same plane, but we have not excluded that possibility and we are doing everything that we can to be imaginative about how we maintain the training that we need.
My Lords, is it not the case that parachutists who complete the course get a bonus in their pay packet? Are we not effectively depriving a number of our troops of a bonus that they would have expected to get in their wages?
My Lords, we have taken account of that factor. The bonus, which I believe is £5.35 per day, is paid to those who have qualified even if they are not able to maintain their current qualification by jumping within the prescribed period. It means that they do not get the training and practice that they want and that is obviously important, but, in terms of financial penalty, those who are not able to maintain their currency do not get penalised, because we have made provision for that.
My Lords, as I made clear, the current capability is there. The lack of parachute training is not having an effect on the mandated operational capacity. Of course, we would like to improve the training facilities, but I hope that everybody would agree that it is right to give operational needs the priority that we have given them.
My Lords, it is clear that those who are in parachute regiments want to be able to exercise their skills. That is something that we all understand. As far as I understand it, morale is good and I have checked that with those who are in charge of the particular division. They would like more facilities and would appreciate more opportunities to jump, but they all acknowledge—as we should all acknowledge—that when aircraft are needed for operations, that is where they should be. That is important.
My Lords, the Minister talks about developing parachute training. Weston-on-the-Green near Otmoor in Oxfordshire is one of the main sites used for parachute training. The Government have recently been touting this as an eco site. Although it will not go forward in the first round of ecotowns, what provision have the Government made in the event of Weston-on-the-Green becoming an ecotown so that other sites are developed to take on this parachute training?
My Lords, I cannot comment on ecotowns, but we ensure that we have the relevant areas that we require for training. The Skyvan contract, which I mentioned is being reinstituted, is allowing for training in the Colchester area. The training does not need to be in one particular area only.
My Lords, I can judge it only by those who are in charge telling me that that is the case. I would not presume to make that assessment myself.
My Lords, I hear a voice from behind me saying that we should have one on Otmoor, but I am not sure that that is our intention. The important thing is that there is no stated requirement for that kind of parachuting in Afghanistan. That is our priority at present because the operational commitment is extremely high. If we can meet our obligations there, we will be pursuing the right priorities.
My Lords, I do not believe that key capabilities are being neglected. It is right that we should prioritise operations.
My Lords, I totally agree. The Ministry of Defence spends a great deal of money, time and research on new technologies and new techniques, and that will continue.