§ 1. Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North)
If he will make a statement on his Department's policy on involving the armed forces in the community.
§ The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)
The armed forces are an integral part of the community. As the strategic defence review stressed, the armed forces serve the community by providing it with the defence it needs and by acting as a force for good in the world. They are also actively involved in the community—whether through their support of youth initiatives, their involvement in ceremonial duties, their participation in charity work, or their support to the civil authorities when the community as a whole is faced with an emergency.
Over the past few months, they have demonstrated their dedication to the community in an unprecedented manner. More than 1,000 drivers stood ready to ensure that fuel
2 was delivered, essential services maintained and lives saved when the effects of the fuel protest threatened to get out of hand. Twice that number helped to defend lives and property from the most damaging effects of recent flooding. They performed those tasks as an integral part of the community they serve, working with the emergency services and other representatives of the community to promote the common welfare of the community as a whole.
The armed forces are already providing logistics advice to the Ministry of Agriculture. Fisheries and Food to aid it with the disposal of slaughtered animals. We are of course responding promptly to any further specific requests for assistance that we receive from MAFF.
§ Mr. Gardiner
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his response, and I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the armed forces for their work in such emergencies. Will my hon. Friend specify the details of the specialist assistance that the armed forces are offering to tackle the foot and mouth outbreak?
§ Mr. Spellar
Following the discussion with MAFF last week, the Ministry of Defence has agreed to provide MAFF with help in supervising the disposal of carcases of slaughtered livestock, focusing especially on the backlog of carcases that has built up. A logistics headquarters is being established in Devon to co-ordinate the activities of small teams drawn from the armed forces and deployed in the field. Those teams will reduce the burden on veterinary surgeons by helping to co-ordinate the efforts of the private contractors employed to dispose of the carcases. In doing so, they will speed up the disposal process and release vets to tackle the spread of the disease.
§ Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)
I am sure that all Members will join the Minister in warmly thanking the armed forces for their work in aiding the civil power and local communities. He has touched on the foot and mouth outbreak, but could he be slightly more specific? Will he tell the House how many members of the armed forces 3 are involved at present, and whether he intends—if the crisis continues—to respond to any request by MAFF to use the armed forces on a larger scale, especially units of the Corps of Royal Engineers and the Royal Logistic Corps?
§ Mr. Spellar
Yes, we stand ready to respond rapidly to further requests from MAFF, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is always a case of striking a balance between the availability of service from civilian contractors and, in many cases, the geographical disposition of that service. At present, about 300 members of the armed forces are engaged, and about 50 two-man teams will be employed on local liaison work as well. The armed forces are already undertaking that work, but of course we recognise the scale of the problem and stand ready to respond.
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
We are grateful to the Minister for explaining the work carried out in association with MAFF on the outbreak of foot and mouth. Will he explain any forward planning that might involve more members of the armed forces? Will that include not only the veterinary service and the Logistic Corps but an increasing number of Engineers, with their equipment? Will he tell us why the MOD is excluded from the Prime Minister's taskforce on foot and mouth disease, given that four other Departments are involved and when—obviously—the MOD will be crucial in the operation?
§ Mr. Spellar
Certainly we stand ready to provide assistance, including on the engineering side. However, there are considerable resources in the construction industry that can undertake such work.
With regard to membership of various committees, I think that I have been filmed going into Downing street to attend meetings on this matter. We are clearly involved and we stand ready to respond to requests from those who are dealing with these matters at first hand—which is exactly the appropriate relationship.