Back to civvy street - and the classroom

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THE GOVERNMENT is considering copying President Bill Clinton's GI bill to give former-servicemen credits to cash in for studies which could help them get jobs in Civvy Street under fundamental reforms to the armed forces outlined yesterday by the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson.

Mr Robertson signalled a shift in Ministry of Defence thinking towards doing more to help men and women to secure careers after serving with the armed forces, both to help recruitment and cut down unemployment.

"This is one of the `people' issues that we are focusing on in the review. The `people' element is going to be a strong part of the review when it is announced," a spokesman for the MoD said.

The United States GI bill, which Mr Robertson said he was "studying with great interest" was passed to give forces personnel points which could be cashed for training or education, when they left service. It is believed it will help keep people in the services longer to earn more points.

Mr Robertson said that around 20,000 joined the forces each year, most staying for 12 years or less. About 30,000 left the armed forces last year, and the introduction of a GI-style scheme would fit into Tony Blair's agenda for a "new deal" to get people back to work.

Mr Robertson's speech at Chatham House was described as a "milestone" in the strategic defence review, which he made it clear was not a peace- time cost-cutting exercise to meet demands for more money to be spent on hospital beds than bombs.

He disclosed that the MoD was studying plans for ordering a new generation of bigger aircraft carriers, similar to those deployed by the US in the Gulf. He admitted they would be more expensive than the current generation of Invincible-class carriers for short-take-off Harrier jump jets, and it could dismay both the Treasury and Labour supporters who were looking for big savings in defence spending.

The Secretary of State for defence gave a clear hint that there would be more mergers of back-up forces for deploying helicopters, ground-to- air defence missiles and units to deal with nuclear, biological and chemical attack. But he said he would not be abolishing or merging any of the three armed services. "Rumours about the demise of the RAF and the merger of the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment can be given a decent burial."

The ending of the Cold War has forced the MoD to review the need for troops to be based in Germany, but Mr Robertson hinted it would continue to underpin Britain's commitment to Nato in Europe. Tank numbers may be cut, but there would still be a need for them in the future, he stressed.