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Armed Forces Personnel

Volume 406: debated on Thursday 12 June 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

[Relevant documents: The Sixth Report from the Defence Committee of Session 2002–03, A New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review (HC 93); Minutes of Evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 11th December 2002, from Major General A D Leakey CBE, Chief Executive, Army Training and Recruiting Agency (HC 124—i); and Minutes of Evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 18th December 2002 from Dr Lewis Moonie MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence, on Legacy Pension and Compensation Issues (HC 188i).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Gillian Merron.]

2.22 pm

I can assure hon. Members that it will be longer than the first.

At a time when we have the achievements of our armed forces very much in our minds, it is right that the House should focus on the people who have served our country so well. That is why I welcome today's debate.

I intend to use today's debate to focus on how we support our forces in carrying out their difficult tasks. I intend to deal with equipment, personal kit and welfare support, all of which play a crucial role in helping the personnel in the field do their job. I also want to mention the programme of work that we have in hand to ensure that the armed forces are properly manned both today and in the future.

The skill, courage and professionalism of those men and women is not in doubt, and I know that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to their sterling work in Iraq and elsewhere. In recent years, we have asked a lot of them: in the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and, of course, in Iraq. On every occasion, they have performed magnificently and to their usual high standards.

Most recently, in Iraq, we have again seen the commitment and fortitude of our armed forces in difficult circumstances, but progress has not been without cost. Thirty-seven UK personnel have died and more than 100 US personnel have lost their lives. I pay tribute to them and their sacrifice: giving up their lives so that we might live more safely in future, and giving up their lives for a better world. I also place on record my admiration of and gratitude to the families of those serving in the Gulf and elsewhere. Their support, in operations and at other times, is vital to our troops. Anything that undermines that support undermines the morale of our armed forces and endangers lives.

Although the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) will say more on this subject in his winding-up speech, I should note that one or two very high-profile errors were made in the way that we console and provide for the families of those who died. That was wrong and I will not try to excuse it. I hope, however, that isolated mistakes will not detract from the efforts made for all the bereaved, and the support that individuals have provided—and are continuing to provide—to the families who have suffered such tragic losses. I can assure the House that we make huge efforts to get this right, because when it goes wrong it affects us all.

As the nature of this debate suggests, our defence capability is only as good as the quality of our armed forces. Does the Minister agree that it is important not only to support our armed forces, and deal with the families, as he has described, but to recognise properly those who have fought in campaigns, risking—and in some cases giving—their lives? I therefore wholeheartedly welcome yesterday's announcement that the people—men and women—who fought in the Suez campaign in the early 1950s will now get the proper recognition that they have long deserved in the form of a medal. That long-standing injustice has been righted, and I congratulate the Government on listening to the campaign that I and other Members carried forward with the veterans—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point. I say again to the House that we should start this debate as we mean to go on, with short interventions when Members give way, and perhaps short answers, too.

As usual, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will do my best.

The short answer is that I recognise the considerable work that my hon. Friend has been done on this issue, and I welcome his congratulation of the Government for our initiative in that regard. I also pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who had the direct responsibility for taking the issue forward. It was undoubtedly the right decision and has been welcomed not only in the community who have received those medals but more widely.

While the attention of the wider world has understandably been on Iraq, we must also remember the many thousands of our people doing equally good work elsewhere. In particular, we should continue to recognise the efforts of our armed forces here at home. In Northern Ireland, some 14,000 military personnel continue to act in support of the police. Over the years, the work of our armed forces has contributed to the more peaceful environment that now prevails. We should never forget that contribution, or the sacrifices made.

In addition, for the last 10 months, our armed forces have been asked to undertake a role for which they do not routinely prepare. I refer, of course, to the long-running dispute in the fire service, which I hope will soon be resolved. I would not deny that the need to stand up troops for firefighting duties was beginning to place progressive strain on our people and their ability to train and prepare for other tasks. The House will be aware of the reduced availability of our armed forces for firefighting announced over recent weeks by my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence.

None the less, it is Iraq that has been to the forefront of defence matters in recent months.

I want to pick up on the right hon. Gentleman's previous comment and the point that he was about to raise: the fire service and Iraq. I am sure that he would also want to single out the work of the defence fire service at home and in Iraq, where they served with distinction in Basra, as they did in Kuwait. Has he reflected on the comment of one of the 30 DFS staff who returned from the Gulf recently, saying:

"I am happy to do that kind of work, under the MOD, but wouldn't be too sure if I had to do the same for a private company"?
Bearing that in mind, is the Minister still convinced that it is right to privatise the DFS?

We have, of course, made no such decision. I should have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would recognise that we should always try to assess the best use of our resources, both financial and personnel. By making the right kind of judgments in the right kind of areas, we can release resources that meet our needs elsewhere. That is proper governance. Simply saying that everything is okay—that nothing needs to be fixed, examined or analysed—is living in a false world.

There is no doubt that the defence fire service makes a major contribution through its firefighting duties and made a superb contribution in Iraq, as it does in every conflict in which it finds itself. I have met members of the DFS and I know how strongly they feel about that. I have met the trade unionists on this issue and, as we move forward to a conclusion, all these factors will be taken into account when the decision is taken. The hon. Gentleman can sit in judgment on whether it was right or wrong when all the facts are known. However, I pay tribute to the members of the DFS for the role that they have played.

It would be wrong to discuss Iraq without touching on equipment and related matters. Without the right resources, our troops could not have performed as well as they did. Operations in Iraq, the first large-scale war-fighting conflict of the new millennium, have been a real test of our equipment and support systems. I would like to put into context the formidable effort that went into making that deployment a success. It was by far the largest deployment of UK armed forces since the 1991 Gulf conflict. We succeeded in deploying the same volume of personnel and materiel in just half the time taken in the earlier conflict, which is testament not only to our improved processes and equipment but to the commitment and hard work of men and women, military and civilian, throughout the logistics chain. They often work away from the limelight, but without them there would have been no victory, and I express my gratitude to them.

However, I cannot stand here today and deny that there were areas where our performance could be improved, or claim that everything went exactly to plan. Military conflict always leads to lessons being learned, and the best plans and predictions rarely survive the outbreak of hostilities. It is important that we capture and learn the lessons of this deployment and, more importantly, put in place solutions to avoid the recurrence of weaknesses. Hon. Members will know that we are in the early stages of a comprehensive and wide-ranging exercise to do just that. I do not intend to pre-empt any of its conclusions in this debate, but let me be clear about one thing: we will be rigorous in analysing our performance and learning where we can do better. The Select Committee on Defence has commenced an inquiry into the same issues and I look forward, as I always do, to its detailed report and recommendations. It is important to note that in this area perhaps more than any other there is no room for politics to get in the way of progress. That is why we are taking this task seriously, and why we will welcome the Committee's independent analysis and conclusions.

Will the inquiry pay particular attention to the reason why desert boots and mosquito nets apparently arrived much later than they should have done? Will it also look at how the logistics line can be improved, especially if there is to be a commitment in the swamps of the Congo?

Earlier, I said that there were valuable lessons to be learned. We should not minimise or downplay the scale of what we did in achieving a successful conclusion. I accept that we need a rigorous examination of everything that went wrong—it is not just mosquito nets or boots that we have to look at, but other equipment that was supplied. However, given the scale of the deployment of 45,000 personnel, it would be wrong to think that the logistics chain could not meet the demands of a small number of engineers and force support personnel in any future deployment in the Congo or elsewhere. Lessons have been learned over time, and there will be fundamental research and analysis of problems. I welcome the role played by the Select Committee, as it can cast a fresh eye over the issue, although I suspect that it will probably come to the same conclusions. Its very independence, however, will assist us in making sure that the right lessons are learned and solutions properly applied.

I visited Iraq three weeks ago and, although my visit was short, I picked up many important messages from our troops, ranging from senior commanders to frontline soldiers. I was delighted to be accompanied by the hon. Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). However, I must tell the House that I learned from a press release issued by the hon. Member for Hereford afterwards that I had accompanied him on his visit—[Laughter.] I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for allowing me to do so. I do not know how I would have got there without him, but perhaps he would like to tell me.

I am delighted to tell the Minister that I checked the wording of that press release, which said that I travelled with the Minister. I know that the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) will have seen the Hereford Times which, when that press release was issued, correctly said that we all went together. However, in a letter that the newspaper did not publish, someone wanted to know who Adam Ingram was. I am sure that it was not written by a member of the armed forces.

I hope that people in the area are learning about their Member of Parliament and the way in which he puts out press releases. However, there is a serious point. While I understand the need for publicity—I am not talking about his particular press release—both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat spokesmen rushed too quickly to judgment and implied criticism in statements put out after their visit. If there was an easy and instant analysis to be made, it would have been done by now, and if all solutions were straightforward, as both hon. Gentlemen implied in their press releases, they would have been implemented. The truth is that neither is the case, which is why we are undertaking a methodical, thorough lessons process. We hope to publish early reflections from that examination in the near future, and a full report will be published in the autumn.

We have some early indications. While some members of the press may be disappointed to hear it, we believe that our equipment performed well, from the precision weapons delivered from the sea and air to the AS 90 artillery weapon, the Challenger 2 main battle tank and the modified SA80 A2 rifle.

While I am on the subject of equipment, I am pleased that today we have announced the result of a competition to further enhance the precision-guided strike capabilities of the RAF. That £120 million programme will be met by Raytheon's Paveway 4 system. The weapon will be built in the UK and will sustain some 200 jobs around the country—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is suggesting, most of those jobs will be retained in his constituency. However, that had no bearing on the decision, which was made purely on the basis of the quality, price and delivery of the system.

It is beyond dispute that the British armed forces have come away from the conflict in Iraq with a great deal to be proud of. I must, however, briefly address the very serious allegations of misconduct that have been levelled at some of our serving personnel.

Before my right hon. Friend moves on, does he agree that it is important to support the families left at home, particularly the families of members of the Territorial Army who were called up, as they do not have the support systems that are available in barracks? Will he join me in paying tribute to Captain Paul Morton in Doncaster who still has soldiers deployed in Iraq and is doing a fantastic job by continuing to do everything that he can to keep families together, and support mechanisms in place?

I acknowledge the point made by my hon. Friend, and I appreciate that his son is a member of the TA who served in Iraq. Given the extensive use made of reserves and TA personnel, it is important that we put in place such mechanisms. Captain Paul Morton is to be congratulated, as are others in the support chain. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary put a lot of effort into dealing with the issue. We identified the problem early, and made every effort to find answers, so it is gratifying to hear that that paid dividends.

I was referring to the serious allegations of misconduct levelled at some of our serving personnel. The House would not expect me to discuss individual cases. Every substantive incident reported to us is investigated thoroughly, diligently and with regard for due process. If wrong has been done, the individuals in question will be dealt with. However, I would not want the alleged conduct of a few individuals to detract from the magnificent performance of our people in Iraq. Following the start of military action, within just one week, British forces made great early progress. That initial surge was followed by a mature and measured approach, gathering intelligence and assessing the situation, which paid dividends in the capture of Basra, the second city of Iraq, and a scale of accomplishment difficult to envisage

Thanks in no small measure to our people, decisive combat operations in Iraq came to an end over a month ago. Since that time UK forces personnel have been providing humanitarian relief and stabilisation. We aim to create an environment within which ordinary Iraqis will be able to construct viable, fair and free political and economic institutions, and to reintegrate themselves into the international community. But the work of those who remain in Iraq goes on, and it is as important as it has ever been. We have to date withdrawn over 20,000 of our men and women from theatre. Thousands are still there, engaged in an enormous range of activities alongside the Iraqi people themselves, helping them to establish local authorities and basic utilities, and ensuring law and order.

It is appropriate to make special mention of our reservists, as my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, North (Mr. Hughes) did. The scale of the reservist contribution has been unparalleled in recent years, fully reflecting the aims in the strategic defence review that the reserve forces should be more integrated, relevant and usable. Those who deployed to the Gulf serve in reserve units and sub-units and as individual augmentees, and they have served with distinction alongside our regular forces.

It should not be forgotten that the presence of those reservists on operations owes much to their employers in both the private and public sectors, and the support that they have provided. I pay due tribute to them. In addition, hundreds of civilians, many from British industry, deployed alongside our troops in a variety of roles, and I pay tribute to their commitment and the vital part that they play alongside the UK armed forces.

What is the Minister doing about reports that 80 per cent. of TA personnel deployed to the Gulf think that their employers might baulk at further deployments in the near future? Clearly, that has serious implications for the use of our Territorials in future conflicts.

Because this was the first time that we have had to use such personnel in such large numbers, one of the lessons learned must concern the reaction of employers. Work must be done in that community too, to make everyone in this country realise the importance of the reserves and TA personnel, who can be called upon at times to deal with the threats to this nation. If employers thought that there was an easy solution, they would be wrong. If we thought that there was an easy solution, we would be wrong as well. That is why a great deal of effort went into speaking to employers in advance of the possible conflict in Iraq, and more effort will go into that. We must get it right, because those reserves and TA personnel are critical, and they could be used at any time. We hope that industry and employers, public and private, will begin to understand that crucial message. In creating a better future for Iraq, work continues to identify and secure suspected weapons of mass destruction sites. That will take time. Saddam Hussein had years to hide his WMD programme, and those who expect instant success are being both unreasonable and naive. In addition, our forces are playing their part in the wider coalition efforts to secure evidence of war crimes and other atrocities undertaken by Saddam's regime. I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the recent appointment of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) as our special envoy on human rights issues. I know that she will be as fearless in exposing the barbaric excesses of Saddam Hussein's regime—many of them committed right up to the outbreak of the conflict—as she will be in helping to set new human rights standards for the new Iraq.

A number of objectives remain Outstanding in Iraq. British forces will maintain an appropriate presence in Iraq for as long as necessary to achieve our aims of helping Iraq to become once again a viable and self-standing state. Once the job is done, we will leave.

Does my right hon. Friend recollect that last Wednesday the Speaker gave me an Adjournment debate on the detention of Tariq Aziz? Is it not important that, whatever we may think, there should be trials fairly soon? Otherwise, the west is not setting the example. People who may have done terrible things deserve at least to be put on trial, and fairly soon.

I have nothing further to add to the response that my hon. Friend received in that Adjournment debate. Clearly, the task is to set proper standards, as we seek to do elsewhere when we deal with difficult regimes and the reconstruction of damaged countries. It is important that we try to obtain information that is around and which could still pose a threat, not just to the coalition forces, but to the world overall. Dissemination and proliferation of the material that we know to be there pose a threat internationally. We must establish what war crimes were committed and set out the framework for moving forward.

Given that those charged with weapons detection and those responsible for national reconstruction are different groups of people, can the Minister throw any light on why it was only last week that the Prime Minister was able to announce and focus on the formation of the new group charged with the identification of weapons of mass destruction? Can the right hon. Gentleman further say, at least in broad terms, within what time scale the important work of that multinational group is to be undertaken and reported?

The time scale will be determined by what the group finds and its success in speaking to the people currently under our control—those who have given themselves up, or been taken into the coalition forces' control for the purpose of identifying the type of activity in which they were involved and the threat that they posed and could have continued to pose if they had remained at large. I do not recognise the way in which the hon. Gentleman describes the Prime Minister's decision. Such things obviously take time to put in place. They have to be defined and structured, and a range of command relationships has to be put in place. Personnel have to be mobilised. The Iraq survey group is being marshalled for that task. It will have an important role, it is sizeable, and it will now commence its important activity, which I know the hon. Gentleman would welcome.

Let me move on to the operational welfare package and the issue of welfare support for our deployed personnel. We recognise the importance of making proper provision for the welfare of service personnel who are deployed on operations. From the outset of operations in the Gulf, we worked hard to deliver the operational welfare package. Those personnel who are deployed to the main operating bases in theatre have access to a comprehensive welfare package which includes welfare telephones, internet access, electronic aerogrammes—e-blueys—shop facilities, fitness equipment, newspapers, and TV and radio broadcasting.

For those personnel deployed in Iraq, I hope the House will understand that in the early days at least, the welfare package is necessarily more limited. At present it consists of telephones, British Forces Post Office mail, e-blueys and British Forces Broadcasting Service radio. We also organised, at the appropriate time, and with the support of the Royal Mail, a temporary scheme for families and friends to send free packets of 2 kg or less to personnel deployed in the Gulf. There will inevitably be questions and sometimes complaints about the operational welfare package facilities currently available to our forces in Iraq. I think that that is, to an extent, because the operational welfare package has been such a successful and valued initiative, and long overdue. Our people have grown accustomed to it, and welcome the benefits that it provides. The facilities that we can reasonably and safely provide will necessarily be limited in more dangerous or hostile environments. Now that the situation in Iraq is becoming safer, we are working hard to deliver comprehensive welfare support. The currently limited operational welfare package provision in Iraq will be extended over the coming months.

The need to look after the front line does not mean that we should forget the needs of those at home, however, and we did not do so. The operational welfare package has been extended to help home units to look after the welfare of families of deployed personnel. With effect from 1 April this year, units have been allocated funds for measures to improve communications between a unit and its families. Those funds can also be used to improve general welfare for families in ways such as the improvement of internet access at unit community centres. Feedback from the services has been most favourable. We have sought to the maximum extent possible through the operational welfare package and other more local measures to provide some measure of an ordinary existence for our people and their families at a quite extraordinary time.

We well recognise that times of conflict place unique pressures on our people and we have put increasingly sophisticated procedures in place to try to manage the transition for them as they leave the operational theatre and return home to their families. In line with current psychiatric advice, we avoid releasing personnel immediately after a conflict wherever possible. Instead, we have introduced a two to three-day period of recuperation for all service personnel returning from the Gulf—both regulars and reservists. The aim is to give people time to deal with issues raised by combat in the company of those who understand and have shared the experiences. As part of that process of recuperation, personnel receive a post-deployment briefing package covering stress reactions and the problems that may be encountered on returning home to families. Leaflets provide guidance on who to consult if personnel experience problems—for example, their commanders, padres, social workers or medical officers. We are also providing information to the families of returning personnel.

I should like to touch on two further important post-deployment health-related topics. The first is Gulf veterans' illnesses. As a group, veterans of the 1990–91 Gulf conflict report more ill health than non-Gulf veterans. However, the scientific and medical community does not accept the existence of a unique Gulf war syndrome, and neither does the Ministry of Defence. The independent Medical Research Council recently published a report that confirmed those findings. We are studying the MRC's report, which contains recommendations for further work, and we will consult widely in considering our response.I should make it clear, however, that we recognise that the complaints from which some veterans suffer may have been caused by their service, and in many cases we are consequently paying substantial pensions.

Regarding the recent operations in Iraq, last month we announced proposals to carry out research into the health, both physical and psychological, of those who were involved in the conflict. It is, of course, too soon to know whether health concerns will emerge following this conflict, but if they do, we will want to know about them and respond appropriately.

Let me now turn to the effort to sustain our armed forces. I shall deal first with manning. The trained strength of the armed forces grew last year by more than 1,600. That increase and a decrease in the manning requirement resulted in an overall reduction in undermanning of some 2,500.

Would the Minister care to comment on suggestions that the strength and configuration of the British Army is to be changed? In particular, will he comment on the suggestion that 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment may be disbanded? I hope that he can give an assurance that that is not correct. Is he aware that the Royal Anglian is the only regiment that recruits across the nine counties of eastern England?

There is a tendency for people to set the hare running; if it is the Royal Anglian today, it may be another regiment tomorrow. There are no plans to disband the Royal Anglians and their battalions. That is the situation. The Royal Anglians are a well respected regiment of the British Army and their recent efforts in maintaining peace and stability in Afghanistan are a clear demonstration of their professionalism. I witnessed what they did in Kabul. I met three members of the regiment, in the Pioneer Corps, who had volunteered to go to Iraq. Their professionalism and commitment are without question. I hope that I have dealt with the specific point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

On the specific point made by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), the future of 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment is of interest to me because it is recruited from an area that I represent. Recently, an MOD spokesman, commenting on this very point, said:

"There will be changes to the Armed Forces commensurate with the threat to the UK. There may well be units to be disbanded, but it's not been finalised."
That is slightly different from what the Minister said.

I was asked a specific question. We have no current plans to disband the Royal Anglians, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that he should wait for the White Paper, which will be published later in the year. I think that the hon. Gentleman who raised this question represents Moray and Nairn—or is it just Moray?

That is a pity. It was a lovely bit of the country when it was joined together.

The point about saying that everything should remain the same and that nothing should change is that it ignores facts that we have to face up to. I was asked a specific question about a specific regiment. There are no current plans and there is no hidden list. The same speculation has occurred in Scotland in respect of the Black Watch and it will probably apply to other regiments as well. Such speculation sets a hare running, causes problems and may affect recruitment. If there is any playing out of any change in posture, including in relation to the range of activities that are carried out and the size of the armed forces, it will be carefully dealt with. Such changes are properly explained and delivered, and there will no doubt be extensive debate about them in the House. We are not at that stage.

I am sure that it is, but it is not very important to me. I was indicating—

I was speaking about growth in trained strength and the fact that that is welcome news.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I fully appreciate that the Minister can take the decision not to give way, but as someone who served in the regiment that hon. Members have been discussing, I must put it on record that I think that it was extremely discourteous that he did not give way to me. Do you not think that he is being impolite?

That is a matter not for the Chair, but for debate. In any case, the hon. Gentleman has now put his point on record.

That is why I made the right judgment in my earlier comment.

The growth in recruitment is welcome news, but we should not be complacent. We still need to work hard to ensure that we recruit and retain the right numbers of people in the right occupations for the medium and long term. The recruitment climate remains as tough as ever, with very low unemployment and more young people than ever before in further and higher education. None the less, I am pleased to be able to tell the House that, for the third year in a row, numbers joining the services have increased, and the overall recruitment target for the services was exceeded last year. We estimate that some 6 per cent. of those joining came from the ethnic minorities, although we must continue to increase the attractiveness of a career in the armed forces to members of our ethnic minority population.

I am conscious that others may wish to intervene, but I have taken a lot of time in trying to deal with a range of issues and I have taken a number of interventions. I hope that the Hon. Gentleman will excuse me.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is enjoying it. That is why he has a big grin on his face.

What I take from those achievements, however, is that 26,000 bright, adventurous and ambitious young people chose to give the armed forces the highest accolade that they can by entrusting them with their careers and their futures. It says much for the reputation of our forces that so many make that choice.

Another priority has been to retain as many of our personnel in service as we can in line with the need to maximise operational effectiveness and career opportunity by maintaining a proper balance between age and experience. Pay is obviously an important issue in this respect. The need to recruit, retain and motivate suitably able and qualified people lies at the heart of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body's work, and the unique circumstances of service life are a key consideration.

I know that the hon. Gentleman was a serving officer. I do not know whether he wants to ask for a pay rise now, but I wish to finish my point about the importance of pay.

I am therefore pleased that, for the fifth year in succession, we were able to accept the AFPRB recommendations in full, including above-inflation increases in pay, allowances specifically designed to compensate for separation from families, and new pay arrangements for service medical and dental officers. That has directly benefited the majority of personnel deployed in Iraq. In addition, the review body endorsed proposals to offer financial retention initiatives to certain submariners, Royal Signals personnel and Royal Air Force NCO aircrew.

I am aware that operations in Iraq have served to prompt international comparisons, which are inevitably complex. Following the research it commissioned into the remuneration packages of other countries, the AFPRB was reassured that the UK package compared favourably. None of the countries surveyed provides a more generous package across the board. Given that our personnel are increasingly working in a multinational environment, we welcome the AFPRB's intention to repeat that research periodically to keep abreast of any relative change.

I welcome the welfare package that the Minister is talking about, but I should like to bring him back to recruitment. He describes the recruiting climate as challenging and refers to the need to increase the size of the Army. Could he explain why certain English infantry regiments in the east midlands have been recruitment capped and are not allowed to bring soldiers under training?

The hon. Gentleman must realise that there is a training pipeline. To increase the capacity of the training system, we have to put in additional people, which means that we must then recruit sufficiently to allow that to take place. When the increase in recruitment commenced, there was concern that it was a blip, and that if we put too many people in, particularly from other duties, that would have been a bad use of resources. We therefore had to study the situation for some time before putting in additional personnel. Over time—hon. Members will be kept advised of this—an increasing amount of resources will go into the initial training pipeline. Measures are being put in place to try to reduce the wastage rate in order to make it more efficient. It is a complex issue to deal with, and I take the best advice from military commanders with responsibility in this area.

I think I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman's point.

We are working hard to address the accommodation needs of our people, both those in quarters and those in barracks. The programme to improve the standard of service family accommodation in Great Britain continues. For 2003–04, the Defence Housing Executive has been set a target of 1,200 houses for upgrade. Although that is a slower rate of progress than families would wish, it still represents steady improvement, and half the core stock in Great Britain is now standard 1 condition. Elsewhere, projects to upgrade service family accommodation are well under way in Gibraltar, Cyprus, Germany and Northern Ireland. Considerable progress has also been made with the single living accommodation modernisation programme. Work at the first sites began earlier this year. Combined with other projects, a total of up to 70 establishments will see work on their sites in the coming year. We are also on target to deliver 30,000 new bed spaces by the end of 2008, rising to 60,000 in 2013. In short, we have a major programme of work in hand to deliver the manpower for today and to set the stage for sustainable manpower for tomorrow.

The reality is that sustaining the armed forces is not an easy undertaking. We are not looking for short-term, token solutions, but for a sustained programme of improvements—a solid foundation to give our people and their families the working and living conditions that they need, with a suitable financial package and a wider package of non-financial benefits. There is still work to do, but the increase in the size of the armed forces and the reduction in undermanning give us some assurance that we are putting the right policies in place.

As I speak, our people are hard at work in Iraq with coalition partners, the Department for International Development and non-governmental organisations. They are all working together to sustain law and order, facilitating the provision of humanitarian aid, rebuilding the vital infrastructure and, critically, providing hope for a people who have lived for many years without it. The quality of our people is undoubted, as is their determination to succeed. We are very fortunate in having men and women of such quality who wish to serve their country so determinedly and so well. As I have indicated, we are working hard to give them what they need to sustain themselves and their families. We know that we have to get the "people" issues right. We need to have the policies in place to deliver the people who can get the job done. We believe that we are on the right track, and we have made good progress this year.

The quality and commitment of our armed forces is acknowledged world wide. We must never take that quality and commitment for granted. The Government are determined to work as hard for them as they work for us, giving them the tools and support that they need to continue doing the difficult job that we ask of them.

3.4 pm

I begin by noting that some Members on the Government Benches may be slightly distracted by events beyond the Chamber. I am glad to see both Ministers in their places, and I hope that we shall still see them there at the end of the debate. Thinking about Cabinet reshuffles, I am reminded that in 1942 Mr. Winston Churchill, as he then was, had to have a major reshuffle because of a series of unfortunate events—the fall of Singapore, the escape of two German warships and disasters in north Africa. The then Secretary of State for War, David Margesson, was working in the War Office when his permanent secretary came to tell him the bad news that he had been sacked. Margesson said, "Right, who is to succeed me?", and P. J. Grigg, his permanent secretary, said, "Actually, it's me." That does not happen nowadays, of course: we know only too well that the person who knows when a Minister is on the move is not his permanent secretary, but his driver.

Much of what the Minister said can be warmly welcomed on all sides. We all congratulate our armed forces on their outstanding role in recent military operations in Iraq and their continuing role there. That applies not only to the military but to the Ministry of Defence civilians in support. As the Minister said, the deployment took place against the background of the usual training commitments, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and stand-by duty for the firemen's dispute. Our armed forces appear to be one of the few public sector groups upon whom the Prime Minister relies to deliver every time, despite very many constraints. The irony is that although they frequently protest about shortages in budgets, equipment and weapons, they deliver, which leads the Treasury to believe that they were crying wolf about those shortages. I hope that we are never in a position whereby they fail to deliver and the Treasury is thus proved wrong.

That ability to deliver and to move seamlessly from war fighting to humanitarian aid—that great flexibility and can-do mentality—is due mainly to the professionalism, culture and experience of the men and women of our regular armed forces and their volunteer reservists. They are not perfect, because they are a mirror of society. There are disciplinary problems, as in the rest of British society. However, as we all know, few armed forces can move so seamlessly from war fighting to humanitarian aid. As Ministers understand, that professionalism cannot be created overnight and, once lost, takes decades, rather than years, to recreate. We can all agree that one of the priceless assets of the Ministry of Defence is the men and women of our armed forces. Over the past decade, the MOD has argued for capability-led armed forces. People sometimes seem to believe that that refers merely to weapons systems. As we rightly move into developing network-capable armed forces, we must realise that that does not only involve a step change in technology and systems: the people still play a crucial role, and without them network capability will not happen.

Operation Telic was a success and showed the strength of the United Kingdom armed forces, but as the Minister said—I welcome his honesty—it also highlighted weaknesses. Some of those were due to the nature of the operation, but others, I have to say, were due to resource constraints and, at times, failures in departmental and Government policy. One of the jobs of the Opposition—and, indeed, all hon. Members—is to raise those points, but not in a carping way. Given that the Ministry of Defence is undertaking a review in the summer, hon. Members should raise the points so that errors are corrected.

Before I deal with those matters, I want to comment briefly on intelligence and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Although the Ministry of Defence is not the lead player in the intelligence game, it has an important role. The Minister was drawn by an interviewer on "Today" in relation to what became a notorious time factor with regard to the Iraqis' ability to launch weapons of mass destruction. I suspect that that caused the Government some embarrassment. I do not blame the Minister; the problems lay beyond his responsibility. The crucial point is that intelligence and the way in which it was handled is at the core of the Government's current embarrassment over Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. It is no good the Government trying to believe that that is something that specific journalists or disaffected members of the intelligence community have made up.

Most of us understand the problems of gathering, interpreting and using intelligence. However, the Government—perhaps for good reasons—stretched the intelligence to persuade the public and Members of Parliament about the nature of the threat. Once that is done and it has been decided—as the Leader of the House did—to talk about rogue elements in intelligence, the intelligence community is undermined. I say no more, but it is crucial for the Government to move away from that position. I place on record our appreciation of the work of the men and women in the defence intelligence community. In comparison with their colleagues in the other two intelligence organisations, they are not often mentioned.

When the Minister winds up, I ask him to say a little more about the outstanding cases involving disciplinary action and any matters that might be regarded as war crimes. I do not ask him for specific, detailed information, but hon. Members would like to know the number of outstanding cases and when he expects them to be resolved. Will he also comment on the impact of any future decisions by the International Criminal Court? Despite the full backing of the British Government and the views of British Government lawyers, several middle and senior ranking officers feel vulnerable.

Conservative Members believe that the welfare package is crucial to maintaining the morale of our armed forces and their families. However, we must also consider the impact of the constraints of the defence budget, the way in which people are organised and their tours of operation carried out on morale and decisions to stay in the armed forces. Too often, we misuse the word "overstretch". The 1998 strategic defence review described it as
"trying to do too much with too little manpower."
The Government believed that they had established a series of measures to deal with that. However, any reasonably objective view would be that the problem of overstretch remains and has in many ways got worse.

We can bandy about figures about the number of men and women, and the amount of trained manpower that is available. However, most objective observers and our people in the armed forces are only too conscious that the nature of operations, the problems of recruiting and retention and cutbacks mean that overstretch continues to exist and is likely, perhaps even despite the Government's best efforts, to get worse. The previous and the current Chiefs of the Defence Staff flagged that up.

The recently retired former Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, spoke about further international commitments before the recent commitment to the Congo. He said:
"If you asked us to go into a large-scale operation in 2004, we couldn't do it without serious pain. We must allow ourselves time to draw breath. If it was to be something of the scale that we have done this time, it would have to be some thing that the government is convinced is pretty important because I would tell them it would take a while to recuperate."
Only yesterday, the new Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, gave evidence to the Select Committee on Defence. He said that our armed forces would take approximately 18 months to recuperate fully from operations in Iraq and that they would be unable to mount a medium-scale intervention such as that in Iraq until 2005.

Our military will do as it is told. The armed forces will argue strongly but if Ministers tell them to do something, they will get on with it. I suspect that there will be a continuing problem, given that our foreign and security policy is one of expeditionary force intervention for war fighting or humanitarian aid. What would happen if a major unforeseen crisis occurred in the next six months? It would cause the Government considerable problems.

Let us consider recruitment and retention. All Ministry of Defence surveys on the attitudes of serving members of the armed forces highlight continuing operations, the frequency of tours of duties and the narrowing gap between such tours as the greatest cause of dissatisfaction. Again, the Government have tried to deal with that, but the nature and circumstances of operations, the problems of having sufficient troops to deploy and the fact that many operations are concurrent mean that the difficulties will get worse. Ministers have to try to square the circle. Do they hope that they can increase the amount of available manpower for direct operations and the sort of service that was required to deal with the fireman's strike? Will they have to advise the Prime Minister that it may not be possible to undertake operations in future and that there may have to be a series of priorities?

In an earlier intervention, my hon. Friend quoted a Ministry of Defence spokesperson in the East Anglian Daily Times. The spokesperson said:

"There may well be units to be disbanded, but it's not been finalised."
Surely that will exacerbate the problem that my hon. Friend so eloquently outlines.

My hon. Friend is right and he leads me to the point that the problem is not new in the Ministry of Defence. We can argue about the amount of extra money that the Chancellor gave the Ministry last year. Most people in the military, including MOD civil servants, say that we are considering a standstill budget, perhaps with slight increases.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with his party leader that privatising the defence fire Service would be a "privatisation too far"? Does it remain Conservative party policy to oppose the privatisation of the defence fire service?

Yes, I think it is, on the ground that the defence fire service is deployed overseas on operations, which makes it uniquely different.

The pressures that are now placed on the Government mean that they are going to try to make savings in manpower to pay for the new programmes that they wish to introduce for network-centric warfare. That, again, will exacerbate the situation in terms of the retention of some of the best people in our armed forces. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister has any new views on that.

General Lord Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff from 1997 to 2001, is an eloquent guardsman and a man with experience of military service at every possible level. He is also, in his own way—I say this in the most positive sense—a true Whitehall warrior, in that he understands the politics of defence and foreign policy. In a debate in the House of Lords last year, he said:
"Recruiting targets are not being met; ships and regiments are not properly manned; training is being reduced; and equipment is ageing and often not available. So far as defence is concerned, there has been, in effect, disinvestment. All this, I remind noble Lords, has been happening at a time when to many of us it appears that the threats to our security are becoming ever greaten"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 May 2002; Vol. 635, c. 311.]
Disinvestment means greater risk. There is a balance to be struck here; I understand that. But Air Chief Marshal Burridge, appearing in front of the Select Committee yesterday, talked about a culture in the Ministry of Defence—to provide savings to meet the new managerial requirements of defence—of "just in time". One day, "just in time" could become "just too late". In my opinion, that would be a risk too far.

I want to mention a number of issues just briefly, because I know that several colleagues wish to speak. The Minister rightly praised the role of our Territorial Army and our reservists. Under the strategic defence review, they are absolutely crucial for expeditionary warfare and humanitarian aid. That is not an either/or. In response to a point made about the attitude of employers, the Minister rightly said that many people still think of members of the Territorial Army as weekend soldiers who are static-based in the United Kingdom. We cannot perform the kind of roles that are now required without the Territorial Army; that is a fact. In addition, since 11 September, they are also to be required to play a major role in a new form of home security force to be set up in the autumn—we look forward to hearing details—to help to deal with the impact of any major terrorist incident here.

Many of us have been overwhelmed by comments from members of the Territorial Army and from employers about a series of organisational failures by the Ministry of Defence in relation to their call-up, and their pay and allowances. That is going to happen when we call up large numbers of men and women. However, I should have thought that, despite the size of the call-up, we could have had better systems in place by now. After all, we called up large numbers of people for Kosovo, and smaller numbers for Afghanistan. We have also had training exercises of one kind or another. I look forward to hearing from the Minister in the early autumn about the measures that are being put in place to ensure that these problems do not arise again.

It has come across loud and clear—as my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) said—that, unfortunately, many members of our territorial armed forces will think of leaving. Some have already told me that they intend to do so. Unless we catch this quickly, large numbers of employers, when interviewing someone for a job, could well have a negative view of that man or woman if they have a reserve commitment.

Ministers know only too well that the Territorial Army is not an add-on; it is crucial to their expeditionary warfare.

My hon. Friend and I share a significant defence interest: he has Swanton Morley in his constituency; I have a lot of people from RAF Marham living in mine. Is he aware that one of the main concerns among territorials and regulars across the board is the tidal wave of political correctness that is going through the whole of our armed forces? Does he agree that the time has come for us to exempt our armed forces from the provisions of human rights legislation?

The tidal wave of legislation does not refer just to that. It also refers to the mass of targets, rules and regulations that apply not only to members of the armed forces but to our teachers and doctors and to the police. Many people in the Ministry of Defence are overwhelmed by bureaucracy largely brought in by the Treasury and implemented by the Ministry.

The Defence Medical Services have played a crucial role in previous large-scale operations, and they did so again in the Gulf. Fortunately, this time round, they were hardly used at all. Two issues have been identified from their deployment. The first is that large numbers of doctors in the regular armed forces were taken away from their jobs with their military units and effectively put into transit camps, but not used. A number of them have told me that they are now thinking of handing in their papers. Secondly, there were major problems with TA medics, many from the national health service, getting leave of absence. Ministers are going to have to get that right in future operations.

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree, however, that the work done at the Birmingham Defence Medical Services centre has been outstanding? I know from some of my own constituents who were injured in action that they received excellent treatment there. Like all our armed forces, when these services are called upon to act, they do so in an excellent manner. The hon. Gentleman is right about the reservists, but the Defence Medical Services centre in Birmingham is providing an excellent facility.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Once again, that is the result of a can-do mentality. But a number of military personnel—both at operational level and among the medics—have said that we have been fortunate, in that the operations in which we have been involved have been short and sharp, and have not, thank God, involved large-scale casualties. We cannot assume that that will always be the case.

I welcome what the Minister said about the approach to pay and conditions, but I would like to highlight one factor that I know many hon. Members found appalling and which upset soldiers, sailors and airmen who were deployed during the firemen's strike. It cannot be right that the pay of a basic soldier risking his life in a fire dispute is 50 per cent. less than that of the fireman whom he is replacing. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the dispute, to many people, that seemed obscene and did more than anything else to highlight the pay of our soldiers at the bottom end of the scale.

I heard what the Minister said about our armed forces' total package. It sounds and looks good when compared with others internationally, but I would urge him once again to consider the possibility that when our armed forces are deployed on operations overseas, a way might be found of negotiating with the Treasury to ensure that they do not have to pay income tax during that period. That would be a small but positive indication, in financial terms, of how much we appreciate what they are doing.

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has reported problems in service family accommodation and single-living accommodation while the MOD's Defence Housing Executive has said that it will be unable to meet its target to upgrade all core UK service family accommodation stock to standard 1 conditions by November 2005. No new targets have been set. Can the Minister tell us why?

Overstretch and working conditions take us back to what we heard at the beginning of the debate. There is no doubt that, from all the information we have, the average number of hours worked across the three services increased from 48.1 a week in 2000–01 to 54.5 a week in 2001–02 while the number of hours on duty increased from 75.1 to 89.5 a week. The point about that is that our armed forces have unlimited liability and they cannot strike. On the whole, however, they have a can-do mentality, so if they are told to be at Brize Norton by the end of the afternoon, they get there.

Eventually, however, if the stress and strain on people's lives, working conditions and families become too great, they will not stay. No matter how many people we get in through the front door, the problem, as the Minister knows only too well, is that we are losing people who have been trained and who have something to give the services after eight, nine or 10 years. That means we face a major difficulty.

The debate is about armed forces personnel. Conservative Members believe that the morale of our armed forces depends not just on the package that Ministers put forward, but on the constraints put in place by Government policy on commitments, the force structure and the working conditions that the Government provide for our armed forces.

The reduction in the armed forces has reached the point of critical mass. Field Marshal Lord Vincent, when Chief of the Defence Staff, reckoned that the Army would start seriously to lose its capability in many areas if it fell much below 100,000 men and women, as a lot of things just could not be done. We have not reached that stage yet, but we are close to it. If the figure drops below that, the Government will be forced not to do certain things. Alternatively, we will put our men and women in the firing line where they will be taking a risk too far. Instead of being just in tune, it will be just too late.

3.32 pm

It is easier to put armies in than to pull them out, and it is with trepidation and deep concern that I support the Government in sending troops to the Congo. I say that partly because in November 1990 I led an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Zaire as it then was. Also present were my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Cummings) and two extremely perceptive and nice Conservative Members of Parliament, Jack Aspinwall and Harry Greenway. I say to Ministers, for heaven's sake, be careful about the Belgians and committing Belgian troops to this particular scheme.

I make that remark because of two conversations, both held at night and over meals. One took place in Kinshasa, the other in what used to be the province of Katanga. Bitterness exuded against the former Belgian occupiers and imperialists. I simply report what was said. I am a man with many Belgian friends, but it was remarked, "You British, the French, the Dutch and the Portuguese had far more understanding of colonial welfare and doing something for colonies. You cannot imagine what the Belgians were like." There is history here, and we really must take account of it.

Disregarding for a moment the rights and wrongs of the war against Iraq, let us look at the positive side in relation to the armed services. The British forces proved to be a well-trained battle group. They were extremely well led and their training in Canada, Germany and, indeed, Northern Ireland proved to be invaluable.

My right hon. Friend the Minister is surely right in saying that much equipment worked extremely well. The Challenger, with its desert modifications, was, I am told from many sides by those who were out there, an outstanding success, especially as Iraq is not like the Omani desert. I also understand that the Warrior was a considerable success. As my right hon. Friend said, however, there are lessons to be learned.

As one who favours a British force going to the Congo under United Nations auspices, I would like to ask certain questions. First, is the Ministry of Defence happy about the logistics of getting supplies into the field? My right hon. Friend said that there is to be an inquiry into the supply of equipment to the armed forces in Iraq. I hope that it deals specifically with the question of the speed with which supplies can get to the sharp end, where they are needed.

Will the inquiry also consider whether there was proper tracking of supplies? I refer in particular to the desert boots and the mosquito nets. Was there not a general problem of key equipment arriving weeks after it was required? If lines of communication had been further extended beyond Kuwait to Basra, would there not have been huge problems and will not such problems become evident, even if there is only a small force to start with, in the Congo? Is it not the expensive truth that in the 21st century we can mount an expedition only if we do what the Americans have done—have kit in store? I ask my right hon. Friend whether something can be said in the winding-up speech about that concept. I have no doubt that it is very expensive.

Did not much of the desert kit arrive late? After some weeks, clothing for temperate conditions was taken from the soldiers. Will they get it back when they return to Germany? I am told that there may be an element of waste, and that that kit has not yet been returned.

What about the future of the Royal Armoured Corps? If we reduced it further, to below critical mass, it would be unwise to rely on attack helicopters, which have not all been a huge success. If I am wrong, no doubt some reference will be made to the subject.

The present Government possibly use servicemen more lavishly than any recent Government, sending forces here, there and everywhere. We must consider the whole question of retention. A young, unattached serviceman may be happy to go here, there and everywhere, but what about a non-commissioned officer with a young family, especially if that family is based not at Redford barracks in Edinburgh or somewhere in East Anglia but at Fallingbostel in Germany? Must not some allowance be made for family life?

I want to know about the future of that German base. What if we return to the earlier situation in Germany? Should we not consider arrangements that will need to be made if the man of the family must go off to Suffield in Canada or serve in the Congo, while his family remain at Fallingbostel or Luneburg?

Let me now ask a question of which I have given the Minister notice. Yesterday there was an IPU visit from Senegal. The delegates, particularly Professor Iba Der Thiam and Mr. Madieyna Diouf, pleaded with their British hosts, at a formal meeting, to try to protect their fishing off the coast of west Africa. They said that the rules had been broken, that the agreement that I have mentioned to the Ministry of Defence had not been honoured, that fishing net sizes did not accord with what had been agreed, and that there had been too many instances of dynamiting of fish, especially by Russian and Spanish fishermen. Would it not be of practical help to offer some kind of fishery protection to a country that has only two helicopters and one ancient frigate?

It is not just the west Africans who should be looked after, though. For heaven's sake what about the Scottish fishermen, and the English fishermen too? I think particularly of the havoc being wreaked on the Darwin Mounds reefs and the bottom-dredging of potentially rich seas, important for fish breeding, off the western isles of our country. Is there not a major and urgent role for fishery protection?

3.42 pm

Let me begin with a tribute. At the beginning of the Iraq war, there was an incident involving helicopters in which aircraft were lost with all crew. One of the crew was Marc Lawrence, a young constituent of mine. That loss was a source of terrible grief for his parents, Ann and George Lawrence, who live in my constituency. Their grief was exacerbated by the fact that, given the circumstances of the war, it was not possible to conduct the most thorough of searches, although considerable resources were put into immediate effort. As a result, Marc's body was not recovered at that time. While others suffering equally terrible losses were at least able to bury their dead and begin the grieving process properly, George and Ann Lawrence were left in limbo. They did at least have the comfort of knowing that Marc died doing what he was trained to do, in the interests of his country.

I thank the Minister's military assistant in his private office, his staff and the Minister himself for the sympathy and courtesy that they extended to the family and for the arrangements that they have begun to make. I also place on record my thanks to our ambassador, Chris Wilton, his wife and staff, who again took great pains to do everything they possibly could to alleviate the grief.

Thankfully, Marc's body, when time and circumstances permitted, was recovered. I understand that it will, if it has not already been, be returned to the United Kingdom and given a proper burial. As an aside, I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will consider erecting a fitting and permanent memorial to all those who gave their lives in the Iraqi conflict—and it is not over yet.

I have to inject a slight note of discord, but not in terms of the MOD or the armed services, although with hindsight it is easy to see that certain things may have been handled better. The discord relates to the media coverage of those events. While George and Ann Lawrence were still waiting for news of the body of their only son, the BBC found it appropriate to transmit what became known as the al-Jazeera programme.

I have already publicly criticised the media in general for what I have described as the soap opera coverage of the war. The sequence of events was turned by the media circus into something akin to the "Big Brother" house: people can watch that programme at any hour of the day or night.

It is true—I suppose we must be thankful for small mercies—that, at the time, the British media forbore from transmitting the al-Jazeera pictures of British dead. However, the BBC found it appropriate barely two months after the start of the conflict to show those same pictures. That was done in the teeth of opposition from the MOD and against the express wishes of the families of the dead. It caused, and I believe still causes, pain and very considerable offence not just to those families but to the friends of those comrades who gave their lives—in effect, to the whole service family.

Speaking on the morning prior to the transmission of that programme, a very senior BBC news executive said, and I paraphrase, that he found it in order to show the programme at that time because the bodies had come home and been buried. At that time, one body, that of my young constituent, most certainly had not. I believe that the arrogance of the armchair warriors in the editing and executive suites of White City has to be called to account by the House.

I do not wish for one moment to question the bravery or dedication of the embedded reporters, as they became known, or of those reporters working behind enemy lines. They had a terrifying job, literally, and a difficult one, and I am sure that they did it with great professionalism and courage. However, speaking as one who has had to make difficult editorial decisions as a producer and director, I do not believe that it was appropriate for that footage to be shown at that time, with nerves, feelings and sentiments still very raw.

I hope that, should we face such conflicts in future, our Government, of whatever political persuasion, will consider very carefully what facilities should be made available and their relationships with media organisations, to ensure that, while fair, proper and honest reporting, perhaps of military disasters, is not censored, by the same token, we do not turn war into a "Big Brother" media circus.

In that context, what I have to say next seems almost trivial, but I want to refer briefly to the future, to the next generation of Marc Lawrences—young men and women who will come forward, train and dedicate themselves to the service of the United Kingdom, being prepared, if necessary, to give their lives. Many such young people come through our cadet forces—the Army, the Navy and the Air Force cadets, and indeed the combined cadet forces that still exist in some schools.

I have the honour to be president of the 1063 (Herne Bay) Squadron Air Training Corps. I am aware of the incredible contribution that those young people, and those who give of their time and energy to train them, make to our armed services. It is not simply an aside to say that our cadet forces also make a considerable contribution to the social environment in which young people grow up. I do not think that any Member of the House would quarrel with the fact that there are many young people who might otherwise be on the streets and up to all manner of mischief who find a worthwhile and valuable path to follow in our cadet forces.

On a recent visit to the training ship Royalist, I was not especially surprised to learn that 25 per cent. of the Royal Navy's intake now comes through the cadet forces. For those embarking on and completing basic training, the figure rises to 28 per cent., because of the drop-out rate in the first few weeks among those who have not had that previous military experience. By the time those intakes get to the point of becoming non-commissioned officers, the figure is higher still.

I am raising this issue now not simply because I want to make a plea for more money—but please, Minister, can the cadet forces have more money?—but because of a problem of attitude. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) mentioned political correctness, and I am afraid that it exists among educational establishments, and secondary schools in particular, in relation to uniformed groups. It is a sad fact that, while of course there are honourable exceptions, many schools now—too many, I would argue—do not welcome participation in uniformed activity, be it Army, Navy, Air Force, boy scouts, girl guides or St. John's.

When it comes to going on annual camp, or a young man or woman being able to take a training trip on the TS Royalist, for example—because there is only one square rigger like that available to the Navy cadets, they have to try to use it throughout the year, and inevitably it cannot always be done in holiday time and has to happen, quite appropriately, as part of the educational experience, in term time—we run into difficulties. I am told that for some, that presents very real difficulties, because certain educators do not find it appropriate to treat what most of us regard as a valuable experience as part of the educational curriculum. Given the emphasis that we now place on citizenship, and given the contribution to citizenship that the men and women of the armed forces in general and the cadet forces in particular make to the community. I cannot help feeling that we need to address this issue. I urge the Minister to talk to his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills to see whether better guidance can be issued to ensure that those who wish to participate in these activities—I am certainly not talking about compulsion—are enabled to do so.

I have almost taken too much time, but as others have done I just want to place on the record, on my constituents' behalf, our appreciation for the work of the Territorial services. Several of my constituents have given their men—and in some cases, their women—to the war in Iraq. They have done so bravely, willingly and voluntarily. Within the armed forces there is an extended personnel: the husbands, wives and children who stay at home. They have supported their men and women from afar, using the facilities that the military have made available—blueys, food parcels, goods parcels, the internet, mobile phones—to make sure that they stay in touch with those at the front line. Indeed, one of my own constituents, a Territorial man, has been at the very front line—in the heart of Basra. Such support has ensured those in the front line know that they can get on with their job for their country, because the folks back home are okay.

There has been a problem with some employers, and future problems will doubtless result from current experience. We must address that fact, because there is no doubt in my mind that all of us owe an immense debt of gratitude to the men and women who are prepared to give so much, and who, sadly, in one or two cases have given everything.

3.57 pm

The House has just heard a very moving speech from the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), and I hope that the Minister was listening in particular to the earlier remarks about press coverage of certain aspects of the war. The hon. Gentleman's remarks were very important, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence's review of the involvement in Iraq will deal with the press issue as well.

It is of course right to begin by congratulating the British armed forces on their continuing professionalism and hard work in difficult circumstances, which I witnessed myself on a trip to Basra and southern Iraq with the Minister of State and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). The decision to go to war in Iraq split this nation and, indeed, this Parliament, but the whole country has rightly been united in praise for the work of the armed forces, and I repeat that praise now. We should also praise their families because they also suffer who wait at home. Indeed, some 37 have had to accept paying the final price; we are fortunate that the number was not much greater.

The war in Iraq has had many implications for our armed forces and for our country as a whole. The lessons for the MOD are many—from equipment to logistics, from inoculations to pay. On visiting our forces in Iraq, I discovered that they were rightly proud of the job that they had done and were in good spirits, but there were several issues that they asked me to raise, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will respond to them in his reply.

The Father of the House mentioned logistic supplies, with which there were some considerable problems. I was told of a container that went missing for eight weeks. It was to be collected the day after I left—after peace had actually been won. Mention has been made of parcels sent from relatives to the troops, but the troops also like to send parcels back. They have to pay for doing so—I do not know why. I have also been told that flights arranged from Germany for families to visit troops were arbitrarily cut from two per soldier to one. Can the Minister confirm whether that is true? There were other problems—more serious, in some respects—such as small arms ammunition shortages, which were rife at the beginning of the campaign. Air Marshall Brian Burridge referred to the problem with boots at the Defence Committee yesterday, and we also heard that the desert camouflage arrived too late.

Troops were concerned about other aspects of the war, particularly what they saw first hand of the looting. For example, every desk and computer was looted from Basra university, and the troops wanted to know why there were no plans in place to deploy them to help the situation. Amazingly, they were told that they had to protect various Ministry buildings and the land registry, but there were no plans to protect hospitals or universities.

Some positive things resulted. The reconstruction effort has been first class. The phone calls and the operational welfare package were well received, as were the e-blueys. Some of the equipment worked well: Challenger 2 was exceptional, Storm Shadow was very good and Raptor excellent. As one of the most vehement critics of the SA80 rifle, may I put on record my acknowledgement of the fact that it at last appears to be working correctly. I congratulate the Ministry of Defence on that: it has taken time, but it has finally got it right. The purchase of the Minimi light machine gun has also been welcomed by all the forces.

Our forces over there, like people here, were also asking questions about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. They want to know whether there were intelligence failures, whether reports were exaggerated, why they were not told of a tactical threat and why they crossed the line in some cases with no training in how to put on their nuclear, biological and chemical equipment. They, too, had doubts about the reality of the threat. We owe it to the people who put their lives on the line to establish whether the threat was indeed real.

The issue stemming from the recent conflict in Iraq that will probably have the greatest direct impact on our armed forces is that of overstretch. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) rightly referred to what the retiring Chief of the Defence Staff said about the "serious pain" that would be inflicted if we were to undertake such an operation again. We recall that in February 2002 the Secretary of State told the House:
"We are using available resources to their maximum capability."—[Official Report, 11 February 2002; Vol. 380, c. 4.]
If we were at our maximum capability then, surely we are well beyond it now. The Government have so far been coy about the long-term requirements in Iraq. Regulars and reservists in the region want to know how long they will be there, and what the commitment will mean for their lives over the next few years, especially if they are to be rotated on several tours.

Can the Minister tell us how many troops will be needed in Iraq for how long, and how many reservists will be sent out again? We know that it is a difficult judgment, but our forces need to be given some idea—will it be six months, 12 months, five years, or what? I think that they should be told. We also know that reservists are being relied on to a significant extent, and there is anxiety about that. Without assistance from other nations to take the strain in peacekeeping, such a deployment for the British Army alone is unsustainable.

The strategic defence review projected that a brigade level force could be sustained in theatre indefinitely. Given that the current force in Iraq is considerably larger than anything the SDR envisaged, there must be either a size or a time limit to our deployment. The risk of unsustainability is even greater because pressures on reservists might encourage many to leave. With 48 per cent. of the reserve air forces reserves committed to operations and the Territorial Army undermanned in all but three units, are there any signs that the recent overstretch is affecting recruitment and retention in the reserves? I am told that there are.

Have estimates been made of expected outflow rates of regulars after the war in Iraq? That could also prove a problem. We have all heard reports from regulars and reservists that explain why some now want to leave the armed forces. Many reservists were not fully briefed about compensation packages before going to Iraq, and many who applied for hardship allowances have not yet received their payments. In some cases, payments of standard awards have been delayed. SI No. 309, the regulation governing compensation, was introduced in 1997 and is clearly outdated. Are there any plans to update it?

It is not only the financial arrangements that have been less than satisfactory. The vaccination programme that many of our reservists were asked to take has made some of them sick. There have been many reports of reservists receiving cocktails of inoculations in a short space of time, even including anthrax. That practice, which seems to have been followed regularly, is in stark contrast to MOD policy, as expressed in the House by the Secretary of State. Two reservists fell so ill after their inoculations that they could not even make it to the Gulf.

I hope that the Minister will confirm what instructions were given by the MOD about the administration of vaccines. Are five vaccinations in one day too many? What are we doing to ensure that reservists are monitored for any problems that they may have with Gulf war sickness—whether we believe it exists or not? We should not forget those people from Gulf war one who are still battling so hard to make their points known.

As my hon. Friend knows, I take a close interest in questions relating to Gulf war one and the veterans. Does he accept that while we all welcome the fact that the MOD has been much more proactive with an assessment of possible illness from vaccination and other factors after recent hostilities, that is in itself a recognition that it was inadequately covered after the 1991 conflict?

My hon. Friend has been one of the leaders in the House on that issue. I noticed that the Minister appeared to suggest that it was not a problem to have five vaccinations in one day. If that is the case, I would like to know why the Secretary of State for Defence said:

"it is not sensible to inflict on our forces a large number of inoculations simultaneously".—[Official Report, 20 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 37.]

When I joined the MOD I had five vaccinations on my first day and it did not do me any harm. The same applies to anyone else receiving the normal public health vaccinations. There is a big difference between those and some of the more unusual vaccinations that were given in 1991—in particular, anthrax—which is always given five days apart from other vaccinations. There is nothing wrong with being given a normal package of public health vaccinations in one go, just as all our babies get.

I am sorry that the Minister takes a cavalier attitude to the issue. Perhaps he could explain that to Mr. Tony Barker, a 46-year-old who has been a TA soldier for 26 years.

There was nothing cavalier about pointing out that it is normal clinical practice—as a doctor, I am well aware of that—to give cocktails of vaccinations, and it does no harm at all.

Is the Minister saying that it is right to give cocktails that include anthrax vaccinations? The cocktail of specific vaccinations was given, but the Secretary of State reported to the House that that would not happen—

The Minister will have his chance when he winds up. Many of our reservists undoubtedly fell ill as a result of the cocktail of inoculations that they were given, against the advice that the Secretary of State gave to the House.

I would not wish to accuse the hon. Gentleman of misleading the House, but he deliberately failed to hear what I said. I said that anthrax inoculation is given with a five-day separation period from any other inoculation.

I concede that point, but it was widely felt by reservists that the cocktail that they were given was not helpful.

Some 45,000 personnel were deployed in the recent action in Iraq. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned two cases. Is he in danger of exaggerating the extent of the problem? With any type of vaccination, whether for travel to the Gulf or elsewhere, there is a small risk of side effects.

That is true, but the reservists were called up so quickly that they had to have all their injections at once, including anthrax, unlike the regulars who had received their injections over time. For some of the reservists, that was a problem.

Coupled with the problems with kit that forces families reported throughout the war, the over-reliance on TA personnel, combined with the substandard treatment that they often receive, was self-defeating at best. Many of those personnel can quit when they return home, and many are doing so. Does the Minister have any figures on that?

There are also many lessons for the Ministry of Defence, and I am sure that the Government will want to address them. We understand that post-operational reports on the Iraq conflict are being compiled and that assessments will be published, as the Minister of State mentioned earlier. When the Under-Secretary winds up, I hope that he will say when they will be published. I am sure that he agrees that it is in the interests of the MOD and of our armed forces that those lessons are made public as soon as possible.

The White Paper anticipated in the autumn is to be welcomed, and I urge the MOD to use the opportunity to address some of the missing links in defence policy that have emerged since the publication of the new chapter. For example, will the White Paper deal with the security threat to the UK in the round? Since the new chapter was published, there have been more questions than answers about the role of the MOD in counter-terrorism and contingency operations. How will the proposed draft legislation on civil contingencies affect the MOD's policy planning in the autumn White Paper?

It is clear that the SDR projections have been abandoned. The White Paper should introduce new projections, or outline how the Government intend to return to the limits of the SDR. In addition, our armed forces deserve clear answers to the immediate requirements that they face in Iraq. They want to know when they are coming home, and when they will go out again. The forces as a whole, and Parliament, have the right to expect a defence policy that sets guidelines, and sticks to them.

I believe that the MOD has performed the difficult task set by the Iraq crisis admirably, but it must be governed by a clear and sustainable policy. The men and women of our armed forces deserve nothing less.

4.11 pm

I start by congratulating the armed forces, as every contributor to the debate has done. It has been my privilege to see their contribution in crisis situations in various parts of the world. I am thinking particularly about Sierra Leone, where lots of other troops were involved. That was a mess, which our forces quickly rescued, and it is clear that they have performed very well in Iraq.

I am disturbed by the clear feeling that the war in Iraq has been won. I am struck by the fact that the six day war finished in 1968 but is clearly going strong 35 years later. Whether the recent war in Iraq can be considered a success depends on what we make of the situation there from now on. My remarks will concentrate on the fact that the task of running post-war Iraq has not been handed over to the UN or to civilians. Iraq remains under military control, and we must look at the way in which our forces are deployed.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State made a very good speech that lasted an hour, but it was notable that he made no mention of the US. The debate has made it sound as though the war was a discrete British war, even though we were the junior partner in a coalition. That is something that I want to consider.

Britain failed to change a decision by the US. As a result, the UN has largely been excluded from the reconstruction phase. In the US Government, the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld won the battle about who was to control the reconstruction phase. That battle was won in February, and the result was announced in Congress, but it was in a sense ignored or denied in this country when the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance was set up under the retired general, Jay Garner.

That episode was a fiasco. The General Garner phase went very badly wrong, and a civilian, Paul Bremer, was brought in. He immediately reversed much of what Garner had said. For example, the Iraqis thought in May that they would be well on the way to having an Iraqi Government, but we are now in a Pentagon-run reconstruction phase, with a coalition provisional authority in which we are the junior partner. Much of my speech will be concerned with finding out from the Government exactly how the CPA works, and determining what our contribution to it is. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will not be able to answer me in detail today, so I hope that he will write to me. Just how are our armed forces involved in the CPA, which was previously ORHA? That has never been covered in a statement to the House, although, on two occasions, we were promised an explanation.

Bremer's powers in running the CPA are enormous. There are seven directorates for everything that a sovereign state would cover—matters such as education, health, police, religious affairs, oil, agriculture, planning and trade. Bremer has responsibilities similar to those of the House. In addition, an international co-ordinating council has responsibility for liaison with bilateral donors, NGOs and, lastly, the UN.

Bremer's main means of implementing Pentagon policy are soldiers on the ground. For our purposes, and in relation to the debate, that means that our forces in Basra are responsible for implementing his policy. Our weakness is that our obsession with weapons of mass destruction meant that the House did not consider the post-victory situation. We did not consider what we would do with our armed forces after they had swept away the Iraqi army.

When I asked about that, the Prime Minister said that no decisions had yet been taken, but he thought that
"the role of the UN had to be well protected in such a situation".—[Official Report, 25 February 2003; Vol. 400, c. 137.]
Again, I asked the Prime Minister about the decision in Washington, announced at the US Foreign Relations Committee, that UN aid organisations and coalition partners would contribute to the reconstruction effort through ORHA and be subject to Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon. The Prime Minister did not acknowledge that those facts had been declared in Washington several weeks earlier. He said:
"we are in intensive discussions…I have no doubt that there will have to be a substantial UN involvement…rather than speculate about what might happen, I assure my hon. Friend that we will declare those plans to people as soon as we have them properly worked out."—[Official Report, 5 March 2003; Vol. 400, c. 818.]
There has never been an explanation of what happened on the ground that reconstruction was to be under the control of the Pentagon. We were assured that the Prime Minister had gained the President's agreement that the UN would have a central or vital role, but that role was never secured and the proposals were never debated in the House.

The implications for our armed forces are considerable. They have to work in a situation to which we have agreed. Strangely, there has been no reference in the debate to the fact that the reconstruction phase started with a fiasco—the looting that the troops seemed unwilling or unable to stop. Buildings and infrastructure were preserved by expert bombing during the war for expert looting during the peace.

Our forces are in an unsatisfactory situation. I do not believe that the Government desire our armed forces to be the lead figures in the reconstruction phase, but that is what is happening. The Select Committee on International Development, of which I am proud to be a member, is taking evidence from non-governmental organisations and others about the situation in Iraq. Evidence taken towards the end of May from one of the major organisations, Care International, about its experiences with ORHA states:
"The Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance has taken upon itself the mantle of coordinating the international response.
This body has no clear mandate for its operation and is staffed by a confusing mixture of military and civilian appointments. Housed in one of Saddam's former palaces, it is operating as if in a bunker, impenetrable to outside contact and with no avenues for dialogue with NGOs and civil society actors. While we have had sight of an organisation chart for staff of ORHA, our staff in Baghdad have found it impossible to make contact with any of them."
Save the Children says that ORHA gave the impression of being in internal turmoil, with little understanding of its role. It was totally predictable that ORHA was not up to the job. That experience has been reported by those in each major, reputable NGO from which we have sought evidence. None of them reports any sign of planning for the post-war period. Those in the military are responsible for everything, but they are finding it difficult to provide what only they can provide—security. Admittedly, the situation is not as serious in the British zone, but surely we should now be handing over to the UN organisations those things that they are experienced at doing.

All that leads to a great many questions about the use of our forces in Iraq. The first relates to their numbers and replacement. As several hon. Members have said, if we were near overstretch some months ago, where are we now? The Minister referred to 20,000 troops having left Iraq now, but he did not say how many were still there and how easy, or difficult, it would be to maintain the strength of our forces there. We will be there for at least a year—that is the commitment; it is written down—but I have met no one who reasonably thinks that our commitment will only last that long.

This is particularly difficult for two reasons. Others are not available to take the place of the British in Iraq. First, for political reasons, many people do not want to be involved in what they saw as our war. Secondly, there is a continuing, severe shortage of quality troops in the world whom one would trust with that extremely difficult policing situation. So I ask the Minister how will the Secretary of State increase or refresh the forces that he has on the ground? They will be very tired by the physical and emotional fatigue that is caused by war.

I was struck this week by a fine article by Fergal Keane, who wrote about his experiences with the American forces. In American-controlled towns, he saw
"an army that is afraid of the people it says it wants to protect; an army that looks and often acts as if it has arrived in a spaceship, speaking a different language and praying only for the moment that it can go home. Iraq scared them."
No one had trained those young men for the situation in which they found themselves.

We are said to be better and to do the job better—I believe that to be true—but we are tied to the fact that we are in the coalition provisional authority. I want to know how much freedom our forces in Basra have in that relationship to do things differently. For example, if they decided fully to involve the L N organisations in Basra, could they do so or is there a one-size-fits-all situation throughout Iraq?

Was it a wise decision by Bremer, as the administrator of Iraq, to dismiss the 500,000 soldiers of the Iraqi army and send them all off, with their AK47s, into the community, without any plan for their rehabilitation? Iraq is a country stuffed full of arms anyway. Did Bremer consult us about that? Did we have any say about it? Did we agree to discharge the army? That was not our approach in Sierra Leone, where, very wisely, we set up the most complex, detailed and well-planned system to disarm and rehabilitate soldiers.

Order. I have allowed the hon. Gentleman some latitude, but his remarks should now relate more to British armed forces personnel.

With all the respect in the world, Madam Deputy Speaker, they do apply to the British armed forces because Iraqi soldiers will be released in Basra. If they are released in Basra, they could be a threat to our soldiers there. We need to consider whether it is possible for our forces in Basra to deal with those discharged army people in a way that makes sense. What ability do we have to operate separately?

Another concern, about which the Under-Secretary must know, is the confusion of roles in Iraq between the civilian and military aspects. A great deal of effort is going into trying to combine two separate elements. Let us consider what UNICEF said in its evidence to the Select Committee. It stated:
"the confusion of roles between the military and humanitarian forces has significantly and negatively impacted on the support and assistance provided to the civilian population in the immediate aftermath of the conflict".
What, therefore, is our stance? Are we seeking military withdrawal and the maximum possible deployment of UN and civilian staff?

Finally, what sign is there that U N Security Council resolution 1483 is beginning to have a beneficial impact? Are there signs that the former OR HA is moving over and allowing the UN bodies to operate effectively? What is our role in that? What are we doing to overcome the American antagonism to the UN and to do what almost everybody in the world recognises must be done: to invite in the UN and restrict the role of our military, and everybody else's in a coalition war, to that for which they are trained and which they are good at? We must not to continue with the situation laid down by the Pentagon whereby the peace will also be run by the armed forces, rather than by those who are better at it.

The hon. Gentleman made considerable play of the pressure that the Army is under because of our continuing commitment in Iraq. One of the reasons why it is under such pressure is that great demand exists for British troops, particularly infantry units, in exactly such situations, because, bluntly, they are so good at that kind of work. If the hon. Gentleman agrees with that, as I think he does, does he also agree that, logically, the last thing any Government would want to do in such circumstances would be to reduce the number of infantry units available for such work, bearing it in mind that they are already under tremendous pressure?

I think that I said that. I did not say that the last thing we should do is reduce the number of infantry units, but the fact is that highly-skilled infantry men and women, because of the training and tradition in the British Army, have an immense contribution to make. Let us face it: in relation to the Congo, which we were discussing earlier, no one can tell me that our contribution would have been so restricted had we not heavily deployed our forces in other places, overwhelmingly in Iraq.

4.28 pm

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington). I shall endeavour to keep on the straight and narrow, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to confine my remarks to armed forces personnel. My remarks will be reasonably partisan, as I spent a considerable time as a medical officer in the Royal Navy and am currently a reservist in the Royal Navy Reserve. Clearly, my interest is registered in the appropriate place.

First, I want to talk about the Defence Medical Services, which, as the Under-Secretary will know, are in a truly parlous state. There are historical reasons for that, but the situation is not getting any better. We need 120 anaesthetists, but we have only 23. We have 18 of the 43 general surgeons that we need. Of the 10 vital burns specialists that we need, we have only three. We need 800 nurses, 1,900 more medics and 415 general practitioners.

The Defence Medical Services have been engaged in a number of theatres of operations recently: in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and more recently in the Gulf. They are an integral part of our defensive capability. However, if we survey the responsibilities of the Under-Secretary and his fellow Ministers, the Defence Medical Services are in the most difficult situation. In the MOD's DMS attitude survey in 2001, 82 per cent. of respondents felt that the DMS was overcommitted, including 94 per cent. of hospital consultants—nearly all of them. Has the Under-Secretary thought of repeating that survey in light of Operation Telic? If he did, the results would be even more salutary. I would be grateful if he addressed that in his concluding remarks.

I am sure that the Minister has been busy over the past six years trying to improve the situation. We must look specifically at the initiatives that have been undertaken. I recall that golden hellos were introduced about nine months ago, and were well, and I suspect expensively, advertised. I looked at whether that initiative had resulted in any of my ex-colleagues returning to the DMS or becoming members for the first time. I found that in February not one recruit was attracted by a golden hello to join the DMS. Earlier this week, I spoke to the British Medical Association, which reckons that 14 have joined. That is laudable, but it is only a pinprick, given the shortfalls that I have identified. It would be superb if the Minister could give us an update on how successful the golden hello scheme has been, and how he intends to develop it.

It is not just about money, however. It is also about morale and esprit de corps. In the past six years, Ministers have been responsible for the institution of the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, in which I have an interest, as I used to work at the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar, which became the Royal Hospital Haslar but has now closed its doors as a military unit. I was saddened when Haslar ceased to be a military hospital, and was baffled and bewildered at the decision to set up the Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham. Our armed forces are scattered throughout the United Kingdom, but they are heavily concentrated in Wiltshire and Hampshire. It would therefore make sense to have a centre for defence medicine, a college of knowledge for the DMS, close to the front line. Men and women join the DMS because they want to be with front-line units. To move them to a place without such units makes no sense.

One thing sticks in my mind as a cause for the reduction in the morale and esprit de corps of the DMS over the past few years—the creation of the Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham and the closure of the Royal Hospital Haslar. I was delighted that in April the shadow Defence Secretary said that a Conservative Government would revise the decision on Haslar, which is very good news. I am sure that that single change would do a great deal to improve morale in the DMS and, I very much hope, to improve recruitment and retention.

The siting of the Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham, and not somewhere slightly more rational such as Southampton—one of the options considered when the changes were taking place—shows a lack of joined-up government. Despite the advent of foundation hospitals, we still have a command-andcontrol health service. I would not have thought that it was beyond the wit of Health and Defence Secretaries to collaborate on the formation of a centre for defence medicine with a rational location. Southampton was such an option, as it lies in close proximity to Haslar. It would be great if that could be revisited by an incoming Conservative Administration. The only recent example of joined-up government in which the MOD is involved has been Operation Fresco, in which our servicemen and women become the flexible friend of everybody else. It is a great shame that that flexibility does not extend to other Departments and we do not have more evidence of joined-up government that benefits the MOD.

I turn briefly, in the time available to me, to the reserve forces. Operation Telic has been a watershed in the deployment of reserve forces. Of course, they have been involved in non-territorial duties before, notably in the Balkans, but it was Operation Telic that brought the reserve forces to public attention. The description "territorial" no longer applies, because they are no longer involved exclusively in the defence of the UK's territorial integrity. Rather, they are an integral arm of the armed forces—an arm of Government, if you will.

The Reserve Forces Act 1996 was the prelude to that. The employment of reservists on the international stage was cemented in the strategic defence review. One assumes that the pattern will continue. It may surprise some hon. Members to hear that reserve forces continue to be mobilised. Many of us think the middle east is all done and dusted, in terms of the conflict there. Last Tuesday, after leaving this place, I spent two hours doing medicals on reservists who had been mobilised. They continue to be mobilised to serve in the Gulf and in support of regulars elsewhere.

Reservist numbers are down by a half on a decade ago, however, despite the expanded role envisaged by the Reserve Forces Act and SDR. Ministers say that recruitment is bullish, but retention, it seems, is not. That represents an inefficient use of manpower. It is all very well recruiting people, but the armed forces must invest heavily in them. We have moved on a long way from the old days when squaddies were recruited one day, and handed a rifle and told to get on with it the next. Our present armed forces are highly skilled and a huge amount of training is needed to bring them up to speed. To lose them at the crucial point where they are just becoming useful to the armed forces is a tragedy, both for them and for the MOD and the public that it serves.

I recently asked a series of questions of the Under-Secretary of State, to which I received very prompt answers. I commend him for that. I was particularly exercised by the number of resignations that we have had from our reserve forces. I asked the Under-Secretary what I thought was a straightforward question about
"how many resignations from the reserve forces there have been since 1 January; and how many there were in each year since 1990."
The hon. Gentleman can be forgiven for not knowing the answer to the first part of my question, but I was surprised, I confess, that he did not have an answer to the second part. The answer that came back was:

"The information requested is not centrally held and could be provided only at disproportionate cost."
I probed the Minister a little more and asked him
"what recent assessment has been made of the reasons for Reserve Forces personnel choosing to resign",
"what measures have been taken to reduce the number of resignations from the Reserve Forces."
The response was slightly fuller, but not much. It was:
"Although such information would be held at unit level, there has been no recent centralised assessment of the reasons why Reserve Forces personnel resign."—[Official Report, 21 May 2003; Vol. 405, c. 786W.
That is extraordinary. If we are looking at a retention crisis in our forces, one would have thought that Ministers would get a grip on how many—

In case I do not get round to replying to the hon. Gentleman in my winding-up speech, may I say that he is making a very interesting point? Information is often not held centrally, and there are parliamentary rules about whether one can collate it, depending on the cost. I can, however, assure him that I am extremely interested in the matter myself, and I will examine it closely to see whether patterns of resignation from our reserve services have changed, and why, as I am anxious to retain as many reservists as possible.

I am grateful to the Minister for that extremely positive response. I look forward to his sharing with me the information that he gleans. That is good news and I thank him for it. I suspect that his enthusiasm to try and work out why people are leaving and how we might prevent it has been prompted by some clouds on the horizon. A recent survey of Territorial Army personnel who had been sent to the Gulf found that 80 per cent. expected their employers to take a fairly dim view of deployments in the foreseeable future. Crucially, 63 per cent. of the very scarce medical and technical staff said that they were thinking of resigning. That is worrying and it suggests that we may face even more problems in future.

I have already mentioned medics, but I should like to do so again, as they are so crucial. The British Medical Association recently surveyed medical officers in the Gulf. It received 52 replies. Three respondents said that they would quit in respect of deployments of between three or four months, and 12 said that they would probably do so. Those numbers are quite low, but in respect of a six-month deployment, 21 medical officers said that they would quit and 13 said that they would probably do so. That is worrying. I think that the BMA survey was well run and authoritative, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it.

There is certainly widespread discontent among deployed TA medics about the way in which they have been handled. There has also been a fairly high call-up rate among crucial hospital specialists. That clearly has implications for the NHS, but it also has implications for them as a group. I have mentioned their feelings about remaining in the Territorial Army, and the situation will obviously apply disproportionately in terms of those vital hospital specialists who are required to run our field hospitals. Currently, we have the capacity to run only four out of a required 13 such hospitals. I am afraid that the bottom line is that if there are no field hospitals, there will be no military campaigns.

4.41 pm

Thank you, Mad am Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this debate. I should like to join other hon. Members in congratulating our armed forces on the excellent work that they have done in various campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am one of those who supported our Government on their action in Iraq. I think that it was the right decision, and our armed forces displayed great bravery and achieved the results that were necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) said that we were second partners, but I hope that we were equal partners with the Americans in displaying our bravery in overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

This is the first time that I have been involved in a debate on defence matters in this House, so it is a very unusual event for me, although a very important one. I want to congratulate my Government, in a genuine spirit, on their achievement. I know of no previous Government who have made an effort to try to recruit ethnic minorities in the armed forces as this Government have done. I remember that, as a Defence Minister, the current Minister of State, Department of Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), made an immense effort to speak to the ethnic community and raise the issue of young men and women from the Asian community joining the armed forces. He certainly did so in the Sikh community. I am half Sikh, so I was delighted at the effort that he made. I was also delighted earlier to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister state that we had achieved a 6 per cent. increase in ethnic minority recruitment to the armed forces. Great credit is due to the Government for that achievement.

I want to raise issues regarding welfare and to focus on allegations concerning the existence of a culture of bullying and intimidation in today's armed forces, because this issue has alarmed me whenever I have read about it or heard about it on television. The other issue on which I want to focus is support for our armed forces and their dependants and families, which was raised earlier.

Whenever I have spoken to members of the armed forces, they have told me that military service is not simply a job, but a way of life. Living, eating, sleeping and working with colleagues, travelling long distances to the world's trouble spots at short notice, and having every aspect of one's behaviour scrutinised by one's employer, irrespective of whether it is in work, is all part and parcel of life in the armed forces. Many regulars are relatively young men and women who are completely in the power of their superior officers, and there is a duty of care on the Army and other services to ensure that staff who adhere to basic rules receive basic protection and care. Many fine men and women devote their lives to the service of their country, and it can only be a good thing for them to pass on their skills and knowledge to colleagues.

Some unfortunates, however, find themselves subject to bullying from their peers or superiors. Government figures show that over the past eight years, there have been numerous deaths in British Army barracks, but campaigners claim that little or no action has been taken and no proper records have been kept.

The hon. Gentleman touches on a serious subject. Will he acknowledge that over the past few years, all the forces, particularly the Army, have put a great deal of effort into combating bullying? I see that the Minister is nodding. The Army takes the issue very seriously; will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that a great deal of effort has gone into addressing it?

I agree that a lot of effort has been made, but I want to put my concerns on the record. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that if one individual is bullied, that is one too many.

Since 1994, nearly 100 members of the armed forces have been killed through firearms incidents and a further 156 have committed suicide.

I want to make progress to enable the hon. Gentleman to contribute to the debate, but I shall give way.

I shall be very quick. Without wishing for one moment to score points, has the hon. Gentleman visited a field force unit; has he felt the atmosphere in a good unit; arid has he understood that bad news will always make the newspapers?

I am expressing a point of concern, not trying to demean anyone. As I said, I speak in praise of the armed forces. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that I am addressing the issue in that spirit. I am taking part in a debate of this nature for the first time to express my concern.

In 2000, 192 Army court martial cases involved forms of violent crime and 34 involved forms of sexual crime. Following a series of disturbing allegations concerning the suspicious deaths of four young soldiers at the Royal Logistics Corps base in Surrey, there are growing calls for an independent inquiry into bullying in the Army. Earlier this month, it was reported that relatives of soldiers at Catterick garrison in north Yorkshire, just down the road from my constituency, claim that there is a culture of fear spanning almost 20 years. It has been alleged that a soldier died during a forced march, and a former private has claimed that in 1985 he was gang-raped at nearby Strensall barracks in York. An investigation was recently announced into the suicide of 18-year-old Private Paul Cochrane, who shot himself at Drumadd barracks in Northern Ireland in 2001. It may be helpful to hon. Members if I say that although I do not want to overstate the issue of bullying in the armed forces, it is essential that the Government look at it more closely as a priority, and I raise it in that spirit.

I turn to welfare issues. There are several hurdles between where we are now and the goal of modern and effectively run armed forces. Hon. Members with bases and barracks in their constituencies will recognise the need to forge better links between forces staff and local residents. In addition to the obvious benefits, that can help to improve the closeted, insular and occasionally suffocating atmosphere that can build up on bases with limited links with the outside world. I have already spent some time discussing bullying, and I often wonder whether a decent counselling service provided by impartial external professionals would go some way towards identifying problems before they develop into tragedies such as those witnessed at Deepcut. I would be especially interested in the Minister's comments on that.

Another crucial piece in the welfare puzzle is the assistance and support for those leaving the armed forces. There is much anecdotal evidence to support the view that some people find it difficult to assimilate back into society after serving in the armed forces. Some experience difficulties in finding work and others develop drink and drug problems. Still others, whose problems have been highlighted in recent high profile cases of those suffering from Gulf war syndrome, develop medical complaints linked to their time in service, as the Minister acknowledged earlier.

It would be easy to write off individual cases as exceptions that prove the rule, but it lessens the general public's respect for the military every time they hear of a war veteran who has received no medical assistance or a widow who has been asked to pay back her dead husband's salary.

Family needs must also be borne in mind. Adequate educational and recreational facilities for staff with families not only increase their sense of well-being but show that the needs of their loved ones are important. That is an essential element of the equation when one considers that those men and women willingly put their lives on the line to defend this country. Priority must be given to the welfare and maintenance of the armed services in the field, and part of that is the knowledge that their families back home are being cared for.

Although armed services organisations such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—SSAFA—do a good job, we must also consider families who live off base and the families of reservists and those serving with the Territorial Army. Many of them feel that they are outside the loop.

I want briefly to consider reservists. One incident goes some way towards highlighting the way in which servicemen and women, be they regulars or reservists, are often disregarded. I was approached by the concerned spouse of a Territorial Army reservist. At the last count, nearly 300 Territorial Army reservists from the north-east had been called up for service in Iraq. I am sure that the anxieties that the wife of one infantryman expressed to me are not unique. The woman's husband had been mobilised and was being deployed somewhere as part of the preparations for military action against Iraq. Neither he nor his fellow reservists were given full information about the financial implications of any possible deployment until they were called up. In two weeks, they were mobilised and dispatched on active duty.

Although I appreciate that it is not for the Army to determine whether individuals can afford to serve their country or join the TA, such information should be clear at the time of recruitment. The couple to whom I refer found themselves losing out financially as a direct result of the husband's willingness to serve his country. Before 1996, reservists had access to additional financial assistance by virtue of their status as reservists rather than having to apply for hardship funds. I would welcome the Minister's comments on a position that requires reservists' families to provide receipts for domestic outgoings to access emergency financial assistance. That is especially difficult at a time when their loved ones have departed for armed conflict and they may be in some distress.

I am especially worried to learn that reservists and their families are concerned about the insurance cover provided by the MOD-approved company responsible for PAX, which is the cover available to regulars and RPAX—the cover available to reservists. I understand that reservists inquiring about insurance cover were regularly advised that the appropriate information would be provided at the mobilisation centre. On arrival at the centre, they were made aware that the scheme was privately run and that the company's paperwork contained an exclusion clause that rendered the cover void if deployment occurred within 30 days of cover being taken out.

After making inquiries, I was informed that the MOD aims for there to be a minimum period of 16 days between a reservist receiving a call-up notice and having to report to the mobilisation centre. However, that is not always possible, and the time period can be much shorter. While I am told that the period of time between reporting and deployment is not a matter on which the Ministry comments publicly, I have anecdotal evidence that it can be as short as nine days. There are concerns that current PAX and RPAX schemes due to expire at the end of this month will be replaced by a new scheme or schemes which are expected to be either more expensive or less generous.

In January this year, The Times newspaper carried articles that were critical of mainstream insurance companies which were refusing to take on new policies for service personnel. In mid-February, Forces Safeguard announced new terms for the continued provision of war cover. When new policies are taken out, policyholders will have to choose whether to take out war cover. If they do, a 100 per cent. premium loading will apply, and benefits for war claims will be scaled back to 25 per cent. of the amount that would be paid in other circumstances.

I have written to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie), this year, and received a detailed reply at the end of March. I thank him for that, but I remain concerned that the MOD line on this issue appears to be far too relaxed. Although insurance is recommended, the MOD is unable or unwilling to do anything other than point people towards commercial organisations that have nothing to gain from offering decent cover to members of the armed forces, as illustrated by Forces Safeguard. When asked in the same letter about the scheme to replace the existing insurance provision for regulars and reservists at the end of the current PAX and RPAX contracts, the Minister replied:
"In the current insurance climate, replicating existing benefits is unlikely and some combination of increased premiums and decreased benefits appears likely. Any changes will apply to all scheme members, both new and existing, and will be promulgated to Service personnel as soon as they are available."
I am sure that hon. Members will be as interested as I am in how serving troops will be detrimentally affected by such renegotiated contracts.

The points that I have raised with the Minister today are matters of genuine concern: intimidation, violence and bullying. The Army itself has to demonstrate that the terrible practice of bullying will not be tolerated and that all those involved in it will be kicked out and made an example of. I also hope that the Minister will take on board my concerns about welfare matters in the spirit in which I raised them, because they are important to us. After all, everyone else who has spoken in this debate has championed our armed forces.

4.59 pm

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar). His points about PAX were extremely well made and apposite.

In the two years during which I have been in the House of Commons, I have never heard the armed forces spoken of here except in the most glowing terms. Is it not a disgrace that, on a Thursday afternoon, so few of us can be here to fight their corner?

I pay tribute to the two services that do not seem to have had much of a crack of the whip in the Gulf, as far as I can see. We must remember, as my gallant colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) pointed out, that the Royal Navy played an extremely important part in the Gulf conflict. Although its role was clearly minor, that was no fault of the Navy. And without the Royal Air Force, the Gulf campaign simply could not have been won. Air supremacy was crucial and ground operations could not have continued without the dedication of the Air Force, which had been at war not just during the Gulf campaign itself, but for the 12 years before that.

I want to go on record as expressing my undying admiration for those two services, which are both equipment intensive. The Army is manpower intensive. At the end of every conflict, be it the last Gulf war or the Balkans campaigns, a series of cuts are introduced on the armed forces, probably on the pretext of there being some peace dividend. I refer first to "Options for Change", which, as a serving officer at the time, I found extraordinarily hard to admire. Secondly, I refer to the strategic defence review, which got the personnel bills so badly wrong that 3,000 were added back to the figure for cuts, although this Government have never met that.

Without doubt, the White Paper that is coming up in the autumn will cut the forces again, yet look at what has happened even in the brief period since the end of the Gulf war. There have been two operational deployments. One was a stealthy deployment of a complete company of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Anglian Regiment, which more than doubled the combat power of British troops in Afghanistan—what price now the fingers being stuck in the mangle? The other involved sappers going out to the Congo. Neither was particularly technical. Both depend on manpower. The crucial point, which I shall make throughout my speech, is that if we ignore manpower—if we go for equipment rather than manpower and for fire rather than manoeuvre—we will get it wrong yet again.

Before we look down the list of what the Army believes is going to happen to it, I shall, if I may, pay a quick tribute to the Queen's Royal Lancers. The regiment is associated with Nottinghamshire and it recruits in my constituency. It fought in the Gulf and did a good job. We are told, however, that the six main battle tank regiments are about to lose a squadron each. It is not widely known, but those six regiments do not have enough tanks to go round anyway. Only two have enough to achieve full manning all the time.

It looks as though we shall lose about 400 Royal Armoured Corps soldiers, so I say this to the Minister: let us not get it wrong with our armoured soldiers. The battle for Basra depended heavily on Royal Armoured Corps troops. If we lose 400 trained, motivated, battle- hardened Royal Armoured Corps soldiers, we will regret it. The four armoured reconnaissance regiments need their fourth squadrons back. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that that is where those 400 sabres ought to go.

The hon. Gentleman knows something that I suspect a lot of people do not appreciate: the Royal Armoured Corps not only provides excellent equipment—the Challenger 2 was undoubtedly a success story in this campaign—but the soldiers can dismount from their tanks or AS 90s with weapons to act as infantry in support of infantry operations, particularly in peacekeeping roles. Armoured soldiers and armoured regiments, even light reconnaissance regiments, can multi-role in a combat environment, which normal infantry often cannot.

That is an extraordinarily good point, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is quite right. The Royal Armoured Corps is immensely flexible and, with the advent of Apache attack aircraft, I have no doubt that the Royal Armoured Corps soldier will have to become even more flexible.

Let me now turn to the problem in the infantry. Whatever Ministers say—whatever Labour Members say—it is an established fact, or at least an established rumour, that two battalions will be scrapped. It seems that 600 posts will be saved in the infantry. This is to happen before any announcement in the shape of a White Paper. Forty battalions will be reduced to 38.

There is no doubt that the regiments that will be looked at most closely are those with second battalions. I suggest that if disbandments prove necessary, the Minister should look closely at regiments that cannot or will not recruit. Let me also tell him that we need foot soldiers above and beyond anything else. Forty battalions are stretched to the limit; 38 will find it impossible to operate.

This is all predicated on what is happening in Northern Ireland. The idea is to close down over the next two years and allow largely infantry formations to become available for disbandment. I plead with the Minister to consider the lessons of history. Every time this has happened before, we have immediately needed our manpower, or else we have ended up stretching the serving manpower to a point approaching breaking point.

I have no time to give examples, but the Minister knows them as well as I do. Regiments are sent to Northern Ireland apparently for six months, and then told while they are there that they must stay for eight months and must lose their Christmas holidays and holiday deposits—and of course there are all the ramifications involving families, girlfriends and other loved ones. That is simply not acceptable. It is the tangible face of overstretch.

I was interested in what the Secretary of State said about the Royal Irish Regiment. He said that it would riot be disbanded. He is right, but the regiment has four battalions. It does not take the brains of an archbishop to work out what will happen if the garrison in Northern Ireland is reduced to 5,000, which is the aspiration, and a regular brigade is left there. What price the three battalions of the home service force of the Royal Irish Regiment? Let me borrow a phrase from the Secretary of State. I simply do not accept that the three battalions of home service soldiers are safe. They are not: I challenge the Government to prove the contrary.

My next point involves a dreadful old saw of mine. Yesterday, in the Select Committee on Defence, we heard from the Chief of Defence Staff that recruiting was going in the right direction, and we heard the same from the Minister today. We have heard that there are more people in the Army now than there were a year ago. I am sure that that is true, but let us look at the reality. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders are 50 men below strength, and the Highlanders five below strength. As the Highlanders are brought up to strength by a company of 110 Gurkhas, they are actually 115 below strength. The King's Own Scottish Borderers are 35 below strength, and the Royal Highland Fusiliers 80 below strength. Most telling of all, two of the regiments that were warned for operations in the Gulf, the Black Watch and the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, are below strength by 100 and 95 respectively. If they had suffered that number of casualties on operations, they would no longer have been combat effective.

I do not accept the Government's excuse on recruitment. I do not accept the Ministry of Defence's assurance that things are going in the right direction. These units are in a parlous state. Meanwhile, other units that are recruiting well are not allowed to bring their recruits in to train. I made that point earlier, so I will not labour it.

Let me return to the Minister's earlier reply about a blockage in the training system. We brought the problem to the Government's attention last year, and it was apparently solved. Now constituents of mine who want to join their county regiments are told that they cannot. It does not add up. I would love an explanation, because I have laboured under a complete lack of comprehension of the problem for several years. If the Minister can explain it, he is a better man than I am, but I do not suppose he needs to be told that.

For all the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned, which I entirely agree with, there is no logic in reducing the number of infantry battalions, but if for some bizarre reason the Government were to seek do to that, it would be even more perverse to try to reduce those battalions, such as the Royal Anglian Regiment, that have an excellent record of recruitment and retention. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I am grateful for that intervention. My mother's family served in the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment. My constituency abuts Lincolnshire. The loss of any battalion from the Army would be a disgrace. The loss of the Royal Anglian Regiment, swept away by a bureaucrat's pen after 300 years' dedication to the Crown, would appal me.

I am grateful for the House's forbearance. The Government know that they will try to cut the Army. The Minister may deny it but we have quotes, which we have already used today, from the MOD:
"There may well be units to be disbanded, but it's not been finalised."
Those quotes are perfectly open. The Royal Armoured Corps, the infantry and to a lesser extent the artillery are already being told what numbers to start saving. It is an open secret. It is a mistake to lose manpower.

The Minister said earlier that we must not be afraid to change. He is absolutely right. We must embrace change. We must adapt. We must be modern and forward thinking with the armed forces. We must expand them, not reduce them.

5.11 pm

I pay tribute to HMS Ledbury, which is named after the town in my constituency and did such a tremendous job in the Gulf clearing mines; to the light infantry, who also served in the Gulf; and to the special forces. It is a privilege to follow my gallant and hon. Friend Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). I wish that the Government would listen to every word he says and follow his advice, but tragically I do not think they will.

Twenty years ago, when I passed my Regular Commissions Board exam, it was explained to me that the reason why officer training was so long and difficult was that to young officers was entrusted the British Army's most precious possession—in the case of a young platoon commander, the lives of 35 of the finest soldiers in the world bar none.

It is important that we remember that, because our armed services cannot say no. They cannot go on strike if they do not like being firemen. They have no choice. Probably the most tragic research that was thrown up before I put in to speak in the debate concerned the number of young men and women going absent without leave. That not only blemishes their reputation but reflects badly on a Government who put them in the position where they cannot bear it anymore and have to make a run for it.

The shortfall against the current trained requirement of the armed forces is 6,510. That sounds like a big number. There has been a reduction in the requirement of about 4,110 but it is difficult for Ministers in Whitehall to realise what that means to the men on the ground, whether they be training in a drill hall or on exercise. I had a troop of three armoured cars based in Croydon and only five troopers in that troop, which was enough for about one and a half armoured cars.

That was damaging to our ability to train. It meant that most of the time was spent doing maintenance to ensure that the three armoured cars were serviceable. It was not much fun for the soldiers or for me. We all suffered from being under strength, short of man hours and of the highly qualified trained soldiers who we needed. The Government have a duty to ensure that there are enough soldiers, sailors and airmen to enable those who are currently employed to be trained properly and to enjoy their jobs, as every person should be able to.

I hope that the Government will also look carefully at pay, and at the council tax that service people are required to pay when serving abroad. It is tempting to allow the Treasury to steer our defence commitments, but it was hard to look the fire brigade strikers and protesters in the eye in the knowledge that the soldiers covering for them were paid half as much as those on the picket line. We must seriously reconsider how we value our armed forces. These are people who cannot say no.

The recent court case about Gulf war syndrome has caused nothing but anguish to those who believe that they may be suffering from it and to their families. I understand why the Government do not recognise it, but I rather feel that it reflects more sadly on us than on those poor people who are suffering.

We also need to think about the accommodation that armed forces personnel live in. If 9 per cent. of it is so bad that the Ministry cannot charge rent, and charges only for utilities, there is clearly a great deal of room for improvement.

I know that any good Minister would want to address those issues, and I sincerely hope that the Minister will. The saddest statistic of all concerns Territorial Army reservists. In my short military career, I also had the privilege of being the platoon commander in Holyhead and in Caernarfon, and of my 35 soldiers at least seven had the surname Jones, so we had to use their numbers as well. They were fantastic people, and I cannot think of a happier time in my life than when I was serving with them, even though, because I do not speak fluent Welsh myself, they had the upper hand in that they could have pulled the wool over my eyes had they wanted to.

In a recent survey of TA personnel sent to the Gulf, 80 per cent. said that they did not expect their employer to support any future deployment; 63 per cent. of medical and technical staff said that they were thinking of resigning from the TA; 73 per cent. said that the NHS would lose vital skills because of the deployment; and 39 per cent. were worried about the effect on their job security. If that is how this Government are leaving the armed forces, there is a great distance to go.

5.17 pm

I would like to make a few brief points as someone who served during the cold war as a Territorial Army officer in what was then the fifth battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment. I declare my interest, as it were.

The problem of overstretch has been touched on many times today, and we are all aware of it. There has also been much discussion about recruitment and a little about retention. I repeat the point that I have made in previous defence debates, that retention is as important as recruitment, because the net figure, the difference between inflow and outflow, is crucial in determining how many boots are ultimately available on the ground—to use the buzz phrase. It is one thing to talk about how good we can be at recruiting, but the acid test is how good the Army is at retaining.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) set out clearly the rumour circulating in the Army that there are proposals for a reduction in the number of regular infantry battalions. Nothing is set in concrete, but it would appear that there is at least a suggestion that this might come to pass. With all the pressure that exists on the tour plot, and all the demands made on our regular Army, and in particular the infantry battalions—Iraq is a classic example—there can be no logic whatever in seeking to reduce the number that would be available for service around the globe. The demand is tremendous: even earlier today we had a statement that a limited number of troops were being deployed to the Congo, and for all we know that military commitment could grow in time. So there is an example of how our armed forces continue to be in great demand around the world, even today. That being so, there is surely no logic whatsoever in reducing the number of regular infantry units available for deployment, whatever the cap badge or battalion involved.

I want to refer very briefly to what happened earlier when I attempted to intervene on the Minister of State. I was simply trying to get him to clarify something that he said in response to an earlier intervention by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). The Minister began by saying that there are no plans to abolish the Royal Anglian Regiment, and I am clearly delighted about that. However, when the hon. Gentleman pressed the Minister further, asking whether there were any plans to abolish the second battalion, I thought I heard the Minister say that there are no plans to abolish the Royal Anglian battalions; in other words, he seemed to answer in the plural. However, his voice fell away slightly, and I was not sure whether Hansard picked that up. I was therefore trying to intervene to get the Minister to clarify whether he had answered in the plural, rather than the singular. I hope that that assists the Under-Secretary who is present, and that he understands why I was trying to intervene.

We do not want to lose any regular units; we do not want to play one cap badge off against another. But as someone who served in the Royal Anglians, I hope that it is fair for me to point out that, at a time when the Army is having difficulty in retaining people, the Royal Anglians' two regular battalions have an excellent record not just in recruiting soldiers, but in retaining them in service. So by any statistical or meritocratic comparison, both of those battalions have done very well in facing a problem that some other regiments have found particularly challenging. On any merit-based criterion, they should not suffer if any of these pressures come to pass. But I reiterate: we do not want to lose any regular battalions of any cap badge.

I end by urging the Under-Secretary to understand that the Royal Anglian Regiment is regarded with great affection within East Anglia. I very much hope that the proposal simply fades away, and that the suggestion does not get really serious. But it is only fair to tell him in all sincerity that if the proposal becomes a reality and one of our two regular battalions appears to be seriously under threat, it is very likely that Ministers will face considerable anger in East Anglia. I say that without any side or spin, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will accept it in the spirit in which it is offered. I now conclude to make way for the Front-Bench spokesmen.

5.22 pm

As has become customary in these debates, we have had some extremely well-informed contributions, and some very interesting observations from Members on both sides of the House. I am bound to say, however, that it has been demonstrated beyond doubt that behind me is a very large reservoir of experienced military hands, who bring a great deal of valuable information and military experience to the House, at a time when so few of us have such experience.

I am sorry that the Minister of State, who pointed out that he is detained on other duties, was unable to remain with us. I am told that he has not beaten a retreat from the House but is actually beating the retreat on Horseguards Parade. So he is fulfilling his ministerial duties over there, and has beaten a retreat neither from the Government nor the House—as yet.

I want to join all those who have congratulated our armed forces on the magnificence of their operations in Iraq; they have truly made this nation proud of what they have achieved in our name. Members were also right to refer to the contribution made by their families. This House has been keen to recognise the role that the families played in supporting their loved ones who were out there. Speaking of my own constituency and the Aldershot garrison, I should like to pay tribute to the garrison commander, Colonel Stephen Oxlade, and his team; I saw what they were doing to support the families at home. I should also like to thank the Prime Minister and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales for coming to Aldershot, as well as to other garrison towns throughout the country, to demonstrate their support for the families.

Reports have demonstrated that much of the equipment deployed in Iraq worked extremely well—mention has been made of Storm Shadow, the AS 90 and Challenger 2—which is extremely encouraging. I suspect that some of that success may have been due to cannibalisation, and that there was frantic making up of kit that was cannibalised in order to support the front line.

It is important to recognise, as the nation has done, the difference between how UK forces operated in Basra and how US forces operated in Baghdad. I make no criticism of the US: Baghdad was considerably more difficult. However, what was clearly demonstrated was the capacity of our armed forces to switch, almost overnight, from ferocious, high-intensity war fighting to winning the hearts and minds of the local population. That is greatly to the credit of our armed forces.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) reminded us that the campaign was not conducted without loss of life. I am sure that the whole House pays tribute to families who have lost loved ones in this cause. We thank them for providing men and women who were prepared to serve their country and make the final sacrifice. My hon. Friend also mentioned the value of the cadet forces. As president of the Aldershot Air Training Corps, I am bound to agree that they serve a great function in our country. My hon. Friend was absolutely right about that.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) was right to remind us that the war is not yet finished, in the sense that the military victory may have been secured, but the ultimate objective of restoring peace, order and prosperity to Iraq has not. We still have a long way to go in that respect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) referred to the performance of the Royal Air Force. The RAF contributed 7.5 per cent. of the missions flown by the coalition forces in inhospitable fighting conditions, and I pay tribute to our pilots and those who supported them on the ground for performing so well and to such great effect. We should also recall that as well as serving in the recent campaign, they have for the past 12 years policed the no-fly zones, putting themselves in harm's way for 365 days a year.

The Minister was fair in recognising that the success of the campaign should not be allowed to obscure any shortcomings revealed in the war and the fundamental personnel issues that arise from overstretch. There is a sense in some quarters that we actually got away with it. To some extent, that is right. Nevertheless, our armed forces secured the objective. I spoke to a senior officer earlier this week, who said that there is always a risk of coming second—and when that happens, it will be a time of great tribulation for the nation. We must not take our armed forces for granted.

Many have warned the Government, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) at the outset, that their policy of "just in time" could become "just too late". Air Marshal Burridge made that point yesterday when he referred to problems with boots and flak jackets. Clearly, asset-tracking has been a problem: kit has been prepared and exported from the UK, but failed to reach its destination at the front. The Ministry of Defence must pay close attention to that.

The International Criminal Court is an issue now coming to the fore. Will the Minister tell us the Government's view of attempts to haul those responsible for the conduct of the campaign before the ICC? General Tommy Franks is exempt, because the US has not signed up. There is no such luck for Admiral Boyce who was Chief of the Defence Staff when the campaign was under way—[Interruption.] The Minister rumbles in his traditional fashion, but that is a serious point. Many reports suggest that it could happen, and many learned voices in the United Kingdom have given their view that the war was illegal. It is important that the House and the public should know the Government's view of the possible intervention of the ICC in that respect.

Much mention has been made of overstretch and I shall not neglect the issue. Since the Government took office in 1997, it seems as if our armed forces have been permanently preparing for, on, or recovering from, operations. There have been three major conflicts—the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq—and countless minor ones in Africa, East Timor, the middle east, the Balkans and, as we have heard today, now the Congo. Despite the heavy demand on our forces, the statistics show a substantial cut in the trained strength of our armed forces since 1997. The reduction amounts to nearly 9,000 and to try to camouflage those cuts, the Government have fiddled the requirements, which— despite their frenetic military activity—they have reduced since 1997 by no fewer than 10,500. If reports are to be believed, they are threatening to reduce those figures still further, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark pointed out.

Three years ago, the then Minister for the armed forces assured the then shadow Minister—now my noble Friend Lord King of Bridgwater—that the Army's manning target would be achieved by 2005, which was a delay of 12 months on the previous target date. The manning figure has risen by fewer than 1,800 since then. At that rate of increase, today's shortfall of nearly 5,000 will not be made good by 2005, but by 2010. The Government must seriously address that issue.

The practical effect was that we did not have enough troops to cover for the firemen and for the possible conflict in Iraq. It is just as well that the firefighters did not strike during that conflict, because it is questionable whether we had enough cover. Servicemen and women certainly felt much resentment that they were called on to cover firefighters, when that was not what they had been trained to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newark said that the tangible face of overstretch was seen in the cancellation of post-operational tour leave. I can vouch for that. The Welsh Guards in Aldershot spent six months in Bosnia, came back to Aldershot and were told that they had to go on Operation Fresco to cover for the firefighters. They were livid. It was a breach of the contract that the MOD has with our armed forces to require them to do that, and it was a manifestation of overstretch.

Specialist arms are also being called on. For example, the Royal Engineers will be dispatched to the Congo. They have been called on frequently to do tours, almost back-to-back, and are almost permanently deployed. That is fine, and great fun, for the young men, but for the not quite so young men, with family responsibilities, it is much more difficult.

What is the score on fast-jet pilots? Do we have enough? We had a shortfall and the Government had to introduce special measures to attract fast-jet pilots into the Royal Air Force. As recently as last year, a survey—published in February this year—said that 88 per cent. of officers and airmen believe that overstretch is causing serious problems for the RAF as a whole. That is what the services believe about the situation that they face. Overstretch is a serious problem and the Government must do something about it. The real issue is that they are not prepared to maintain the critical mass necessary to conduct all the operations on which they wish to embark.

The Government have promised to produce their definitive study of the pension issue before the summer recess. As I recall, it was promised before last year's summer recess, but it still has not arrived. The review was intended to be cost-neutral, but new benefits will be introduced for certain beneficiaries—for example, unmarried partners—which will mean that core benefits for the majority will be worse than before. Is that a fair reward for people who are more stretched and overcommitted than ever before? The Government cannot be allowed to get away with giving second-rate benefits to our armed forces at a time when they are calling on them to do so much for our country.

Much has been made in the debate of the question of reservists. The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) was right to say that reservists were being relied on increasingly by the Government to make up shortfalls in the regulars. My hon.—and indeed gallant—Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) made an extremely impressive speech. If Ministers were unable to absorb it all as he made it, I recommend that they read it, as my hon. Friend dealt with the real difficulties facing our Defence Medical Services. The chairman of the British Medical Association warned in January that there might not be enough medical services to cope with a campaign in Iraq. As it happens, it did not turn out that way, but that was a matter of good fortune, as we did not suffer the number of casualties that many people expected. However, if we were to embark on a conflict with casualty figures that turned out higher, would we have the medical staff to support our armed forces in the field?

There is an impression that it is the regulars who are coming home. Frimley Park hospital, just outside my constituency, is fully manned, but it is the reservists who are being kept out in Iraq. I have written to the Minister about a dentist who runs a practice with his wife in the north-west of England. He has been told that he will be out there for eight and a half months, and the Minister has put as much in writing for me. It is intolerable that reservists should be put upon in that way. It is therefore not surprising that statistics such as those supplied by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) are coming forth.

I turn now to veterans, as it is important for us to bear in mind those who will be retiring from the services, as well as those who are serving today. We are not doing enough for the veterans. I was privileged to travel to the Falkland Islands last year with Rick Jolly, the surgeon who organised that life-saving red and green machine at Ajax bay. I travelled with 200 veterans. A Labour Member was supposed to accompany us, but he had to stay behind and do duty as hostage at Buckingham palace for the state opening of Parliament and was unable to come. It was a very moving experience to be with so many people who are genuine heroes of our country, and to stand on Mount Longdon with three of my constituents. One of them had no throat, another had lost a leg, and the third had received the Distinguished Conduct medal for evacuating about 30 wounded from the mountain. That really brings home what our armed forces have achieved, and the heroism that they have displayed, in fighting for our country.

However, what came across most clearly was that those men could not talk even to their wives about their experiences. The nation has to recognise the debt that it owes to those people. Today's armed forces form a very small section of society. After world war two, troops returned home from the battle front to communities that understood the nature and horror of war. Indeed, people in the east end of London and in Liverpool and Coventry had experienced it, yet the rest of us carry on today as normal—going to the pub, watching football, and so on.

We must recognise that there are very serious problems. For example, it is suggested that something like 25 per cent. of London's homeless people are ex-servicemen. I understand too that the number of suicides among veterans of the first Gulf war is five times the number of casualties sustained in the campaign itself. That is the magnitude of the difficulties that we face.

The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar) made a good speech, much of which I agreed with. He drew attention to the existence of SSAFA and to the work of the Royal British Legion. Last Friday, I visited an excellent organisation called Combat Stress, about which I want to tell the House. It is a charitable organisation, half of whose funds are derived from fundraising activities, which sees something like 700 cases a year. Its residential accommodation provides 82 beds, and it looks after people who are the victims of war, injured not in limb but in mind. Outwardly, they look as though there is nothing wrong with them, but they are every bit as damaged as those without a leg, an arm or an eye. The charity tells me that there should be much closer cooperation between in-service treatment and veterans' organisations and, especially, that we need to care for such people outside the traditional centres of care in the national health service.

I suspect that the Treasury and some civil servants at the Ministry of Defence do not accept that servicemen are different and that NHS treatment is not appropriate. Those men and women should be treated among their peers—the only people who can fully understand the difficulties that they face and the traumas that they have experienced. I know that the Under-Secretary is trying to do something on that front, and I welcome what he is doing for troops returning home. That is good news. Will he look into the work of Combat Stress and give the organisation a fair wind and some financial support? I resent bitterly the fact that £200 million is being wasted on the Saville inquiry into events that took place 33 years ago, yet men and women who have served this country, who have put their lives on the line for this country and who are suffering in mind now, do not receive the attention that they deserve.

In conclusion, the fundamental problem with the Government's defence policy is that, whatever their rhetoric, they fail to appreciate the real value of their largest resource—the people. Her Majesty's armed forces are not an organisation to which one can apply the mechanisms and tests appropriate to industry. They are a unique organisation whose remarkable success is founded on a set of enduring values, which are not widely replicated elsewhere in today's society. If the Government and the people of this country want to continue to take pride in the success of our armed forces on the battlefield, they must will the means to secure the continuation of that success. That means maintaining force levels sufficient to address the threat to the UK and our wider interests around the world; recognising that reserves are really reserves and not semi-permanent stand-ins because there are not enough regulars; recognising that the frequency of operations is seriously damaging the training cycle; amending the just-in-time policy so that there is sufficient equipment, fit for purpose, to give confidence to our troops; accepting that transferring duties to the private sector has its limits; and, finally, accepting that those who have been injured, whether in mind or body, in the service of our country deserve the best treatment that the world's fourth-largest economic power can provide.

5.42 pm

It falls to me to reply to this debate on the important topic of armed forces personnel, although, as is usual with defence debates, it has ranged fairly widely around that subject. I am genuinely grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed and who turned up. I do not know the reason for the absences on the Opposition Benches—presumably, on the Government Benches, it is because my hon. Friends are sitting by their phones—[Laughter.] I am sorry—that was an in-joke.

I will do my best in the time available, which is rather longer than I normally get at the end of such debates, to respond to as many as possible of the detailed points that have been raised. I apologise if I miss any significant points; I assure hon. Members that no slight is intended. I shall write separately to any hon. Member whose points I miss—the parliamentary branch of the MOD will make sure of that, even if I should forget.

Before I respond, I want to touch on three issues. First, I echo the tribute that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State and others paid to our armed forces in their speeches. The men and women of our armed forces and the civilians who support their endeavours are second to none. Their dedication, courage and determination in the face of uncertainty, separation from their families and, sometimes, extreme danger have been thoroughly tested. They have risen to and surmounted every challenge and, in doing so, have conducted themselves with genuine distinction.

I would like to take a moment to reflect on those who, tragically, did not come home, as has already been mentioned. We will not forget their sacrifice, and nor will we forget those whom they have left behind.

The Ministry of Defence and the three services take very seriously their responsibilities to the families of service personnel deployed on operations, and particularly to the families of those who are killed or injured in the course of their duties. The introduction of a formal repatriation ceremony at RAF Brize Norton for servicemen who died during Operation Telic served to recognise publicly the debt that we owe them. More importantly, bereaved families have been looked after by dedicated staff who have sought to deal sensitively and tactfully with families at a time of immense grief and considerable loss.

I confess that one or two things were not done either as well or as sensitively as I might have wished. In saying that, I wish not to detract in any way from the sterling efforts of those who have been supporting our families, but only to highlight our determination to do better in future. For that reason, we will look right across the board to see what improvements we can make, with particular emphasis on the ease of access by the families to the advice and information that they most need at the most appropriate time.

I should also highlight a change that we have made. In response to immediate concerns about housing, bereaved families occupying service accommodation may now stay for as long as they need to determine their long-term housing needs, and I hope that, like me, the House welcomes that move. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

I also wish to allay any concern about the financial package offered to the dependants of those killed in the service of their country. While no amount of money can replace a loved one, I should correct any suggestion that the compensation and pension arrangements are in any way inadequate. The armed forces pension scheme offers enhanced pensions to the widows and dependent children of personnel who die as a result of service. Those benefits are supplemented by the payment of war widow's and children's pensions.

Recent events have shown how essential it is that we make proper provision for the dependants of those who die in the service of their country. To that end, we decided before the conflict that we should extend benefits, on an ex gratia basis, to cover unmarried partners who were in substantial relationships with those killed in conflict. We have, however, to recognise that the current schemes have been in place for some years.

As has been pointed out to me, my pensions and compensation review will, thankfully, appear before the summer recess. It has been delayed several times, not least because of the Green Paper on pensions and the need for us to take account of other Departments' views. The recent review of our pension and compensation arrangements has looked at how the schemes could best be updated. I can reassure Members that a decision on the final design of the new schemes will be taken very shortly, but, of course, we do not expect to be able to introduce them before 2005.

Before turning to the points that right hon. and hon. Members made today, I should like to touch on the work that we have in hand on veterans' matters—an increasingly important part of our personnel policy. We recognise that service personnel are future veterans and that how we treat ex-service personnel and their dependants can directly affect public understanding and support for the armed forces.

The veterans initiative—which I have overseen for two years, as Minister with responsibility for veterans—recognises that the majority of service personnel return to civilian life successfully and regard service as a positive experience. In addition, a wide range of excellent support is already available to veterans from the Ministry of Defence, other Departments and the voluntary sector.

I pay tribute to the myriad organisations—especially SSAFA, the British Legion, Combat Stress, the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen's Association and a host of others—that in general and specific ways underpin the services that the state provides for our veterans. We could not do it without them because they bring expertise that, with the best will in the world, the state cannot provide, and I have always been a firm believer in the need to involve voluntary associations in helping with people's social and other needs.

Our recently published veterans strategy sets out our key aims, among which are increasing the understanding and awareness of the public in general and young people in particular of the contribution made by our service personnel and ensuring that we recognise and celebrate that contribution. The strategy also aims, along with colleagues across the public sector, to tackle the vulnerability of the small number of service personnel who do not make the transition back to civilian life successfully. That is by no means an exhaustive list of work that we are trying to carry out—nor would I try to claim that there are no other issues to be tackled—but I am trying to demonstrate that we are very conscious of the needs of that group and are carrying out a great deal of work across a wide range of areas to try to meet the needs and aspirations of our veterans.

Before I touch on other matters, I should particularly like to refer to post-traumatic stress because, as someone with medical experience, it is something that is very near to my heart, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for raising the issue. It is recognised by us as a serious and disabling condition. Measures are in place to prevent or try to prevent post-traumatic stress disorder from occurring among personnel: both pre- and post-deployment briefings and the availability of counselling and advice during and after deployments. Preventive arrangements for the armed forces have been developed over a number of years, and they continue to be reviewed in the light of medical developments in stress management and treatment. The strategic defence review recommended that community psychiatric services should be enhanced, and, consequently, additional military and civilian clinical staff have been employed. There are now 14 departments of community psychiatry across the country along with three satellite centres. It should now be available to every military unit and to every service person across the United Kingdom.

On leaving the armed forces, responsibility for service personnel passes to the NHS, which has a range of psychiatric services available, including some that specialise in the treatment of post-traumatic stress. If a patient's GP is of the view that specialist treatment is required, it can be provided. The NHS national service framework for mental health, which was published in September 1999, set out the commitment to provide better and quicker access to mental health care facilities for all, including the use of private mental health care facilities if agreed by the patient's GP. Ex-service personnel seeking advice on PTSD from the MOD's veterans advice unit are referred to a variety of contacts for assistance. Clearly, first, there is a visit to the local GP, who may refer him or her to a consultant. If the symptoms are believed to relate directly to work in the armed forces, the individual is referred to the War Pensions Agency for assessment of entitlement to a war disablement pension.

In addition, I have visited Combat Stress and am well aware of the work that it does. I fully agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Aldershot that for some but not all veterans with post-traumatic stress, treatment outside the normal run of the NHS is wholly appropriate, and we are wholly prepared to support that.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for that helpful assurance, which supports the point that I was trying to make that the NHS does not have the capability to deal with this problem. May I point out that 60 per cent. of those who go through Combat Stress are in possession of an invalidity pension, but 40 per cent. are not? Forty per cent. are therefore not recognised by the MOD as suffering from some kind of stress disorder.

Strictly speaking, they are not recognised by the War Pensions Agency as suffering from it. I would have hoped that once somebody has clearly demonstrated such symptoms, the case could be reviewed, which, of course, is always an option. Again, I would hope that the better dissemination of advice that we are trying to carry out through the veterans initiative ought to make people more aware of the benefits to which they are entitled. I cannot praise Combat Stress enough. It has done a wonderful job under often very difficult circumstances. I am glad that we can provide it with a certain amount of support, and I hope that that will continue and grow if needs are seen to grow with it, as we could not do without that organisation.

I am conscious of the time remaining, and I must not continue at too much length. Generally, however, we have taken account of the changes in practice from the past, and even from the first Gulf war conflict. We try to manage things preventively. Psychiatric services within the military offer briefings to service personnel at all levels of their training and to junior and senior executive commanders. It is planned that most stress management work should be carried out by an individual's own commander and not by medical personnel, the aim being to try to demedicalise an individual's reaction to a traumatic event. Individuals are encouraged to self-help within their natural peer group. Briefings have been provided to people on Operation Telic before, during and after their deployments. Only time will tell how effective that is. The great problem with post-traumatic stress, as anybody who has worked on it knows, is that we cannot predict who will get it. If we could do so, it would be a darned sight easier to manage.

Following the lessons that have been learned, as Members are probably aware, I have instituted a study through the King's college group in London under Professor Wesley, which will look prospectively at the health of a sample of those returning from the Gulf this time, to try to give us definitive information on how health experience develops over time. The sample will be large enough to provide us with accurate information on the health of the group as a whole. Clearly, it is not realistic to conduct work of that depth on everyone who was deployed, but we will make sure that the sample is large enough for easonable conclusions to be drawn. I cannot say how long it will take for that work to be completed—that is the behest of those who are carrying out the research for us—but it will take as long as is necessary. It is, in fact, open-ended, and I do not anticipate that it will stop until I am quite certain that there are no health problems about which we should be concerned. However, I assure Members that I shall publish work when it is appropriate to do so—in other words, when it is of value and when there is something concrete that I can do.

In the limited time left, may I try to deal with the many other points that were made? Many Members mentioned the role of employers and the fear of reservists, which is an important point. Frankly, if any reservist thinks that being a reservist in the British armed forces does not involve full-time service, I do not know what planet they are living on. We have made it clear over the past couple of years that we expect reservists to serve. They will be called up compulsorily when their services are needed. To digress briefly, I agree with everything that was said about manpower. It would be lovely to have full manpower in our armed forces, but we are short on advice on how to achieve that—

Patrick Mercer rose—

I have only a limited time left, but the hon. Gentleman's experience in his regiment provided us with some advice on manpower.

I promise to look at that, as I have responsibility for all personnel and recruitment matters, along with all the other things that I look after.

Overstretch is a problem in specific units, rather than the forces overall, although up to 59 per cent. of the Army has recently been deployed on active service. Clearly, that cannot be sustained in the long term. We are trying to rotate personnel, and have a roulement system in which we rotate all personnel who have been serving. I shall take up the case of the dentist raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot. We have been trying to prevent individuals from serving for such a long time, but we have used reserves to spare our regulars from deployment, as many of them will be redeployed if they have to go back. That was one of the reasons for the alteration.

The point about people sitting around doing nothing is well taken. We have to deploy enough people to cover our needs in case there is a lot of work to be done. The fact that we had mercifully few casualties, even taking into account the fact that we had to deal with civilians and Iraqi soldiers as well as our own casualties, is something to be grateful for. However, lack of work is of great concern to our medical people. Nobody with considerable skills likes to be left sitting around doing nothing and watching their skills degrade. We will have to pay close attention to that.

I shall make one or two general points. I shall look in detail at the point about Senegal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) along with colleagues from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, and get back to him. On numbers, we have made no plans, and I have seen nothing. I can say hand on heart that I have seen nothing whatsoever in the MOD to suggest that we are about to cut regiments. That does not mean that regiments will not be cut and roles will not be changed—no Minister could make any such promise to the House. That has not happened in the past, and I am not going to do it tonight. However, no such suggestions have been made to us. Capabilities change, configurations of forces must change, and the numbers and expertise of our personnel have to change with them. That is not done by faceless bureaucrats, as the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) unkindly suggested, but by uniformed senior personnel. It is always the MOD in general which is blamed for things. However, a bunch of Ministers have not decided to sit down and be as sod-like as possible to the armed forces. In fact, the armed forces themselves decided what capabilities they needed to fulfil the commitments that we asked them to make.

I have not covered nearly enough. On housing targets, I accept the problem. We are making improvements. On accommodation, when I tell soldiers that I will improve their accommodation and they are living rent free, they whine. They quite like roughing it, living rent free and spending their money on something else—not all of them, I may add, but a substantial minority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) made some interesting points, about which I shall write to him, as I do not have time to deal with them now. The points about logistics are well taken. There were individual instances in which supplies did not come up to the mark—

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.