Motion made and question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]
I know that both sides of the House will join me in paying tribute to the soldier who was killed yesterday in Afghanistan, who was on patrol in northern Helmand. I would like to take this opportunity to offer our condolences to his family and friends. I have no doubt that hon. Members will add their condolences at the appropriate time, if they catch your eye, Mr. Speaker.
I regret that on Monday my constituency arrangements, which were designed to make up for recent absences from my constituency on Government business, meant that I was unable to be in the House at 3.30 pm, when an Opposition urgent question was due to be answered. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), who was the duty Minister of the day, dealt with the question on the Government’s behalf, and I thank him for doing so—I think that he did a very good job.
I also regret that I was consequently unable to correct immediately in the House the impression emerging in the media about a possible increase in our deployment to Afghanistan. It is, of course, entirely right that the Opposition should raise their concerns about troop numbers, and I understand that. However, I reassure the House that their concern was wrongly placed on two counts—first, on the detail of requests from theatre, and secondly, in suggesting that those requests had got to the point in the process when recommendations were being considered by Ministers. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary for correcting those points on Monday.
I have made it clear on a number of occasions that there would be lessons to learn from the first months of our deployment in Afghanistan and that commanders on the ground would review their force package in that light. Indeed, that process had started before last weekend, and it is ongoing. All those involved in it are taking it forward as fast as they possibly can, but there is a great deal of detail that must be got right to ensure that our troops are properly prepared to carry on and carry out their mission.
I confirm that today I have received advice on an additional deployment, which I am considering as a matter of urgency with the chiefs of staff, and I will announce my decision and the details of it to the House as soon as possible. This House will be the first to know. However, the House will also understand that there is a proper process to those decisions and that it would be entirely inappropriate and unhelpful, particularly to those who are in theatre, for me further to discuss the detail until that process is complete and until an announcement can be made. I have given this outline here today because I know that this is a matter of concern for hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, I hope that hon. Members will respect the process that I have described, that they will await the decision, which I repeat will be made very soon, and that they will concentrate on the subject of today’s debate, in which I know they take a keen interest.
There is indeed a process, which the House understands and accepts. I am sure that the Secretary of State wants to reach a speedy conclusion, but is he not being slightly disingenuous? The recommendation that has landed on his desk will probably have been staffed for longer than was necessary by the Ministry of Defence through the Permanent Joint Headquarters and the chiefs of staff in conclave. Surely the decision that he needs to take can be taken immediately.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He knows that the process to which I have made general reference involves communication from the MOD back to theatre, and I shall have more to say about that when I explain my decision to the House. Today, that process has been completed up to the point where it can come to me. The decision must be a Government decision, because we have collective responsibility. I ask the House and the hon. Gentleman in particular, who has recently expressed his frustration about me personally in very candid ways both inside and outside the House, to be patient. The decision will be made in the proper time with the proper urgency, and it will be reported to this House appropriately.
I understand what the Secretary of State has said. He knows as well as I that families—it does not matter where they are, but he knows—are waiting on tenterhooks to know whether their husbands, fathers and brothers are going to be deployed to Afghanistan to support the brave men of 3 Para. I beg him to put them out of their misery.
The hon. Gentleman has personally expressed to me both inside and outside this House his support for our troops and for what our troops are doing in Afghanistan. I am grateful to him for that, and I discount entirely the fact that he could not resist the opportunity during the course of last week to express that support in some colourful language in relation to my absence from the House—I understand what politics is all about. I am conscious of my responsibility not only to the troops who serve in theatre, but to their families, and I am also conscious of my responsibility to this House. When the decision is made—it will be made very soon—I will report it to the House. I will ensure that the information is communicated as quickly as possible to those who need it to provide certainty in their family life.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement and hope that he will take the decision quickly and smoothly. However, the Secretary of State needs to address one important point of process: on Monday morning’s “Today” programme, the brigade commander in Afghanistan, who must have done this intentionally—I do not intend to get him into trouble—announced that he had requested extra resources in terms of men. The Under-Secretary then came to this House and said that no such request had been received. It was odd, to say the least, to hear the brigade commander say one thing and to hear the Under-Secretary deny it two or three hours later.
I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a deep and constant interest in these matters. I say to him and the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) that my Ministers, the Department and I are not responsible for any of the speculation, which may have fed the anxiety of families—I meant to make that point in response to the earlier intervention by the hon. Member for Newark.
I have tried to be as clear and open as possible about this process. When my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary answered the urgent question, he did so on behalf of Ministers. When I was able to get back to London, I made it clear in long and detailed interviews, which were freely available to everybody, that I was aware that the commander had asked for additional engineering resources and enablers. That was part of the iterative process that was going on. That is in the public domain, and that is what Brigadier Ed Butler was referring to when he was interviewed.
Since then, a further process has been going on between the Department and theatre which has culminated in the request that has come to me today, the details of which I am not prepared to go into for obvious reasons that I think that everybody understands and accepts. I give a clear undertaking to the House that I will make the decision and announce it to the House as quickly as possible.
Will that imminent decision include the immediate review to which the Minister referred on Monday in this House concerning armoured vehicles in Iraq and in Afghanistan? Will Warrior armoured vehicles be supplied to the front line, where there is a demand for them, thereby reducing casualties resulting from Snatch Land Rover use?
The hon. Gentleman expands the debate from one theatre to another. In the early part of the debate, I wanted to restrict my observations in order to keep the House informed about Afghanistan. He now wishes me to turn my attention to Iraq. [Interruption.] That is exactly what he asked me to do, and I am prepared to do it. I will deal with it specifically in a later stage of my speech, because it is relevant to the issue of personnel. The hon. Gentleman should not expect, nor should the House, that I will deal with an Iraq-specific issue in the context of a statement in relation to Afghanistan, although I understand that it has implications for the use of resources, particularly vehicles in other theatres. I point out to the hon. Gentleman that Warrior armoured vehicles are available to those in Iraq. The shadow Secretary of State has raised this issue with me during Defence questions. As I understand it, we identified a deficiency in capability as regards Snatch Land Rovers and the fully armoured vehicles and thought that it needed to be addressed. Because of changing circumstances in Iraq, I have accepted that I need to conduct a review, which is ongoing and will be concluded as quickly as possible.
With respect to hon. Members, I do not wish to expand the debate into a debate about operational matters. I wanted to refer to operational matters because I thought that the House deserved a response from me as Secretary of State so that it would know exactly what the position is. If hon. Members wish to ask questions about this part of my speech, I will be happy to answer them, but I am anxious not to expand the debate at this stage.
I think that what Members are looking for, and many of us are confused that we are not getting, is a general assurance that when our armed forces are put into a combat situation where their lives are at risk, there is a general principle, which is that whatever they ask for to secure life and limb they will get without question. Can the Secretary of State give me the assurance that whatever they have asked for, they will get if we can possibly give it to them?
The hon. Gentleman asks for an assurance that he qualifies at the end in a way that allows that me to say, “Of course.” Given the body language that I see around me, with the nodding heads and the responses to the hon. Gentleman’s question from his hon. Friends, I believe that everybody understands this. I do not stand here at the Dispatch Box with the operational experience or skill to be able to make decisions. As I have said before, I rely substantially on advice from people who have those skills. The process has been gone through, as a result of which recommendations have come to me. I have made it perfectly clear publicly, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary did on Monday, that we will be open to responding to those recommendations appropriately in any way that we can. I will announce that to the House in detail as soon as I can.
The reason why Iraq was brought up is that the governmental commitments mean that we have a case of overstretch. We have not seen more troops tasked to Afghanistan, because none are available. That is the quagmire that we now face. When I was in Afghanistan very recently, I heard from Brigadier Ed Butler, from General Jones, the head of NATO, and from General Richards, the head of the international security assistance force. They are all desperately in need of more equipment. They cannot do the job under present circumstances because the mission has fundamentally changed from peacekeeping to war-fighting. Until the Secretary of State and his Ministers recognise that, we will have more losses, as we had this weekend.
The hon. Gentleman puts me in a somewhat invidious position, because contemporaneous with the conversations that he reports to the House in shorthand, I had detailed conversations with all those same people, and I stand before this House unequivocally saying that that is not what they said to me. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I should have a more detailed discussion outside the Chamber in which he can report to me exactly what was said to him and who said it.
Let me say one other thing to the hon. Gentleman. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said at this Dispatch Box yesterday, we have part of a responsibility for the international effort in Afghanistan that is shared with more than 40 other countries. Not all those countries have sent troops but some 38 have. I think that 38 is the right figure, but it does not matter—it is a significant number. My responsibility is to ensure that in the context of our commitment to the task that we have taken on, and for the safety of our troops, I provide those troops with the very best resources.
At the end of the day, there is broad agreement across the House that not doing what we are doing in Afghanistan is not an option. It is not only about the Afghan people to whom we owe a responsibility, or about the security of the region, but about the security of our people on our streets in this country and across the developed world. The forces in Afghanistan who are resisting what we are seeking to do—to enable the Government’s writ to run in that country—were there before we ever became involved and were allowing the training of terrorists to go on in order to deliver the sort of activity that they delivered to the people of New York and potentially deliver to the whole developed world. There is no “do nothing” option.
I think that most fair-minded Members would accept that it is important that my right hon. Friend reaches his decision fairly in the way that he has outlined. He mentioned the 37 other countries that are already involved. Is he urging other countries to make significant further contributions as well? While British forces often form the glue that holds international coalitions together, it is also important that the expertise that some other countries can bring is provided in greater numbers and greater strength.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. Indeed, I am grateful for the support of Members on both sides of the House, particularly, through me, their support for those who are doing this very difficult job in Afghanistan and paying the terrible price that they have been paying recently for their engagement particularly with the Taliban. We accepted the responsibility for doing this in the context of ISAF and under the leadership of NATO. We have made it very clear to NATO that we expect our allies in NATO to step up to the plate and to provide the level of support that we know that they have and can be deployed to deliver the results that NATO has taken responsibility for delivering. I will continue to do that through the appropriate NATO channels, and through General Richards and others, to ensure that people deliver what they are capable of delivering.
My principal responsibility, as I have used the first part of my speech to repeat to the House, is to ensure that the troops in the Helmand taskforce whom we have sent to take part in the reconstruction of the part of Afghanistan for which we have taken responsibility are given the equipment to do the job that they need to do, and, in particular, given the security to be able to do it as safely as they possibly can, recognising that it is a very dangerous part of the world. In short, that is why we sent Apache attack helicopters with artillery and why we sent some of our finest troops there to do the job in the first place.
If hon. Members will allow me, it is time that I made some progress on the broader waterfront of our debate.
Yesterday’s death, together with other recent fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq, remind us that, although the nature of modern conflict is different in many ways from conflicts of the past, the ultimate human cost is the same.
Over recent weeks, I have had the privilege of meeting many of our servicemen and women, who come from all parts of the UK, serve in all parts of the UK and across the globe and display the courage and professionalism that make our armed forces the envy of the world. However, I have also been reminded of how, as well as being ultimate professionals, they are, first and foremost, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, and sons and daughters. We must support and respect them not only as professionals—I stress that they are professional—but as people. That is the subject of our debate today—how we support our armed forces.
The first point to make is that we are asking our armed forces to do more than ever, placing greater demands on them and their families, and therefore placing a correspondingly greater duty on ourselves to support what they are doing. The Ministry of Defence currently has more than 24,000 service personnel on operations in more than 15 countries. That includes around 7,200 in Iraq, around 5,000 in Afghanistan, and around 900 in the Balkans. More than 300 are supporting various UN deployments around the world. There are approximately 8,500 in Northern Ireland, although the welcome political progress, albeit not yet completed, of recent years has allowed troop numbers to be reduced there.
My right hon. Friend describes the brave work of our troops around the globe and the extent of our commitment. I am therefore worried that, earlier this week, he announced a major reorganisation of the Defence Logistics Organisation—which will affect more than 400 members of staff in my constituency in Telford—relating to a co-location project. It is the wrong time, when our troops need front-line support the most, to undertake such reorganisation. Will he and his colleagues agree to meet trade union representatives to discuss the matter? I am fearful that we will lose many skilled civilian staff if the decision goes ahead.
I am conscious of the importance of not only those who serve in uniform but the civilians who support them, and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that I shall say something about that later, assuming that I do not feel that I have taken up more time than I am entitled to take. Lest I do not get to that part of my speech, let me make a couple of points.
There is never a right time for reorganisation. There are always things going on, and, in my experience of the Ministry of Defence, that will apply for the foreseeable future. People will be deployed throughout the world and they will need logistical support. It will always be argued that there is no right time to undertake reorganisation. However, if the motivation is to improve the service that we provide for those whom we ask to operate on the front line, as it is in this case, the right time for reorganisation is now, when we realise that it can be done. A detailed statement was made and I was conscious, when making it in written form, of the debate today, when hon. Members would have an opportunity to make a contribution from their constituencies’ and other perspectives.
My hon. Friend asked a specific question about consultation. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, who has responsibility for the armed forces, my noble Friend Lord Drayson, the Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for defence procurement, and I made a specific point of meeting the trade unions in confidence, as we did with the industry, before making the statement. We felt that that consultation was appropriate. We made it clear to the trade unions that all our announcements are subject to consultation. If my hon. Friend has read the statement, he knows that it specifically states that. His request that we consult those who have worked for us and served us loyally for many years and whom we greatly value receives a ready, positive response. That consultation will take place.
I am conscious that modernisation has consequences for those who work for us, but we must accept them for two reasons. First, we must release resources and use them to support directly those whom we put in theatre. Secondly, we must ensure that we have the most efficient method not only of buying the equipment we need for those whom we put in theatre but of supporting it through life.
My right hon. Friend spoke of the corresponding duty that we owe our armed forces. In Afghanistan, our armed forces serve alongside those of 40 other countries under United Nations authority as a result of the invitation by President Karzai. Does not he believe that we could better engage with and inform the British public about exactly what our armed forces are doing and the reason for it, as part of that corresponding duty to them?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but he anticipates part of my speech. If he and other hon. Members will be patient, I will try to cover that issue as quickly as possible.
I referred to those whom we have deployed in operations throughout the world. Our reservists, too, have an important role to play. They contribute exceptionally valuable sets of skills. Last year, some 1,300 reservists were called upon to support operations, especially in Iraq, where there are some 450 in theatre, but also in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. That is not new—around 10 per cent. of our forces deployed in Bosnia in the mid-1990s were Territorial Army volunteers. However, the numbers have been increasing since we strengthened the reserves in the 1998 strategic defence review, precisely to bring them closer to the regular forces and make them more deployable.
In the past two months, I have met both regular forces, reservists and civilians at home and abroad. In Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, I have been struck by the difficult work that we ask them to do, and the harsh and dangerous conditions in which they have to do it. In return, it is our duty to ensure they are well motivated, well equipped, well protected and properly trained, and that their welfare is given proper priority. I fully accept that obligation and I shall try to comment on each aspect if hon. Members will bear with me.
The first duty that we owe all our men on women on operations is a clear sense of why they are there. There has been some speculation in the House and elsewhere that our mission in Afghanistan, especially in Helmand, is unclear. I just do not believe that that is true—more importantly, nor do the men and women who are carrying out the mission. They are there to help the Afghans rebuild their country after three decades of continuous war. However, first, they must establish a level of security that will allow the rebuilding to begin. That is an especially challenging task in Helmand, which has been an essentially lawless area for years.
The various elements—the Taliban, the drug lords, the criminal networks—that have profited from the lawlessness will resist any attempt to bring security to the local people. That is understandable from their perspective. They will attack our forces. We know that—we knew that before we deployed our forces and we were prepared for it—and we will defend ourselves. If necessary, we will use force to pre-empt attack. Helmand is a dangerous place; this is dangerous work. As I have said and as my predecessor continually said in and outside the House, that is why we sent soldiers to do it. However, it is also vital work. One cannot rebuild Afghanistan without tackling Helmand, the south and the east of the country.
We must rebuild Afghanistan. We cannot again abandon its people or allow it to become a training ground for terrorism. The UN and the international community understand that. That is why there are troops from 40 countries—from Germany to Sweden to Canada, as well as the United States—alongside ours. Most importantly, our troops understand that.
Of the 38, three have troops in Helmand province. I do not have a list of all the countries that have a presence in different parts of Afghanistan and how many troops they have deployed. I could get it and read it out but it would not tackle the hon. Gentleman’s point. I believe that his point is that we have taken on the most dangerous part of the country. He should ask the Canadians about that. They are in the province next door to us, in Kandahar, and were there before we went into Helmand province with the taskforce. They have suffered significant casualties. I am told that, in Afghanistan’s recent history, the Taliban have used Kandahar as a base for years.
That is the key to defeating the Taliban, and the Canadians have taken that on with the United States of America. We are taking on a very dangerous part of the country, and we are equipped and able to do that. That is not only my view, but the view of the commanders whom we have asked to do this job on the ground. But there are others who are sharing those dangers with us equally by taking on other parts of Afghanistan that are just as dangerous, if not—in some people’s view—more so.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he has been very generous. My intervention is on NATO and on the collective footprint that we are supposed to be creating in Afghanistan. He mentioned the impact that Germany was making, but he must know that constitutional caveats prevent the German troops from getting involved, and even from getting out of their trucks. They cannot fire a shot. They are much more limited in what they can do. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned Kandahar, the neighbouring province to Helmand. The next province along is Nimroz, where there is not one international soldier because NATO does not have enough forces available. This is what worries the Conservatives. We are very much in favour of what the United Kingdom is doing in Afghanistan, but we do not believe that there are enough troops for the task. That is why NATO in Brussels needs to sort itself out.
The hon. Gentleman clearly has extensive and accurate knowledge of the situation, no doubt based on his recent visit to Afghanistan as well as on other sources. Of course some of the troops deployed there are subject to caveats, but that does not mean that they cannot do an important job—
Well, from the way in which he asked his question, the hon. Gentleman might have left the House with the impression that the Germans were not doing as worthwhile a job because of the caveats, but they can be deployed in parts of Afghanistan where improvements have already been made. Such deployment then releases troops who are not subject to caveats to move into other areas. That is why the NATO command is a boon for what we are seeking to do. As it increasingly takes over responsibility across Afghanistan, it will be open to General Richards and others to deploy forces in a way that takes the best advantage of their abilities. Equally, however, some countries have lifted the caveats from their troops in light of the circumstances in Afghanistan because they increasingly accept that those caveats are a hindrance to doing the job required there.
I recognise the challenge that faces NATO, but I repeat to the hon. Gentleman that there is no point in wringing our hands about the training of terrorists when we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move Afghanistan forward in the south and east in the same way as we have done in the north and west, and, once and for all, to get a Government in there who can hold that ground and deny it to terrorists for training. We have to do that job, although I accept that it generates challenges for us.
Some people—I exclude everyone whom I see in the House at the moment—suggest that there is confusion about what our troops are doing there, but our troops are going into villages in Afghanistan and telling people what their mission is, because they know and understand what it is. That puts the lives of our troops in danger, however, and anyone who does not understand that is getting perilously close to being guilty of criminal negligence. We are asking our troops to go out and explain to the local people that they are there for reconstruction purposes. If the Taliban are able to relay, from discussions that take place in the United Kingdom, that that is not the case, and that we are there for some other purpose—such as hunting the Taliban—or that our primary focus is crop eradication, that would put our troops in danger, given the nature of Afghanistan. We must be very careful about how we debate these issues in the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who, in my absence, made that specific point in his urgent question on Monday. We must all accept that we have a common responsibility to be very careful about how we debate this issue. If we accept that the job must be done, and that we must commit our best resources to it, we must all accept the responsibility to behave in a way that will keep those troops safe. To suggest—for political or other reasons—that they have vulnerabilities, or that there is confusion when no confusion exists, puts people’s lives at risk.
There is clarity about what we are doing, but how we do it is complex. However, confusing the complexity with the objective is putting people’s lives at risk. I know that everyone whom I see in the House today accepts their responsibility to play their part, but I must send out that important message to people outside the House. Playing political games, or other games, with what is going on in Afghanistan is putting people’s lives at risk, and we have to be very careful—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) should not shake his head as though I am accusing him of that. I have particularly exonerated those in the House today. However, he gives me the opportunity to say something that I have been wanting to say—
Many things have been said about me since I became Secretary of State for Defence—[Interruption.] Just a moment. However, nobody can say that I am not prepared to debate these issues. I am prepared to debate them and to try to get them right. My responsibility is not just about my job and me; it is to ensure that the job that we have taken on, and that we accept that we must do, in Afghanistan in order to make the world a much safer place, is done properly. It is also my responsibility to ensure that those whom we have put in at the sharp end are made as secure as possible. There should be no suggestion that there are other motivations behind our task, because they just do not exist.
I endorse entirely what the Secretary of State has said. He will understand that almost all of us in the House share his view. When the Minister for the armed forces appeared before us on the Defence Committee, we identified certain issues that were sensitive and could cause harm to our soldiers on the ground. We therefore requested that we go into private session, where we were able to share our concerns privately, and discuss them seriously and in great detail. The Minister will be able to respond in his own way, but at least we have had a proper discussion about those matters in a sensible and informed way.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing my point. I am also grateful to him for acknowledging that the House has had decades of experience of balancing its responsibility to hold the Government to account with that of ensuring that the troops whom we send to carry out dangerous functions are protected and not exposed to vulnerability through public debate. There are ways of doing that, and those who have had private briefings or conversations with me outside the Chamber will know that I am open to sharing the relevant information. It is not secret. The more I share it with people whom I can trust to keep it confidential, the more safe we can make our troops on the ground. I am entirely open to any devices or procedures that allow us to exercise proper accountability and to hold proper debate, and that allow me to draw on the resource of skills and experience that many people in the House have on these matters.
It might not be obvious to anyone listening, but this is not a debate about operations. However, it is entirely appropriate, in a debate about supporting our armed forces, to remind ourselves of the dangers of allowing the impression to be created that our forces are not clear about what they are being sent to do, when in fact the opposite is the case.
The second thing that we owe to all our servicemen and women on operations is to provide them with the equipment and protection to do their jobs safely and effectively. Of course that protection will never be absolute. Soldiering is an inherently dangerous business. As I have said, we send our forces to do the job in Iraq and Afghanistan because they are dangerous places. But we must do the best we can to give our people the protection that they need. We must relentlessly improve our equipment and technology to counter the evolving threat.
In response to that evolving threat, we have developed and brought into service two new body armour systems in the past two years: Kestrel for top-cover sentries, and Osprey for general use. Osprey is a world-leading system that has been developed and delivered in a very short time. It will further reduce the risk of life-threatening injuries from terrorist attack and is being issued to all personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The same applies to the protection on our vehicles. I know hon. Members are very concerned about that, after recent tragic incidents, and rightly so. The threat from improvised explosive devices—IEDs—has been evolving over the past two years, and possibly much longer. Indeed, we have some experience of the evolution of such devices in Northern Ireland. Responding to that has been one of our highest priorities. In the past two years alone, we have spent £120 million on improving force protection for our ground forces in Iraq, including electronic counter measures for Snatch Land Rovers and other vehicles. We continue to invest in further research on IEDs in collaboration with the USA, and we are determined to maintain our world-leading capability in that area.
Improved armour is also part of the solution, and I assure hon. Members that additional armoured options will become available to commanders over the next year. A new patrol vehicle, Vector, will enter service in Afghanistan in 2007. We have already upgraded the protection on Warrior, Saxon and the CVR(T), and we are currently upgrading it on the FV430 vehicle. I have also directed an urgent review of what could be done now to give commanders further options.
However, Snatch Land Rovers will continue to be an important option. The Army’s approach to its role in Iraq and broadly in Afghanistan—although not on certain tasks—requires a low profile and a highly mobile patrol vehicle that allows troops to engage with local people. As people will have seen from their television screens, paratroopers in Afghanistan prefer to walk the streets of towns there with soft hats on. That is not our decision, but a decision made by their commanders in the light of what they are trying to do. It is clear from the pictures relayed back in recent days that that engagement works in a substantial part of the area for which they have taken responsibility. Larger and significantly heavier vehicles, such as Warrior, might be better armoured, but they are not always suitable for the lower profile and less intimidating manner in which the Army often prefers to operate. That, in turn, feeds into the security of our forces, because their relationship with the people with whom they work is an important component of security.
We must remember, however, that equipment—armour and other counter measures—is only one element of protection. According to the experts who have advised me continuously over past weeks, it is only about a third of the story. The rest is down to intelligence gathering, surveillance and proactive operations to disrupt and capture insurgents, and to the tactics that our troops adopt to minimise the risks of successful attack. I am told by experienced commanders that they sometimes choose not to be in a vehicle at all but to walk the streets, which is much safer than being cooped up in a vehicle and provides a degree of flexibility.
That is another reminder of why training—the next subject that I want to cover today—is so important. Our armed forces are trained to the exacting standards required both for high-intensity modern warfare and to operate in the complex operational environment of modern peace support operations. Commentators sometimes talk about “peacemaking”, “peace enforcement” and “peacekeeping” as though they were mutually exclusive operations that followed sequentially. In practice, they can often happen all at the same time, sometimes in the same community, and sometimes just a few miles apart. Our forces need to train for that, and I firmly believe that they are the best in the world at managing that complex environment—carrying out military tasks but also supporting wider development and foreign policy objectives. That is why we invest so much time and so many resources in training our people to ensure that they are fully able to do the jobs that we ask them to do.
The House will understand the challenge inherent in military training—taking young people from everyday life, often without qualifications, and turning them in a matter of months into skilled soldiers, sailors or airmen who are able to survive on the battlefield. Much has already been done to improve service training and the welfare of our trainees. However, the Deepcut review identified a number of areas where we must further improve. As we said in our response published last month, we intend to use that review as a blueprint for further action.
We are also looking to improve our training system more widely. The defence training review will ensure that training is delivered in a modern training environment, suitable to modern living. I am aware that the review will affect the constituencies of many hon. Members. I hope that the House will understand that delivering effective training to the armed forces will be paramount in the decisions that we must take over the coming months. Meeting the operational demands of today, delivering training for the future and giving our people time to recuperate and spend time with their families has always been a challenge, and it is a more significant one at present. Senior military commanders advise me, however, that underusing highly trained troops is as bad for morale as overusing them. However, we need to strike a balance between deploying people to do the job for which they joined up, training and allowing them to spend time with their families.
To help to get that balance right, we have what we call “harmony guidelines” for the amount of time that service personnel spend away from their families and the intervals that units should enjoy between operational tours. For example, around 18 per cent. of the Army are currently deployed on operations—a figure with which the Army is comfortable. Only 4 per cent. of the RAF, 1 per cent. of the Royal Navy and 15 per cent. of the Army currently exceed harmony guidelines, but, as ever, overall statistics are not the whole story. We must pay attention to the stress on those who exceed the guidelines, who include infantry and key enablers such as communications and logistics specialists. We keep our manning under constant review and take appropriate measures to avoid overstretch, which include the fundamental restructuring in which all three services are engaged to adjust their force elements to meet the operational requirements of the 21st century.
I pay credit to the hon. Gentleman—and if it does not do him a disservice, he can report that back to his constituents if he wishes—because I was here at business questions when he also raised that matter; clearly it is of some importance to him. Given the approaches made to me by those who represent parts of the country that might benefit from the outcome of the training review, he will understand that his interest is shared by a number of right hon. and hon. Members.
If the hon. Gentlemen wait for my answer to the question, they might not need to intervene.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) asks whether a more precise date is available than that previously put in the public domain. The answer to that, at this stage, is no. We are still collating, consulting and bringing together the information. We have set ourselves the target of concluding this part of the process by about the end of this year. I have no reason to believe that we will not meet that target, but I cannot be any more precise than that.
The Secretary of State has been generous in taking interventions. In relation to the Deepcut review, what progress has been made in implementing Nicholas Blake’s recommendations? Does he have any further comment about the creation of an independent ombudsman, which was a key recommendation of Nicholas Blake, on which the Government have been prevaricating?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, as it gives me the opportunity to say that we have made significant progress in relation to the review conducted by Nicholas Blake QC, to whom I have not yet had the opportunity to express my gratitude. I do so now in relation to the significant work that he did to help us to draw a line under that set of circumstances, although I accept that no such line will ever be drawn for those who were most tragically affected. I express my condolences now to those who have suffered. We have made significant progress. Many of the recommendations have already been acted on, and a substantial number will be implemented when the Armed Forces Bill becomes law. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to have a more detailed line-by-line account, he should contact me after the debate, and I would be happy to provide that.
The Secretary of State probably now knows what direction my question will take. Following the earlier point, many of us in south Wales hope that the defence training review will lead in the direction of St. Athan. Will he clarify that ensuring that the best training is available for our armed forces, rather than any political considerations, will be paramount in the decision?
I think all Members agree with that. Certainly it is the principal focus of the Ministry of Defence.
We work hard to recruit and retain sufficient capable and motivated armed forces, in the context of a strong economy that provides increasing opportunities and more and more young people taking up the chance of further education. I can see the jobcentre from my constituency offices. I realise that I must apologise for the amount of time that I spend in my constituency, although I must say that being castigated for being in his constituency is not the worst thing that ever happens to a constituency Member—but I have dealt with that issue already, and I genuinely regret that I was not here on Monday. The point is that the number of people recruited through my local jobcentre reflects the state of the economy in my part of the world much more than anything else.
Our forces require some 18,000 new recruits annually. Over the last two years we have met 96 per cent. of that target. We have taken steps to sustain and improve recruitment in specific shortage areas through, for example, recruiting bounties in the infantry and the Royal Artillery. Retention, too, is generally satisfactory. Each year some 19,000 people leave our forces, around 10 per cent. of the total number. People leave, of course, for a variety of unavoidable reasons, such as retirement, injury and, regrettably, illness. We focus our retention efforts on those who choose to leave, and there have been no significant trends in that direction in any of the three services over the past three years.
Although we should never be complacent about our ability to recruit and retain the people who constitute our greatest asset, I do not believe that accusations of a manning crisis are justified by the facts; nor has anything that I have heard or seen given me any reason to doubt that the quality of our people is every bit as good as it ever was.
I do not intend to give way again, because I am conscious that it is not just my time that is being taken up. Others will wish to speak. [Interruption.] As I am now being told that we have got all day, and invited by a Back Bencher to give way, I will do so.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Will he take another look at some of the issues relating to localisation of recruitment? One of the results of the breakdown of regimental links with counties is that people may not feel the loyalty to all parts of the armed forces that they used to feel. We have also stopped naming much of our battle fleet after counties with which they have connections: for instance, we no longer have an HMS Shropshire. Perhaps we ought to have an HMS Shropshire, so that we can develop links between our counties and our services. That is incredibly important.
With respect, I think we have just launched an HMS Clyde.
At the weekend, when I visited the Somme battlefield, I spent a good deal of time in the cemeteries. I was struck by the number of Army names on the gravestones of whose existence I had not known, and which had disappeared from the lexicon of the British Army decades ago.
But what also struck me was the fact that throughout the 20th century the Army had been a changing institution. Some of those names have passed into history. I do not have a sense that change has been to the detriment of the Army, because it can still be described as one of the best military institutions in the world, if not the best. It might have some competition from other services in the United Kingdom, but that is where the competition comes from.
Like the other services, the Army has been able to adjust to changes as they have happened—and as I have learnt more about the history of our services, I have realised that they have been happening for quite some time. I suspect that there were debates like this, and crisis was predicted, every time they did happen. However, I acknowledge the importance of enabling people to serve in a way that allows them to identify with a particular group recruited from a particular part of the country, and I will think about the extent to which we are able to do that in the context of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright).
Our armed forces rightly expect the best possible standards of medical care. We recognise that the aftercare of a few people, regular and reservist, returning from operations has sometimes fallen short of that ideal. Any such case is one too many, and we are viewing the position afresh to ensure that those people have the support that they deserve. In May, we announced a new post-operational mental health care programme for reservists demobilised since 2003 in response to an independent study by King’s college London, funded by the MOD. The study found that there was no evidence so far of a repetition of the “Gulf war syndrome” illness that was reported as a result of the 1991 Gulf war, and to that extent there has been progress, but it did find a higher incidence of mental health indicators among reservists than among regulars. There was a complicated explanation of the possible cause, related to support structures and a return either to the Army or to civilian life. There is a new programme to tackle the issues, which will be introduced later in the year.
Service families have an important voice, and we listen to what they say. Our servicemen and women cannot give of their best on operations if they are worried about things at home. I am particularly grateful to the family federations from the different services for helping us to identify and address the key issues that affect families most. One of the major concerns is accommodation. Ensuring that our service personnel and their families have the accommodation that they need and deserve is a top priority. I admit that it has been a problem, but we have several initiatives under way to get things back on track. For example, project SLAM—single living accommodation modernisation—is being applied throughout England, Wales and Scotland. The first five-year contract, valued at about £0.5 billion, was awarded in 2002, and since then more than 5,500 bed spaces have been completed. The number will rise to 9,000 by 2008.
For service families, we have found the money to improve about twice as many houses as we had planned to improve in 2005-06, managing to complete around 1,200 upgrades against a target of 600. However, there much more to be done. A regional housing prime contract for all repairs and maintenance was introduced first in Scotland, and has led to improved standards of work and responsiveness, with much higher levels of satisfaction for families. There have been teething troubles with the more recent prime contract in England and Wales. While the strategy is right, its implementation so far has just not been good enough. My Department has given a commitment that that will be sorted out, and it will be sorted out.
There will come a time when—having worked so hard, served us so well and done so many things to contribute to the country and to making the world a safer place—our servicemen and women prepare to return to civilian life. As soon as they leave, they become veterans. Although we often associate veterans with the world wars, more than half a million former members of our armed forces are still of working age. Those veterans may have served in the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans or even closer to home.
As part of our youth agenda, we have run educational programmes to help younger people in particular to understand what our veterans have achieved, and—equally important—to reinforce the qualities of service, courage and selflessness that they represent. We are also expanding cadet activities for young people. Last year there were some 130,000 cadets, and 23,000 adult volunteers supporting them. This is the largest voluntary youth organisation in the United Kingdom, and it helps young people to become confident and responsible members of the community. We want to give more young people the opportunity to benefit.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East, announced last week that we would pilot an expansion of the combined cadet force in six state schools. I am pleased to announce that among them will be the schools run by the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation in Bromley in Kent and New Cross in south London. We expect to announce the other participants soon. I hope that following those pilots—and that is what they were—we will see the establishment of CCF units in a much wider range of state schools than at present.
I cannot end my speech without also paying tribute to our civilian work force, and the crucial contribution to defence made by more than 80,000 civilian employees at home and abroad. Civilians play a vital and loyal role in the delivery of defence capability in the context of almost every aspect of our work. They deploy with our forces in operational theatres, both to advise military commanders and to manage associated infrastructure. They man the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, and are central to the key area of acquisition and maintenance of equipment used by our armed forces.
Hon. Members will be aware of the announcement earlier this week of important changes in this area, which responded to the recent report on defence procurement that was commissioned following the publication of the defence industrial strategy last December. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the armed forces will cover those changes in more detail in his summing up, responding to the contributions of hon. Members, but may I say that the aim behind them is clear? Our armed forces deserve the best equipment and support that we can give them.
In today’s world, technology changes very quickly and the needs of our armed forces change with it. Our management and civilian structures must change too, and I know that the changes will have a significant impact on a loyal work force who have made a consistent contribution to defence, supporting personnel deployed on the front line. I can assure the House that we will work to mitigate the consequences, but I have no doubt that systematic change of that nature is necessary if we are to achieve our objective of supporting the front line even better in future.
We have much to be proud of in the United Kingdom, especially in our armed forces. We owe a great debt to the men and women currently serving in uniform and the civilians who support them. They will, in turn, take their place among the veterans of yesterday, whom we have all been honouring in this year of moving anniversaries. I take the role of Defence Secretary with the utmost seriousness, as I recognise that it is my job to honour our people, support them and represent them. It is a tremendous privilege so to do.
Let me begin by paying tribute to all our servicemen and women who make this country’s armed forces among the very best in the world. Let me pay tribute, in particular, to all those who have been killed or injured in active service on our behalf in Iraq and Afghanistan while they were attempting to bring stability and security for people who long to have what we in this country too often take for granted. I pay tribute to all our servicemen and women who are presently toiling in dreadful conditions of heat and dust, making those missions sustainable.
Let me also pay tribute to all those service families who make huge sacrifices over many years to enable the smooth functioning of service life. It is a great pity that the public in general are so unaware of the contribution that service families make to the quality of our military capability. Not all our heroes are in uniform and I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), who is no longer in his place, that we should take every opportunity to educate the public about the security role played by our troops, by our service families and, as the Secretary of State has said, by civilians, who all contribute hugely to our successes.
Of course, our forces cannot be sustained by our words of admiration alone. It has been pointed out in previous debates that this year—and despite the talk about record investment—we are spending just 2.2 per cent. of our gross domestic product on defence, which is the lowest proportion of our national income spent on defence in any year since 1930. The significance lies not in the figure itself, but in the fact that we have more and more operational commitments overseas, while we have lost more than 10,000 servicemen from the Army, 10,000 from the Navy and more than 10,000 from the Royal Air Force since 1997.
The Secretary of State is correct that retention in the armed forces is broadly good, but recruitment levels show no sign of improvement. Recruitment to the Army has fallen by a quarter in just two years, to the Navy also by a quarter and to the RAF by a shocking two thirds. Since 1997, the establishment size of the infantry alone has fallen by half from 16,000 and, in reality, its strength is a further 15 per cent. lower than that in any case. According to the Army’s own figures, out of 43 battalions, only the Royal Gurkha Rifles is up to strength as of May 2006. The 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 1st Staffordshire Regiment are as many as 150 under strength.
It is not even an argument to say that we can rely on the reserves, because since 1997, the Territorial Army has shrunk from 56,000 to 32,000. As the National Audit Office’s recent report on reserves makes clear, all volunteer reserves are below strength and the situation is worsening. My own experience of reserve forces is that they perform an important role with great professionalism and are admired by the regulars, but the NAO report is a cause of worry to those who have read it. It states:
“some commanders in the field noted that a number of Reservists were less physically and mentally prepared than they needed to be for the demanding operational and climatic environment they faced”
and that reservist officers
“sometimes lacked the experience to command soldiers as effectively as their Regular counterparts”.
That takes on increased importance because we are using reserves, as the Secretary of State said, in present operations.
The hon. Gentleman is making some important points about the Territorial Army. Will he comment on a suggestion put to me in respect of the 104th Regiment, Royal Artillery, headquartered in Newport? A regular commanding officer, an adjutant, a regular sergeant-major and everyone in the regiment seems to believe that regulars providing command and leadership are important to a strong Territorial regiment. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Anything we can do to improve the quality of those serving in this country’s name should be looked at favourably and I am sure that the Secretary of State and Ministers were listening to the hon. Gentleman with the same interest that I was. If we can get a greater interface between the regulars and the reservists, and if it improves the quality of the troops we send into action, it should be welcomed.
Just to counter that point slightly, some regiments are commanded by Territorial officers and they are absolutely first class. My own regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, is a case in point. We should not let lie the idea that that regular commanders are necessarily better, although they may be in some cases.
I bow to my hon. Friend’s experience. It is fair to have a score draw and say that there is superb leadership in both the reserves and the regulars, which is something that the House can be generally proud of.
An inevitable consequence of the trends that I set out on recruitment and our increased commitment is the problem of morale. Premature voluntary outflow is inexorably rising, particularly in the RAF. Recent surveys in the Army have revealed problems with morale, showing that 47 per cent. of soldiers and 40 per cent. of officers were thinking of leaving the Army within a year. At the heart of the discontent is the overstretch caused by recruitment and retention problems allied to the high level of commitment.
The current level of defence expenditure is supposed to provide for, at most, no more than one small-scale operation and two medium-scale operations at any one time. Yet the NAO military readiness report in June 2005 highlighted the fact that the armed forces operated consistently over the planned level of activity during 2002, 2003 and 2004. The NAO highlighted concerns about its impact on the armed forces, saying:
“'The high operational tempo conducted by the Department generates a number of personnel and equipment related risks. These risks include: reduced opportunities for, and levels of, training—leading to skill fade in processes and techniques not exercised in current or recent operations; potentially negative impacts on recruitment and retention rates... a reduced pool of reserve forces to augment regular personnel and units; the need for additional equipment; and added demands on both equipment and logistic support. The recurring high tempo of operations also places a premium on the Department’s ability to identify such risks quickly and to take early mitigation action”.
With regards to the Army, the recommended harmony guideline for intervals between tours is 24 months. That is what the balance, to which the Secretary of State referred, was supposed to be. Yet the Ministry of Defence’s annual report for 2004-05 states that the average tour interval for infantry units is 21 months and the average tour interval for Royal Artillery units is 19 months. The report stated that there were specialist troops experiencing significantly worse tour intervals and that certain elements of the Army have tour intervals of less than one year. For example, the Queen’s Royal Lancers had only 12 months between a tour of duty in Kosovo and a tour of duty in Iraq. I spoke to soldiers in Iraq last week, who expected a gap of only eight months between their deployment there and subsequent deployment to Afghanistan. That is not acceptable. It is not a reasonable balance and it puts far too much pressure on our armed forces and their families.
The divorce rate in the armed forces is increasing and concerns are being expressed about the quality of service children’s education. I look forward to reading the Defence Committee’s report on that issue, to be published at the end of this month, with very great interest.
There are other welfare issues, which the Secretary of State touched on. Accommodation is still a serious matter for many service families, particularly those serving overseas. The Defence Committee’s report of last year, on future capabilities, noted the following:
“We regularly heard about (and were shown) poor accommodation during visits in connection with our Duty of Care inquiry. In some cases, funds for refurbishment or improvement promised at the start of the financial year had subsequently been withdrawn. Although the primary focus should be on operational needs, we should not lose sight of the drip down effect that poor accommodation will have on morale, state of training and discipline, and hence operational effectiveness. Service accommodation across the defence estate is too frequently of a poor standard”.
Those concerns were borne out by a reply to a written question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), which showed that a quarter of service properties in Cyprus and half those in Gibraltar were classified as grade 4—that is, the worst possible.
There are also shortages in the medical services. The worst shortfalls in the strengths of the Army’s various corps were all in the medical sphere. As at 1 December 2005, the Royal Army Medical Corps was 86 per cent. under strength, the Royal Army Dental Corps was 89 per cent. under strength, and Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps was 78 per cent. under strength. There are problems with medical reservists getting the experience that they require, and overstretch and undermanning are depriving them of the training time needed to acquire skills pre-deployment.
Let me, for the sake of balance, say this about the medical services. When our servicemen and women are injured in Iraq, for example, they get the very best possible medical care. I visited the field hospital at Shaiba logistics base last week, and it reminded me, for the very first time, why I practised medicine. The quality of medical care there, which is patient-focused and—dare I say it?—not target or administration-focused, is one that most doctors in this country would love to return to. I was deeply impressed by the ratio of staff, and by the quality of care provided in what is a very difficult environment. There is also far better access to investigative procedures than we might get as NHS patients. It is also worth pointing out that the base has not had a single case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I merely want to take this opportunity to associate myself entirely with what he has just said about the hospital facilities at the Shaiba logistics base. I visited it just weeks before he did and was very impressed by the quality not just of the infrastructure, but, principally, of the people there and their dedication to the job.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that intervention. While I was there, I had a “Newsnight” camera with me, and, given that we have reached a point of agreement, I should perhaps take this opportunity to point out that it would be nice if “Newsnight” showed some of the good things that are happening in Iraq, and not simply the bad.
War wounds may be obvious from the moment of arrival at a field hospital, but illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder might arise years later, in response to some unknown trigger. Indeed, it should be realised by the wider world that PTSD is not the only form of mental illness that the ex-service community faces. They are like any other part of the population: one in five of them will suffer from some sort of mental illness during their lives.
The health and social care advisory council has already stated that it believes that the NHS is unable to deal with the military population’s mental health needs. One in 10 of those aero-evacuated from Iraq were brought out because of a mental health problem. Some 1,300 who served in Iraq between January 2003 and September 2005 have been identified as having a mental health problem. But what about those who suffer in obscurity? As Combat Stress’s most recent annual report states, it takes an average of 14 years post-discharge for an individual in need of help to approach that organisation; only one in 10 are referred by a doctor. Many would have been helped by early intervention, but all too many have already reached the end of the road before they seek the help that they need.
For all those reasons, it astounds me that, when it comes to considering compensatory pensions for those injured on active service, a serious disabling mental health condition is treated no differently financially from the loss of part of one limb. Yet the impact on an individual’s ability to work and to continue with their normal life is strikingly different. I urge Ministers to examine the issues of compensation and mental health in the armed forces as a matter of urgency.
I have made the point that the level of mental health care for those in the armed forces needs to be looked at. What my hon. Friend describes is a wider problem. Mental health is the Cinderella service in health care provision, and Members in all parts of the House need to find a way to raise its importance as an issue. The quality of care that we provide to those with a mental illness is one way that we can measure how civilised we are as a society, and I am afraid that we fail rather badly in that regard.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the Combat Stress facility in Newport, Shropshire, which suggests that without early intervention in cases of post-traumatic stress, it develops into post-traumatic stress disorder, which can last for many years? There is evidence in Shropshire to support that point of view. There are people in the Audley Court facility who served in the Falkland Islands who are still suffering from PTSD.
My hon. Friend makes an important point that I should like to augment. One reason why we have poor mental health outcomes in this country is that there tends to be late presentation of a whole range of mental health problems. One reason for late presentation is that a hugely out-of-date stigma is still attached to mental illness. That is a societal question that we need to tackle. We need to ensure that we not only have the necessary facilities, but that people are not afraid to admit that they have such an illness, and that they therefore seek help at an appropriate time. That would improve outcomes, which have been unacceptable for many years, if not centuries.
Last week, I had the honour of visiting some of our troops in Basra. Having had that experience, I am happy to say that the attitude of our forces serving there is still extremely positive. It can never be said often enough what a superb job they are doing in such difficult conditions. Indeed, as I said earlier, it would do no harm for the media occasionally to refer to the good news emanating from Basra, rather than referring unremittingly to the bad. In particular, it was a source of huge irritation to many of our servicemen and women that nothing was ever reported about the work that they are doing to improve the sewerage and electricity infrastructure, along with all the other good work that is being undertaken.
Our media should understand that if, in reporting only bad news, they cause a drop in the morale of not only our servicemen and women but their families, their anti-war agenda could risk affecting events, rather than simply reporting them. The Secretary of State reiterated earlier the point that I made the other day about Members of this House having to worry about the language that we use in discussing conflicts. Similarly, the media have a duty to report not only the bad things, but the good things that our troops are doing for the people of Iraq in respect of reconstruction and the security improvements that are being brought about in many parts of that country. That said, we all accept that the picture is still very mixed.
There is a real risk that, in trying to feed the 24-hour news cycle, truth is the first casualty. That is probably truer of the media now than it was before, given the appetite for news. If there is to be reporting, it should be balanced. Of course there are casualties and fatalities and dangers for our troops, but good things are also happening on the ground.
The morale of our troops is generally good. The Secretary of State mentioned the possible problems with morale if we under-deploy our forces, because our soldiers want to soldier—that is what they have been trained for. Getting the balance right is difficult. Our soldiers work in terrible conditions. I was out on a patrol in 50° C in body armour, in a Snatch Land Rover without air conditioning, and it was a horrendous way to do any job. Yet our troops do it with professionalism and, almost, without complaint. Standing here in an air-conditioned House of Commons, we would do well to remember the terrible physical conditions in which soldiers sometimes have to carry out the work that has been given to them. They live with the risk of improvised explosive devices—IEDs—and explosively formed projectiles, and problems continue with inter-Shi’a militia violence and Sunni-Shi’a violence in Basra. Inevitably, we sustain casualties, but, as I said earlier, at least we have the best medical care for our forces, and we should pay tribute to the medical staff who provide it.
We should also, now and again, consider the upside of the interaction with the Iraqis. There is no doubt that it is not entirely a happy picture. One serviceman who had been on several deployments to Iraq told me that the relationship with the Iraqi people had gone from welcome to consent to tolerance. It is a difficult trend, but when I was out with our troops in a market town, in soft hats despite the fact that there had been previous mortar attacks on them, there was a reservoir of appreciation from ordinary Iraqi people, who understood that the troops were there for their benefit. To me, it was a source of great pride that, notwithstanding the risk, our troops were willing to go out in soft hats, because they understood that the battle for hearts and minds was an important part of what was happening.
We are contributing to future security with the improvements in training for the Iraqi army, which has come on in leaps and bounds and is now taking on increasing duties in the maintenance of security. However, the Iraqi police force is still unable to assist in the way that we would like and that increases the security risk to our troops. I hope that the appointment of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s security co-ordinator in Basra will improve the outlook, reduce the level of Shi’a militia violence and enable our troops to continue the work that they are doing so bravely in an improved security environment.
On our second major deployment, in Afghanistan, I make no apologies for repeating what I said earlier this week. We cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan. That “we” is not the United Kingdom, but the international community. If we fail in Afghanistan, NATO’s reputation and cohesion are on the line. It will be almost impossible for us to get those who are reluctant to take part in the reconstruction mission to operate in the area again if we fail in Afghanistan. It would embolden our enemies and increase the risk of terrorist attacks in the UK and the rest of Europe. If we fail, we will betray the Afghan people, to whom we promised so much, and to whom a stable and secure state means everything.
The price of succeeding in Afghanistan will be high. It may be higher than many of us thought at the outset. But the price of failure would be intolerable. If we do not confront al-Qaeda and the forces of terror at the Afghan-Pakistan border, there is an increased risk that we will have to confront them at home. Those who think that there is an easy solution in disengaging from what is happening in Afghanistan do not understand the full security implications for their constituents if we fail to deal with the problems that we face there.
The Government have two duties—to maximise the chance of success of the mission and to minimise the risk to our troops. It is true that the security situation is not what we intended or expected. The initial belief was that Operation Enduring Freedom would entail a reduction in terrorist activity and allow the NATO mission for reconstruction to be conducted in a more secure environment. Instead, we have recently seen an increase in terrorist activity. All missions need to be re-examined constantly. It is not whether we carry out the mission, but how it is undertaken that needs to be reviewed. There are 30-odd countries taking part in the NATO mission, but there are more than 70 caveats that limit what they can achieve.
Some NATO countries have made very small contributions. The Secretary of State said that many of them could do tasks that we could not do and that we could all play a part, but the actual numbers being deployed are interesting. The UK has sent 5,700, Austria four, Denmark 106, Ireland seven, Luxembourg 10, Poland three, Portugal 166 and Switzerland four. It does not seem to me that all those countries are pulling their weight equally. Some countries are there in considerable numbers, such as Canada with 2,300 and Italy with more than 2,000, but the burden of the mission is not being shouldered equally by all those who are supposed to be taking part.
We also now face a potential substantial reduction in US troops. I hope that the Minister of State, when he winds up, will say whether we are considering an early merger of Operation Enduring Freedom and the international security assistance force mission as the best way to achieve what we want to do in conditions of the best possible security. Are we asking all that we should of our NATO partners? They need to understand the stakes and make a full commitment, including sending combat troops if required. The Defence Committee has said:
“We are concerned that, should the security situation in the South prove worse than anticipated, the UK will be called on to provide additional forces. The UK has already committed significant numbers of troops and assets to IASF stage 3. NATO should call on the military assets of other countries before approaching the UK for further contributions.”
There needs to be a proper balance in what we are all doing in the Afghan mission.
We are all rightly proud of all our armed forces, their courage, dedication and professionalism. But we will have to decide whether to increase our resources to match our commitments, or reduce our commitments to match our resources. We cannot continue indefinitely with the level of overstretch that we now have. The quality and morale of our forces are at risk. Government, Parliament and the country as a whole need to decide what our priorities really are. We can either shape the future or be shaped by it. I hope that our history and experience will convince us that opting out is not the route to peace and security in the future.
I welcome this wide-ranging debate, which focuses on the men and women serving in our armed forces. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am filled with admiration for those who serve our country in the most difficult and dangerous places. As we have seen in recent days, some pay the ultimate price for their service to our country and to freedom.
I take the view that we should do everything possible to demonstrate how much we value our servicemen and women. I was delighted, therefore, that on 16 May the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), demonstrated the Government’s continued commitment to the welfare of our servicemen and women during their service and beyond. We have a continuing duty of care to our ex-servicemen and women as much as we do to those still serving. My hon. Friend’s statement gave details of the research programme carried out by King’s College on the health and wellbeing of personnel who served in the Gulf war and in Operation Telic. I am also pleased that the comprehensive physical and mental health care service already offered to mobilised reservists will be extended and enhanced to provide post-operational mental health care for recently demobilised reservists. As a result of the initiative, any reservist demobilised since January 2003 who has concerns about mental health will be able to get assessment and support. That is to be welcomed, and I pay particular tribute to the work of Defence Medical Services in that regard. I hope that the MOD will continue to look at the possibility of providing the same ongoing care to recently demobilised regulars as well as reservists.
We have already heard in this debate about many of the issues affecting the armed forces, and I am sure that other hon. Members will add to the list in their contributions. However, I want to concentrate on one or two key areas, and especially on matters relating to veterans.
Last year’s veterans awareness week was a great success, and led to us holding veterans day on 27 June this year, with events all over the country. I hope that the process will continue and that each year the British people will find new and innovative ways to celebrate the contribution that veterans make to our society.
The veterans badge has proved immensely popular, and is now being awarded to those who served in the Suez conflict. Only the other day, I presented veterans badges to members of the south Wales branch of the Royal British Legion, and I saw the great pride that they and their families displayed on receiving and wearing them.
The badge was not my initiative, but as a Minister I shared in the glory. I received a great many letters that said that the badge was a wonderful idea. People appreciate and value it greatly, and more than 250,000 have been awarded. It is a unique way for the country to show its appreciation for our veterans, and to thank them.
It is important that we celebrate and raise awareness of the achievements and contributions of our veterans, both at home and abroad, but we can do more. I want to refer to one matter in particular this afternoon.
It was heartening to see that the contribution of our veterans is being recognised abroad, with the award of the Pinjat Jasa medal by the Malaysian Government. I welcome the decision by Her Majesty the Queen to grant permission for the 35,000 veterans who took part in operations in Malaya to receive the PJM, but I am concerned that they have not been granted permission to wear it. In a written statement on 31 January, the then Minister for Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), who is now Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, said:
“The Committee on the Grant of Honours, Decorations and Medals…has recommended…an exception to two of the long-established rules governing the accepting and wearing of foreign...awards to enable the Malaysian Government to present the PJM.”
However, the statement went on to say that permission to wear the PJM was not given because:
“It is long standing Government policy that non-British medals will not be approved for events or service:
that took place more than five years before initial consideration, or in connection with events that took place in the distant past”,
“if the recipient has received a British award for the same service”.—[Official Report, 31 January 2006; Vol. 442, c. 10-11WS.]
The decision to forgo the “double-medalling” and five-year rules so that the PJM could be awarded in the first place, but then to use the same rules to deny veterans the opportunity to wear it, is both confusing and mystifying. Most people would think that fairness and common sense dictate that our veterans, having been given permission to accept the PJM, should be allowed to wear it. However, my mother used to say to me when I was growing up, “Son, you will find out in life that sense is not that common.” I think that that is true in respect of the PJM.
Further complicating the decision is the fact that the Commonwealth Governments in Australia and New Zealand have advised Her Majesty the Queen to grant unrestricted use of the PJM and allow their veterans to accept and wear the medal on all occasions. The ethos behind the first veterans day was to thank all the veterans who had served in our armed forces. In presenting the PJM, the Malaysian Government are thanking the 35,000 veterans who served in operations in that country. It seems decidedly odd that, although we in this country thank our veterans for their service and celebrate their achievements, veterans of the Malaysian operations are unable to wear the PJM. It is for that reason that I fully support the campaign to enable those who served in Malaya to wear the medal. I know that the veterans have petitioned Her Majesty the Queen on the matter, although she is not to be blamed for the decision. In our constitutional monarchy, the sovereign acts on the advice of Ministers and others—in this case the honours committee.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who has responsibility for veterans, will be their champion. I know that he is determined to be, but I hope that he will press those who advise the Queen to review the situation. I should be grateful if he said that he was prepared to do so.
Veterans day is a time for celebration, but it also highlights the support and advice available to veterans from official and voluntary sources, in particular the role played by the ex-service organisations. I am pleased that the MOD has completed its review of its veterans strategy, which was launched in March 2003.
The strategy seeks to provide excellent preparation for the transition of service personnel back into civilian life. It offers advice and support to veterans who need that, and ensures that we as a nation recognise and understand the contributions to our society that our veterans have made. It also gives the MOD the opportunity to work more closely with a host of veterans organisations, such as the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress.
All the organisations involved have a fine record of serving our veterans, but the MOD could do more to help. In March, when I was still a Minister, I launched a pilot advertising campaign to promote the Veterans Agency freephone helpline—0800 169 2277. I believe that the agency does a fantastic job in advising veterans on many matters, but I was told that day that veterans are often unaware of the excellent service offered by the helpline. I hope that the MOD will take heed of that, and roll out an advertising campaign across the country, so that the Veterans Agency becomes as well known as the BBC, ITV or any of this country’s great institutions and organisations.
It has often been said that our treatment of veterans has a major impact on our ability to recruit in the future, and that has been touched on in the debate already. To maintain operational capability, the British armed forces need to attract new recruits each year. There are fewer military establishments now, and families have little or no experience of national service. That makes it difficult for young people to identify the armed forces as a career option.
The cadet forces give young people an excellent introduction to service life and help them to build confidence and self-esteem, providing an excellent fit and support for our country’s wider respect agenda. I pay tribute to the cadets, and their instructors, for the fantastic job that they do.
On 27 June, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced that funding would be provided for a pilot scheme that introduces new combined cadet forces in six state schools. The scheme lasts for three years, and I hope that it will be such a success that more secondary schools across the country will want to participate.
When I was a Minister, I had the honour to meet the entire service family—from cadets to reservists, and from serving personnel and their families to veterans. I never ceased to be amazed at their fortitude, resilience and, above all, their humour in the most difficult circumstances.
I well remember 7/7. As part of veterans awareness week, I was due to go to St. James’s park to meet RAF prisoners of war. I wondered how many would get there, but my God lots of them certainly managed it. I talked to one couple: the man was in a wheelchair, and his wife had pushed him from a hotel in west London. There was no public transport, but they were determined to be present. Another chap in his 80s said that he had got to Victoria station that morning to find that there were no buses or taxis. He said, “They locked me up in Germany for four years but that didn’t stop me, so the terrorists won’t either.” That shows the determination of a generation to whom we owe a tremendous debt.
This country does well when it comes to recognising and supporting our veterans, but we can do much more. I am sure that the aspiration and determination to continue to honour this country’s veterans is shared on both sides of the House. As I said to some school children recently, “If you value freedom, thank a veteran.” We owe them a huge debt.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) not only on what he said today but on his time as a Minister. I thank him for his support for the armed forces and for his responses to issues that I raised with him.
It is a special honour and privilege to be a Member of Parliament for a garrison town. Although my tributes today are given generally to all sectors of Her Majesty’s armed forces both at home and overseas, I hope I shall be forgiven if I make special mention of those from the Colchester garrison. Many of them are currently serving in Afghanistan, and although we still await details of the soldier who was killed yesterday we know that he was a member of 3rd Para battle group and the sixth person to have lost his life over the past three or four weeks. I fear that he is a member of 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment.
Last month, the Prime Minister paid tribute to an officer from 3rd Para who had been killed in Afghanistan and the whole House joined in those tributes, as indeed we have for others who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. The week before that officer was killed, I attended a memorial service at the garrison church in Colchester for two members of 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment who had been killed in Iraq. Troops from Colchester have served in both those conflicts and lives have been lost. I pay tribute to them and to the wider Army family.
As the Secretary of State said in his speech, members of Her Majesty’s armed forces are operating in 15 countries, of which two—Afghanistan and Iraq—are in the headlines. I will try not to move too far into operational matters because the debate is about armed forces personnel, so I shall try to concentrate my remarks on retention and recruitment and getting a fair, or fairer, deal for the armed forces.
I draw the attention of the House to the answer to a parliamentary question I tabled last month. Between 9 and 10 per cent. of the British Army are not British citizens. Citizens of 57 countries currently serve in the British Army. Alphabetically, they range from 75 Australians to 565 Zimbabweans. There are 1,995 soldiers from Fiji, 660 from Ghana, 975 from Jamaica, 720 from South Africa, 225 from St. Lucia and 280 from St. Vincent.
I want to mention especially the island of St. Helena, population 4,000, which has 20 soldiers in the British Army. It provides our Army with more people per head of population than any other part of the world. I draw attention to early-day motion 2403, because next year is the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war. Citizens of St Helena have been denied the award of the south Atlantic medal, even though the island is in the south Atlantic and its citizens volunteered to support the British Government in the recovery of the Falklands islands. They served on RMS St. Helena, but because the vessel was not inside the exclusion zone long enough, they did not qualify for the medal for operational reasons. I hope that the Government, perhaps through the medals committee, can find a way to rectify that slight. Those people volunteered when this country called on them to serve Queen and country; the least we can do is award them the medal to which most fair-minded people would think they were entitled.
The defence White Paper proposed key changes to cope with this country’s commitments at home and overseas, which then predated Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the White Paper, there have been reductions in manpower requirements, recruitment and retention difficulties and increased demands on our armed forces. Those are challenges, to put it kindly. Some of us refer to overstretch and some to additional commitments, but the MOD should look again at the White Paper in the light of what has happened since it was published.
The size of the Army was deliberately reduced, but full recruitment has still not been achieved, despite that reduction. There have also been reductions in the personnel of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. In the light of current commitments and developments, we need to consider whether the size of Her Majesty’s armed forces is sufficient for today’s demands.
Recruitment from civilian life to UK regular forces has dropped substantially. As I indicated, between 9 and 10 per cent. of the British Army is not British. Constituents serving in the Army have told me that they would like to be British. I am thinking particularly of a Fijian solider who is proud to serve in the British Army—but, as he says, he would be even prouder if he could be British in the British Army. However, he cannot apply to become a British citizen without first leaving the Army. I appreciate that the issue is not for the MOD to resolve, but I hope that in a spirit of joined-up government other arms of the Government will find a way to enable people who are prepared to risk their lives for this country to become British citizens.
We need to look at retention and recruitment in equal measure. With that in mind, I was interested to hear about the housing issues raised by Opposition Front Benchers. Many of us recall that part of the root cause of the housing problem for married personnel was the sale by the last Government of family housing to Annington Homes at a ridiculously low price. Last year, for example, Annington sold 40 family houses, which previously belonged to the MOD, at a gross profit per dwelling of £100,000—a gross profit of £4 million. The company owns hundreds of similar homes and has demolished former MOD houses to create building sites on which it has built new houses. It is making a financial killing.
There is a case for the National Audit Office, or for the Select Committee on Defence or somebody in the Government or Government agencies, to look again at that privatisation and its consequences, because while Annington Homes was selling off allegedly surplus properties, the MOD—as was confirmed in a written answer last week—is renting between 50 and 60 family houses from the private sector in a town where there is a housing crisis. It is extraordinary that empty Army houses are being sold by their private owner, Annington Homes, which is making a financial killing, while the MOD is having to rent houses from the private sector because it does not have enough accommodation in a town with a housing crisis. That shows a lack of joined-up thinking.
The Minister has confirmed that there is much to be done to improve the quality of the housing stock for married families. I am delighted, however, by the assurance that the new Colchester garrison will have sufficient single persons’ accommodation. I hope that that turns out to be true, and I look forward to the release of the other private rented houses to the public sector, so that the 50 families in the private sector will be housed.
Council tax is another issue that, if dealt with, would help to create a climate in which we respect soldiers and encourage them to remain in the Army. While they reside in this country, we would expect them to pay council tax, but it is absurd that, when they are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they are still required to pay council tax. A private citizen who is sent to prison is exempt from council tax, yet we expect soldiers sent to Afghanistan and Iraq to pay council tax.
Many children of military personnel attend schools that are predominantly occupied by the children of service families. I am advised that the figure can be as high as 100 per cent. in some parts of the country. Although the percentages for the five schools in the Colchester garrison area are anything up to 80 or 85 per cent, they do not quite hit 100 per cent. Detailed surveys have been carried out into the associated turbulence factor.
I am delighted that the Defence Committee is reviewing defence schools. Although those schools are the responsibility of the local education authority, they are predominantly filled by the children of military personnel. Again, to return to the concept of joined-up government, although the Ministry of Defence has very good education support people—I pay tribute to them—I feel that it and the Department for Education and Skills need to take due note that factors exist in schools attended by large numbers of children from service families that do not exist in other state schools.
I am reminded that the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), visited Colchester a couple of years ago and assured the chairmen and head teachers of the Army schools there that additional funding would be provided. They are still waiting for the cheque. It has not materialised. That is of considerable concern.
Like all three right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so far, I pay tribute to the welfare and support services provided to military families and individual soldiers. Whether those services come from the Ministry of Defence itself or the voluntary sector, I am always impressed by the fantastic support that our military personnel receive from the family support groups and everyone else. It is quite remarkable, particularly at times of conflict when the whole community seems to rally round and provide support.
I also pay tribute to the civilian work force. However, the Government’s enthusiasm for privatising and outsourcing does not give much encouragement that the MOD understands the importance of loyalty to the work force. I urge the Minister to reflect on whether the MOD’s policy of continuing to go down the privatisation and outsourcing route is necessarily the right one.
Shortages in covering certain trades—the Royal Engineers, the Royal Signals, the Intelligence Corps and the Army medical services—have been alluded to. In the case of the Army medical services, I am sure that the Minister will observe that there is a continued inheritance from decisions made upwards of 10 years ago. Nevertheless, the shortages have yet to be addressed. I should like to put it on record that we recognise that men and women who are deployed, particularly overseas, deserve the highest quality of medical care that our country can provide. That care is provided by the doctors and others in Defence Medical Services and reserve services, and it is right that we mention the reserve forces, because we rely as much on the volunteers and TA support as we do on full-time military medical people.
Unfortunately, to date, the announcement of this year’s pay award for armed forces doctors is still awaited. I understand that, over the past year, the British Medical Association’s armed forces committee has worked closely with the Defence Medical Services directorate to provide matching evidence to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. That evidence was based on hard data comparing what can be earned by consultants in the NHS and by their military counterparts.
I understand that a 6.6 per cent. uplift in pay for armed forces doctors is required in addition to the Doctors and Dentists Review Body pay award of 2.2 per cent. to help to close the significant gap between the NHS and earnings in Defence Medical Services. There are fears that, unless the pay scales are brought closer together, many of those doctors, who are the military’s deployable medical experts, will resign from the armed forces to go into significantly better paid NHS posts, where they will not suffer from the added turbulence of repeated deployments. Military reservists who are ordinary consultants and general practitioners give up a substantial amount of time and, in some cases, earnings to serve their country, and their contribution to operations is crucial. I hope that that aspect will be dealt with.
I am aware that many other hon. Members wish to participate in the debate, and I shall conclude by saying that, although we all value our armed forces, the Government need to look again at whether the reduction in numbers in the Army, Air Force and Navy is correct in the light of new commitments and new risks around the world. The Government should consider whether those numbers should be increased, alongside the need to keep on the pressure in respect of some of the aspects that I have mentioned, so that married personnel feel more comfortable in remaining with Her Majesty’s armed forces, rather than leaving them, and we all have a part to play in recruitment.
I certainly take on board the point that, because of contractions, the footprint of the armed forces in the United Kingdom is getting smaller and smaller. Although garrison towns such as Colchester are seeing a growth in the Territorial Army, there are many parts of the country where the TA no longer exists. Perhaps for wider public consumption we need to have more military outposts in the United Kingdom so that people can more readily identify with the armed forces.
First, I would like to associate myself with the condolences expressed to the families and friends of the young solider who was killed yesterday, and to those of all our servicemen and women who have died over the decades to keep this country in freedom, to preserve free speech and to help us to have the standard of living that we have today. They have more than fulfilled their need to defend their country and should be recognised as having done so.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). It is seldom that we hear an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman who has obviously looked at his portfolio and who conducts himself in a proper manner to defend not only this House but the party that he represents. His conduct in mentioning our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was exemplary. It is a pleasure to follow him.
I would like to start by talking about our veterans, following the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who eloquently explained why our veterans have done such a good job and why they should be recognised by this country. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for coming to my constituency, where 220 veterans, plus families and friends, turned up for an event during veterans week. He was our honoured guest speaker. I also thank BAE Systems, which I will mention again later, which helped to sponsor the event. In particular, I want to mention the cadets from the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force who turned up and looked after my veterans so ably. I think that they got more than a little enjoyment from listening to the stories that they were told about the escapades of some of the gentlemen and ladies during the second world war. They had an excellent day, as did the veterans. I have gratefully received a number of letters thanking me for the day. We had a good sing-song and went over all the songs of the war days—some of which I did not know. It was an excellent day and it was a good way to recognise those who had put their lives in harm’s way to protect those of us who were born after the war.
Earlier this week, when people once again raised the subject of an extra bank holiday, I thought to myself, “We have recognised veterans. We had veterans week last year and veterans day just the other week. If colleagues and friends want an extra bank holiday, rather than make it a nationalist type of day, why don’t we have a day off to celebrate those who put their lives on the line for their country?” Let us have a veterans day when we can properly recognise and celebrate what those people did for the country. That would be a much better way of showing support and would mean that we had a day off when we could remember members of our own families who put their lives on the line and died. That would be much better than having a bank holiday for St. Andrew’s day, St. George’s day or St. David’s day. That would be a much better way of making it a national day.
That brings me on to another subject relating to our armed forces personnel who lay down their lives. It does not matter what country they come from. Whether they come from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England, it does not matter one jot. They are not second-class soldiers. I believe that we in this House should not be second class either. We have just as much right to defend those people in the House as they have to defend us. I deplore people’s attitude in trying to downgrade Members of this House.
I will move on to talk about the important matter of equipment for our armed forces. It will not surprise my right hon. Friend the Minister that I wish to talk about shipbuilding and, in particular, the Navy. I thank him once again for the work that he, his Department and others did to achieve the orders for the Type 45s, which are being built in my constituency as I speak. However, there is a question mark over the building of the seventh and eighth Type 45s.
Let me give hon. Members a little more insight into the Type 45s. They will defend the two new carriers that we are about to build. My informants in the Royal Navy tell me that four Type 45s are needed to defend a carrier because the Type 45s corner the carrier to cover the area all round it. As we are to have two carriers, it suggests that we will need eight Type 45s to do the job, so will my right hon. Friend tell me what is happening with Nos. 7 and 8? Our servicemen and women serving on ships deserve the best protection that they can have, so if the Royal Navy is correct and it needs those ships, I hope that my right hon. Friend will come forth with something that will make me and other hon. Members feel a lot better.
I had not forgotten that, but I was trying to be party conscious and help my right hon. Friend the Minister. However, it would be nice if we got the other four as well, especially because at the moment the Scotstoun yard, which is the larger of the two yards on the Clyde, seems to be sending most of its workers over to Govan, which is where the steel cutting is done, because that is where most of the work is taking place at present. It is only once the fitting starts that we will get the work back in my constituency. I am sure that the local hostelries and shops will be happy when the fitting work starts to appear on the Clyde, which I am told will happen by the end of the year.
We have been especially quiet about the military afloat reach and sustainability project. We need either several new ships, or to upgrade or renovate a number of ships, so will my right hon. Friend the Minister give us an update on what is happening? The project is especially important to some of our smaller yards, such as Ferguson’s in Port Glasgow, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). The yard is desperate for orders, and some of the smaller ships covered by the MARS project would be ideal for it.
We must ensure that Afghanistan and Iraq have security forces who are equipped and trained for the job in hand. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister give me an update on what is happening with the training of security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan? I read somewhere that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had said that he expected that over the next 12 to 18 months, the democratically-elected Iraqi Government and their security forces might take responsibility for security. May I deduce from that that the start of the withdrawal of our troops could coincide with that time period? I will be interested to hear whether that is on the agenda. I appreciate that, for security reasons, one does not tell one’s enemy when one’s troops are being withdrawn, but as the local Iraqi troops grow to sufficient numbers, I would expect the number of our troops to decrease, albeit not necessarily by the same extent.
May I raise a subject that I have raised in the debate on pensions for armed forces personnel and in other defence debates? My participation in the armed forces parliamentary scheme brought me into close contact with members of the armed forces and their lifestyle, so I was particularly pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) that the morale of our troops is high. From reading media reports, however, one would think that they were holding their heads, a handkerchief in their hand, wondering what was going to happen to them. One would not think that their morale was high, they were doing a good job, or were successfully training the Iraqi security forces. It is important that we congratulate them on doing such a good job, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring on saying so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has alluded to the subject, but it is unusual for the shadow Secretary of State to agree with him. It would be useful if we remembered that agreement in other debates, as it is important to give credit where credit is due.
A couple of years ago, we discussed the issue of soldiers who leave the armed forces, and it was drawn to my attention that 10 per cent. of soldiers who leave the services fail to find a job and are unemployed. I thought that it was deplorable that people who had served the nation could not find a job, and were not given extra help to do so. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister of State say whether the figure is still 10 per cent., or whether it is lower or higher? What extra things have been done in the past few years to ensure that our servicemen are assisted in their return to civil society? What has been done to ensure that they find a job and are helped to find accommodation and to return to the area where they came from?
I have made a number of points that my right hon. Friend probably did not expect me to make, but I hope that I have provided the House with food for thought. I congratulate the Government on providing us with an opportunity to debate this important issue, but I wish that it could have been debated when many more Members were in the House. I see that, once again, the nationalists are missing. That is not unusual—they miss many important debates—but I should like their absence to be put on the record. Although they are the first to mount campaigns, particularly in Scotland, on regiments, the closure of airfields and so on, they could not even be bothered to turn up to our debate.
May I warmly endorse the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), with whom I entirely agree? I am conscious that the subject of our debate is personnel, but I should like to say something later about Afghanistan and Iraq. However, in the spirit of our debate, I endorse the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who spoke with great conviction and clarity, both today and after Monday’s statement. I welcome, too, the Secretary of State’s contribution. I am sorry that he is not here, because I wanted to tell him that I was robust about his absence from the House earlier this week. I have nothing personal against him—in fact, I like him very much—but I think that absence from the Chamber during a statement is disrespectful to the House of Commons and extremely disrespectful to the armed forces. If one is within striking distance of the House, one should attend. I believe the Secretary of State should have been present, although his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State made a very good fist of it in his place. I wanted to explain why I expressed myself in the manner that I did.
I start from first principles. The armed services exist to engage in war, to fight to achieve an end and to triumph over adversaries who will seek to exploit any weaknesses, particularly in our people’s will to win. It is that function which distinguishes them fundamentally from all others—from society in general, from large businesses and from any other public body. The armed forces must be prepared to engage in battle where the consequences of winning or losing are profound to the nation and to the individual. That is ultimately what society pays them to do and what society expects from them.
In the light of that, I express my wholehearted sorrow, as have many on both sides of the House, at the loss of another brave British soldier. I do so to his family and friends with all my heart. I pay a profound tribute to our armed forces—the men and women of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring and the Secretary of State did, to their families, who have to put up with a great deal and who, by keeping the home fires burning, do so much more than is ever appreciated. I also pay a particular tribute to the men and women of the reserve forces, almost 14,500 of whom have served in Iraq with the greatest distinction.
I welcome the announcement by Lord Drayson about the intention to merge parts of the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency. That was part of the Conservative programme at the last election, it is what we would have done, had we come to power, and it is the right thing to do. As the Secretary of State said, it is not being done for fun. It is part of the process of improving the delivery of the most important equipment to servicemen and women in the field. I am clear that that is the right way to proceed with a currently unsatisfactory bureaucracy.
I am extremely anxious to hear that the MOD has been warned by the Treasury to expect a cut of more than £1 billion in the defence budget. Even by the standards of the Treasury’s baleful and contemptible record on defence, that is a cardinal act of folly and it says nothing for the Chancellor’s worthless assurances given at the Mansion house about supporting our armed forces at home and abroad.
There is a view that the Government take the armed forces for granted. I do not accuse the Minister of State for the armed forces of that in the least, but generally the armed forces are taken for granted. It is not possible for the Government to go on saying how much they value our armed forces, when at the same time they are being starved of financial resources to enable them to carry out the commitments laid upon them by the Government. It was always taken as read that the Government would honour their pledge to fund the strategic defence review fully. At the time my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and others sought and received assurances that the strategic defence review would be fully funded, but that has never been done. The most important warning that I can give the Government is that many servicemen and women whom I talk to feel that they are indeed being taken for granted, and that their quality, efficiency and effectiveness are appreciated only at moments of high drama and crisis. I am afraid to say that there is, indeed, an element of that around. The process started rather well, but under relentless, continuous, baleful pressure from the Treasury, the Government have reverted to underfunding, the consequence of which is that the armed forces need a substantial injection of extra funds over the next few years if they are to carry out their current level of commitments.
I warn the Minister of State that if undermanning and overstretch continue, things will start to go wrong in the military field, and the Government will not be able to take for granted the almost guaranteed success and effectiveness from the armed forces that we have come to expect. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and their families now recognise that the Government are not matching their personal commitment by way of financial support to the defence budget, which will have to be put right.
I want to mention some very particular points. I want the Minister, if he would be so kind, to examine with care how we deploy our troops out of this country. The standard of service provided by the Royal Air Force is not nearly good enough. My noble Friend Lord Astor raised the matter in the Lords last week, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has raised it with the Chief of the Air Staff. It is frankly inexcusable—I repeat inexcusable—that soldiers going to and from active duty should be treated in such a deplorable and casual manner. There is a form of insanity in the MOD that seems to permit that to happen.
Why should soldiers, who have been carefully vetted and highly trained and who are on their way to operational duties in extremely dangerous parts of the world, have to turn up at RAF Brize Norton 12 hours before they take off? It is absolutely absurd. How is it possible that young men and women, who, having completed the most arduous tours, may be back on brief periods of leave, should find themselves having to sit around Basra airport, sometimes for several days, in gross conditions and with inadequate facilities when they have a confirmed flight, simply because there is no seat for them? It is unacceptable, and the Minister has it in his power to fix the matter, which is what he needs to do.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that important point, which I raised with the Chief of the Air Staff when he addressed the all-party Royal Air Force group earlier this week. The Chief of the Air Staff is fully seized of the concerns which my hon. Friend has rightly expressed. I hope that Ministers will give the Royal Air Force the necessary encouragement to bring about the changes that my hon. Friend rightly seeks.
My hon. Friend is right. He knows a great deal about the matter, and I confirmed with him this morning that my comments are correct. The problem is damaging for morale; it is thoughtless and feckless, and the Minister needs to get a grip on it immediately. Attitudes need to be changed, particularly in the Royal Air Force, in the most urgent and profound way, and I have no doubt that my right hon. and hon. Friends want to see a serious improvement.
I want to turn to the tricky question of service housing, which has been raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell)—who is never able to stay after he has spoken—and a number of other hon. Members. The Government have made some big improvements to service housing, which I applaud. I have visited Tidworth and think that some of the service accommodation is absolutely marvellous. It is unwise to expect young people to join up and live in the kind of accommodation that was used in the past, so the change is very good.
In the Lords last week, my noble Friend Lord Luke pointed out that too many British Army families still face housing problems at a time of increasing pressure. The Minister of State and I have wrestled with that intractable problem. My noble Friend quoted appositely from a speaker at the Army Families Federation conference:
“Most families feel passionately about their homes, army families perhaps more than most, since they can sometimes be the only stable thing in their lives. Their husbands or partners might be on operations abroad but their home is their base, the one concrete thing in an otherwise turbulent existence.”
This remains a very important matter in terms of retention and recruitment.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have great respect for him. When he was armed forces Minister, what role did he play in the major sell-off of all those assets, did he resist it, and what did he think would be its legacy, which we inherited and are having to deal with?
As some of my hon. Friends know, I was anxious about that when it happened. We were in a position where we had to do it—there was no alternative in terms of money. [Interruption.] I am disappointed by the Minister’s reaction. I started by saying that I congratulate the Government on what they have achieved in service housing, and I am merely saying that it continues to be a problem. The sell-off to Annington Homes was inevitable, but I suspect that the consequences were not properly thought through. Even though the Government have made a big investment, things are not yet right, and a great deal more needs to be done.
No, I will not, because the right hon. Gentleman chose to ignore the spirit in which I made my remarks, and I am not going to risk it again.
The Army is too small. The Navy has been desperately ill-served by the Government’s mad decision to cut the destroyer force by 20 per cent. a couple of years ago. The frigate is the workhorse of the fleet, and its deployability, reach and endurance is the absolute cornerstone of what I understand to be our defence policy and its expeditionary and global aspirations. The fact is that our force is spread too thinly. How can one ship sensibly manage to patrol the Caribbean, the west coast of Africa and the south Atlantic? The commitment of our joint helicopter operation is stretched almost to breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am afraid that it all comes down to a shortage of money and not enough kit. That is bad for the fighting effectiveness of the forces, bad for morale, and bad for training. One can only wonder, given the current pressure and intensity of operations, which is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, how tour intervals are to be managed, not only for the teeth arms but for the signals, logistics and medical services.
It is not well understood in this House that the people of our armed forces live under a very different code of rules and conduct from the rest of us. We heard earlier about the way in which the media report matters relating to defence. The press, barring one or two exceptions, are absolutely clueless about the armed forces. One of the most foolish things that the Government did was to get rid of the services public relations staff at the Ministry of Defence. That broke an invaluable chain of information and knowledge between the forces and a largely ignorant press. The media love to pretend that they are on the side of what they call our brave lads and then take every opportunity to shaft them. Other than the few remaining defence journalists, they have no idea how the armed forces work. That is very disappointing.
Sadly, few Members of this House take an constant interest in and are knowledgeable about the armed forces; most of them are probably here today. As the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West said, the turnout for this debate on personnel in the armed forces, at a time when our armed forces have never been more committed and, in some places, in greater danger, is lamentable. It is a great pity that more hon. Members are not present. In the wider world, there is tremendous and profound misunderstanding and ignorance because of the reduction in the service footprint and the number of people who have served in the modern armed forces. As that number has contracted and as the geographic footprint has become smaller, there is less attachment to and understanding of what has gone on. That is not good for the armed forces or the country.
An extraordinarily high standard of personal conduct is required of our armed forces—exceptional respect for the law, teamwork, cohesion, trust and an astonishingly highly developed sense of duty, obligation and integrity. If the Minister has not already done so, I suggest that he read the guide to soldiers—“The Values and Standards of the British Army”. It should be much more widely distributed. The problem for us all is that those qualities are almost unique to the traditions and institutions of the British armed forces and are increasingly not only not understood by but wholly alien to many of our fellow citizens.
However, it is encouraging that the comradeship and team spirit, loyalty and patriotism—understated but devoted patriotism—and the emotional, intellectual and moral qualities, which lead those young men to put their lives on the line, are still hugely and widely admired whenever people stop for a moment to think about those matters.
It is therefore imperative that, despite the Government’s baleful politically correct bent, Ministers do not try to drag the armed forces into being a mirror image of the society that they serve. Ministers must be watchful that, for example, the capability and effectiveness of our forces are not seriously undermined by a lot of on-the-make lawyers. The Government will never understand, but although the armed forces have no right to be different, they need to be different. What has happened in the recent past in Iraq and is happening at the moment in Afghanistan is living proof that, for the young servicemen and women of today, the fundamental nature of war, and all that they have to train for, remains unchanged.
The young men in the 16th Air Assault Brigade, and all those who are supporting them, are taking part in a terrifying contest of wills, which can lead—and has led—inevitably to death, terror, bloodshed and destruction. Just as for the truly formidable previous generations of servicemen, combat will continue to represent the ultimate physical and mental challenge.
The House and the people of this wonderful country should be deeply proud of and grateful to those young men and women, who will encounter a combination of extreme danger in rapidly changing circumstances, amid conditions of chaos and uncertainty. Their skills, the quality of their leadership, their weapons and their equipment are being severely tested.
Such operations can be sustained and undertaken only by highly trained servicemen, motivated by enormous pride in their traditions and institutions, a depth of comradeship unimaginable to anyone who has never experienced it, an exceptional level of team spirit and, most important, the ethos of their service. Their loyalty and patriotism are magnificent, as are their enduring belief in British values and an unshakeable determination to defend them.
So let us be clear: even with our armed forces as grotesquely overstretched as they are, nothing should be allowed to interfere with the exceptional quality of training that our troops need and that gives them the confidence to remain as they always have been—unbeaten.
I do not know how many hon. Members have read the truly wonderful book, “Dusty Warriors”, by Brigadier Richard Holmes. He was the brigadier in charge of the Territorial Army at the Ministry of Defence, and he is an extremely distinguished military historian. The book is a history of the deployment to Iraq of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. It was a rough but extremely distinguished deployment in which the regiment did brilliantly well. One of its young soldiers, Private Beharry, won the Victoria cross. I want to read two brief quotes from the book, because they are germane to a serviceman’s life today and to what we ask of those young men. In a debate on armed forces personnel, it is important to say these things.
“Amongst the lessons that will be learnt from Iraq is that at times it was neither a conventional battle between two symmetrical adversaries nor a peace keeping operation, for the very phrase implies that there is a peace to be kept. It was instead a post-modern conflict comprising extreme violence and near normality, formally structured military operations and sheer terrorism, diplomatic negotiations and mafia-style power broking, all intertwined like the skeins of a rope.”
The second quote comes from Colonel Matt Maer, who commanded the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. I shall quote what he said of the members of his battle group. I think that it is a wonderful thing to say and, my goodness, it shows the extraordinary skill and capabilities of the young men involved.
“Their restraint and compassion in recognition of the dangers and risks of getting it wrong were as equally matched by their willingness to risk their lives and mix it with those who wanted to take us on. At no time did I ever feel nervous that the lethal force entrusted to these young officers and men was being or was even in danger of being abused. It was not unusual for a patrol in Al Amarah to shift from the daily exchange of pleasantries with a shopkeeper or passer by, and within three hundred metres or a moment in time being entwined in mortal combat with a large heavily armed enemy and having to resort to every skill and piece of ordnance available to survive.”
That is an astonishing tribute to the young men of the British Army, who are, in our cause, conducting the most vital operations.
I come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State that we cannot afford to get this wrong in Afghanistan, and we absolutely have to make sure that it works. The House needs to realise with great humility how extraordinarily lucky we are in this magnificent country to have such exceptional armed forces. At every level of command in all three services—and, indeed, throughout all ranks—they are truly formidable in their standards, both personally and professionally. In their teamwork and in their highly developed sense of cohesion, duty and obligation, they are an institution that forms a priceless asset for Great Britain in the pursuit of our aims and interests both at home and abroad. It is of enormous credit to the quality of the services’ leadership that, in a period of considerable upheaval, they have retained exceptional flexibility combined with great clarity of purpose and endeavour. They deserve our wholehearted support in every way that we can give it.
In this debate on armed forces personnel, it is important that we also remember the civilian personnel, who provide invaluable back-up and without whom we could not expect our front-line troops to operate. I would like to mention in particular the staff at Llangennech, who form part of the defence supply chain.
I want to make a few references to privatisation and ask a few relevant questions. Are we really getting value for money when we privatise our services? We all know that there has been waste and inefficiency in the past in many of our public services. However, the whole culture has changed in recent years—there is so much more evaluation, consideration of cost-effectiveness and questioning of what we do. Perhaps we need to think again about privatisation and consider what the public service can offer.
Staff in Llangennech have been at the forefront of evaluation work—improving their service, developing IT and making their service more cost-effective. Therefore, how do private organisations provide better value for money—supposedly—especially as they want to ensure a profit margin? Perhaps they cut down on management. The MOD, however, would still need management personnel to run the contracts for any privatisation. Perhaps private companies do less and have a tendency to cherry-pick profitable activities and to leave less profitable activities behind, skimp on them or not do them properly. Perhaps they have a tendency to work to minimum requirements or to offer lower wages, with subsequent difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff of the quality that we are used to in our current workforce in Llangennech.
My concerns about privatisation are that it will not provide value for money and that there may be lapses in the quality of service, which will only be uncovered when it is too late. I welcome the Minister’s indication, however, that if the work is to be outsourced, the staff currently working in Llangennech would have the opportunity to form an appropriate organisation to bid for it. That is not an easy path to go down, however, as competing against big business and companies with whole departments dedicated to marketing and contract procurement can be very difficult.
The difficulty with bids and contracts is that some aspects are difficult to quantify—for example, the skills, expertise, loyalty and accuracy of the staff at Llangennech. Nothing is ever lost by them and appropriate requests are always met effectively and efficiently. Anyone who has not visited Llangennech would find it difficult to appreciate its facilities for storing publications and forms. One needs to imagine a storage facility as large as this Chamber, with steps that stretch up higher than the balcony, to about the level of the annunciator. You should imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you are in a little chair, and that you are propelled along the floor to roughly where the Dispatch Box is, and then up in the air to the level of that balcony and beyond, just to collect some forms from the top shelf. The level of organisation is beyond belief, and that piece of equipment is unique and purpose-built for storing an enormous number of forms and publications—more than most of us can even imagine. Whoever plans to bid for that work in the private sector will have to think about how they could recreate such a facility.
The price quoted recently for taking over just one record at the facility in Llangennech—not running the service—is £4.5 million. If that figure is to be believed, and it relates to the work currently done by about a dozen staff, what figure would be put on the rest of the work done there, which involves some 200 staff?
All of us—even trade unions—can understand the need for restructuring, organisational change and efficiency savings. I am concerned, however, that we are not taking into account the tremendous quality of staff in Llangennech and the special facilities there. Will the Minister ensure that a really thorough appraisal is made of the potential to keep the staff and facilities at Llangennech as part of the MOD team? If that is not possible, and outsourcing is the chosen option, any bidding process should include a genuine appreciation of the quality of service that staff at Llangennech can guarantee to deliver.
We should think carefully about what was said by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) about the difficulty of procuring some very complex services. She was right to say that we should value civilians in the public service and the Ministry of Defence, who provide extremely good value for money. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who himself paid tribute to our armed forces on behalf of the whole House, eloquently and passionately.
As the Secretary of State pointed out in his opening speech, this debate is about how we support our armed forces. I do not wish to make any personal criticism of Ministers, but I think that as we see one operation after another unfold before us, we must conclude we cannot continue to support our armed forces in the present fashion.
I joined the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) at the memorial service for the two soldiers from the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment who were killed in Iraq earlier this year. Talking to the men, one is aware that there is a long tradition of healthy contempt among the junior ranks for the senior ranks, particularly those wearing red tabs who seem to make decisions that are remote from the reality of the front line. That tension is inevitable, but, talking to soldiers on that occasion, I sensed that the gulf between the reality of the front line and those who make the decisions in high places in the Ministry of Defence was widening. As I will explain, I do not think that the chiefs of staff are entirely to blame. We are facing new circumstances which it is up to us politicians to address.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) spoke of the mismatch between commitments and resources. I wish to widen the debate and speak of the inability of the modern Ministry of Defence to task military operations in a way that minimises the risks and increases effectiveness. That goes to the heart of the relationship between our military services and the politicians. The Secretary of State spoke with passion, eloquence and a command of his brief, but I must tell him that in the opening exchanges, he also demonstrated irritation. That is in part forgivable, but I think it demonstrates the tension that is building up between the reality of the front line and the general understanding among those who are ultimately responsible for decisions—those who sit in the House of Commons and the other place—of what our armed forces are having to confront.
It is not possible for us to be effective armchair generals, and the Secretary of State was right to admonish us about the consequences of trying to be, but I submit to him that that is not what we are about. No one in the Chamber is doing that today. In my opinion, there is a problem with the grand strategy of the country’s military policy, which is ultimately selling the personnel of our armed forces very short indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex said that sooner or later something would go wrong, and I suggest to him that something is already going wrong.
We know about overstretch. We know about cancelled exercises, cancelled training, shortened tour intervals and urgent operational requirements eating the value out of the following year’s defence budget when equipment is purchased and the asset is kept on the MOD’s books. The Secretary of State shakes his head. If he does not know that yet, he is in for a shock. If he orders equipment as an urgent operational requirement that becomes part of the general inventory of the armed forces, the Treasury will take the money out of the following year’s budget. Therefore, following Operation Telic, when a large number of urgent operational requirements were put through, there was a serious row between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury about the following year’s budget. The Treasury’s automatic assumption is that money will be pulled forward from the future year’s budget. There may be similar sorts of problems on that score with respect to the present operations in Afghanistan.
The overstretch problem is a symptom of a much wider problem. I ask the House to reflect on the military tasks given to our armed forces in recent years. The first Gulf war was clearly a turning point. Then we had Bosnia in 1992, followed by Sierra Leone and Kosovo, where the optimism of the bombing did not really pay off until we showed ourselves prepared to pursue the possibility of a land war. Then, after 9/11 in 2001, we had Afghanistan and the fantastic success of the British-led international security assistance force, under General Sir John McColl, in Kabul. Then we had the Iraq war in 2003 and now Afghanistan again.
I put it to the House that we are seeing a steady deterioration in the way that those operations are approached and resourced. For example, Bosnia, with a population of about 4.2 million people, secured the resources of 60,000 NATO troops to rebuild the country. If we apply the same ratio to Iraq, with a population of approximately 19 million people, NATO would have committed some 300,000 or 350,000 troops. No wonder the occupation of Iraq has been such a failed challenge.
What we have seen is a constant evolution to higher and higher-risk operations, larger and larger tasks, larger and larger demands on more and more limited military capability and ever-increasing complexity. With 36 nations currently operating in Afghanistan, with 72 sets of rules of engagement and some extremely complex, almost byzantine command structures, no one can possibly pretend that military operations are not becoming more complex.
We have also seen an evolution from peacekeeping to war fighting, nation building and long-term counter-insurgency—the most difficult and complex operation of all, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex mentioned when he quoted from Professor Holmes’s book. Counter-insurgency is the most long term and most manpower-intensive of operations, depending crucially on the number of boots that can be put on the ground at any one time.
I take the House back to planning for the Iraq war. I supported the Iraq war and I would vote for it again. I continue to support our operations in Iraq. I view the war as essential to remove Saddam Hussein. Anyone reading the Iraq survey report that came out after the invasion can see what Saddam Hussein was up to. Much of the press chose not to and no one ever talks about the cost of failing to take action against him. However, we planned for the invasion and not the occupation, and the failure of planning for the occupation has certainly cost the lives of many British and allied service personnel.
Why and how did that happen? I visited Umm Qasr and Basra just a few weeks after the cessation of invasion hostilities. There was calm and peace on the streets of Basra. There was no insurgency and there was an expectation that things would start to happen that never had happened. I had an exchange with the General Officer Commanding the British forces in Iraq at that time, and his response was, “Where the hell is DFID? Why isn’t anything happening?” It was into that vacuum that the insurgency built up and we left ourselves with a far greater problem than we ever should have had to face.
Why did that occur? Was it poor intelligence? Both the British and the Americans were certainly reliant on far too few Iraqi sources in terms of what to expect after the invasion. There was a lack of understanding of what invading a country actually means. We had had it—dare I say it?—easy in Bosnia, and very easy in Kuwait. This was a very different challenge. I remember the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) joking on the Floor of the House about the liberation of regime assets as the invasion took place. Neither he nor—I confess—I truly understood what the looting presaged about the meaning of the complete breakdown of order and stability for the long-term future of the occupation of Iraq.
The planning also broke down because there was a collapse of collective responsibility in Her Majesty’s Government before the invasion. The Department that might have been responsible for planning more effectively and for advising the Prime Minister more effectively on the future of Iraq failed to do so because the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) was pursuing her own private agenda. I often ask myself what the Prime Minister and President Bush said to each other at that time about the post-invasion future of Iraq. I reflect that Baroness Thatcher might have taken President Bush rather more to task, insisting that there would not be an invasion of Iraq until such—
I am suitably corrected by you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point that I am trying to make is that the failure of planning, and the lack of appreciation of the scale of the challenge of what is sometimes mis-called the global war on terrorism, is having a devastating and intolerable impact on the long-term effectiveness of our armed forces personnel, and on their lives and families.
I will fast-forward to Afghanistan, where we are involved in another extremely complex operation. The planning for that operation has not fully provided for what our armed forces personnel are having to face. I agree with my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence that the price of failure would be intolerable and that it would have global security implications, but I am not at all sure that enough people back here understand what our armed forces personnel are having to face. They are fighting a counter-insurgency war. Afghanistan is not like Northern Ireland, which has 175 miles of open borders; it has 1,500 miles of open borders with Pakistan, and it is impossible to see how the unlimited supply of insurgents will cease pouring across the Pakistani border.
We talk about bringing democracy to Afghanistan, and I am lost in admiration for the ability of our armed forces—the people on the ground—to understand the complexities involved in dealing with a village in the dusty heat, to build relationships, to extend the hand of friendship between nations and to build confidence in the security situation, at the same time as dealing with the threats posed by the Taliban. But this is a country in which the armed forces have had a sporadic presence for more than 100 years, and its culture is not to rely on outside forces. A 30-year commitment could be required to stabilise Afghanistan. Is there an appreciation in the Ministry of Defence, at the heart of Government or in this House of the fact that stabilising and building up security and using—dare I say it?—the blood of our armed forces to build that country is a very much greater commitment than was suggested when the then Secretary of State came to this House to announce this substantial deployment. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring that we need to match commitments and resources. We need to have our commitments matched by other countries, as he pointed out, which is clearly not happening. We need to support our armed forces personnel in the field, and that applies as much to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force as to the Army, about which I have been talking.
We need to develop a more comprehensive doctrine for combating international terrorism, weapons proliferation and rogue states. I suspect that that means, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex intimated, substantially increased defence spending. The present state of doctrine and policy sells our armed forces short and ill serves the personnel on whom we rely so much and whom we expect to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice.
What of the relationship between the military and the politicians? Ministers rely on advice from the service chiefs and it is the worst defence of Ministers to say, when something goes wrong, that they relied on the advice of the service chiefs. Do the politicians really want to hear the truth at all times from our most senior armed forces personnel? I recall that Admiral—now Lord—Boyce warned about putting our hand into the mangle of Afghanistan and embarrassed the Secretary of State by saying that our armed forces were overstretched. His term was cut short. I submit that the way we treat our service chiefs is just as important as the way we treat our armed forces personnel lower down the chain of command. We have to recognise that they are servants of the Crown and rightly loyal to the Ministers they serve. In the spirit of the armed forces, they are most unlikely to stand up publicly and say that this cannot be done and we will not do it—indeed, I question whether they should. That is not their job. But we are putting them in an impossible situation, loading the armed forces with new commitments. It is their spirit to say that they will do their best with what they have got, on any job the politicians give them to do.
I am reminded of what Admiral Sir John Woodward, the commander of the Falkland Islands task force, said when explaining what preparing for a military commitment actually means. He said that the first question one asks is, “What have we got?” That is because what one has now is all one has. I submit that the House needs to understand that to serve our armed forces personnel effectively, in the present global climate and the present commitment load, we have not got enough. It is the armed forces who will suffer the consequences of that the most, because we have hardly begun to understand the consequences of 9/11 or to appreciate the real nature of what must be done to defeat international terrorism in the modern world.
The debate about armed forces personnel is about real people. As with most other hon. Members, the real people that I knew in the armed forces were my relations, although I did not know my grandfather, who sadly died at the age of only 32 as a direct result of being poisoned with mustard gas on the Somme. I had two uncles, one of whom was a prisoner of war in Burma and made to work on the Burma railroad and another who, ironically, left the coal mines in 1928 because he hated working in them. He joined the Army and was taken prisoner at Dunkirk, fighting the rearguard action there. He ended up working in a Polish coal mine for four years. My father joined the RAF, but he was sent home after three days because, he was told, “You’ll do more important work back home digging coal, Geordie, than flying aeroplanes.”
I do not have any personal or professional experience in the forces, but in a debate about armed forces personnel, I have relevant recent experience of the impact that our forces are having on the lives of ordinary people facing massive, extraordinary problems in Iraq. We have not just sent our forces to Iraq to fight a battle for us and then leave. Would that we had done that—it might have been a different story.
Our armed forces personnel in Iraq have a very difficult job, as the local people recognise. In March, I was fortunate enough to lead a delegation of Labour movement people to Iraq. Most of us had been against the war, and I still believe that the debate on weapons of mass destruction was not a fair one. However, the people whom we met said that they did not want to talk about WMD, because they were worried about GRT—getting rid of a tyrant.
The Iraqis saw our Government and armed forces as forces for good, and we must listen to them. It is easy for us to be critical and to point the finger, but our armed forces went into Iraq to get rid of a tyrant who had spent the best part of 20 years trying to wipe out an entire race of people—the Kurds. In Sulaimaniya, we saw examples of the torture that had been inflicted. In a matter-of-fact building about the size of a supermarket, on the main street in the middle of town, people had been hung in chains and subjected to electric shocks. They had suffered almost every horror that one could imagine.
Thanks to the action taken by the British Government and their coalition partners in 1991 to establish the no-fly zone, and thanks also to the work that still goes on, the people in the Kurdistan area of Iraq have been able to build a fledgling democracy. They have a Parliament with 111 Members, and the fact that 29 of them are women puts our institution to shame. Without our intervention, that would not have happened: instead, 200,000 more people would have been killed, many thousands more would have been buried alive, tortured and persecuted, and many more villages would have been wiped off the face of the earth. That is what was happening, yet many in the world community were turning a blind eye.
I still have concerns about how we went to war, but people in the area believe that we did the right thing on their behalf. We must listen to what they say, and we should continue to do the right thing, which means that we should remain there.
The people of Kurdistan are very keen to develop links with the UK. They see us as their liberators and—
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. My point is that, without the continued involvement of our armed forces in Iraq, the situation there would not be starting to improve. The real-life experience is that our troops are having a huge impact on people’s lives.
The people of Kurdistan want the UK to invest in their country. That is not happening yet, but we could use our military presence in a positive way. Our armed forces could protect UK businesses and investors, and provide security for people willing to put money into Kurdistan and work with the Government there. In that way, we could help spread democracy across the rest of Iraq. Our troops could play a very positive role in that respect. They could also help in our work with Kurds in this country, and thus provide more support for people in Iraq.
I have criticised Iraq’s Government in the past, and I remain critical of the fact that trade union rights are still denied to Kurds and Iraqis. However, if our troops had not gone into Iraq, the debate about trade union rights would not be taking place at all. There was no such thing as a trade union movement in that country before our troops gave people there the scope to develop democratic institutions and have legitimate democratic arguments. The continuing presence of our troops in Iraq is allowing that process to go on.
There has been much discussion about whether our armed forces should stay in Iraq. Last night, the general secretary of the Kurdistan workers syndicate spoke at a meeting in this House. He was asked whether the time had come to withdraw British troops from Iraq, but his unequivocal answer was that that would be a catastrophe. Although he wants our troops to leave Iraq at the earliest possible moment, he made it clear that that moment has not arrived. The time to leave will come when the job is done. We should recognise that and continue to support the work of our troops.
We should help all the peoples of Iraq to rebuild their country, so that they can play their part in bringing peace and stability to the wider middle east. We must continue to protect them and their families from those who would destroy them or halt their progress along the road to democracy and the creation of genuine democratic structures. I did not see one British soldier when I was in Kurdistan, but their work and effort and their impact on the country was clear for all to see. It could be seen in people’s confidence in the way forward.
My words are in no way an apology for the Government nor for the bad behaviour of individual members of the armed forces. We—the House—asked the armed forces to do a job on our behalf and on behalf of other people in the world. We should be proud of the job they are doing and support them in doing it.
It is axiomatic that the Member of Parliament for Wiltshire—indeed, all Wiltshire Members of Parliament—should take seriously their responsibilities to the armed forces of this country, as well as the wives and families of those brave people and the civilian populations who support them.
Last Sunday, I was in the village of Fovant in Wiltshire at the annual drumhead service for the Fovant Badges Society. As we remembered the battle of the Somme, the Australian high commissioner reminded us of the part that Australia had played in the military history of our islands. In front of 34 Royal British Legion banners and about 300 veterans and their families, we sang our hearts out for the people who, on their way to and from the Somme, had carved in the chalk hillside their regimental badges, including the badge of the Anzacs.
That service brought home to me the continuity of military tradition in the county of Wiltshire. The memory goes much further back than the first world war and beyond the days when Salisbury plain was purchased by the War Department to be our primary training area: for 300 years, at 12 noon on the day after the poll, the Member of Parliament for Salisbury of the time has to ascend the balcony of the White Hart hotel in Salisbury and sing the marching song of the Wiltshire Regiment—[Hon. Members: “Sing it now.”] Sadly, I am not allowed to, although I should love to; I have successfully sung the song six times and look forward to doing so a seventh time, and who knows how many more.
The ceremony illustrates the relationship between the military and the agricultural communities from which it drew its forces. For 300 years, the old county regiment of Wiltshire has fought with the British Army all over the world. There is an ancient and tattered flag in the nave of Salisbury cathedral—the very flag that the Wiltshire Regiment took up the Potomac river to sack the White House. I remind my American friends of that and point out the flag with great pleasure—[Laughter.] They have a good chuckle, too.
We are talking about something much more important than mere history; it is living history. This is my first opportunity in a defence debate to recall with sorrow the passing into history of the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment. We lament its passing, and I echo the words of those who have said that the geographical representation of the British regiments is important to our traditions and that we are losing something by further amalgamations. I hope that we shall stop them before we become just like any other old army. I remember, too, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, which still exists but only as a company and not as a proud regiment.
We have talked much today about the strength of the regular forces. I note that on 1 April 2006 the naval service had a shortfall between trained requirement and strength of about 1,300 people, which is a decrease of 600 from the previous year. The RAF was 600 under strength in April 2006, and shortfalls have been recorded in four of the last five years.
At the same time, the Army needed 1,200 trained personnel to reach its requirements, which is two thirds of the shortfall recorded in the previous year. That is a move in the right direction and I am very relieved about it. After the Secretary of State’s announcement on Monday about Project Hyperion and the other defence acquisition hub announcements, I look forward to hearing more about the proposal to create a new three-star command for recruitment and training, which will, I hope, make the Army even more effective in that respect than it is already.
I offer some praise and comfort in respect of recruitment in very difficult days. It is always easy for the military to recruit when unemployment is very high. Of course, without the foundations laid by the previous Conservative Government, unemployment would not have fallen in the past nine years or so, but civilian staffing is also very important indeed, particularly in my constituency. The Secretary of State for Defence referred to the vital work of civilian staff. They are hugely important in my constituency, and they range from the defence scientists at Porton Down to the administrative grades in Land Command at Wilton.
I am not at all surprised that the Public and Commercial Services union has briefed very thoroughly, efficiently and accurately the Members of Parliament involved in the recent announcements. We need to remember that the number of civilian employees in the military has declined by 23 per cent. since 1997. I should say for the sake of accuracy that it has decreased by 45 per cent. since 1990, before that argument rears its head again. The civilian work force supporting the military has continually declined over the past 16 years, and we need to remember that when we are listening to the unions and others.
It is therefore very important that we consider the role of the civilian work force, and I wish to pass on my own very grateful thanks to all the scientific, industrial and administrative civil servants who work at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down—the constant butt of criticism and inaccurate reporting and sometimes of vicious and inaccurate comments, even from Members of Parliament, as happened quite recently. The way in which a Member attacked DSTL was disgraceful—its employees are the very people who provide the daily protection for our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are working hard at Porton Down to protect our service personnel.
I also think of all the military and civilian staff at Winterbourne Gunner and the way in which they are training the military. Indeed, every police force in the country receives its chemical, biological and radiological training at Winterbourne Gunner outside Salisbury.
QinetiQ at Boscombe Down is a huge success story involving the privatisation of part of the old Defence Evaluation and Research Agency into DSTL, which remains public sector, and QinetiQ. I opposed that change not just because well over 1,000 people in my constituency were involved, but because I thought that it was wrong. I thought that something that Margaret Thatcher refused to privatise was likely not to be sensibly privatisable, but it turns out to have proved successful. QinetiQ at Boscombe Down now employs not 1,200 people, but nearly 1,800 people, and it is a hugely successful enterprise that provides an important part of the infrastructure of defence in this country.
I should also like to mention—I am not the first Member to do so today—the importance of Defence Medical Services. Ever since I first served on the Defence Committee, back in 1995, I have been very concerned about what happened to Defence Medical Services. There was not a glorious transition. Nevertheless, we have what we have. Unfortunately, pay and salaries have dropped substantially. Negotiations are in progress as we speak, but a settlement should have been reached for the new uplifts in pay for armed forces doctors.
Besides the regular doctors and consultants, I pay tribute to the reservists and Territorials who play an absolutely crucial part. This year, the district hospital in my constituency has had five consultants operating in theatre in Afghanistan and Iraq. They make an enormous contribution. They forgo quite a lot to do it, but their work is extremely important. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us some good news on progress in that respect in his winding-up speech.
I served on the Armed Forces Bill Committee earlier this year—my third such engagement with an Armed Forces Bill and, I hope, my last because we might not need another one now that we have a tri-service Act—so I should like to comment on the work of the Chaplain General’s Department. This is the first year in which the Army has provided for the spiritual welfare of men and women of faiths other than Christianity. I warmly welcome that and I am sure that it is a move in the right direction. I have seen Army chaplains at work in the field—in particular in the Balkans, but elsewhere too—and I have been hugely impressed by their professionalism and by the high regard in which they are held by the people in their charge. I wonder whether they are better out in theatre than perhaps they are sometimes in the garrison towns around Salisbury plain. I do not know.
What I do know, however, is that during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill, we took evidence from families whose young men had suffered from bullying and worse and it was distressing to hear that, to them, the padre was just another officer who could not really be trusted. That gets to the nub of the problem with Army chaplains: they have a duty of confidentiality in relation to the confessional, but they also have a duty of confidentiality to the chain of command. I wonder whether that circle can ever be squared. It might be slightly easier in the Royal Navy, where a chaplain is not an officer. I do not know.
May I correct my hon. Friend slightly? He is quite right that, in the Royal Navy, chaplains—my father was one—do not wear a badge of rank, but that does not mean that they are not officers. They bear the same rank as the person to whom they are speaking, so when they are speaking to a rating, they are themselves ratings. That is an important point.
That is crucial. It is a fascinating point and one that I would like to take up. Tomorrow, I will travel to York to the General Synod of the Church of England. It is interesting that the Chaplain General’s Department is fully accredited to the General Synod of the Church of England and will be represented there. I can see some interesting discussions taking place.
I would like to say a few words about the Royal Military Police, who are hardly ever mentioned, except when things go wrong. I first came across the Royal Military Police in my constituency. Then, as now, five different police forces—most of them military of different colours and badges and so on—were operating in my constituency. The Royal Military Police were always around in their vehicles. Late on a Saturday night, if there was a spot of bother in the garrison towns at closing time, Wiltshire constabulary put a quick call through to the RMP and suddenly everyone calmed down and disappeared very quickly indeed, because the disciplinary procedure is quite different. Someone who is picked up by Wiltshire constabulary is in the cells overnight, rapped over the knuckles by the magistrates and let out the next morning; someone who is caught by the RMP is up on charges in front of the commanding officer the next morning and is fined £700. That is a no-brainer.
I next met the RMP when I was in Sarajevo, Banja Luka and elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. We had close protection squads from the RMP looking after us. They were very dangerous days. I was full of admiration then—and now—for the work that they do. The strange thing is that, in battle, the RMP are always right out there at the front. They are in front of the armour and the artillery, staking out the forward route in their Land Rovers and so on. They are very lightly armoured, if at all, and they have no protection from mines, small arms or artillery. I know that that is being addressed. I have raised the matter before with the Minister of State. We know that there is a new stream of Panther vehicles coming to the Army later. However, what bothers me is that, in a parliamentary question, I asked who was going to get those vehicles first, and the answer was the training regiments. That is fine, but no mention was made of the RMP. I thought that we were talking about what was meant to be a front-line reconnaissance vehicle.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it is important that those vehicles come on stream as soon as possible, it is equally important that there is forward planning by the Ministry of Defence when it comes to the training on those vehicles, so that there is no gap between training and deployment?
On the Panthers, which are feeding through soon, is my hon. Friend aware that the theatres and situations in which they can be used are limited? They were preferred to the RG-31s, which are much more flexible, have performed extremely well in Iraq and are used by the Canadians in Kandahar province.
Well, fine, someone must have evaluated them along the line. In any event, those out in the front with the Royal Military Police should have these vehicles, or some equivalent.
When peacekeeping, as we are seeing in Iraq, the RMP has the most difficult task of gathering evidence in terribly difficult circumstances. The special investigation branch has to go out in dangerous circumstances in inadequate vehicles. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me and say that the Royal Military Police will indeed have an early choice of the use of the vehicles for their vital tasks both in battle and in peacetime work.
I wonder what it is about the Royal Military Police, but the way in which other people in the military perceive its members is generally not very flattering, with a lot of references to coppers and so on. There is probably just old-fashioned, time-expired snobbery towards the “coppers”. Talking of rank, can the Minister tell me why there has never been a Royal Military Police officer above the rank of two star? That is fascinating? Again, talking of rank, my colleagues on the Defence Committee and I wonder why no woman in the Army has ever exceeded the rank of brigadier. I suppose that there is a glass ceiling.
There was an announcement earlier this week about Project Hyperion, which is crucial to my constituency. I am talking about the future of 1,700 people who are being moved from Upavon, which is in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), and Wilton, which is in my constituency, to south Andover. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) thus has the good fortune of receiving those people in his constituency, but it will be very much our loss.
HQ Land Command and the Adjutant-General’s department are being amalgamated, which is sensible. As in every other service, it makes good sense for the Army to have one headquarters. However, it is not as simple as that. We are talking about disruption to the lives of a lot of loyal civilian workers in the military. In fact, there will be 200 civilian job losses and about 100 military redeployments.
The process marks the end of a long and historic association. Owing to the generosity of the then Earl of Pembroke, Southern Command took over Wilton House in the dark days of 1940. It was in the famous double cube room of Wilton House that Generals Montgomery and Eisenhower planned the Normandy landings and the liberation of France and Europe. While the Army was there, it acquired land from the Wilton estate and built the Erskine barracks on the other side of the A36. That site is now the headquarters of the largest budget holder in the British Army, and there is a work force of 1,300 on that site alone. The fortunes of the military and civilian communities are intertwined economically and socially. We have married quarters at both Bulbridge, which is south of Wilton, and Erskine barracks itself.
I was grateful to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, for writing to me on 3 July to fill in the statement of the Secretary of State. He said that no future defence use had been identified for the Wilton or Upavon sites, but:
“I do not rule out the possibility that a use will be identified, but at present our assumption is that both sides will close once the new HQ is fully operational at Andover. However, we will retain the married quarters at both sites.”
That prompts some questions.
First, when will Ministers be able to rule out a further defence use? Sensible, rational planning is needed for a new future for the site, which is strategically important because it is on the railway and the A36. What is the relationship with Project Allenby? Will we be told at the last minute that the draw-down for Germany, the pressures of Project Allenby, the rebuilding of the military estate and the move from Aldershot towards Wiltshire will mean that extra accommodation is needed for the military? That uncertainty should be ended as soon as possible. Who owns the site anyway? For two years, I have pursued the question of Crichel Down rules, which always come back to haunt us. The personnel who work at Land Command do not know whether they own the site. It is hugely important to decide whether the land will revert to the estate or whether the Treasury will sell it off.
We are delighted that the married quarters are to be retained, but what does that mean? Addington Homes owns the Erskine married quarters, but I do not know whether it owns Bulbridge. Civilians and military personnel have been consulted, and the Secretary of State has reinforced the importance of doing that. At both national and local level, the trade unions will be consulted, which is welcome. So far, however, the county council and the district council, which is the planning authority, have not been consulted. More importantly, the people of Wilton and their elected representatives on Wilton town council have not been consulted.
The town of Wilton is a proud and ancient community that pre-dates the city of Salisbury and gave its name to the county of Wiltshire. It has recognised the role of thousands of armed forces personnel for nearly 70 years, so the Ministry of Defence should not think for a moment that Wilton does not care about that momentous decision. On the contrary—the people of Wilton care passionately about their relationship with the military, the land that it has occupied for all those years and the married quarters that the town will continue to host. I hope that a team from Defence Estates or the most appropriate agency will meet the local authorities, particularly Wilton town council, to ensure that their voice is heard. That site must remain in the ownership of the local community, emotionally if not legally.
We must consider the security of armed forces personnel before they move to south Andover. The interface between the Home Office constabulary, Wiltshire police and the service police is crucial for both armed forces personnel and civilians. The patrolling of the married quarters estates at Bulbridge and Erskine barracks was undertaken by the Ministry of Defence police, but they have already moved from Erskine barracks to Tidworth on Salisbury plain. The military guard, the familiar Army security control vehicles and the Royal Military Police are all part of a sensitive security network that shields hundreds of armed forces personnel and the local community. We would therefore like to know more about the proposals. The leader of the district council has set up a taskforce on behalf of the planning authority, and I very much hope that there will be a matching commitment by the Ministry of Defence to work with the local community.
Finally, may I simply reiterate the admiration that I share with many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House for the work of armed forces personnel, whether they are in theatre at the sharp end or are in the background providing the infrastructure to allow the country’s soldiers, sailors and airmen to do their magnificent work on our behalf around the world? We can be proud of their role, and very proud, too, of all the civilians who support them.
I am always diffident about taking part in defence debates, as I have not served in the armed services, although I have relatively recent connections with the forces. My husband was a national service officer, and our elder son was a regular officer in the same regiment—the 14th/20th King’s Hussars. As we speak, his second son is at a combined cadet force camp on Dartmoor, so perhaps there will be a third generation in the armed services in due course.
At the outset of my brief contribution, may I pay tribute to all our armed service personnel, who are the very best services in the world and serve with great distinction and valour? May I extend my deepest sympathies to families who have been bereaved, some very recently indeed?
It is an obvious thing to say but also true that without people who are prepared to join the Army, Navy and Air Force to serve our country, we would have no armed forces. One of the key problems being faced is the important issue of recruitment and retention, which has been mentioned in the debate. We are frequently told by Ministers that because the United Kingdom has enjoyed a successful economy for some time, difficulties in recruiting have been exacerbated. The only answer that the MOD has come up with to date to seek to solve the problem is to pour massive amounts of money into recruitment in the hope of attracting sufficient personnel for the future.
However, we all are aware that money is getting tight and the Chancellor will probably not be too keen on providing more, in spite of the United Kingdom’s many and ongoing military commitments in various theatres. I believe that the problem is far more deeply rooted than just competition in the employment market place. The unemployment figures are beginning to creep up nationally, so in a relatively short time that reason will, perhaps, no longer be valid.
We should cast our minds back to December 1998 during the negotiations on the St. Malo agreement. It was at that time that the Prime Minister decided that the UK would not join the euro. In all matters relating to the European Union, there can never be a straight decision. There is always a trade-off—that is, a price to be paid. In this instance, the UK conceded and agreed that our forces would be integrated into a European Union defence force.
From that time onwards, the Ministry of Defence did not quite know in what direction it would have to commit our armed forces in the future. Would the first priority be to serve the interests of the UK, or to co-operate with the European Union or with the United States of America, or a combination of all three? If the MOD did not know in which direction it was meant to be going, how could members of the armed services second-guess the future? Subsequently, the problems have been exacerbated because the UK is engaged in conflicts in which our troops are committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It has been well understood that, moving on from the former cold war scenario, changes would have to be introduced and the concept of the future Army structure came to light with its objective of strengthening the medium sector. It is crystal clear that we are without a whole category of vehicles suitable for counter-insurgency work, and this lack has been shown in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The focus and direction of policy has been to prioritise the future rapid effect system, which is an integral part of the European Union rapid reaction force, but which realistically will not be in operation until possibly as late as 2020. Moreover, the whole project falls into a world of fantasy in which the total package requires airlift, electronics, future technology and state of the art communication at a projected overall cost of £6 billion initially, which ballooned almost overnight to £14 billion.
Those sums are all beyond our financial means and are almost just a wish list, but these plans have resulted in us taking our eye off the ball. Rather than concentrating on what is needed now and for the immediate future to enable our armed forces to meet the challenges of fighting insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan—insurgents who are highly mobile and armed with cheap but deadly weaponry—we are left in a virtual vacuum. We are expecting our forces to operate Snatch 1 armoured Land Rovers from Northern Ireland, which are clapped out and always overheating and breaking down. The No. 2s are just about acceptable, with a little life left in them yet, while the No. 3s are very few on the ground.
The problem is that we are forced to use these old vehicles because there is no alternative, and because of ongoing long-term commitments the MOD is now virtually broke. We heard a little earlier in the debate that there are to be further cuts of at least £1 billion. The Chancellor has judged that there are more important things on which to spend taxpayers’ money, so is it any wonder that the strength of our armed forces is under pressure—by “strength”, I mean the number of personnel who are currently serving in the armed services? The answer that the Government have arrived at is to keep moving the establishment—the number of service personnel who are actually needed to fulfil our present commitments—downwards. By that neat mechanism of fiddling the figures, the MOD can claim that we are “nearly up to strength”.
I have still not been able to acquire the reserve forces figures, which were due to be published on 1 April this year, in spite of my tabling more than one written parliamentary question. The present figures are 15 months old, which makes one wonder what is going on in the MOD. If I may make a suggestion, it is much better to publish and be damned rather than to make people think that it is sheer administrative incompetence, or that the Government are trying to keep the truth from hon. Members and from the public who have an interest in these matters. If the figures are not provided before the recess, one can only assume that they are being deliberately withheld.
Recruitment of the Territorial Army and the regulars is now being merged, which will, in my view, be disastrous if it is not handled professionally and with a great deal of thought and planning. The recruiting teams will have to be made to understand that they are dealing with two completely different animals. The regulars operate in what might be described as a military bubble, but the TA personnel are, first and foremost, civilians and come from a totally different background and experience, although they have a considerable amount to offer the armed services.
While our armed forces are placing their lives on the line each and every day on behalf of us all, which they are now doing in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, it is essential that the Government, through the MOD and Parliament, concentrate on providing what is necessary for the present and for the immediate future. The Prime Minister has spent too much time placing European Union integrationist policy first, rather than ensuring that present day servicemen and women have appropriate and adequate resources and equipment.
If we do not provide our forces with the best that money can buy, rather than some of the present outdated equipment, which is hardly fit for purpose, will it be any surprise if we cannot recruit or retain sufficient high-calibre personnel? By spending too much time and energy on the future creation of forces which will eventually be totally integrated within the European Union rapid defence force, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor have sold the pass and limited the choices for the future.
Many commentators believe that the Army of today is being starved of resources in order to feed a fantasy army of the future. I hope that they will be proved wrong, and I trust that the MOD will provide the appropriate equipment for our armed services to allow them to perform their valuable and vital duties.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) started her remarks modestly by being self-deprecating about her knowledge of defence, which she belied by the depth of knowledge and detail in her speech. Hon. Members will have been astonished to hear that someone so young could possibly be married to someone who did national service. I am glad that the cavalry arrived in time to hear the best part of her speech.
As always happens on these occasions, today’s debate consists of three main strands. First, all hon. Members—this is probably true of all hon. Members throughout history—have been unanimous in paying tribute to the courage, professionalism, discipline and dedication of our armed services, both in times of peace and in times of war, which is the case at the moment in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The job that they do is not a job that many of us sitting in this air-conditioned Chamber would willingly do, although some of us sometimes pretend otherwise, and we pay tribute to all that they do and to the support provided by their families. That is an enormously important strand in this annual personnel debate.
The second strand that recurs in these debates concerns the kit and equipment with which our armed forces are sent to war. There are always discussions about whether there is enough body armour, whether there are enough bullets, and whether the equipment could be improved in one way or another. For my part, I am proud that 9 Supply Regiment, the Royal Logistics Corps is based in my constituency; it does an outstanding job of ensuring that equipment gets to troops on the front line. However, improvements could be made in the computer systems that enable it to get that equipment through to the boys on the front line. During Telic 1, for example, a significant amount of equipment, particularly body armour, was stored at Umm Qasr but should have been issued. Nevertheless, we should be proud of the fact that the British armed services have the highest standards of equipment issued to any armed services anywhere in the world. Of course, it could always be improved or used more effectively. It is also true that soldiers will always go out and purchase their own equipment. Before any deployment or operation, the boys will go out and buy their own stuff, but that is not to say that the stuff that they have is not first class. It is worth paying tribute to the quality of the equipment supplied to them.
I have particular concerns about the foam flame retardant that is being fitted to the wing tanks of the Hercules fleet. Having heard in this House only last week that the first plane will be completed by August, I understand that that has slipped at least to September and possibly to October. I do not want the Minister to give away any secrets that would help our enemy, but I hope that he will take on board the fact that the community around Lyneham in my constituency is desperately keen that that retardant should be fitted as soon as possible. Leaving aside such details, broadly speaking the equipment with which our troops go to war is first class.
The third strand—the one that has most preoccupied us and is perhaps the most important at a time like this—is the question of whether the things that we are asking our armed services to do are matched by the numbers of people and the quality of the equipment that they are given to do them with. In that context, I am glad that this debate follows our debate on defence policy a couple of Thursdays ago. What are our armed services for? Are we always going to support the United States in everything that it does? Are we to go around the world as a kind of world police force? Are we engaged in home defence and crisis management on our own shores? We have a whole variety of roles in the Balkans, the Falklands, Northern Ireland and Germany—the list goes on and on. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, we are being asked to do more and more. There seems to be a global strategic mission creep. The Government are very free about saying that we will do these things—“We must do something about it: let’s send some troops”—but less free with the supply of people to do them.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because he has only just arrived, unlike those of us who have sat through the debate for the entire afternoon. We are short of time, and I want to allow some of my hon. Friends to speak.
During the Conservatives’ time in office, there was something called MARILYN, which stood for manning and recruitment in the lean years of the nineties. At that time, it was predicted that a drop-off in population numbers would prevent us from recruiting enough people into the armed services. Perhaps that should now become MARTINET—manning and recruitment in the now even more terrible years of the twenties. Some serious manning and recruitment problems are coming our way. With 103,000 Army personnel, we now have the smallest Army there has ever been. If that figure falls below 100,000, we will no longer able to call it an army in normal nomenclature. We have the smallest Army since the battle of Waterloo, yet it is being asked to do more and more. The same applies to the Royal Navy and the Air Force.
I am especially concerned about the Territorial Army and the reserve forces in general because they were significantly cut in the strategic defence review. At the time, it was said to be a good thing but we have subsequently discovered that we could not have carried out operations in Iraq or Afghanistan without our reserves. I suspect that current figures for the number of reserves available to us are probably substantially misleading. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton made an interesting point about that.
When a soldier returns after serving six or eight months in Iraq, it is unlikely that any other than the unemployed Territorial Army soldier will volunteer to go a second time. The nature of the TA soldier deployed on operations has changed significantly since the day when I had the honour of serving in the TA. I suspect that several people will return from operations overseas, remain a member of their regiment for a time—especially, I am ashamed to say, to collect their annual bounty, which provides important financial help—and move on. I therefore suspect that the number of people available to the services from the TA and the other reserve forces is significantly smaller than the figures suggest. The Government must, therefore, consider carefully how we can increase the number of soldiers, sailors and airmen in our reserves and how we can prevent that number from falling further.
If a truly fundamental strategic defence review were to take place again and we were to set out our purposes and how our armed forces would carry out those tasks, the number of servicemen available—from memory, it is 185,000 in the three services—would be too small. If we are to undertake the war against terror alongside the United States, the world’s policing and the homeland defence tasks that face us now, any sensible and dispassionate observer will say, “The number is too small.” The elastic is stretched to its limit. Can it be stretched further?
One former Prime Minister of our great nation told me that when he was Prime Minister he went to see the teachers and they listened to him, but, after a time, they told him to get lost. He visited the doctors and nurses and they, too, listened carefully, but again, after a time, they told him to get lost. Then he went to see the generals and, time and again, they turned to the right, saluted and got on with what they were told to do. All Prime Ministers and Governments increasingly love the military because the military carry out their instructions in a way that no other public servants do. In a sense, the trouble with the British forces is that they have a can-do mentality. No matter what they are asked to do, they will get on with it—and they have been doing that in spades in recent years.
At what stage will British forces be asked to do too much? When will the elastic snap? Several of us are worried that, at this moment in our strategic outlook on life, we are very near to that point. I hate the thought that something might happen, around the world or onshore—let us suppose that, heaven forfend, three explosions take place in different towns simultaneously—and our armed forces have to say, “I’m sorry, Secretary of State, but we cannot do it.” I am horrified at the thought that a point may come in the history of our nation when that happens.
The debate is, therefore, important. It is vital that the Government—no one else can do it—consider carefully what they ask our armed forces to do and the resources that they give them to do it. My instinct tells me that they will conclude that the resources are woefully inadequate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer must face up to it and spend significantly more on our defences.
I am grateful to be called to speak and happy to follow the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I apologise for not being present throughout the debate.
I want to bring to hon. Members’ attention a responsibility that the Ministry of Defence has shirked for too long—the Bevin boys, who were conscripted miners between 1943 and 1948. The Ministry’s responsibility is clear. Those men were conscripts, called up to serve their country, who, through luck or lack of it, ended up underground, mining coal to keep our war effort going. Let me explain the process whereby someone ended up as a Bevin boy. Every month, as conscription proceeded, Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, put in his bowler hat the numbers zero to nine and his secretary pulled out two numbers. Every conscript whose national registration number ended with those digits was posted to the mines. Those who refused to be posted were dealt with under the wartime emergency powers legislation, and often had to serve a jail sentence, as well as time down the pit on their release.
If it had not been for the process devised by Bevin, those conscripts would have served in our armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has rightly honoured armed forces veterans in recent years in an increasing number of ways, and it also has a responsibility to honour the Bevin boys.
Why was there a need for conscripted miners? The Government had allowed experienced coal miners to join the armed services, and to transfer from pit work to more highly paid jobs elsewhere in industry—and, with all due respect, who would not make that choice? It was hoped that the gaps in mining numbers would be taken up by the unemployed. However, by mid-1943, more than 36,000 miners had left the industry, many for better jobs, and the move by the Government to make the industry a reserved occupation was too little, too late. Coal production slumped dangerously low and, by the end of 1943, it was estimated that Britain had only three weeks’ supply in reserve. So, in December 1943, Bevin hatched his plan, and 48,000 men ended up serving in the system until 1948—long after many of their military counterparts had been returned to civilian life. Bevin boys therefore assisted not only with our war effort, but in our reconstruction process.
The return to normality for the Bevin boys after their service was a return to nothing. Their pre-conscription employment was not protected, and there were no pensions for those injured during their service. Armed service conscripts were rightly allowed to keep their military uniform, given a demob suit and paid leave, and received war and campaign medals. They could also return to their pre-war employment. Not so the Bevin boys. So, in many ways, the Bevin boys suffered during their conscription and continued to suffer after the end of their national service. To my mind, the memory to them continues to suffer today.
Many of those young men wanted to do what they saw as their duty and fight the Nazi tyranny that was engulfing the world at that time. Many therefore felt that their status as Bevin boys was not given just recognition. Many Bevin boys were also subjected to a range of taunts, humiliating attacks and unpleasant behaviour. As they wore no uniform when off duty, they were often believed to be avoiding their military service, promoting suspicion that they were draft dodgers, deserters or even enemy agents. Many were regularly challenged by the police.
Those conscripts were not well looked after in the 1940s, and they are not well recognised 60 years later. It was not until the 50th anniversary of VE day and VJ day during May and August 1995 that they received any recognition at all. Speeches made by the Queen, the then Speaker of this House and the Prime Minister acknowledged their value in words, but now is the time for deeds, not words.
This is not a contest between those who served in our armed forces in that period—or, indeed, in any period—and the Bevin boys. It is about an overdue recognition that, without their effort, we might well not be having this debate today. I tabled early-day motion 1417 earlier this year, calling on the Government to recognise the Bevin boys officially with an award similar to that available to military veterans. I am very happy to tell the House that that motion has attracted 173 signatories, including members of all parties except, sadly, the Scottish National party, none of whose members is here today. I urge all Members who have yet to sign the motion to do so—even members of the SNP—to show their solidarity and support for those veterans of world war two.
I have already raised this matter in the House with the Prime Minister, and with the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), now the Minister for Europe, who informed the House that his constituency predecessor had been a Bevin boy. I have written to the Prime Minister twice, but I am still waiting for a formal reply. I have also written to the Ministry of Defence and Department of Trade and Industry, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the present veterans Minister for his understanding approach. However, all the time the MOD is deliberating whether to acknowledge the Bevin boys, their numbers are falling. They are now old men, and some are very ill.
I have had support on this matter from UK Coal, Scottish Coal, NUM Scotland and a host of other mining-related organisations, in addition to letters of support from families all round the UK. Those letters display something other than support; they display hope that the MOD will have the conviction to acknowledge the service of those conscripted veterans in a personal way, and that is what I believe the MOD has a moral obligation to do.
The Bevin Boys Association exists today to keep their memory alive and to fight for their cause. I pay tribute to Warwick Taylor for his commitment to the more than 1,800 men who are members of the association, and to my constituent, Fraser Neil, who was responsible for raising the issue with me in the first place.
Some Bevin boys are household names—Jimmy Savile, Eric Morecambe and Brian Rix, to name but a few. I must take the opportunity to applaud the Sunday Express, which has worked with me in the campaign for recognition of the Bevin boys’ effort. More than 1,000 readers have returned coupons to the Sunday Express calling for the Government to do the right thing, and that is what I call on the MOD to do today. I know that I mentioned that Jimmy Savile is a former Bevin boy, but I hope that we do not have to rely on Jim to fix it. The MOD should fix it, and the sooner the better.
I, too, pay tribute to our armed forces throughout the world.
I also want to put on record my thanks to all military and civilian staff serving our armed forces in Shropshire. I pay tribute especially to the excellent work of the Army Base Repair Organisation. Earlier this year, the Government announced that ABRO was to close. I thank the Minister of State for rethinking that decision and giving ABRO a stay of execution, certainly for the next three years. I also pay tribute to the Defence Committee and its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), for highlighting in their Afghanistan inquiry the role that ABRO needs to play and is playing. I hope that the Minister might today throw a further lifeline to ABRO and say that, given the possible three-year deployment in Afghanistan, and the possibly longer commitment in Iraq, ABRO’s life will be extended beyond three years and into the next decade and beyond. I hope that we can be encouraged on that.
I also pay tribute to the Defence Logistics Organisation in my constituency and to all those who work at Sapphire house in the neighbouring constituency of Telford. Of course, the Minister will know that an announcement was made this week that might see 400 job losses at the DLO. Notwithstanding the points made on both sides of the House about whether the merger of the Defence Procurement Agency and the DLO is right or wrong—and I question whether it is right—one must ask whether the timing is right. The Secretary of State said earlier that the timing of any decision to change things can never be right. To return to the Afghanistan inquiry, one of the key reasons for the ABRO decision being changed was the timing of the troop deployment to Afghanistan, where vehicles suffered attrition due to rough terrain and needed to be repaired more frequently and quickly to be redeployed to the front line. The same logic applies to the DLO.
We have rightly paid tribute to our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but let us not forget those in Gibraltar, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Congo and many other places around the world. All those forces require logistical support. I therefore hope that the Government will rethink the decision about the DLO, as it rethought the decision about ABRO, which I put on record that I welcome. There is time to do so. There is no shame in the Government saying that they have concluded during the consultation that the timing is wrong, and that the principle of whether the DPA and DLO should be merged can be discussed later.
I may be in a minority among Conservative Members on this matter, but perhaps Parliament needs to debate at some point whether privatisation of our defence sector has gone too far. Do we now just want to outsource responsibility without establishing that output will be better than it is in the public sector? The public sector contains both military personnel and civilians who have served in the forces and have a military ethos—a public service ethos. Such people are often reluctant to go into the private sector, and not just for reasons to do with pay, terms and conditions and TUPE arguments about the protection of employment. They joined a military organisation because they wanted to be part of a military organisation.
That leads me to the defence training review and RAF Cosford. As I said here earlier today, unemployment in Shropshire rose by a whopping 30 per cent. between May 2005 and May 2006. With manufacturing outflow and the retail sector under threat in some of our market towns, there has never been a greater need to protect Shropshire’s defence sector, and that includes the 2,200 personnel, both military and civilian, at RAF Cosford. I hope that the review will be objective, measured and non-political, and will conclude that the experience, dedication and commitment required in defence training is best provided by the personnel at Cosford—and, indeed, throughout the west midlands technology corridor and supply chain, and in the aerospace cluster in Shropshire and surrounding counties.
I am proud that Combat Stress has a facility in my constituency. The staff at Audley court in Newport, Shropshire, do a marvellous job. I have been there several times, met staff and clients and listened to many of their stories, which are varied. The people there have been involved in different conflicts, some recent, some dating back to the Falklands, and some even dating back to the second world war. Those stories are extremely moving. It is absolutely right for the Government to consider improving mental health services for our armed forces personnel.
We know that without early intervention, post-traumatic stress becomes post-traumatic stress disorder, which is far harder and more costly to treat. I think that those who are currently in the armed forces receive the message that people with mental health problems are not being treated well, and that that lowers morale. I think it also causes people to wonder whether they should join up if our veterans are not treated properly.
That in turn leads me to the issue of the joint forces payment agency and the Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency. A number of constituents have contacted me over the last few months about late payments, lost documents and redundancy settlements that have not been given to them in time. That has caused them real financial hardship. I hope the Minister will ensure that those agencies abide by their duties and fulfil their obligations to those who have served the country and Her Majesty’s armed forces over many years. It is absolutely right for them to be treated as well when they leave as when they arrived. Perhaps if they are treated better when they leave, more will join.
It strikes me as a tragic paradox that while our armed forces are fighting for democracy overseas, when in theatre they are unable to exercise their own democratic rights and vote over here. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that when the next general election comes along, everyone who serves in Her Majesty’s armed forces, whether military or civilian, will be given plenty of time to register their votes so that they can exercise their democratic rights and choose the Government whom they want to serve this country.
Some months ago, I raised the issue of the haemorrhaging of special forces personnel to private security companies. The then Secretary of State for Defence said that a statement on the matter, either written or oral, would be presented to the House. It may have passed me by, but I am not aware of any statement on how the Government are dealing with the ongoing haemorrhage of special forces, such as members of the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Squadron, the close protection trained Parachute Regiment and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) mentioned earlier, the Royal Military Police. Retention of such personnel is a problem and I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of how the Government are dealing with that important matter.
May I say to my hon. Friend that this does not involve only the elite groups that he mentioned? Experienced non-commissioned officers from the front-line infantry units are also leaving to join security companies. When I visited the Scots Guards in Amarah, the commanding officer told me that he was very worried that, when he returned to Germany, many of his senior NCOs would purchase their discharge and go back to Iraq to gain a massive increase in their salary, thus diminishing the regiment’s ability to train.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, as he always does. He is absolutely right to say that not only are members of the elite regiments attracted to the private security sector, but people from the Guards and other infantry regiments are interested as well. That is absolutely understandable given the professionalism and training of Her Majesty’s armed services—[Interruption.] Yes, senior NCOs are particularly in demand by private security companies— and understandably so. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say about that.
Expenditure is a thorny issue in this place, but I am a Back Bencher and I can speak freely, but with caution. Are the pay levels for our armed forces personnel right? I believe that I am right to say that UK armed forces are the only service personnel who have to pay tax on their income while serving in foreign fields. I hope that the Minister will look further into that and see whether some exemption or tax relief can be made for our armed forces while they are serving in foreign countries.
The cadet forces have already been mentioned and I declare an interest as president of Telford and Wrekin air cadets and as a former, albeit junior, air cadet in the Herefordshire squadron. I welcome the Government’s commitment to expand the cadet forces, but I note that it applies specifically to the combined cadet forces. That is fine, but I appeal to the Minister not to overlook the fine work of all the civilian and military voluntary staff of the Air Training Corps and our marvellous cadets throughout the country. Please do not overlook the Army Cadet Force and certainly do not overlook the marvellous work of the sea cadet corps. Many of these groups are struggling for funds. The Government are right in what they are doing, but it would be a shame if concentrating on the CCF meant that the Air Training Corps, the Army Cadet Force and the sea cadet corps lost out.
I think I am right in pointing to a strange anomaly whereby the sea cadets are not funded by the Ministry of Defence, but entirely charitably—[Interruption.] I note that the Under-Secretary is shaking his head and he will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but it might be an occasion for the MOD to consider whether the sea cadets should be put on the same footing as the Army and air cadets.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. From memory, I believe that the current position is that the sea cadets have 60 per cent. funding from the Ministry of Defence and 40 per cent. charitable funding through the excellent work of the Sea Cadet Association. It is unique in receiving less money than the other cadet forces and perhaps has less access to facilities as a result of naval bases being on the coast while sea cadet units can be far inland, as in the case of landlocked Shropshire. I hope that the Government’s move towards supporting certain youth services and cadet forces does not lead to others being overlooked.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was mentioned earlier. I congratulate it on doing an excellent job, and I hope that the Government will ensure that it is looked after in any future spending review. It is absolutely right that our war graves be maintained, and that our fallen heroes are honoured in the way that befits their sacrifice. However, I hope that the Minister will ensure that the history of our wars continues to be taught in schools, and that there is not a slippage into political correctness. I hope that it is not decided that some of the sacrifices that have been made on our country’s behalf are too horrific for young people to hear about. I encourage the Minister to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills, and to see whether it and the MOD can co-operate to enable children to visit war graves in continental Europe. If that is too costly, perhaps they could visit places such as Brookwood, in Surrey, and war graves in Cambridgeshire and throughout the country. Indeed, they could even visit their own local first and second world war memorials.
Does the Minister know whether the Prime Minister has found time to visit the sick and injured personnel—if he has such knowledge, it has passed me by thus far—wounded in recent wars such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq? Many people would be very surprised to hear that the Prime Minister, notwithstanding his busy diary, had not found time to visit those personnel, given their sacrifice and the fact that it was pretty much the Prime Minister’s lead that resulted in our troops being sent to the front line. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s answer to that question.
Finally, I want to pay tribute to all colleagues present in the House today. This has been a good-spirited debate, and let us remember that we are all in this together. It is important that we succeed in both Iraq and Afghanistan—[Interruption.] Oh yes—we are all in this together. The personnel about whom we have spoken today deserve everything that we are able to give them in terms of kit and equipment, financial support and, most of all, moral and political support.
Like my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), I begin with a tribute to the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Even when they are properly resourced—I hasten to add that I am still not convinced that they are—they work day in, day out in the most challenging circumstances imaginable.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence police in Weathersfield, in my constituency. Whether they are guarding the UK’s nuclear arsenal or other critical defence establishments, the MOD police do not live in the limelight. They stand apart from the other armed services, but, like those services, they are quietly efficient and utterly vital to this country’s interests. I mention the MOD police not only because they are headquartered in my constituency, but because I suspect that they are typical of much of this country’s defence establishment, in that they do an essential job that goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated.
In his contribution to the armed forces debate in another place last week, Lord Drayson was adamant that there was no public relations crisis facing the military. As evidence, he cited a MORI poll that confirmed that 80 per cent. of the population regard our armed forces as among the finest in the world. I have no doubt that they enjoy even greater support among the general public than that poll suggests, but my point is that, when most people think of the armed forces, they think, on the whole, of past services rendered. They are less quick to think of those who are on active service today, using sub-standard equipment, waiting hours or days for a flight home for deployment or worrying about their families living in inadequate accommodation back at home.
I congratulate the Government on instituting veterans day. It is right that we remember our veteran servicemen and women, but it is time that we placed greater emphasis on those serving today, and on the need to ensure that they will continue serving our country. We also need to look ahead and take action to ensure that generations of new recruits will want to follow them into the services. Recruitment relies on good public relations and, although I do not doubt the very high esteem in which the services continue to be held, we must admit that there is a difference between respecting an organisation and wanting to join it.
I was struck by the example of Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, who served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff during much of the great war. In 1919, he became the first man in the British Army to rise all the way from the rank of private to the rank of field marshal. But despite that conspicuously successful career, his working-class mother was horrified when he enlisted. He records her saying in his autobiography:
“I will name it to no one; I would rather bury you than see you in a red coat.”
That late 19th-century distrust of the military is something to which we would not wish to return.
As we all know, steady recruitment is the lifeblood of all our services. It depends, in no small measure, on the families of potential recruits trusting that they will be looked after and not placed in unnecessary danger because of inadequate equipment or operational overstretch. The issue of trust is central to this debate because there are increasing signs that servicemen on active duty no longer trust that they will receive adequate support from the Government.
My father-in-law, Sir John Keegan, is a distinguished military historian, which, I must admit, is something of an advantage when it comes to preparation for a debate on the armed forces. As we are commemorating the 90th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, I would like to quote briefly from one of his books, “The Face of Battle”, which contains an analysis of that campaign from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers who fought in it. He says of the British Army of 1916 that
“it was a trusting army. It believed in the reassurances proffered by the staff. It believed in the superiority of its own equipment over the Germans’. It believed in the dedication and fearlessness of its battalion officers—and was right so to believe. But it believed above all in itself.”
Some 90 years later, the essentials remain the same. The armed services are still trusting and that human quality sometimes does them a disservice. I hope that we do not have a military catastrophe in Iraq or in Afghanistan to shake the foundation of that trust, as happened on the Somme.
I have already said a little about recruitment, but the need for it would be minimised by focusing more on retention. There are many factors affecting retention but some of the most significant are easily identifiable and must be addressed. Indeed, I ask the Minister when he will give a commitment to serving soldiers that they will not be hauled through the civil courts for actions undertaken while on deployment and operating under the most difficult circumstances.
Another R is for reserves—also lacking, both in the strategic sense of having some ability to adapt to changing circumstances which require an increased commitment, but vital in enabling our forces to sustain their current level of commitment. What are the Government doing to tackle that overstretch? Several hon. Members have already asked that question.
Overstretch should be a transient fault to be regretted and avoided wherever possible. But when overstretch becomes systemic, it is not really overstretch at all—it is underinvestment. If our armed forces are stretched too far they will lose their elasticity and ability to react quickly and decisively. Eventually, they will snap. For example, the 1st Battalion the Light Infantry is currently on its third tour of Iraq in three years, and there can be little incentive for the men in that battalion to remain in the Army. What are the Government doing to ensure that the interval target of 24 months between deployments is met for all our troops?
The lack of resources is the biggest threat to retention. The Government have reassured the House repeatedly that commanders in the field will be given what they need to succeed. I am not reassured, especially when Ministers quote senior commanders such as Lieutenant General David Richards, who said:
“Bottom line, I am content with what I have and I have the resources to carry out the mission”.
I am not reassured because it is hard to imagine a military officer admitting that he or his men are not up to the task in hand, however justified that might be by the lack of resources. Soldiers just get on with the job, whatever resources are at hand, but the persistent lack of resources is not the only problem facing the services.
The extended deployment of soldiers often interferes with another R—rehabilitation. Professor Guy Chapman was a young officer during the Somme campaign. He wrote:
“If you start a man killing, you can’t turn him off again like an engine.”
Civilians take it for granted that their employers will offer them training, career management, counselling and a range of other services. In our cash-strapped armed services, those are the first things that are cut, and even medical care is now threatened. The net result has been that a tide of service personnel have left the forces as ill equipped to deal with civilian life as they were on active service.
I agree with much of what my hon. Friend is saying, although it is to the MOD’s credit that resettlement training in the Army is brilliant. However, does he agree that the big problem faced by people leaving the forces is that of adjusting to a civilian life?
My hon. Friend brings me to my very point. The shameful statistic is that between one quarter and one fifth of rough sleepers have served in our armed forces. That is the point that I tried to make when I intervened earlier on my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox).
The Government’s duty of care to service personnel does not rest on a narrow legal definition, nor does it end when people leave the services. What are they doing to ensure that personnel receive more than just combat experience when they enlist?
My final R is retirement. It is the final stage of the through-life cost of service personnel—or, I should say, it is the final stage of the through-life duty owed to them by the Government. The Government must do more than honour veterans in spirit, or by giving them a badge. Veterans deserve more than our intangible respect: they need continuing support, medical and psychiatric but financial too—by which I mean better pensions.
I have spoken briefly about the five Rs—recruitment, retention, resources, rehabilitation and retirement. Unless we address each of them, we will not have armed forces that are, to use the Government’s mantra, fit for purpose.
I conclude by quoting Lord Garden, who warned in the other place that a renewal of the duty of care owed to servicemen is needed urgently if we want to avoid finding ourselves
“with a great deal of shiny equipment but nobody to operate it.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 2006; Vol. 683, c. 1369.]
It seems that much of our equipment is not in fact all that shiny, but I urge the Minister to pay heed to the warning.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) on an interesting and powerful speech. He covered some important issues. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) who covered myriad subjects, which broadened the debate and reflected the wide range of topics that we have talked about today.
My first point was to have been my congratulations to the Secretary of State on staying in the Chamber throughout the entire debate. Unfortunately, he has just sneaked off, but I am pleased that he could participate in much of the debate. I realise that he has many other commitments.
In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State said how proud we all are of what our armed forces do. He talked of their high reputation across the world. He then warned us to be careful when trying to analyse or quantify what our military are actually doing. I take heed of those words, but it is our duty in the House to make sure that we understand what is happening. The Army, Navy and Air Force do not have union representation to give voice to their concerns. There is no one they can run to, so it must be an objective of the House—certainly for those of us who have worn a uniform—to make sure that if our Government task our military anywhere in the world, there is correct scrutiny in this Chamber. Our loyalty to our armed forces should not be questioned if we raise awkward questions about them.
I turn to our commitments and our defence personnel. Sadly, there have been cuts of up to 40,000 in our armed forces since 1997. Since the Labour Government came to office, the Army is down by 9,000, the Navy is down by 10,000 and the RAF is down by 16,000. Sadly, it would now be possible to fit every member of the British Army into Wembley stadium—if it were ever finished. That is a sad indictment of the size of our forces. This year, spending will be 2.2 per cent. of gross domestic product—the smallest proportion of national wealth since 1930. We have more commitments and fewer people to do the job, which equals overstretch. As anybody in the military can tell us, experiencing overstretch and cost cuts at the same time leads to the demise of morale.
Many of our current operations around the world are with NATO, whether in IFOR, the implementation force or ISAF, the international security assistance force or others. NATO is the cornerstone of Europe’s protection and defence and has served us well for the past 50 years. The target is that all participating nations spend 3 per cent. of their GDP, but we are not doing so—nor are other countries. That illustrates the problems that we and other countries face at a time when we expect so much from our armed forces.
We are gaining experience, however. NATO forces went into Bosnia and Kosovo and they are now in Afghanistan. However, much co-ordination work remains to be done—whether in respect of equipment or troop operations. NATO is searching for a new role. During the cold war, its mission and its objectives were clear; today, things are not so clear. NATO was designed to defend Europe but it is now going to areas such as Afghanistan, into which one would not expect it to wander. Work could be done in Brussels to consider how ISAF and NATO-operated forces could be used not so much for peacekeeping but for the next step—reconstruction. NATO is an organised and effective body with a chain of command, but there is a limit to its involvement and Ministers in Brussels should consider such things.
I served in Bosnia and, when peace could be maintained, our troops did not simply carry out guard duties; we helped to rebuild schools. It was not part of our mission, but we decided that it was the right thing to do to help win over hearts and minds. Unfortunately, that is not happening in Afghanistan because it is not part of the remit—it would be almost a step too far.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred in his opening comments to the impressive number of countries involved in Afghanistan: 37 is the latest total—more than there are in NATO. However, the caveats for those forces—the limitations placed on them by their Governments—affect overall command and mean that their effectiveness is limited. There are varying rules of engagement that prevent soldiers from particular nations from going out on patrol, engaging with the enemy or even getting into a vehicle. That makes it difficult for the ISAF commander to mobilise his troops in a unified fashion.
On paper, 37 countries looks effective, but in fact there are only four soldiers from Austria, 10 from Luxembourg, four from Switzerland and 106 from Denmark. The numbers are small when we consider what those countries could be contributing and when compared with what Britain, the United States and other countries are doing. Again, I urge the Minister, when he goes to Brussels, to ask if they cannot contribute more troops, what they are actually contributing. The participation of 37 nations looks very impressive, but the reality is far different.
I agree with my hon. Friend to a degree, but does he accept that the central truth of all modern defence thinking is that there are only two main players in NATO—the United Kingdom and the United States—in terms both of defence spending and other capabilities? The notion that, somehow or other, we will persuade some of those very small European nations to play an important role in NATO operations is pie in the sky. In fact, the future peace of the world depends on the US and the UK, together with France to a lesser degree, operating in concert.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but that is where we get into the detail, which is beyond the scope of the debate. For example, the huge shortage of heavy airlift could be easily covered by participating countries, but it is too late now. We should have been thinking about that five or 10 years ago. Countries such as Denmark could then say, “This will be our thing.” The Czech Republic went down that route and became nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialists. That is what it focused on. Poland has trained a lot of people to help with UN peacekeeping operations. That is the thing that it focused on. We could be doing that, but we need to get the heads around the table and review it. When we are on the battlefield in Afghanistan, it is too late to discover the limitations of the troops sent out there. That affects the rules of engagement that we are working under.
I reiterate the calls—we have heard them today, and they were acknowledged by the Minister—for more troops in Afghanistan. If we look at the map of Afghanistan and the areas that NATO is covering, we see that an entire province next to Helmand does not contain a single international soldier. That shows the desperate need for more participation, which is vital. I look forward to hearing the statement from the Secretary of State for Defence. I presume that it will come in the next few days. I hope that there is no delay, because lives are at risk in Afghanistan.
Turning to Afghanistan proper, there are few crises in the world today that are as complex. It has been wrecked by three decades of war and the organs of state are few and fragile. The nation’s authority is limited only to a few cities. In fact, it is too soon to call it a country. It is a patchwork quilt of ethnic groups, tribes and communities, thrown over a hostile and often barren land. That is the perfect existence for a nomad or a very small community, but also for a terrorist outfit as well, and it is a complete nightmare for those who are trying to go there to form an overall authority to link control.
In an effort to expand his authority, President Karzai has developed unholy alliances with all those who can enforce order in the provinces in return for turning a blind eye to their misdeeds, past and present. The biggest challenge for Afghanistan is the fact so many people have been corrupt, but we are now trying to make them turn over a new leaf. We talk about Helmand province’s governor as though he is somehow in direct communication with Kabul. Helmand is a long way from the regional headquarters of Kandahar, which is another country away from Kabul. They are so remote from each other that it is a monumental challenge to get any form of authority, even at local community level. The power bases are in the town halls and the local assemblies—the jirgas—and the local tribal centres.
Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that this is not the appropriate debate in which to have an in-depth analysis of the strategic situation in Afghanistan. The debate is about armed forces personnel, and he must relate his remarks directly to that. There might be other days when one can consider the strategic and political aspects of the Afghanistan situation.
I am grateful to you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given the effect that the situation is having on British personnel, I felt it relevant to bring it into the debate, but I understand your instructions and will endeavour to stay on the right side of your guidance.
Some 3,300 British troops—16 Air Assault Brigade—are based in Afghanistan, in Helmand province, and I want to analyse the thinking of those of us who were in the forces when the brigade was created. We are talking about a rapid reaction force that was put together. It packs a mighty punch, but it is designed to be lightly armoured. It now finds itself not only doing counter-insurgency work, but guarding villages halls, protected only by sandbags. That is improper. That is not the way in which 16 Air Assault Brigade was designed to be used.
We have heard a number of examples of British equipment that could be used. The Warrior tank was mentioned. The Canadians are using the Bison, which is a four-wheeled very tough armoured vehicle. It is much better than the Land Rover that we are currently using. The RG-31 is a South African vehicle designed to cater for being hit by or running over land mines. That is the sort of equipment that we need to be thinking about. I hope that, when the Secretary of State for Defence makes his announcement, he will consider the lessons that were learned in Bosnia. Once a general peace was created, we went out in Warrior tanks to do the guarding, which meant that if there were problems, we had something to protect us, rather than simply hiding behind sandbags, which, as we sadly saw at the weekend, is wholly inadequate. We need to review the strength of the forces in Afghanistan. Some 3,300 troops simply with Land Rovers and 12 helicopters is not enough. I will be grateful to hear what the Secretary of State has to say on that matter.
What is our mission in Afghanistan? Is it designed to deal with insurgency or to help with peacekeeping? Or is it more of a G5 task? Does it involve the building of schools and so forth? It has ended up being a mixture of all those things. There is nothing wrong with that in one sense, but our forces have to match each of those separate missions and at the moment that is not happening. That is why I believe that a review of what we have out there is so important.
I will not go into what is required in relation to the provincial reconstruction teams. I simply question who is actually in control of those teams. Do they eventually answer to the Secretary of State for Defence, the Foreign Office or the Department for International Development? There is an overlap and confusion of responsibility that will prevent us from making an impact.
The umbrella of security that our troops—our personnel—are trying to create there is fundamental, but we will succeed in Afghanistan only if the reconstruction operation is able to lift Afghanistan off its knees. Our troops will eventually leave. I hope that they will also eventually defeat the Taliban, but when they do, they must make sure that there is not a vacuum left behind. If they do not do that, the Afghani tribes will continue what they are doing, we will leave, and then the Taliban will come back in a few years’ time. That is not what we want. There must be an infrastructure and a local economy. Afghanistan is a country that—[Interruption.] I can see Mr. Deputy Speaker moving, so I will move on to my conclusion.
I pay tribute to my local regiment, the Devon and Dorsets, which is now based in Basra, under the leadership of Colonel Chris Burtie. I am grateful to the Minister, who managed to organise a visit for me to see the regiment in Basra. Sadly—it is a sign of the times—I cannot really call the regiment the Devon and Dorsets any more. It is shortly to be merged with the Light Infantry and, before the dust has settled on that piece of paper, it is being merged with my own regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, to be called the Rifles. That is a huge transition. That has been a veneer for another slice off the size of our armed forces. It is something that we could well do without.
It is odd that we are seeing cuts in the infantry, because arguably the infantry in the Army is one of the main reasons why we have the international reputation that hon. Members have mentioned a number of times this afternoon. As I said, our military does not have a union. It does not have a voice with which to shout out and say, “I don’t like what I’m doing.” People end up voting with their feet if conditions get bad, which is why it is important that this Chamber scrutinises what is going on. That is reflected in the fact that, out of 43 battalions in the British Army, only one is fully manned. The other 42 are short of strength. The Territorial Army’s target figure from the Government is 41,000. Currently the figures stands at 35,000. We must examine the reasons why there is such a shortfall and try to correct it. I hope that the Secretary of State has received the clear message from the debate that our armed forces are overstretched and undermanned. The success of our overseas missions will suffer unless those problems are addressed.
We have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate.
I will start by referring to one of the first points that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) addressed: the overall background of funding for the armed forces. He identified the fact that we are spending only 2.2 per cent. of gross domestic product on our armed forces, which is the lowest amount since 1930. It is interesting that in the other place yesterday, Lord Drayson admitted that
“as a percentage of GDP, UK defence expenditure has gone down.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 5 July 2006; Vol. 684, c. 229.]
There was also an interesting exchange in the other place about whether defence expenditure had gone up in real terms. My noble Friend Lord King of Bridgwater noted that although there might have been an increase in expenditure in real terms, it has happened at a time of sustained increase in defence commitments. That is perhaps how we square the circle when some Labour Members point to an increase in resources, while many hon. Members on both sides of the House draw attention to areas of overstretch. Although there have been real-terms increases in defence expenditure, despite the fact that it has fallen as a percentage of GDP, we are asking our armed forces to do more and more at the same time, which is why problems are arising.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring reminded us that the armed forces have been operating above the assumptions in the strategic defence review. Indeed, the National Audit Office military readiness report that was published in June 2005 highlighted the fact that the armed forces had been operating consistently over the planned level of activity during 2002, 2003 and 2004. That has continued, but it cannot continue for ever.
The Minister of State will know—if he does not, the Secretary of State, as the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will—that the Government will soon undertake their comprehensive spending review. Will the Minister tell us whether the Secretary of State is planning to conduct a new strategic defence review ahead of the comprehensive spending review? If not, will Ministers at least examine the assumptions that underlie what we ask our armed forces to do? Given the number of the years for which we have been operating above those assumptions and the fact that there is no sign that the dangerous world that we are in will change in the future, it would seem sensible to take account of the tempo at which we have been operating and ensure that the Chancellor delivers in his settlement for the next few years. The Chancellor is trying to create a reputation for himself as a friend of the armed forces, but he will be judged on that military settlement.
I was disturbed to note from several of my hon. Friends’ contributions that the Ministry of Defence has been warned to expect a less than generous settlement, although I hope that that will not prove to be the case. If anyone knows how to negotiate well with the Treasury, I am sure that it is the Secretary of State.
The Secretary of State confirms that my assumption is correct. I know that he will be content to be judged on the success, or otherwise, of those negotiations.
Several Conservative Members pointed out that we will have to make a clear choice by considering both the commitments that we are undertaking and the resources that we have. We must ensure that the resources match the commitments, and if we are not prepared to put the resources in place, we will have to reduce the commitments accordingly.
One of the most worrying rumours that is circulating in several areas of the defence force is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is planning to cut the manpower of the Army to some 80,000 in his forthcoming comprehensive spending review. That figure has been repeated to me from several sources. Although such a cut would be absurd, ridiculous and unworkable, we must remember that the Chancellor is a clever fellow and could come along at the time of the comprehensive spending review and say, “The figure of 80,000 was nonsensical and I am delighted to be able to announce to the House today that we are going to keep it at 90,000.” Would not that be even more worrying?
My hon. Friend has alerted the House to a tactic that the Government might consider. They might make it sound as if the situation will be desperate so that we will all be relieved when it turns out to be slightly less desperate. However, we have been warned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring spoke about health services, and drew attention to the excellent medical care that our armed forces receive in theatre. It would be helpful if the Minister, either now or in future, addressed the exit process for armed forces personnel who are discharged for medical reasons. The Royal British Legion and other service charities have told me that sometimes the Ministry of Defence does not alert them to individuals who could benefit from their services on discharge. The traditional data protection argument is deployed—I accept that some armed forces personnel have legitimate concerns about personal security—but with sufficient willpower the problem can be fixed so that personnel who leave the forces can receive those services if they need them. Those charities should be able to work in partnership with the Ministry of Defence so that the transition to post-service life is as seamless and painless as possible.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring dealt extremely well with the issue of mental health, so I shall not attempt to repeat his arguments. However, as I have said before, concerns have been expressed about the armed forces compensation scheme. While it works extremely well for personnel with physical injuries there are anxieties about the way in which the tariff structure works for mental health conditions. Does the Minister of State intend to evaluate the scheme every year to see how it is working, particularly for mental health conditions, as that would be welcomed by organisations that work in the field?
May I draw attention to another issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring? Given the challenging security situation in Afghanistan, is it not time to consider merging Operation Enduring Freedom and the international security assistance force sooner rather than later? We need, too, to look urgently at American plans for force deployment to make sure that resources are available so that our forces can operate successfully at minimum risk to themselves. Several hon. Members drew attention to the families of service personnel, and it is worth repeating that we owe a debt to them as well as to those who serve. Soldiers in the field are much more effective if they know that their families are well looked after, and it is the families who bear the brunt and suffer pain and anguish when soldiers lose their lives. Our hearts go out to everyone who has suffered over the years, particularly those who have suffered recently.
Some hon. Members mentioned housing. I accept that the Government have done a great deal. However, to use their own phrase, much has been done but there is still much to do. No doubt the Minister of State will refer to that in his winding-up remarks.
I want to say something positive about kit. The Defence Logistics Organisation at Caversfield, which procures military clothing, has been swift in responding to changing demands for body armour and in transporting it to theatre. The Secretary of State mentioned the Kestrel and Osprey designs, but I understand that another design—according to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), it is known as the Elvis outfit because it has a high collar—is critical for personnel undertaking top-cover sentry work. The original design was not particularly comfortable, but the DLO quickly changed it to provide a much more wearable version. That is a good example of the way in which logistical organisations can respond swiftly to concerns in the field.
One topic that has not been raised, which I hope will not become a big issue in the future although I fear it might, is the roll-out of the joint personnel administration system. We are asking our people to do important and difficult jobs, and the very least that they expect from the Ministry of Defence and the Government is to ensure that we pay them on time. When the JPA was rolled out in April, initially for the Royal Air Force, more than 6,500 servicemen had pay inaccuracies, which is over 15 per cent. of the relevant work force. From written answers we know that the situation has improved in the second pay run, but still more than 1,000 people are affected. By next April the system is due to be rolled out to the whole of the armed forces—over 250,000 people—and it would be helpful if the Minister gave us some idea of how those plans are progressing and whether he is confident that the right steps will be taken.
I know from my experience in business that in payroll systems very little inaccuracy, if any at all, is tolerable. We must deliver a system that works 100 per cent. of the time. Servicemen, particularly those in operational theatres, should not have to spend any time at all worrying about whether they will be paid or whether their families will be able to pay the mortgage. That is critical. I know that the roll-out to other parts of the armed forces has been delayed once. The Opposition would prefer the system to be made 100 per cent. accurate before it is rolled out, rather than allowing it to cause grief to our servicemen. The Minister will get our support if that is necessary.
In the debate there were 13 contributions from the Back Benches, five of which were from the Government Back Benches. Several of those Members were doing their duty and holding the Government to account, probably more firmly than the Government would have liked. There were eight Opposition Back-Bench speeches, which, strangely, were all from the Conservative Benches. There were no Liberal Democrat Back Benchers present at all, as was the case in the last debate on defence policy on 22 June.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on his elevation to the Privy Council. He drew attention to veterans day. When we discussed that at Defence questions, I was pleased that the Minister for Veterans confirmed that he wants to work closely with the Opposition next year to try to make veterans day as successful as possible, especially with the anniversary of the Falklands approaching.
The hon. Member for Islwyn also discussed issues relating to medals. Freed from the constraints of office, he has become rather more liberal about wanting to dish out medals than perhaps he was in office.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who spoke from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, with his well known interest in defence both for wider reasons and for his constituency interest, drew attention to the tremendous contribution in the armed forces of personnel from overseas—from the Commonwealth and other countries—to whom we owe a great debt.
I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson) for his comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring. He noted that my hon. Friend had been exemplary in the way he spoke about the difficult operational theatre in Afghanistan, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that generous tribute. He held the Government to account very effectively about the Type 45 destroyers. We managed to bid him up from six to 12 in the time that he was speaking. I hope the Minister of State will tell us what progress has been made.
The hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West was keen that veterans day should be a bank holiday. Knowing as we do from the Minister for veterans that the Chancellor is all-powerful, perhaps we can have an update on whether that is likely to happen.
I thank my hon. Friend. That point has certainly been made. When we have raised the matter, the Government have made a clear distinction. Remembrance day is very much to commemorate those who have given their lives. They wanted veterans day to be more of a celebration of those who have served. One of the important features of Remembrance day is that it is a day for the whole nation. It is non-partisan and all parties work together to make sure that we can all unite on that day. We must ensure that the same is true of veterans day.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made a powerful contribution in which he spoke about the exceptional and formidable servicemen and women who serve our nation and drew attention to the first principles that underlie what we ask them to do, which was a valuable reminder of the magnitude of the commitment that we ask of them. He was the first to raise the issue of finance, about which I hope he is wrong, but fear he might be right. He pointed out that we are operating beyond the assumptions in the strategic defence review and that the strategic defence review has not been fully funded. He also pointed out that the performance of the RAF in moving our troops to theatre leaves rather a lot to be desired. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot said that the matter had been drawn to the attention of the Chief of the Air Staff, so it is in hand.
The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) discussed privatisation and value for money, which is an important issue for her constituents in Llangennech. She also mentioned the importance of the civilian work force, and her constituents will be grateful for her effort in speaking up for them.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) drew attention to the MOD’s inability to task operations adequately. He ranged widely in a thoughtful contribution, and also pointed out that we must match our commitments to our defence spending. At the end of his remarks, he discussed the increased threat that we face from global terrorism and other security challenges.
The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) talked about Iraq and focused on the positive aspect of removing the tyrant from that country and the better life that many in that country, particularly in the north, are already experiencing. He also drew attention to the role that our forces and forces of other nations could play in protecting that part of the country and ensuring that the people experience economic development and a better life.
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) drew attention to a wide range of issues that were not mentioned elsewhere in the debate, such as Army chaplains and the Royal Military Police. He spoke up powerfully for his constituency interest, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. He pointed out that Qinetiq is a successful privatisation and discussed Defence Medical Services. He also talked about the issues arising from the important merger of headquarters. Given his constituency experience and his important work on the Defence Committee, we listened to him with great interest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) raised the issue of equipment. She discussed our reserve forces and the number of personnel available for operations. She also expressed her concern about how successful recruitment will be now that regular and reserve forces are going to be recruited together.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) made a powerful speech, for which I was sorry not to be in the Chamber—I had to go and obtain replenishment. He pointed out that if there were a new strategic defence review, it would conclude that the number of servicemen and women available today is far too small. Whenever we have asked our armed forces to perform a task, whether it was a completely military task or even a civilian task, such as during the foot and mouth outbreak, we have always been able to count on them to deliver, but my hon. Friend pointed out that, if we continue with current policies, one day the forces may have to report back to Ministers that they cannot perform a requested task. I hope that we never reach that point. He also said that we need to face up to the need, given the world in which we live, to spend more on defence.
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks) made an elegant plea for recognition of the wartime efforts of the Bevin boys, which is a plea that other hon. Members have made, too.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) ranged widely over a number of issues, particularly those that are very important in his constituency. In case the Whip is taking notes, I add that he also said that we are all in this together.
My hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) highlighted veterans day. He also talked about the importance of the views of families as regards recruitment. When someone’s son or daughter signs up for the armed forces, they must have confidence that their son or daughter will be as well looked after as they can be, and that if things go wrong they will continue to be looked after when they have left the services.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) highlighted the role of NATO and drew attention, from his own experience, to the importance of forces winning the hearts and minds of local populations. He also expressed one or two of his concerns about our operation in Afghanistan, again based on his personal experience.
Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) that our troops in Afghanistan
“are doing the most extraordinary and heroic job.”—[Official Report, 5 July 2006; Vol. 448, c. 805.]
It is my profound hope that when those brave men and women look at those whose duty it is to provide political leadership, they will feel that that duty has been discharged with the same level of commitment and dedication as they show to our nation.
As the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) said, this has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. He touched on most of the points that were made, but, unlike me, did not have to respond to them but merely recount them. I have the responsibility of trying to deal with the complexity of the debate. I relish that, however. Having spent 10 years in opposition, I realise how easy it is: being in government is much more difficult. The hon. Gentleman rightly referred to the number of Members who spoke, all of whose speeches were substantial and thoughtful and, in sum, added to the greater understanding of what we are trying to do as regards the defence of this country.
I thank the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell), for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), for Salisbury (Robert Key), for Congleton (Ann Winterton), for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) for their contributions from the Opposition Benches.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), who is not in his place. I understand that he has gone off to do a television interview, so he is gainfully employed. I do not know precisely what he is saying; I hope that he is not criticising me. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks). I particularly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who is now to be my right hon. Friend. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I wanted to be the first to congratulate him on that from the Dispatch Box. It is a rightfully deserved honour and I know that he will carry it with pride. I hope that I get the opportunity to be at the Privy Council when he is sworn in, because I would be very pleased to do so.
In opening the debate—
I did mention a Liberal in passing; the hon. Gentleman may have missed it. I am not doing any political knockabout at this stage—maybe later on.
In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out to highlight the importance of our people in everything we do. Ultimately, unless we have well trained, properly resourced, highly motivated and dedicated personnel, we cannot deliver on the arduous and difficult tasks we set ourselves, whether they be in Iraq, Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa or elsewhere. I shall touch further on that in response to some of the points made in the debate.
In paying tribute to our front-line personnel, it is right that we recognise at the same time the essential and vital role played by civilians in the many and varied functions they undertake. My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) and the hon. Members for Mid-Sussex and for The Wrekin referred to the announcement that we made on Monday, which was a major announcement affecting thousands of those civil servants. I want to comment further on that before dealing with the other issues that were raised in today’s debate.
The Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency are two major organisations, which employ between them a staff of some 24,500, with a combined budget of £11 billion. Given their importance to the provision and support of our front line, it is right to try to put in place an effective, efficient and properly focused organisation, which is dedicated to the acquisition and through-life support of the battle-winning equipment on which our armed forces depend.
I do not hide from the fact that our announcement is radical and ambitious. I appreciate that it will mean major change and upheaval for so many of our loyal and hard-working staff, who have given sterling service over the years, especially over the recent period. It is not an easy decision to make, knowing that it will result in the closure of facilities, thus adversely affecting many hundreds of our personnel and their families.
However, I fundamentally believe that what we are doing is right. At the end of this process, we will have a new organisation, which will employ fewer staff than were employed by the DLO alone in 2004. Alongside that, as the hon. Member for Salisbury pointed out, we will have a new combined Army headquarters based on one site at Andover North. We will have released resources through base and facility closures at Telford, Andover South and subsequently at RAF Brampton, Caversfield and Sherborne between now and 2010-11. The efficiencies achieved from that will be reinvested to meet our front-line requirements.
With my noble Friend Lord Drayson, the Minister responsible for defence procurement, I spoke on Monday to more than 700 of our personnel in Bristol and Bath. That is why I was not here for the urgent question and response. I know that many questions remain unanswered about the detailed implementation of our new proposals, but what struck me most was the staff’s willingness to accept the need for another period of change. I do not claim that that is true of everyone who is affected, but members of that large part of the DLO-DPA structure were markedly up for the change, even though they knew that it was going to be difficult.
It is now up to Ministers and the senior management responsible for those changes to ensure that our objectives are achieved and that those members of staff whose jobs will go are properly treated. As ever, all that has been announced will be subject to full and proper consultation with the trade unions and staff interests.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex rightly said that the Conservative manifesto at the previous election proposed doing exactly what we are now doing— co-locating the DLO and the DPA. The argument of the hon. Member for The Wrekin was a wee bit like angels dancing on the head of a pin. He tried to say that he understood the justification for the change but that it should not happen now. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that there is probably never a right time for change because one can always find good reasons for putting off making the right decision. I know that, having driven through some significant change in the Ministry of Defence in recent years. I believe that all our changes have proved successful so far. They have been handled with skill by the management and, more important, they have been absorbed by the staff.
The hon. Member for The Wrekin also mentioned the announced closure of a part of the Army Base Repair Organisation that affected his constituency. The background to that was that the work flow had disappeared. We could not keep part of an organisation going if the work had gone. That forced those who were considering what they needed in the form of support and armoured vehicles—in this case, the Army, through Commander-in-Chief Land Command—to examine the matter. They determined that there was a further requirement and found the resource. Consequently, we reconsidered the matter and a change was made accordingly. Flexibility has to be built into all those processes. It is why we have consultation and why we have to be careful when we move forward with complex changes. However, the sound principle of what we are trying to achieve will bring us great benefits in defence in the years to come.
The Minister says that change is never welcome but nevertheless needs to be introduced. He also said that the timing is never right. However, would not a better time be when we were not faced with two major conflicts? Would not it be better to introduce those changes to the DLO and the DPA when the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts are over?
I can see why the hon. Gentleman is a Conservative; he wants no change other than at some future point that will never come.
We have driven through some fundamental changes, all of which were criticised at the time. None of the criticism was founded, however. I am not saying that everything has gone 100 per cent. smoothly; nothing is perfect. However, where we have had to adjust, we have adjusted. That will apply equally in this case. We have also undertaken a major transformation of our armed forces during a period when we are asking so much more of them. If we had not done so, the RAF, the Navy and the Army would not be best placed to be expeditionary. The transformation is still under way; not all the Army has been “Bowmanised”, because of long lead times and the high amount of investment in network-enabled capability necessary to ensure that we have the best integrated tri-service approach and delivery for the commanders, wherever they are, to have the proper effect in the field. However, all those changes are being driven through, because those who have to deliver at the sharp end—I include civilians in that—realise that there are better ways of doing things.
This transformation is not being driven by some kind of political lexicon; it has not been lifted off a shelf, or out of a book called “Let’s Have a Go at Defence”. The very opposite is the case. It is happening organically. There are better ways of doing things, and Ministers are heavily engaged in the definition as well as in the engagement and delivery of the transformation. That will remain the case throughout this complex and important change.
The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) made a solid and effective contribution, and one or two of his points need to be addressed. I do not think that he was in the Chamber when my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West made his speech, but it was interesting to see the realisation of the enormity of what we are seeking to do, and the skill with which we are trying to work through some of the difficult points of difference.
I shall deal with some of the issues that the hon. Member for Woodspring raised. He mentioned the level of spending. These points are becoming a bit old hat, but they none the less need to be repeated, because there are different versions of how they are to be viewed. As a percentage of gross domestic product, defence spending is sitting at 2.2 per cent., and that will be the case for the next two years. That is higher than the European average, so we are actually spending a considerable—[Interruption.] Well, hold on. In relation to what our allies are spending, we are above the average. Interestingly, we have a big and successful economy, so let us look at how this figure comes out in real terms. The £3.7 billion more in the last spending round was the largest sustained real-terms increase for 20 years. We are asking people to do more with all that money, and it will all then have to be balanced as we go into the next spending round.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned recruitment and retention. In regard to retention, people are always asking whether we are haemorrhaging staff, and if so, what is the scale of the problem. In regard to recruitment, people worry whether we are hard up against targets that we are nowhere near to achieving. Neither of those characteristics applies. By dint of a lot of very hard effort, we have been able to work against some of the difficulties that we have faced in that area.
As of 1 April 2006, the tri-service manning level stands at 182,980, which represents 98.4 per cent. of the requirement target of 185,920. That is the average, but as we look at the different services, we find that they are all sitting on or around that high level. Indeed, the RAF’s strength stands at 46,900, which represents 99.2 per cent. of the requirement. That is a shortfall of only 390. We cannot be complacent, however; we need to recognise that these are issues.
The same applies to the voluntary outflow rates. We hear a lot of stories—they turn out to be no more than that—about haemorrhaging taking place. The reality is somewhat different, however. By comparison with the previous year, voluntary outflow rates have increased slightly, by 0.3 per cent. for officers and by 0.1 per cent. for other ranks. That is not as dramatic as many would lead us to believe. That does not mean that we do not have issues to address; unquestionably, we do. However, the situation is not as many people try to present it.
I accept entirely what the Minister says, but does he understand the real worry in the Army about the number of senior warrant officers leaving, whose families cannot maintain their equilibrium at the current rate of deployment? That is a very serious matter for the Army.
The real core strengths lie in those groups with more than 10 years of experience, in all the theatres in which we have engaged, whether Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone, Iraq or Afghanistan. Yes, there may be issues, and we must attend to those. In relation to the similar point made by the hon. Member for Woodspring, a hard logic must be applied—if people are leaving because we are busy, we must be less busy, which means that we should not be in certain theatres—[Interruption.] There may be other answers, and I would be interested to hear what they are. Given that warrant officers or sergeants cannot be recruited—they have to grow—we must do our best to encourage them to stay. We have applied various solutions at other pinch points over the years, such as golden handshakes or handcuffs, depending on our approach. That might become an issue in future. Such people are very dedicated, but we understand that there are family problems, to which I shall refer later.
We have had to address the pinch points, because it is not just a question of that cohort of sergeant-majors or warrant officers but of the enabling trades. Part of our approach to the Army’s future structure was to reconfigure, to examine where the pinch points were and to reinvest what came out of one end of that structure in those pinch points. We said that we would reinvest about 3,000 posts, and we are making progress—we have cut the shortfall by 600. We are still some way short, but that is not because of lack of effort or determination. There are other problems that we need to address. We must address the harmony and pinch point issues and the specifics of certain groups of voluntary leavers. There are no easy solutions, but we must address the issues before we can find solutions.
The Minister implies that the only way to ensure that commitments and resources are matched is to reduce the commitments. He could return to the original strategic defence review, consider the tour intervals and cycles planned in that document, and extrapolate the commitments into that calculation. He would probably come up with an Army of about 130,000, which is what he needs to meet the Army’s current level of commitment. That is the choice facing the Government—whether to cut the commitments or increase the resources.
It is not just a case of increasing resources. For any spending Department, increasing resources is always welcome, but we must ensure that resources are properly spent and balanced. That is why other fundamental changes are taking place, which are strongly resisted. I have said previously at the Dispatch Box that we must drive through £2.8 billion of efficiency savings as part of the last settlement, and that if we do not do so, that will hit the front line. We are well on the way to achieving that, because we have been determined to do it. With everything that we have done, it has been a case of, “Fix this, Minister and Secretary and State, but don’t do it if it affects me.” We must face up to some harsh realities.
I have given the figures for the manning level. We have reduced requirement levels, but we are still not hitting 100 per cent. We have thrown millions of pounds at recruitment campaigns, and we are still finding recruitment difficult. That is because other job opportunities in the marketplace out there are much more attractive. Moreover, imminent demographic change in some parts of the country means that we will not be able to recruit from a population of the size to which we are accustomed. There is also the fact that more young people are choosing to undertake further and higher education. If we do not manage to attract the 9,000 people under 18 whom we are required to recruit each year, we may lose that recruitment source. Those are the issues that the human resources planners must tackle.
I am aware of the problems. This has been a good debate, which has featured agreement on and understanding of certain issues. Let us now understand the complexity of what Ministers, indeed all of us, must address.
I have no easy answer to that question, but anyone who deals with manpower planning must follow the curve. A bit of prediction and analysis is possible, but sometimes things happen before we are prepared for them. Is the problem caused by our having changed the nature of the RAF, which is now expeditionary rather than static? There is a different understanding of its purpose now. It may be remembered that it used to stand in bases in Germany and elsewhere, waiting for the Russians to come. Indeed, the same applied to large parts of the Army. Because the requirement has changed across the three services, the tempo and the demand have greatly increased, which puts pressure on key personnel.
I could make more guesses. Perhaps people are no longer encouraging their families to join the services. We know that there are problems with gatekeepers. The absence of members of the Scottish National party was mentioned earlier. Not so long ago, a member of the SNP said that we should ban visits by recruiting teams to schools in Scotland. That is outrageous and disgraceful, but we must accept that it is a currency and we must take it on.
It is easy for Ministers and others to pay tribute to the exceptional men and women who serve in the armed forces, but we need to work in the community to ensure that every part of it is seized of the enormity of what we face. If we do not have the strength that we need in the armed forces, we cannot defend the interests of this country. I do not think that anything divides us on that issue. We have not been in party political point-scoring mode today.
Sadly, I have had time to deal with only two or three points. I could not give all the responses that I wished to give, but no doubt I shall be able to return to them. I am conscious of the time; let me end by referring to two vital parts of the armed forces community—the families who stand by our front-line personnel, and the legions of veterans and their families.
Given the intensity of recent campaigns and the tragic loss of life that we have experienced, we have sought to give more recognition and support to families. I must be honest: much more needs to be done. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), is dedicated to tackling the shortfalls—whether in proper housing provision or in the overall welfare package—that affect our service personnel and their families. A major effort has been made to deliver in many of those areas.
I have given this example before, but I shall do so again. During a recent visit to 7th Armoured Brigade—otherwise known as the Desert Rats—I was struck by how much more we are doing. The Desert Rats established a “home rat” system, which involves a “wraparound” enabling the young wives and children of men serving in Iraq to keep in touch with them. I know that 20th Armoured Brigade is doing the same, as will 16 Air Assault Brigade and the Parachute Regiment. We have now realised that so much more needs to be done.
We have all commented on the veterans and it is very humbling to listen to what they tell us at the various events that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the Under-Secretary and I have attended over recent weeks. It is very humbling indeed—
It being Six o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have listened with great interest to what Mr. Speaker and the Leader of the House have said about providing hon. Members with accurate and speedy responses to parliamentary questions. On 12 June, the Leader of the House stated to me in relation to written questions:
“I have discussed at Cabinet with my ministerial colleagues the importance we attach to proper accountability to Parliament.”—[Official Report, 12 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 885W.]
On 3 May, I tabled 10 questions to the Home Secretary, specifically relating to Wellingborough prison. Today—I should say, this afternoon—I received three answers from the Home Secretary, all dated 29 June but not delivered to me until 6 July.
I do not understand why an already delayed answer took seven days to reach me. Unfortunately, the three answers were identical. It was a standard reply, issuing me with a copy of a letter from the director general of the immigration and nationality directorate, which had been issued to the public. It did not refer in any way to Wellingborough prison.
There are only 11 sitting days left until the recess. It is impossible for hon. Members to scrutinise the Government properly if answers are both delayed and totally irrelevant to the questions asked. Are you able, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to direct Ministers to give hon. Members’ questions more attention and to treat them with urgency?
To answer the specific question whether the Chair is able to direct, the answer is obviously no. However, Mr. Speaker has put it on the record that he expects the best possible standard of service to Members in this respect. He cannot be responsible, however, for the content and quality of replies to specific questions and he is not responsible for administrative hold-ups in the delivery of an answer to a parliamentary question. The hon. Member has had his chance to put his latest complaint on the record and I am sure that it will have been noted. Members have to pursue these matters through the available means, and I hope that that will have a favourable impact on the performance of various Departments of State.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In a debate that lasted five and a half hours, every Minister and every Opposition Front Bencher took a comfort break, as, indeed, did I. I make no complaint; clearly such breaks are necessary. Unfortunately, however, in my absence, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) criticised me for not being in my place for about 30 minutes. I recognise that he needs ample time for a lunch or three and he was not in his place for one hour and seven minutes. Is there any procedure whereby I can raise that matter and put it on the record?