Before I begin my speech, I would like to declare a number of interests. I have served as a member of the excellent parliamentary armed forces scheme, which has been administered by Sir Neil Thorne for a number of years. I am immensely grateful for the opportunities that it has afforded me. I have also been to various Army training facilities all over the world and learned a great deal about how the Army functions, particularly from the point of view of working soldiers. In addition, Altcar training camp is in my constituency. It supports the Territorial Army and receives thousands of visitors at weekends. I am also a professional engineer and, as such, represent companies and individuals who serve and support the defence industry. I am proud to do so.
The role of our armed forces in the modern world is without question a matter worthy of our debate. Recently, the Prime Minister rightly brought the issue directly into focus. His speech on defence and the future of our armed forces highlighted the fact that, despite the difficulties and challenges that we face today, Britain has to maintain a warfighting as well as a peacekeeping capability.
Iraq and Afghanistan are too readily perceived as the only theatres in which our forces serve, and the situation is often seen to be critically unstable. There has never been universal approval for any activity in which members of the Army are involved, from peacekeeping to engagement in war. Throughout its history, our Army has faced numerous challenges to its sovereignty—challenges that Britain has never shied away from and that, ultimately, have been overcome.
We are a nation that will act forcefully when the moral right is on our side, and I am concerned that the British instinct may have been severely constrained by our experiences in Iraq. The Falklands war demonstrated to the world how important territorial integrity is to Britain, and that we will fight to maintain it. In Bosnia, and later in Kosovo, while regular massacres were occurring and UN peace troops could not stop the slaughter, it was through the strength of British and American action that peace could be brokered. When it is necessary and just, ours is a nation, I am proud to say, that is not afraid to fight. We do not wait for the enemy to come to us; we are in a continuous state of protecting our own.
Many of our citizens may find defence matters repugnant or no longer relevant, but our history suggests that such attitudes are incorrect. Unless we want to lose our rights and the envy and respect of people throughout the world, which we have secured over time, we must maintain a defensive and, when necessary, offensive position.
The 2003 Defence White Paper listed the major threats as international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the problem of failing states. The threats are from an enemy who is determined, difficult to identify and opposed to the core principles that many people sacrificed their lives to preserve. Ours is a nation of tolerance, but we must use all the means available to us to defeat the extremism that seeks to undermine practical secular governance.
Given the new challenges that face the modern world and the UK, our military is surely one of the most capable of responding. From the Iberian peninsula to the Crimea, in Korea and Malaya, on the battlefields of France, in the waters of Jutland and on many other fields of conflict, men and women have served our national interests with professionalism, skill and bravery while continuously displaying ability to adapt and succeed. Now, with our armed forces serving, as ever, around the globe, it is right to discuss our military operations and how we should express ourselves militarily.
Taking a wider definition of British security requires us to consider political and economic stability, which can be affected by changes in countries or regions anywhere around the globe. Where a direct threat can be clearly identified, Britain and our allies must be prepared to fight terrorists before they can attack us at home. However, our security does not necessarily have to be won through warfighting. Peacemaking and peacekeeping operations can help to bring stability to a country on the brink of collapse. By stopping conflicts, we can allow war-torn nations to enjoy their own peace dividend. In an ever more interdependent world, we cannot afford to view ourselves as an island—the fate of one nation affects the fate of us all. With our support, strong, peaceful nations can be built in which terrorism cannot prosper, and in which development thrives and hatred withers.
Our armed forces’ most notable commitments are in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they remain engaged in a battle to ensure future peace and stability for the people of those nations. Strenuous challenges are faced daily, and the armed forces in both countries have admirably demonstrated the skill and bravery with which they face such threats.
In Basra, the number of murders and kidnappings is falling, and an increasing number of police stations in that area are meeting the standard required for handover. The assistance of UK military personnel and £35 million of our money have helped the Department for International Development to start work on more than 800 projects to help to rebuild and develop Iraq. It must be noted that 90 per cent. of sectarian violence in Iraq occurs within a 30-mile radius of Baghdad—a fact not often observed by our media.
In Afghanistan, alongside the efforts to hunt down Taliban fighters, there is an increased focus on helping to consolidate the abilities of the Afghan security forces. Development is occurring in both countries, but the main focus has been on securing and stabilising, for it is from there that true progress can occur.
There can be few armed forces more capable of winning the battle to ensure true stability than our own, as they have demonstrated many times. The British military has been an active member of peacekeeping forces around the world, with a recent and continuing presence in Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Georgia, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan. The intelligence-gathering opportunities afforded by such deployments cannot be overestimated.
In Bosnia, the UK led the EU military mission throughout 2005 and continues to have more than 600 troops stationed there. The reforms that followed have been significant, and include the establishment of a single Ministry of Defence and a single multi-ethnic armed force. The local authorities are increasingly gaining the skills to deal with weapon confiscation and combating organised crime. Training and assistance are being provided to equip former soldiers for civilian life. Crucially, on top of that, nine people indicted for war crimes have been captured.
In Sierra Leone, the arrival of British troops allowed for the evacuation of UK, EU and Commonwealth citizens. Meanwhile, the securing of Freetown’s airport in 2003, combined with regular patrols, paved the way for the arrival of UN aid and a subsequent UN peacekeeping mission that restored peace and stability to the country. Alongside that, the UK and the US were jointly responsible for construction of the special court presiding over the trial of the most appalling, murderous men this world has ever seen.
I had the privilege of going to Sierra Leone and spending time with the Army. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate those personnel on their endeavours. Sierra Leone is rarely discussed, yet the nature of its civil war was unprecedented in world history. Appalling acts were committed, and I commend Army personnel on how they have conducted themselves since they liberated Freetown.
The Army is now part of a UN force in Sierra Leone that is doing great good. Many people throughout the world may wish to see the back of the Army and an end to its work, but people in Sierra Leone willingly shake one’s hand and thank God that we are there. We have saved them from a horror that we can only imagine, but that they, unfortunately, have lived through.
British forces are always ready to be involved in humanitarian relief assistance. Three Chinooks flew more than 330 hours to deliver nearly 1,700 tonnes of aid following the earthquake in south-east Asia in 2005, and a team of Royal Engineers was able to construct emergency shelters at 5,500 ft using expertise derived directly from field training exercises.
We are also able to maintain strong links with many nations through joint training exercises around the globe. At Goose Bay in Canada, the RAF is able to practise low flying and in Alberta—again, I have been to the area and spent three days with the infantry there—the Army trains six regiments a year. A full infantry battalion is able to conduct a wide variety of training from section attacks to battalion attacks, much of which involves live firing, in one of the Army’s largest training exercises.
In Kenya, Exercise Grand Prix allows training in a range of climates and terrain. Such training is essential for the challenges that the modern world presents. In Belize, 1,000 British Army and RAF personnel pass through a training programme each year, and the Royal Engineers, of which I am very proud, undertakes a three-month construction exercise that benefits not only our soldiers, but the residents of Belize.
Our armed forces also gain strong international links through foreign recruits, with approximately 10 per cent. of the Army’s strength recruited from outside the UK. Membership is open to and positively encouraged among Commonwealth members.
The benefits of maintaining our military strength and remaining a key military contributor work from the bottom up. Those who serve in our Army can gain skills that will serve them for life, whether in or out of the services. Approximately 45 per cent. of armed forces recruits have very low educational skills. By joining the Army, they receive help to master that problem and to gain other skills that will serve them for life.
I am delighted that the Army has now taken steps to ensure that any qualifications gained while serving in and being supported by the Army are accredited against the UK non-Army training facility. As such, there have been 12,710 level 2 or 3 national vocational qualifications, and, I am delighted to say, 5,718 apprenticeships, 2,527 advanced apprenticeships and 544 foundation degrees. In addition, 279 personnel were also able to gain graduate or postgraduate degrees. We as a nation will benefit from that immense skill resource when those men and women decide to retire from the Army. It is an excellent investment.
Experience abroad continues to benefit the Army. A complete assessment of potential threats is impossible, so the broader the range of skills gained, the more we strengthen our ability to deal with any threat. In March 2003, the Ministry of Defence Joint Doctrine and Concepts Centre stated that the greatest threat to UK security would occur if the strategic environment were to change faster than the UK could acquire or apply resources to meet dangers. By playing a leading role in the world, our armed forces can gain daily hands-on experience of the techniques and abilities of our enemies, therefore receiving the best education in how to face the enemy of tomorrow.
The skills that the armed forces gain, both internally and externally, go on to advance British interests by providing us with the abilities to respond to threats wherever they emerge and whatever their nature might be. The growing threats from scarce resources, famine and religious and ethnic tensions are all examples of problems that can escalate and result in hatred, conflict and the subsequent destabilisation of a region. When those problems become globalised, the issues begin to affect the global economy, energy security and the UK and its allies.
Foreign missions not only serve to reduce imminent threats to our security, but give the armed forces opportunities to continue to learn and develop so that they can deal with future security threats. The lessons learned can also be applied in the training that we can offer the security forces in countries where we have troops based, as can our skills in construction and rebuilding.
By working as part of coalitions, as will be the case in most future engagements, we not only build stronger ties with our allies, but we can learn from those with experience of the problems we face. The threats from international terrorism are an issue not just for this incumbency, but for this generation. We must continue to lead in the search for a better, safer, more prosperous world, for it is there that our national security is truly based. We must be willing to consider and pursue all means possible to achieve our ends. Issues such as climate change or aid to developing countries are ones on which Britain is leading and are certainly means by which global stability and progress can be aided.
We have highly experienced, well-trained, motivated and professional armed forces that must be used proportionately and appropriately—and, crucially, must never be ignored as an option. They must be maintained as a force that can participate in high-intensity warfighting operations, but that maintains the qualities essential for peacekeeping and humanitarian support. If we place that responsibility on our armed forces, we must be prepared to provide them with the political and financial support to achieve the demanding and essential tasks for which we require them, which the men and women of our armed forces are trained for and willing to perform.
The search for national security in the modern world is just beginning. To retreat would be foolhardy and weak. We must continue to lead, adapt, innovate and secure. The fight will not be won overnight and it might at times seem short of significant victories. Mistakes will occur and, tragically, lives will be lost, but the threat to our national security posed by restricting the role of the armed forces cannot be overestimated.
We should not allow the loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan to put us off future acts of military aggression. When right is on our side and the security of our nation is at stake, we must be prepared to use attack as the best form of defence. I believe in a Britain that will not sit back passively and allow itself to be attacked, nor fall back into the pack or drift into global insignificance.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate. I had originally intended to make some interventions on issues raised by constituents, but I shall take the opportunity to make a wider assessment of the concerns that have been brought to me which the Minister can address.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on securing the debate. It is important to recognise the significant contribution that the British Army makes to this country’s well-being. The sacrifice that is made by the men and women who serve in our armed forces needs to be recognised and tribute needs to be paid to them.
The hon. Lady made clear the importance of recognising the interaction between the roles of the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The two have to go hand in hand in understanding first what resources are needed and, secondly, what resources are available when it comes to assessing our position in the world. We should not take for granted what is available from the Army and has been built up over generations, and we should not put at risk what we hand on to future generations. We are the custodians of something that has not happened overnight. Today’s Army is the product of many generations of commitment, sacrifice, training, understanding and professionalism. We will not be thanked if we put that at risk.
It is important that we recognise the weaknesses in our armed services and that we repair them. We should recognise, too, in our foreign policy how far our ambitions can go without overstretching our armed forces, which would put at risk what has been built up. I come from the north-east of Scotland, and the regimental structure was engrained into links with the armed forces. The Gordon Highlanders, of course, have a great tradition in north-east Scotland. It is important that with the merger of regiments those links are not lost for those previous service people who fought for and served our country. Those links should not be lost as part of the way of ensuring recruitment for the future.
I congratulate the MOD on recognising, through the veterans medal, the strength of feeling that people have for the time they have served in the services. I recently encouraged people to come forward with a new deadline for when people can apply for such a medal, and the enthusiasm, the interest shown and the way in which the phone has been ringing off the hook in the office shows that people want to be recognised for what they have given and for the commitment that they have made. The network that can be built among veterans and the support network between them is extremely important.
One of our problems as Members of Parliament is that people come to us with anecdotes about problems in the armed services and often, because of the nature of the chain of command and the discipline, they say that they do not want what they have said to be related back to the armed forces. The Minister is often faced with problems based on anecdotes and has to give us a response in the context of the wider picture. However, there has been worrying feedback from those on the front line and in the services about overstretch, to use the jargon. Some of the ways in which it manifests itself have been raised, such as people having to buy more equipment than they have been allocated to make their job easier.
One more recent concern, which I raised in the debate on Iraq, was mentioned by a constituent. Obviously, when someone joins the military, they have to go where they are needed and provide whatever functions are needed, especially in a crisis or emergency. However, someone joined the RAF in a specialist role—they had been trained in packing equipment to be loaded on to Hercules aircraft for logistical purposes—and found themselves suddenly taken on a short, sharp training course to go into a peacekeeping role in Iraq on the front line. If the armed forces have to fill in like that and reposition people ad hoc to make it possible for the armed forces to carry on functioning on the ground, it suggests that we are putting a greater burden on them than they might be able to take in the long run. The military are obviously capable, in short, sharp bursts, of taking on extra burdens over and above those that are planned for, but if the over-commitment is sustained, there is a worry that we will damage those abilities for the long term as well as the abilities to use the armed forces in the future.
Another more recent point that was raised with me concerned the way in which tours of duty and the amount of active deployments have an impact on training. For those looking in from the outside it might seem that training on the front line is effective, because people are practising those roles for which they have been trained. The feedback from those serving is that they do not necessarily get the breadth of training that a true training environment would give. We need to remember to take people out of the front line and cycle them through the training so that they have all the building blocks that they need for a flexible response next time. We cannot rely on the assumption that because they have been on the front line for so long they have sufficient experience and do not need training. That point was raised with me only yesterday, so I have not dug fully into it. How can we ensure, with the resources that we have, that the building blocks for the next deployment are properly put in place so that people are not put at risk?
The hon. Lady praised our armed forces peacekeeping work. The danger is that we take for granted how good our armed forces are; it is almost a cliché. Their skills and their instincts make them extremely effective in their peacekeeping role. They engage with other countries and other cultures, using the experience of others for those whom they are there to help. We must not be too arrogant, but our forces do much to train other countries in peacekeeping, engaging with the local population and in winning hearts and minds.
I recently visited Pakistan with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Given the traditional links between our countries and Pakistan’s understanding of our military ethos and our foreign policy traditions, surprise was expressed that we had allowed ourselves to get involved with the Americans in such a poor way when tackling the transition in Iraq. In particular, Pakistan could not understand why we had allowed the destruction of the internal regime. Our armed forces had not done what the British traditionally do. When we go into another country, we obviously change the leadership, but often we use the institutions of that country to help us in our peacekeeping role.
We may not be the largest partner among our allies, but the Americans have a lot to learn from our experience in peacekeeping. If we are to work with them, we need to ensure that they take on board our understanding and our experience, as history suggests that we have a better track record than they do.
I find the hon. Gentleman’s comments interesting. I have not been to Iraq, although I hope to go there. It would be great if the Americans listened to us, but one of the primary problems is that their training and recruitment programmes are totally different to the British model. Someone can be walking the streets in the US one day and serving on the front line the next. We do not do that to our troops. It is difficult to get military commanders to appreciate that systemic difficulties preclude them from raising their game and copying the good practices to which he refers.
The hon. Lady reinforces my slight worry about the anecdote that I heard of someone who joined the RAF and ended up on the front line in Iraq. That person joined to do one thing but found himself doing something very different. We must be careful that overstretch does not start doing damage at the edges in a similar way to the American system.
When such sacrifices are made on our behalf in other parts of the world, our treatment of the injured and wounded becomes topical.
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says about RAF personnel. Clearly people joining the forces learn a particular trade or skill. As I understand it, he is talking about a loadmaster, which is a deployable skill or trade. I am surprised that people should think that they can join the forces and not find themselves in a theatre of conflict or engaged in peacekeeping operations. I hope that he can give me more information on that as I am concerned that people might think that they can do only one job in the armed forces, whether in the Army, the Royal Navy, the Air Force or the Royal Marines.
The concern raised by the relative was not that it was a deployable skill—they recognised that it would be deployed—but that the person was being deployed to do a peacekeeping role on the streets, on the front line, and that they were not being deployed to use their skill. The concern was that the person was being used not in an RAF regimental role but in a military role with the Army. I shall ask the constituent for more details and pass them on to the Minister.
One problem that Members have is that it is often relatives who raise individual cases based on anecdotal evidence. The constituent has every right not to be fingered as having raised a problem when it was the relative who did so, having seen what had happened to them.
I have had the opportunity to go to a number of training establishments and have spent time in the Army career offices. I have heard and seen thousands of people going through their training exercises, but there is no suggestion that people are trained for a specific skill and then sent out. All people, young and old, recruited into the Army will do the basic training and then specific training. That basic training is designed to equip the individual for a range of tasks. If their profile suggests that they can execute a particular role, they are sent to that role. I also accept that they may not have had experience in that role—
I will engage with the Minister in more detail if my constituent is willing to take the matter further. We need to test whether it was a misunderstood one-off or whether it was an example of possible overstretch and that the level of deployment does not allow for the effective rotation of training.
There have been welcome developments in the treatment of the injured and wounded, with the introduction of more medical management to the Selly Oak hospital, the main hospital for the wounded. Will the Minister update us on developments? Those who have served before, who grew up with the support that was available from the Royal Army Medical Corps, know how difficult it will be for the next generation.
We understand the professionalism of the acute medical care that is now available. The Government have taken on board the experience needed by the surgeons, and the ethos and management of the wards need to be developed so that people in recovery can maintain their links with the military. The introduction of medical management to the wards was a welcome recognition of that concern.
I refer again to regimental links. The Gordon Highlanders had an outreach centre in Aberdeen. A long-term commitment to maintaining those links with the community would be welcome. North-east Scotland has low unemployment and a high skills base in the oil industry, so recruitment is difficult for the armed forces. However, a presence and a profile that links them to the community gives them the chance to tap into skills and trades that would be extremely beneficial to our services.
The hon. Lady reinforced the message on training. When I was an RAF cadet at school, we were shown a powerful video for the RAF telling us that how well we did the training would decide whether we would do it for real. The more professional and effective our armed forces, the better the chance that the other side in a conflict will recognise that fact. As a result, we would not have to engage so often or deliver those forces. We must be willing to use our forces whenever necessary to protect the national interest, but the fact that they are highly trained and highly respected gives us an added edge in international negotiations and in our foreign policy.
I want to finish with the impression that I have of the Government’s failure to recognise what resources we have, how our foreign policy impacts on that and the fact that we need to feed back into our foreign policy only what we can deliver. We must therefore ensure that what we deliver is delivered well and thoroughly. Our armed forces provide an excellent service, but politically we have overstretched them and thus lost the focus on some of the key issues that we were trying to tackle. Again, it comes back to feedback from my visit to Pakistan.
I apologise. I will bring my remarks to a close with one last key point.
We went into Afghanistan to deal with a serious and dangerous threat to the world from terrorist training camps. The perception, and certainly the feedback I received as a result of going out to Pakistan, is that, having gone there to do a job, we allowed the American distraction of Iraq to take us away from that crucial goal—
I was impressed by the ability of my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) to speak for longer than the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). He had only two pages of notes and I have to prepare much more than that to speak for that length of time. I appreciate his contribution to the debate and that of the hon. Member for Crosby—it was a thoughtful and detailed contribution. Her membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme sounded attractive. I have, so far, resisted the temptation to join, but I will take her recommendations on board and may consider joining in order to learn first hand exactly what our armed forces face around the world.
I congratulate the Ministry of Defence on the veterans badge, which has already been mentioned. I have been running a campaign to raise awareness of the badge for just two weeks in Fife and we have already attracted more than 100 applications for the scheme. That means that we are able to recognise those who are often unsung heroes and who make significant contributions to our country. It is a small recognition for the valued contribution that they make.
I will talk mainly about overstretch, but will also cover other issues. Despite denials from the Ministry of Defence, it is clear that our armed forces in general and the Army in particular are overstretched. The National Audit Office says that our armed forces are about 5,000 below strength, which is about 2.8 per cent. That has roughly been the case during the past five years as the armed forces have been operating above predicted deployment levels. During the past five years, some 14.5 per cent. of soldiers have been sent on missions more frequently than recommended by harmony guidelines. Medical services have been the worst hit, with reservists filling 66 per cent. of vacant accident and emergency department and intensive therapy nurses posts.
Figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency show that approximately 14,500 personnel left the Army in 2006. Many left before their period of engagement was up. They blamed too many deployments and the impact on their families. The retention crisis has led to some of our most skilled and experienced soldiers quitting the Army. Shorter gaps between tours of duty, and concerns about kit, and pay and allowances are starting to hit morale and put further pressure on service families. Those factors contribute to poor retention levels.
The Defence Committee has said that personnel shortages are creating a “clear danger” and that the military will be unable to maintain its commitments in the near future. With major deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, and forces working in a total of 28 countries—already alluded to earlier in this debate—the Committee found that the services were operating
“in insufficient numbers and without the equipment they need”.
We have heard much about General Sir Richard Dannatt, but it is worth considering that in saying that relations between the armed forces and the Government could be undermined if current levels of commitment were maintained, he said that he was
“reflecting a view widely held in the armed services”.
Adrian Weale from the British Armed Forces Federation said that defence funding was based on assumptions made in the late 1990s. He said:
“We were never expected to be having to mount these two”—
by which he means Iraq and Afghanistan—
“what are called medium-scale enduring operations at the same time. And that’s put a lot of pressure on the armed forces."
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his considered words. Does he agree that the situation faced by the Army at the moment arises only from the fact that the threat to this country and globally has changed shape over time? The armed forces were set up for traditional major wars, but the situation is now very different. Many of the problems experienced by the armed forces are associated with shifting from one scenario to a very different scenario. With time, as we settle into that scenario, some of the current problems will diminish because there will be the experience to better manage the situation.
There is much in what the hon. Lady says, but we fundamentally disagree about whether we should have intervened in Iraq and whether that has led to overstretch in the Army. We believe that we should have focused on Afghanistan—I know that I am straying into foreign affairs territory here—rather than kicking in the door in Iraq. That would have allowed us to live within our means and capability.
On the points raised earlier, I too have had members of the armed forces raising concerns about one moment being in store and the next minute finding themselves on the front line. I would like to get to the bottom of this issue and find out what level of training they are getting. I welcome the Minister’s contribution on that.
What are the consequences of this overstretch? According to an MOD survey, one in five soldiers want to quit the Army at the earliest opportunity, with many blaming overstretch. More than half often think about quitting and more than a third blamed operational commitment and overstretch. A rising number of soldiers are no longer given the full recommended rest periods between operations, and only 30 per cent. of ordinary soldiers who responded to the survey were satisfied with the notice given for extra duties. Almost three out of five rated their work load as high or very high, and only 31 per cent. felt valued, with nearly one out of four saying that their morale was low or very low.
I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged that more needs to be done to improve housing for the armed forces, but I am disappointed that it took the intervention of the Adjutant-General, Lieutenant-General Freddie Viggers, who condemned cramped and decaying living quarters in barracks. He said that
“there is still too much accommodation which is of a poor standard, which is old, and which is not modern in the way it’s fitted for families. It’s a key issue in what we call the military covenant-giving our soldiers and their families what they deserve in return for that they do for us.”
The hon. Gentleman should not set hares running when there is no substance—I do not know if that is the proper use of that expression. The problems referred to by Lieutenant-General Viggers had already been recognised, which is why we invested £700 million last year in housing and are making a £5 billion investment over the next 10 years. There is an historical issue relating to accommodation; the issue was not started by recent comments. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be accurate in analysing the issue and not to set hares running—or release dogs into the street which we will never catch. The issue has been addressed over a number of years and is not of recent vintage. We have adopted a progressive programme for sorting it out.
I recognise that and am grateful to the Minister for his intervention. However, I am afraid that the world only found out to the present extent because of the intervention of Lieutenant-General Viggers, although I recognise that the Government have made significant investment in that area.
Figures obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) have already been alluded to, but with a slightly different presentation. Those figures revealed that one in 10 soldiers in the British Army are from abroad. Citizens from 57 countries are recruited to compensate for falling numbers of young Britons signing up. It is a welcome step that our Army is appealing to countries and citizens of other parts of the world. However, that sends out an underlying message that we cannot recruit from within and have to rely on foreign troops. For about 150 years, the United Kingdom has recruited Gurkha soldiers from Nepal to serve in their own Gurkha regiments. About 3,000 are currently serving. However, there are nearly 6,700 soldiers from 57 other countries, as I mentioned. Fiji leads the way, with almost 2,000.
That makes it all right, then. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
I will now deal briefly with teacher reservists in Scotland. A constituent recently approached me. She was concerned that she was not allowed to take part in training because she was a primary school teacher and was not allowed to take time off during term time. The guidelines for that stretch back to 1995. Although I recognise that it is a devolved issue, I would welcome the Minister’s scrutiny in this area, because my constituent has not been able to take part in the essential training. This is about the naval reserves, not the Army, but I am sure that it affects the Territorial Army as well. Bizarrely, teachers are allowed time off for a range of duties. They are allowed to serve as councillors, justices of the peace and so on, and to serve on the river purification board, which no longer exists in Scotland, so we need a review of the guidelines to ensure that reservists, who provide an essential service for our armed forces, are given the necessary time off to do the training.
As we are approaching election time, I want briefly to deal with the issue of independence, which I know is close to the Minister’s heart. I would like to know whether he has conducted any scrutiny of the policy for separating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom and what effect that would have on the British Army. Like him, I believe that Scotland is better within the UK and that an independent Scottish defence force would not have the recognition throughout the world that our British Army currently has. If we put any of that under threat, things would be the poorer not only for those serving in the Army, but for the whole UK. I would therefore welcome hearing the Minister’s views on that issue.
Finally, I want to touch briefly on the war in Iraq because I believe that that is fundamental to the problem with recruitment—
They certainly are. The Liberal Democrats opposed the war in Iraq and we are disappointed that so many members of the coalition forces have lost their lives in Iraq. We believe that that has contributed significantly to the problems with recruitment and retention in the armed forces and, in particular, in the Army. I am talking about problems to do with not having the right kit or the right equipment and the demoralising impact that failing to have the desired effect in Iraq is obviously having on our armed forces.
That may be the hon. Gentleman’s impression, but when I visit careers offices I find that the war has not necessarily had that effect. If people go to the recruitment office up in the north-west, they will find that the number of expressions of interest has gone up as a result of the war. It is an absolute fact that many young people join the Army because they want the experience of defending their country. That is what they are going for, and Iraq offers a very real possibility of doing that.
I understand that recruitment is reasonably healthy and the numbers have gone up, but retention is a fundamental problem. We are losing far too many people out the back end—roughly 14,500 in 2006, as I said. Certainly the feedback that I get on the streets is that one reason for the problem is our situation in Iraq and our intervention there.
I pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in Iraq in the service of their country. By invading Iraq, we created a moral obligation to support the country, and our armed forces had an important role in achieving that, but we must recognise that the commitment cannot be open-ended and that the current strategy is not succeeding. That is why the Liberal Democrats believe that it is time for us to go. We have reached the conclusion that our troops should—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Olner; that is my mobile phone.
I follow on from what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) said and pay tribute to one of Britain’s greatest success stories, Her Majesty’s armed forces, and particularly, in the light of today’s debate, the British Army. I do not believe that there is an army in the world that can match ours.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on securing the debate. I am sorry that more hon. Members are not present, but I pay tribute to her because she is a tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. She has clearly benefited from it and proven to the House and, we hope, to a wider audience—she has certainly done so to the Minister, although he needs no confirmation of this—that the scheme is an extremely good organisation and helps to ensure that Members of Parliament who do not have experience of the armed forces are introduced to what is, as I said, one of Britain’s greatest success stories.
I shall not go through all the points that the hon. Lady raised, but she made two fundamental ones. The first was that the Falklands campaign illustrated the importance of being prepared to fight for one’s country, territory and interests. We must never forget that that is what our armed forces are for. Having come straight from a meeting with Baroness Thatcher and just discussed these issues, I can reinforce that remark.
The hon. Lady’s second point was about Sierra Leone. That is a very different operation, but it is one in which the British Army is conducting itself magnificently. It illustrates the extraordinary versatility of Britain’s Army and particularly those who come from less privileged backgrounds. Some people come from very difficult home backgrounds and poorer parts of society, and it is a tribute to the British Army that it manages to train them and turn them into such stalwart citizens who are both brave and versatile. In theatres such as Sierra Leone, they are winning hearts and minds, as they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is an enormous tribute to them.
As Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on defence, but also as one who has the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, the home of the British Army, I have to say that this is a wonderful opportunity for me not only to extol the virtues of the British Army, but to highlight some of the difficulties. May I say to the Minister, who has been in post even longer than I have, that if I do highlight the difficulties, I do so because it is part of the constitutional duty of the Opposition to hold the Government to account? Much is being done that I am sure is good. New equipment is coming on board, and the Minister mentioned accommodation, but there are real problems. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife illustrated some of those.
General Sir Richard Dannatt’s first intervention when he became Chief of the General Staff was to say:
“We are running hot, certainly running hot. Can we cope? I pause. I say ‘just’.”
Coming from the head of the British Army, that should send a shock through all Members of this House, not just Ministers, but it was a considered view and reflects what is happening on the ground. The trouble with the military is that when asked to do something by politicians, invariably their answer is, “Yes, sir. We can do it, sir.” We politicians then glibly say, “Okay, that’s fine. Let’s crack on with it.” The military are reluctant to say, “No, we can’t do it,” because they would feel that they were failures or that they had failed to deliver what was expected of them by the politicians. I think that what General Sir Richard Dannatt said is absolutely right. It is certainly borne out by my experience and by the figures.
I remind the Minister that in 1997 the required strength of the British Army was 106,360. That had fallen by 2006 to 101,800. The trained strength of the Army in 1997 was 101,360. Last year, it was 99,570. We now have the smallest Army since 1930. The fundamental difference between 1997 and 2007 is that today we are fighting two wars. There is no point in pussy-footing around: when we say that people are going on operations, they are going into war zones. Iraq is effectively a war zone and Afghanistan is most certainly a war zone, as are the myriad other operations that the hon. Lady mentioned and to which we are committed.
The fundamental basis of our criticism of the Government is that there are insufficient men to undertake those tasks. It is no good saying, as the former Secretary of State did, that platform numbers no longer count because we have such sophisticated equipment. Of course numbers count. One ship cannot be in two places, as Admiral Sir Alan West, First Sea Lord, said. Equally, soldiers are human beings. To take territory and hold it, one needs men, and that means numbers. It does not matter how sophisticated the weapons are, the physical presence of the soldiers is what counts.
We cannot understand why the Government have cut four British Army battalions when General Richards in Afghanistan has called for precisely 2,500 men. What is that? It is four battalions. That is in addition to what they are doing to cap badges and what they are doing to destroy much of the morale and ethos that is associated with the support for individual units. Men do not fight for their country; they fight for the man next to them. They fight for their unit, their regiment and that battle honour. Anyone who doubts that should watch the 3 Para video of Afghanistan, which is extremely well worth watching. It exemplifies the sense of camaraderie and ethos.
In 2005, some 3,350 more people left the Army than joined up. Last year, the number was about 1,500. I agree that the problem is not so much with recruitment, although only two battalions are properly recruited—the Gurkha battalions—while the rest are under-recruited and under-strength. There is an attraction for young men and women in serving their country and taking part in the kind of operations that are under way. The problem is something else. When I go around and speak to people, many of them tell me, “I’ve done Iraq”—probably three times—and “I’ve done Afghanistan. It doesn’t get much better than that, so I’m quitting.” The people who are leaving are the backbone of the British Army: the captains, majors and senior warrant officers. They are the repository of the real experience in today’s Army. Their loss is potentially the most damaging, and something has to be done about it.
I have two Guards battalions in Aldershot at present—the Irish Guards and the Grenadier Guards. Before Christmas, the commanding officer of the Irish Guards, Colonel O’Dwyer, told me, “Sir, we are not valued.” That is a serious wake-up call and we need to wake up. The colonel is a splendid chap, and he did not say that in any way politically, but it is an accusation against the political classes. It is our job to make sure that they are valued. I shall return to the military covenant later.
I protested to the colonel that there is not a Member of Parliament who does not stand up in Westminster and proclaim the virtues of the British Army. He said, “We get less telephone time than prisoners, and when we go on a train we have to buy a travelcard. Police officers just flash their warrants and don’t have to pay anything.” I realise that those are small things.
I shall respond to that now because I might not have time to deal with all the points that have been raised in detail. It is not correct to say that forces members have less telephone time than prisoners. We recently increased it to 30 minutes a week. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can go back and correct the misunderstanding or misinformation that is being peddled around.
I am happy to do that, but I want to make it clear that that is not the fundamental issue. It is more like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If I am issuing a warning to the Minister, it is this: we are taking the British Army too much for granted. It is at a tipping point. Take the Grenadier Guards. In the 115 weeks between March 2006 and June 2008, they will be on operations for 48 weeks, doing field exercises for 20 weeks, and have 10 weeks of post-operational tour leave and pre-deployment leave. To anyone who thinks that that involves swanning around at home, I say that post-operational tour leave provides the process of decompression that is essential when men are taken out of a theatre such as Iraq or Afghanistan having seen what they have seen. It is not a holiday. We do them no service.
Servicemen and women tell me that the negatives of service are the separation from their families and lack of adventure training—the kind of thing that used to make up part of the whole military package. It is now tilted in favour of duty, responsibility and work and less in favour of the benefits that made the whole package attractive. Yet these days, unlike in the cold war, those men and women are putting their lives on the line for us day in, day out. They are dying for their country. They are giving a real, not abstract, commitment.
I pay tribute to those who have given their lives for our country and to their families, who deserve the biggest tribute because they supported them. They are the ones who have experiences like the lady who said, “When I put the children to bed, the house is silent.” She will live with that silence, and we need to bear that in mind.
Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we should limit the exposure of the Army to a specific number of areas of engagement, or does he support the argument that while the Army’s diversified activity is positive, it is crucial that we have more people to deliver that diversity comfortably?
It is the latter. I simply do not think that there are enough people, and that is the generally held consensus. There are not enough people to do all the jobs that are being done. I have no desire for us to retreat into a United Kingdom shell and remove ourselves from the world stage. We are a power for good in the world and I want us to play that role. I am a Tory. I believe that strong defence is the first duty of any Government—certainly a Conservative Government. We are able to play a great role in the world. Anyone who compares British forces, and how we deal with people, with the American forces in Abu Ghraib can see that we are good. Personally, I have no wish to see our role diminished.
I have written to Air Marshal Pocock about how the change in the allowances will affect the Grenadier Guards and they will lose £681,750. They are doing two operations—they just came back from Iraq in October and are going to Afghanistan in March—and they are uniquely disbenefited by the changes. I urge the Minister to look at that again.
I want to address one or two issues about equipment, starting with armoured vehicles. We have been warning for years that the nature of the operations in Iraq, in particular, and now Afghanistan, puts our troops at grave risk from roadside bombs and sophisticated improvised explosive devices. I was told in Iraq, three years ago, that the insurgents there had achieved more sophistication in 30 months than the IRA did in 30 years.
On my return from the armed forces parliamentary scheme visit to Iraq, on which there were no Labour Members, in 2005, I went straight to the Secretary of State and said, “You’ve got to do something about this.” I did not go to the press because my duty is not to spread fear and alarm among families. I have been criticised for not going public about it, but that was my view. The Government have made a mistake, although they are now bringing new kit on board.
We have a duty to give the men the best possible protection, so I welcome the Cougars coming into operation, but we were told last July by the Secretary of State that they would be fully operational at the end of 2006. I do not regard having four Mastiffs, as I believe the British Army now calls them, in theatre in Iraq as being fully operational. Everybody knows the limitations of the Snatch Land Rover and it is time that the Government did more to recognise that they have a duty to protect our troops. Equipment exists that is able to do that—for example, the Pinzgauer, which I have been to see. Others dismiss it, and I do not think that it has the full armoured capability of the RG-31 or the Mastiff, but it will make a contribution.
The second issue on equipment concerns helicopters. I understand that the Government have decided that the Danish EH101s are not available or that they will not go ahead with acquiring them. It is clear that we particularly need lift in Afghanistan, as it is insufficient. That which there is in theatre is being used at a far higher rate than had originally been envisaged, which is imposing a far greater toll on the maintainability of the helicopters. I gather that Eurocopter has put a bid before the Government concerning six Pumas; there is a possibility that three will be made fully theatre-prepared and available by July, with the rest available by the end of the year. The Government have a duty to do something about lift, because it is available, and I cannot understand why they are taking such a long time to deal with it.
I know that there is a bit more time available so would it be in order for me to have another five minutes, if the Minister agrees, as he would still have time to reply, Mr. Gale?
I am grateful, because there are many other issues that I could raise about the British Army. Although I do not have time to raise them all, I want to mention the important matter of medical care. We have an inadequate system of dealing with the aftermath of military operations and the Government need to do much more. The issue of mental health problems arising out of operations is also of paramount importance. If the Minister could do anything to increase the support that he makes available to Combat Stress, he would be doing a great service and would be widely thanked. We know that there are insufficient numbers of nurses and doctors. They are about 43 per cent. under-recruited, and that will also have to be addressed.
Mention has been made of the military covenant. There is not a person in this land who believes that Britain’s armed forces have not fulfilled their part of the bargain. They have done so in shed loads. They have met their duty under the military covenant, but the nation has failed them in return. We have not given them the kit, the sufficient manpower, the family support or the accommodation. Whatever the Minister is now doing, we have not done enough for our armed forces to enable us to look them in the eye and say, “We have fulfilled our part of the military covenant.”
I want to make a point to the Minister by taking as my text the remarks made by the former Secretary of State, now the Minister for Europe, in supporting essay 2 to the Defence White Paper of 2003, “Delivering Security in a Changing World”. He stated:
“Since SDR our Armed Forces have conducted operations that have been more complex and greater in number than we had envisaged. We have effectively been conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the SDR planning assumptions. We expect to see a similar pattern of operations in the future”.
In other words, we are imposing on our armed forces a commitment that is greater than was proposed in the strategic defence review. The SDR was never properly funded and this is not properly funded. The situation is, “Commitments of SDR, plus; funding of SDR, double minus.” That sums up the dilemma that the Government face.
It is no good the Prime Minister saying, as he did against a military backdrop—on HMS Albion—in a wonderfully orchestrated and typically Labour spin thing, that we are going to spend more on defence. When the matter was raised in the other place—I raised this with the Prime Minister at Question Time last week—Lord Davies of Oldham said of the comprehensive spending review that
“there will be a number of contributions to that debate. The Prime Minister’s contribution will, of course, be regarded very seriously and very importantly indeed.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 647.]
What have we come to when the Prime Minister of the land deliberately gives a stage-managed appearance on HMS Albion telling the armed forces, “Don’t worry boys, I am going to look after you. I give you a commitment” and that is a “contribution to that debate”? That debate is presided over by, undoubtedly, the next Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has betrayed the armed forces. He has failed to fund them to the level required to meet the commitments that the Prime Minister has imposed on them. He is as much a part of this Government as the Prime Minister, and he has failed abysmally in doing the job that he ought to do of supporting our armed forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and I offered a little challenge before the previous election. We offered a magnum, no less, of Pol Roger champagne—the favourite champagne of his grandfather, Sir Winston Churchill—to the first person to spot the Chancellor of the Exchequer arriving at, or leaving, a military establishment. The magnum of Pol Roger is still on my sideboard awaiting collection. I believe that the Chancellor has now been to Iraq and is trying to ingratiate himself with the armed forces, but he is a man who has never done anything to help them. He may say that the Tories cut defence spending, but we did so because the circumstances after the ending of the cold war, which was achieved by my noble Friend, Baroness Thatcher, meant that we had to have a rethink. To this Government’s credit, they had a review. We should have had a review, but we did not. We cut defence expenditure but the trouble is that the Labour party wanted to cut it even further. The Government should not tell us that we did not do the right thing by the armed forces because Labour wanted further cuts.
There is an issue about the funding of our armed forces, and the hon. Member for Crosby raised it. On 30 October, The Daily Telegraph gave figures from an opinion poll that asked people whether they thought more or less should be spent on defence. Some 46 per cent. of people said that we should spend more on it, of whom 18 per cent. said that significantly more should be spent. Only 22 per cent. said that less should be spent on it. Interestingly, there was an opinion poll about Iraq in another column showing that 57 per cent. of people said that we should be out of Iraq either now or within 12 months. That illustrates the complete disconnect between the public’s opposition to the Iraq war and their support for the armed forces.
We have a duty to support the greatest army in the world. It has served us well and I, like everyone else, is proud of it. We are not doing our stuff by the Army and, if we do not do so, the haemorrhaging of people leaving the armed forces will get even worse and experienced people will go. Such people cannot be replaced. The military covenant requires us to do our duty by our magnificent armed forces.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) for securing the debate. I will come to some of the points that she made, but I want to start by paying tribute to the members of our armed forces for their dedication and the invaluable contribution that they make on a daily basis to our efforts for global peace. She put that into context well.
I also pay tribute to the families, particularly those who have lost loved ones. I was up in Kinloss yesterday for a most moving memorial service in recognition of the 14 brave men who lost their lives in the aircraft crash. It was a powerful event that brought home to me people’s resilience, dedication and commitment. I spoke only to RAF personnel and to some of the families, but all three services were represented.
As an aside, I should say that I appreciate the comments made by my hon. Friend about the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was one of the early participants in it, which is possibly why I have ended up in this job for six years. I wanted to spend my time with the RAF because my father had been in it, but as two places had been filled, I ended up with the Army. I am glad that I did, because it gave me an insight into things that I did not have much knowledge of, other than through family contacts of a vintage period from the second world war. However, the Army’s future is not dependent on the armed forces parliamentary scheme. If it were, more participants of that scheme would be taking part in the debate. It is to be noted that so few of them are.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s recognition of what is being done in the incredible training programmes in the armed forces and, considering who we recruit and where, particularly in the Army. People are lifted and become exemplars for others in their communities, and we give welfare to tens of thousands of younger troops. That is an example of what we are trying to do as part of the covenant. We want to create an ongoing ethos. What we have done is not new, but training is getting better, sharper and better funded.
One of the baselines is how we bring on young people who come into the armed forces. In my six years as armed forces Minister, I have been dealing with the Deepcut issue—the four tragic deaths that occurred there. We have analysed it and now transformed the whole training regime, which has been independently audited and examined. Those in the armed forces who have had to deal with it must be given credit for transforming their approach, which will give the forces strength.
The regime is not perfect, and there is still a lot to be done. There are accommodation issues to consider, but we have invested heavily in both financial and people terms to turn that around. If we do not get it right, we will not get right other aspects of what we are doing. I shall come to equipment, which is a key matter.
Hon. Members have mentioned the Prime Minister’s speech on 12 January. It is wrong to diminish its importance, but I understand the political knockabout that takes place. It is worth while to read the speech: it was successful and examined where we stand. The Prime Minister talked about the transformation of the context within which the military, politics and public opinion interact. We are in a new climate and environment, and some changes are driven by events and some would have had to be made anyway because of circumstances evolving beyond our shores.
What the Prime Minister said on HMS Albion was:
“For our part, in Government, it will mean increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces; not in the short run but for the long term.”
It was a Minister in the other place, Lord Davies of Oldham, who said that that was merely a contribution to the debate. I say to the Minister that this is not knockabout stuff. If the Prime Minister’s words did not mean that the armed forces were sent the message, “We are going to increase expenditure,” what did they mean?
I have read the comments made by my colleague in another place, and knockabout is a word that I could use to good effect in describing them. The Prime Minister’s speech was more than a contribution; it was a substantial analysis of where we stand. We are not here to consider that speech, which covered matters beyond the future of the British Army, but it put the armed forces into context. The Prime Minister talked about public opinion, politics and where Her Majesty’s armed forces sit. He also mentioned the need to invest in our nation’s warfighting capabilities to pursue our foreign policy. The sharp end of that is the British Army.
There are people who do not believe that we should be a warfighting nation, including some in the House and perhaps in the other place. I think that they are wrong, because that represents where we best position ourselves and where we have historically and traditionally given great effect at momentous times in world history. We are doing that in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and who knows where we will do it tomorrow? The Prime Minister set out a variety of security threats and challenges that we face and where the armed forces sit in relation to them. Much of what he said is what we have been addressing in the Ministry of Defence since the strategic defence review.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for admitting that the Conservatives failed in government to address what was coming after the end of the cold war. The downsizing and the changes that took place were not well structured. The Conservatives did not analyse what the needs of the future would be. They immediately reduced defence expenditure dramatically so that they could invest it in trying to win the forthcoming elections.
I shall give way in a moment on that point, but I do not agree with the analysis with which the hon. Gentleman closed his speech.
The incoming Labour Government considered where the armed forces should be positioned and how best they should be structured. That was an intensive programme, driven directly by the armed forces themselves. They knew that they had to get themselves better structured and positioned. On the back of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was clear that more needed to be done. There was not a full review, but more consideration needed to be given to how to structure the armed forces, particularly the Army.
We considered the new technology that was coming in, which changed the relationship between the various services and how they could fight interdependently and flexibly, meeting new challenges and a different type of threat and enemy. All that had to be included in the examination process. Such a process will always be complicated while we are engaged in heavy commitments such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Other countries where we are engaged have been mentioned, and it is interesting that people forget about Northern Ireland. Only a few years ago we had more troops committed there than to Iraq and Afghanistan put together. We have transformed Northern Ireland: when I was the Northern Ireland Office Minister with responsibility for security, we had about 15,000 troops committed. Some were on rear bases, but that was the total commitment, the vast bulk of which came from the Army.
The peace process was required for a lot of reasons, one of which was the heavy resource commitment. We had been there for far too long and there was another, better way of doing it. We could never have solved the problem militarily, yet we had a large commitment. As of next year, we will have a commitment of 5,000 troops—not for the peace process, although a measure of support will be given to the civilian authorities, but overall. That is a major transformation and it has reduced pressure.
Two parts of our re-examination were called future Army structure and future infantry structure. The future Army structure represents a complete overhaul of how we brigade the British Army. Virtually every Army unit establishment was subject to examination, and will be in the months and years ahead. Some 10,000 posts will be redistributed, which will reshape and restructure the Army and is intended to get a better balance between heavy, medium and light capabilities. We inherited an imbalance: the enemy and threat had changed, so we had to change accordingly. That required re-roling and people doing tasks other than those that they thought they would do when they entered the armed forces. We were committed to one objective: maintaining the high quality and standard of Her Majesty’s armed forces.
A previous Secretary of State, now the Minister for Europe, commented on the matter on 16 December 2004, saying:
“However, enhancements that we have already decided on include the creation of a new commando engineer regiment, a new port and maritime unit, an additional strategic communications unit and a new logistics support regiment for each deployable brigade. We are also creating a number of new sub-units for surveillance and target acquisition, bomb disposal and vehicle maintenance capabilities.”—[Official Report, 16 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1796.]
In April last year, a new special forces support group was also formed to work alongside special forces tackling the terrorism that we face globally. I have visited a support group and spoken to those deployed in Afghanistan. I cite those examples because they are never recognised as part of the process of substantial change that we have seen. That process has been driven by a military imperative to get things right, and there has been political and financial support for it.
I entirely endorse that point, and the Minister is absolutely right, but we need to introduce changes to meet the circumstances of today, not the limbo in which we found ourselves in 1989, following the fall of the Berlin wall. It is absolutely right to do that, but the Minister’s problem is that he is still operating with an Army of less than 100,000. As far as I can work out, we would have to go back pretty well to the time of Wellington to find an Army as small as that. That is where the problem lies—not with the new units that the Minister is creating, which I applaud, but with the reduction in the Army below the critical 100,000 level.
Let us look at the figures. The hon. Gentleman said that trained strength was 101,300 in 1997. It dropped to 100,900 the following year and to below 100,000 the year after that. In terms of the figure being below 100,000 and the reference to 1935, therefore, he is wrong. The current figures are marginally below the 1999 level. Interestingly, however, recruitment grew at the height of the Iraq controversy, when there were massive demonstrations in this country.
In 2004 and 2005, the figure went up to 102,400. That tells us something that is probably hard to analyse—recruitment went up against the trend, but we are now having recruiting difficulties. Tempo is unquestionably part of the issue, but people tend to forget the strength of the economy. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) mentioned the strength of the Scottish economy and his own region. It is difficult to recruit from a particular cohort when the economy is strong, and especially when the demographics and all the higher and further education opportunities open to young people, which were not there before, are working against us.
That is what this debate is about, and if people can find a solution to that problem, they should tell us. A lot of effort is being put into working towards the best conclusion. We offer young people immense opportunities not only in the Army, but in the armed forces, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby mentioned the educational opportunities. We market and advertise the opportunities that the armed forces provide so that people are aware of them. Sometimes those recruiting campaigns work, but sometimes they do not. We are no different from any other major organisation that is trying to reach a market and attract people in.
What militates against our efforts is people arguing that the British armed forces are underfunded, ill equipped, badly treated and badly looked after. There may be some underlying truth in terms of issues needing to be addressed, but no wonder we find it difficult to recruit when debates such as this present a picture of complete negativity, rather than highlighting the positive attractions for young people. That is why we are putting so much effort into our recruiting strategy and trying to lift the quality of the debate as best we can.
That is an interesting point. We have certainly seen that situation in the north-west, and particularly in Liverpool, which is a big recruiting area for young soldiers, although the economy and job opportunities have gone through the ceiling, which means that the Army is not as attractive as it was. However, I take my right hon. Friend back to my earlier point that the Army has made strong attempts to ensure that any qualification it gives has equivalent civilian accreditation. Many individuals were locked into the Army because their experience could not be marketed outside it, but that barrier has now gone. That means that they can gain fantastic opportunities and then say, “Where can I best use them?” That is quite an important factor, and I applaud the fact that we have taken those steps, but it does create retention problems.
It is probably a no-win situation. Not every young person who comes into the armed forces because of the opportunities that they offer—they are not all 16 or 17-year-olds, and some are a bit more mature—is focused on training and education, and some come in to do what they want to do with the Royal Marines or the Army, but they are all given every opportunity. I agree that that raises an issue, in that we are making people employable who were not employable before.
I talked to RAF personnel at Kinloss yesterday, and several of them were looking at openings in the outside world. As a nation, we have give them that opportunity. Some would have taken it as a result of their own choice, but many will now be able to do so because we have provided the resources—the hundreds of millions that we pour into the education of our personnel.
I want now to touch on equipment because we hear so much about equipment problems—indeed, that is all we are ever told about. When the issue arises, Defence Ministers try to take those who make such comments through the argument. Let me give a good example of what applies to the Army today and what will apply into the future. Four years ago, an eight-man fire team would have had roughly three SA80s; one light support weapon; an individual Mk 6 helmet, webbing and Bergen; enhanced combat body armour; the old Clansman; a light anti-tank weapon; an individual weapon sight; and a 51 mm mortar. Now, such a team has a light support weapon; a light machine gun; an underslung grenade launcher; thermal imaging sights; the Mk 6A helmet, which is an improved defensive aid; all-round Osprey body armour, which has saved lives; the interim light anti-tank weapon; the Bowman personal role radio; head-mounted night-vision sights; a long-range image intensifier; and an automatic lightweight grenade launcher and a 60 mm mortar in support.
All those developments have taken place because of the theatre in which we find ourselves. That is what is happening on the procurement of equipment, and it is the same with armoured vehicles. I am really surprised that the hon. Member for Aldershot criticises what we are doing and says that we should do more. What more can we do, other than procure the numbers that we need and ask industry to supply us, which it is doing to a considerable extent? All that will place the Army in a better position in the years ahead.
Let us just consider one fact: equipment valued at more than £10 billion has been delivered to the armed forces in the past three years. When people say that equipment is not being supplied to provide for force protection and wider capabilities, they are simply wrong. If they want more defence expenditure, let me hear where they want less expenditure. I shall advocate more expenditure as part of a spending Department’s approach with the Treasury—it is our job to do that—but let those who want more for defence say where they want a reduction. In health? In education?
The issue is part of our covenant with the British people, and the Prime Minister set it out in his argument. Have we got the balance right? The argument is now out there, and the Prime Minister certainly made more than a contribution—his was a powerful examination of where we stand as a nation and what we need to do against unknown threats and enemies. However, we must get ourselves in the best position. I welcome this debate, and we should have more such debates, but I just wish that more hon. Members would participate in them.