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Armed Forces Personnel

Volume 461: debated on Thursday 21 June 2007

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

Since we last debated defence, 14 personnel have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that the House’s thoughts are with their families and friends at this time.

I welcome this opportunity to open the debate on our armed forces personnel and the civilians who support them. Day in, day out, they work extremely hard for the nation at home and abroad. My central theme is that, in return for the things we ask of them and the outstanding work they do, our personnel must be properly looked after. Despite difficulties and challenges, which I am not going to deny, I believe that the Government are living up to their commitment to support them. I want briefly to cover a number of issues: operational welfare, military ethos, training and recruitment, welfare, manning, pay and accommodation, reservists, medical support, families, inquests and civilian personnel.

Last week, I was in the Falklands, where I was privileged to attend commemorations for the 25th anniversary of their liberation. I heard many tales of courage and sacrifice. Today, as then, our young men and women are making huge sacrifices against determined enemies in order to help people who cannot help themselves—this time, however, not in the wind and wet of the south Atlantic, but in the heat and dust of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our operational success in those theatres depends fundamentally on our people. It depends on their courage, their professionalism and their unstinting dedication to the task in hand.

I know that our forces are stretched and I know that tempo is one of the key concerns of our personnel and their families. Some are away for more time than they should be. I fully appreciate all of that. About 1 per cent. of the Royal Navy, 5 per cent. of Royal Air Force personnel and 13 per cent. of the Army are currently exceeding separation guidelines. That includes the Royal Marines, the infantry, the RAF Regiment, the support helicopter force, medics, logisticians and engineers.

The work that our personnel are undertaking in Iraq and Afghanistan is important. When I visit them, it is clear to me that they understand that. What I want to stress is that when we are able to reduce commitments, we will. In Northern Ireland, political progress has allowed us to reduce our force levels by around 8,000 when compared to levels in 2003. The reduction of our military operations in Bosnia and the wider Balkans has meant that we now have only a small number of personnel—just over 200—compared with more than 10,000 eight years ago.

Of course, matching personnel to commitments is difficult in an uncertain world, and the present tempo of operations makes it particularly challenging. At the moment, the advice from the chiefs of staff is that we can cope with current commitments, but we cannot assume that this will remain the case and we will clearly have to watch it closely.

In view of what the Minister has just said, will he tell us what proportion of those deployed on active service, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, are actually in the Territorial Army? To what extent is the Territorial Army being used in active theatres and what impact does that have on the advice that he is given by the generals?

I intend to come to that. I mentioned that I was going to talk about the reservists, so if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will comment in more detail later.

How does the Minister square the freeze on promotion for lieutenants in the Royal Navy with the drive towards acquisition of more aircraft carriers and warships? What long-term impact will that have on recruitment and retention?

I intend to come on to recruitment and retention as well. I am sure that the hon. Lady is only too well aware that the configuration of the future fleet in respect of modern warships requires substantially fewer people to serve on them. I cannot recall the figure offhand for the Astute vessels, but I suspect that it is in the region of 90 or so fewer per vessel. That clearly has an impact on the overall structure.

I am not giving way in the middle of answering a question—and I may not even give way to the hon. Gentleman at all.

As I was explaining, the impact will be felt among those who believe that their career paths may be temporarily stalled. All that has to be taken into account, but this is a point of readjustment as we look towards the future Navy. As I say, that will apply to the new types of warships that will come into play, including the new aircraft carriers, which we look forward to joining the fleet—[Interruption.] I will give way to the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis).

I knew he would, Mr. Speaker. Although the newer warships require fewer personnel when they go to sea, is it not planned that they should have double crews in some cases in order to take advantage of the fact that they can stay at sea longer? I think that the Minister’s point about fewer personnel is a little less clear-cut than he makes out.

I agree with that. There are wider issues concerning personnel profiling. As to the sea swap concept, I witnessed the trials currently being held when I was down in the Falklands. HMS Liverpool is there and it was being manned by the crew of HMS Exeter. Many identified with their mother ship. I am sorry, I meant HMS Edinburgh is in the Falklands, not HMS Liverpool. Many of the crew felt that they should have been on their mother ship. Issues have to be addressed, but I tried to explain to the personnel that this was a genuine attempt to ensure that we maintain our capabilities at sea for as long as we can. It seems to me much more sensible in principle—though whether we can deliver in practice may be more difficult—to keep ships on station. Who knows what may happen at any particular time? It would be wrong for a ship to be sailing home only to be turned back, when it could have been on station. So there are issues that are being addressed, and all of them will have an impact. They are not easy to resolve, but none the less, we are seeking to address them.

I was commenting on the level of commitment in the armed forces, and I pay tribute to those who have served with distinction and those who continue to do so. At the same time, it is right that where there is evidence that behaviour has fallen below these high standards, we must follow up and take appropriate action. Last week’s House of Lords judgment in the Al-Skeini case provided helpful clarification on the application of the Human Rights Act 1998 in Iraq. Subsequent media coverage suggested that this ruling would impose an additional constraint on our personnel. That is not the case. The criminal law regulating the conduct of our forces remains the same: wherever they are serving in the world, they are always subject to English criminal law. That is not affected by this judgment.

One of the cases that forms part of the Al-Skeini judgment is that of Baha Mousa. We are reviewing the evidence presented in the associated courts martial of Corporal Payne and others, before deciding how best to proceed in relation to the events surrounding Mr. Mousa’s death. I am sure that the House will appreciate that I cannot comment further at this stage, as the legal process in the case has yet to conclude.

Let me now turn to issues of operational welfare. We must ensure that the people undertaking these dangerous operations have the support that they need while they are away. I am pleased to say that, over the past few months, we have made further improvements to the operational welfare package. For example, the telephone allowance in all operational theatres has been increased from 20 minutes to 30 minutes per week. The number of phones available will increase by 20 per cent. and the number of internet machines by 50 per cent. by the autumn. By the end of next month, internet access will be eight times faster. There will be areas in an operational theatre where this cannot be delivered, but our serving personnel understand the reasons for that.

We have just announced the latest increase in operational allowances for personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan —a further 3.6 per cent. uplift—taking the total to £2,320 over a typical six-month tour. Thirty-six thousand personnel have benefited from the operational allowance, and they deserve every penny.

In the last financial year, we spent £42 million on operational welfare. This is a significant improvement on the £12 million provided in 2001, when the operational welfare package was introduced. In addition, we are constantly working on ways to improve the force protection for our personnel on operations. Sadly, we cannot protect against all threats at all times. However, we have authorised spending of some £380 million on force protection urgent operational requirements in the last financial year alone. This is part of the £750 million spent on urgent operational requirements since 2003.

Let me turn to the important issue of military ethos. The expectations of our service personnel are high, and so they should be. Like young people everywhere, they aspire to do better and to go further and faster than the generation before. They are less prepared than their predecessors to accept without question some aspects of service life, such as shared accommodation, poor equipment or inadequate remuneration. They want and expect a work-life balance between doing the job they love and spending time with the people they love. But they are every bit as professional, committed and effective as the generations who have gone before. This is a tribute to them, and a tribute to their training.

On the point of support for people who have lives to lead as well as a duty to perform, how are the armed forces coping with the fact that they now have many more women serving in them, which is a sheer delight? Many of those women are officers, and many also have family roles and maternity roles. How is the Army coping with the fact that they need training and promotional opportunities equivalent to those for everyone else, which at the same time accommodate their woman’s role of having babies and bringing up families?

I will be honest with my hon. Friend. If anything, we are perhaps behind the curve in terms of what is happening in the normal working environment throughout industry and elsewhere. That is probably because of the nature of military life, historically and otherwise. I will mention the success that we have had in recruiting females into the armed forces later in my speech, but we have to begin to look at this issue imaginatively; there should be no glass ceiling. There are too few senior military personnel who are female or from ethnic communities. We need to find sensitive ways of dealing with this. It is a matter of life choice for female entrants to the armed forces, in terms of what they want to do with their career and how they want it to progress. I meet many female serving members of the armed forces who are of an exceptionally high standard. They are a great exemplar, whether in the RAF, the Royal Navy or elsewhere. My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and we need to give proper and due attention to the matter in the time ahead.

Military training has to be robust, challenging and demanding. Ensuring the right balance between looking after new recruits and giving them the training that they need for operations on the battlefield is not easy. We have had to learn from the tragedies of Deepcut. One of the keys to success in this area is greater transparency and external evaluation. In March, we welcomed the publication of the Adult Learning Inspectorate report, “Better Training”, which set out its findings on the progress that we have made. This independent assessment said:

“In summary, great improvement has been made over a short space of time”.

It also noted that

“while further improvements are required in certain areas the change has been significant.”

We are now working with Ofsted to ensure that external audit of our progress continues.

In many ways, the real judges of the quality of what we do are the recruits themselves. I have placed in the Library of the House today the results of an independent poll of recruits recently received from MORI and referred to by the Adult Learning Inspectorate in the “Better Training” report. More than 24,000 questionnaires were returned. The headlines are that 89 per cent. of trainees would recommend others to join their service, 88 per cent. said that they felt a sense of achievement at completing their training, and 84 per cent. felt that the staff had done all that they could to help them. I accept that not all the feedback was positive. There is scope for improvement and we have already taken steps to improve areas highlighted within it. But this grass-roots report is further evidence that we are listening to the views of recruits and using the information to improve our training environment.

We are also acting to improve the status and quality of our trainers. Much of our training is acknowledged as world class. We want to make sure that all of it is. A few weeks ago, the new Army staff leadership school officially opened in Pirbright. It will promote, teach and disseminate best practice among instructors and trainers in the armed forces. Our training needs to move with the times. That is one of the key points behind the defence training review, which we are now implementing. This will ensure that our services which fight together also train together, where that makes sense, and that they do so in modern facilities. But it will also ensure that initial training, which is key to service ethos, remains in the hands of the single services. The proposed world-class academy for specialist training at St. Athan, scheduled to be opened in 2011, is a prime example of the high standards that we set for our training requirements.

A few of us were privileged this week to attend a course at Shrivenham. One of the interesting topics that we discussed was the overlap in the training arena between officials and experts in other Government Departments—for example, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. What discussions does my right hon. Friend have with his colleagues in those other Departments to ensure that a proper, integrated approach is taken to enable officials in the Departments to contribute properly to our war-fighting efforts?

That is one of the great successes of the defence academy at Shrivenham. It is truly multinational, as I am sure my hon. Friend saw, and that involves integration among not only NATO allies and associated friendly countries but other countries with which we want to share a global interest. All those countries can participate in the courses. My hon. Friend asked about other Government Departments. In any post-conflict situation, whether related to peacekeeping or something short of peacekeeping, there has to be a comprehensive approach that involves all the agencies of Government having the best possible understanding of each other. We are encouraging that approach. I know that those who participate in the courses find them of great benefit, as do those who serve in the armed forces. I do not know which course my hon. Friend undertook, but whatever the level, participants increasingly understand that they must work in concert with other Departments. That is one of the key areas of improvement.

There is no doubt that we currently face a difficult recruitment and retention environment. Our manning strategies focus on four aims: attracting more recruits, encouraging more to stay, using those whom we have more effectively, and reducing the commitments that they face.

On the first of those aims, I can report some success. In 2006-07 we recruited 97 per cent. of our increased target—an increase of more than 1,000. That equates to 1,210 extra people, including 300 more female recruits, and compares to a 96 per cent. success rate in the previous year. This year’s Army recruitment figures are up 12 per cent. on last year’s figures. Infantry and Royal Artillery specific recruiting initiatives during 2006-07 have paid dividends, with 25 per cent. more enlistments for each arm than last year.

While recruitment is important, retention is equally important or more so. Turnover is healthy for any organisation, but we do not want to lose highly skilled and experienced people. Owing to the quality of our service personnel, they are in high demand throughout industry when they leave the services. We must ensure that we have measures in place to encourage our people to stay.

According to the latest figures available, on 1 May the total full-time strength of our armed forces was 176,920, some 96.4 per cent. of the requirement. The Royal Navy was manned to 94.7 per cent. of its requirement, the Army to 97.5 per cent., and the Royal Air Force to 95.1 per cent. I do not think that we have hit 100 per cent. in the modern armed forces. It certainly has not happened in my time, and it had not happened for some time before that, if ever. It would be an unusual development, for reasons that I will give shortly.

It is interesting that the Minister gave percentages rather than the actual numbers. Is it not the case that the targets have changed over the past few years? While the Minister may indeed be achieving percentages of 95, 96 or 97 per cent., the goalposts have moved in order for him to do so.

That is true. That is why I said that we had probably never achieved 100 per cent. Whatever the target, it is bound to be difficult to meet. The size of a service will be defined by the military requirement, and those targets can vary. In this instance they have clearly moved downwards on the basis of best assessment.

Although the targets were lower, hitting them proved difficult for a variety of reasons, not least the strong base of the economy and demographic factors which can have an adverse impact. More young people are going into higher and further education. A number of other related issues made it difficult to achieve maximum recruitment.

I agree with much of what the Minister has said. It is true that we are trying to recruit in very different circumstances from those of 15, 20 and certainly 50 years ago. Perhaps, however, the Minister could elaborate on the difference between recruitment and retention. The huge effort to get people into the armed forces is generally successful, but unfortunately it is much tougher to keep them there. The Government, and indeed the House, must focus on that.

I am coming to the issue of retention. Voluntary outflow from the armed forces has remained steady for the past few years. It has always been feared that a haemorrhage will follow any conflict, and two conflicts are taking place concurrently at the moment. I have mentioned tempo and the breaching of harmony guidelines, but we have not experienced the haemorrhage that we feared. I am not saying that problems do not exist within specific trades—they do, and we must deal with them—but the voluntary outflow has remained steady, which must be an indication of something. Of course it must be monitored carefully and constantly in case it moves in the opposite direction.

For that reason, we have financial retention incentives for the infantry, the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy, RAF air crew and certain medical posts. For instance, we have one for specialist nurses. There are also “golden hellos” for medical and dental officers and specialist nurses. All those will have to be kept under review. Sometimes problems arise before they can be dealt with. We aim to be alert enough to pick up indications that a change is taking place and introduce incentives in advance. However, we must ensure that neither “golden hellos” nor financial incentives distort other aspects.

Retention often involves those in middle management such as sergeant-majors and staff sergeants, who are invariably married with children. As one who represents a not insignificant military community, I can tell the Minister that housing is crucial. I know that he is about to talk about this subject.

Wives and children put great pressure on such middle-management personnel if their housing is not up to scratch. A constituent who came to see me the other day, a staff sergeant, had waited six months for important structural repairs to be carried out in his children’s bedroom. If that had happened to another constituent with a registered social or local authority landlord, we would be jumping up and down. It is not fair or acceptable for armed forces personnel to be in such a position.

I agree, and I shall say something about the state of accommodation shortly.

We need to use our people as effectively as possible, which means freeing up as many as possible for the front line and cutting bureaucracy and overheads. We now have an excellent record in that regard. All three services are rationalising their headquarters staff. The headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Fleet and the Second Sea Lord have merged, saving 450 posts, and the planned merger of the headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, Land and the Adjutant-General will save about 340. The creation of the new air command will save 1,000 posts by this time next year.

Implementation of the future Army structure continues to make good progress. A good example is the formation of the Rifles Regiment. The restructuring is on track to be completed by the end of 2008. It will provide more people for the specialisms that are in greatest demand, and more stability for Army personnel and their families.

Although our people do not join for the money, we must ensure that they are rewarded fairly for the work that they do. About £350 million more will be spent on military pay and allowances this year than last. The total amount for pay and allowances is about £7.5 billion per year. This year’s armed forces pay award was the highest for four years, and was worth 3.3 per cent. across the board. We concluded that a much larger increase was needed for the lowest-paid. Their pay rose by 9.4 per cent., giving them an extra £1,350 per year. For those in the next-lowest pay range, the increase was over 6 per cent. The pay increases were well received by serving personnel, and were entirely justified.

Let me now deal with the issue of accommodation. Ensuring that our people and their families have a decent standard of accommodation is extremely important to sustaining their morale, and to recruitment and retention. We have an increasingly good story to tell, at Colchester, Tidworth, Glencorse and other areas where modern facilities have been provided, and more are planned. Nevertheless, as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), too many remain substandard.

Under investment goes back decades, and improving the position is now a priority. Some £700 million was spent on improving military accommodation in the last financial year, of which £500 million was spent on maintenance and improvement. This year we expect to spend £870 million, of which some £630 million will be spent on maintenance and improvement. The challenge is huge. There are 71,000 houses on hundreds of sites in 16 countries around the world, 49,000 of them in the United Kingdom. Obviously we cannot put the position right overnight, although that does not justify examples such as that given by the hon. Gentleman. As any householder knows, the need for maintenance never stops: maintaining all those estates is like painting the Forth bridge.

We hear, very clearly, how money is being invested, but what the armed forces in my constituency want is a permanent home base. They do not want to be moved around, and they do not want their children to be moved around. In what way are we accommodating that requirement?

The restructuring of the Army—for example, the restructuring of regiments—will create a change in roles. Previous Administrations and chiefs of staff ducked ending the arms plot; although it was transparently obvious that that needed to be done, they did not do so, but we have tackled that. That can be embedded by establishing larger garrisons or super-garrisons, but it will take time; large investment is needed to establish them. As we begin to examine the totality of our estate, that will free up areas of opportunity which will allow us to set up super-garrisons. That will not happen overnight, but it is essential that it does happen and we are committed to doing it.

Is no consideration at all being given to allowing members of the armed forces, like other citizens, to have part-ownership of their property, so that they can take that capital with them when they retire?

I am about to come on to that point, but let me say for now that I agree that we have to come up with imaginative solutions to such questions. The work/life balance must figure highly in our considerations on what we do for our armed forces.

On accommodation, in the past six years we have raised the proportion of service families housing at the top standard from 40 per cent. to 59 per cent. Only 138 of some 49,000 family properties are now at the lowest of the four standards, although that is 138 too many. Of those, 60 will be upgraded as part of this year’s programme, 25 are planned for future upgrading, and 14 are due for disposal. The remainder will be addressed as part of wider plans to be determined in consultation with the services.

More than 20,000 new single living-bed spaces have been delivered in the past six years. Another 20,000 will follow in the next three years. Much of that provides single rooms with en-suite facilities.

We are helping people who want to buy their property to do so. We have secured key worker status for service personnel in London, the east and the south-east. The first soldier moved into her new accommodation under the key worker scheme at the end of May.

I also wish to refer Members to the statement made earlier today by the Minister for Housing and Planning and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), announcing that the Government have decided to change the legislation on the use of the “local connection” at the earliest opportunity. We recognise that current legislation can disadvantage personnel in terms of access to social housing by preventing them from building up “local connection” points. Many Members have expressed concern about this issue, and today’s announcement underlines our determination to ensure that our personnel are treated fairly.

Our reservists are an important and valued part of our armed forces. They are playing a distinguished role in current operations. About 300 reservists are serving in Afghanistan, and 400 are serving in Iraq. I am most grateful to them and their employers for their support. Having reservists serving alongside our regular forces provides some of the best leadership training on the market. Reservists from the NHS play an important role in providing the first-class medical care that our personnel receive in operational theatres.

The budget assigned to our Territorial Army has slightly decreased—I did say that I would not deny that. That was not an easy decision to take, but it must be put in context. Last year, we spent about £350 million on the TA. We plan to reduce that by £2.5 million this financial year and by the same amount in the next financial year. I am advised that that will in no way adversely impact on the operational ability of the TA or its support to current operations. The savings are against areas such as recruiting of some specialist units and the running of annual conferences, and savings will also be made by reducing the number and frequency of TA competitions.

I intend to explain at length to the Minister how that will adversely impact on the TA. Will he at least acknowledge that, because of the nature of the TA, a £5 million cut in its budget is equivalent to a £50 million cut in the budget of the regular Army?

I will listen to, and then read with interest, what the hon. Gentleman has to say, as he has personal experience in this matter. Ministers make judgments based on the best advice they receive. There are financial pressures which must be addressed if we want to do certain things; it is often the case that if we want to do something, we therefore cannot do something else. The hon. Gentleman has already upbraided me on this issue. I am sure that he will make a strong argument in our debate, and what he has to say will be absorbed. If there is a case to answer, it will be answered.

Leaving aside the practical implications of the cut to the TA budget that the Minister is announcing, what signal does he think he is sending out to it by doing that at a time when we are using the TA for operations more than we ever have in the past?

I am conscious that that might send out a negative signal. As I have said, we must carefully consider all such issues. However, we are making changes across the board and any one of them—such as one involving the Royal Navy, for example—could be construed as negative. Our overall aim is to improve the quality of delivery in its totality. That is why I am explaining our plans at length. It is interesting that no Member has intervened to congratulate us on any of the good news that I have announced. However, I do not wish to disregard the negative comments that have been made.

I will keep a close watch on what happens in respect of the TA. We have restructured it following an extensive consultation process, to try to make the TA more properly integrated into the one Army concept. Over time, that will play out greatly to our advantage. The advice that I have received does not suggest that this will negatively affect recruitment. If it does, however, that will have to be attended to—although it must be said that other factors might also be responsible for any decrease in recruitment. I am sensitive to the comments that have been made, and this decision was not easy to take.

Operational medical care is first class. We have recently opened a new field hospital at Basra, and another at Bastion will follow in July. Their facilities would not be out of place in any modern district hospital in the UK. The dedication and commitment of the people in the Defence Medical Services is outstanding. The priority for our wounded personnel is that they get the best possible treatment. That is why the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, based at the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, is the main receiving unit for casualties evacuated from operational theatres. In the Birmingham area, they can benefit from a concentration of five specialist hospitals, including Selly Oak, which is at the leading edge in the care of polytrauma, one of the most common types of injuries that our casualties sustain.

Those who criticise the care given to military patients without recognising the excellent treatment that the vast majority of them receive do a huge discredit to the armed forces and NHS medical personnel. They directly affect their morale, and they would do well to think more carefully about the ramifications of their unbalanced reporting and commentary. I wish to emphasise that point because it is serious: such criticism impacts on those who provide outstanding service at a very difficult point of delivery.

I want specifically to address the recent criticism of the treatment that our personnel receive in theatre. It has been said that the standard of care in theatre is worse than it was 40 years ago. That is not true. The standard of today’s medical support is vastly higher than what was provided in the Falklands war—let alone in the Vietnam war. It has been alleged that wounded British troops are being evacuated from the battlefield more slowly than 40 years ago; that is a false allegation. It is not a fair comparison. No country, including the United States, can match the Vietnam time scales in Afghanistan because the distances are far greater. But it is not a simple question of flight time. We have adapted our procedures in Afghanistan to send advanced medical care to the casualty, rather than wait for the casualty to be brought to the field hospital. In no other conflict, and as far as I am aware in no other Army, is a consultant-led medical team routinely deployed to the casualty scene so that advanced care can be delivered at the casualty site and during evacuation. Combined with huge advances in medical technology and treatment, it means that casualties are now surviving injuries that would certainly have killed them 40 years ago.

As the Minister knows, I have a particular interest in this issue. What would he say to Lieutenant-Colonel Parker—to whom he may be referring—who has said that treatment in Afghanistan is excessively slow and has catalogued a range of shortcomings, of which he has first-hand and expert experience, in the medical care that he and others are able to provide to our troops there and in Iraq? The Minister talks of his commitment to our troops in action. Clearly, the perception on the front line is very different, and I am surprised by his complacency.

I do not accept the allegation of complacency. That is an outrageous comment. I recognise the role played by the hon. Gentleman in Iraq or Afghanistan—I cannot remember where he served—but I do not accept the charge of complacency. I have set out what we do, which is better than what was done even a few short years ago. The quality and dedication of our medical teams is of the highest standard, and there is no question about that. Criticisms have been made, and they now have to be addressed. If they stack up, we will have to find answers to them. I was out of the country last week in the Falklands, but I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has direct responsibility in that area, was on the case immediately. He may wish to comment further when he winds up.

We are not complacent and we have no intention of allowing degradation in the medical services. If anything, we have recovered what we inherited to make it even better. No one is really critical of the quality of care. Bad examples may arise, but overall the quality of care in theatre and on return home is of a very high standard. Can it be improved? Yes, it can, and we will not stint in our efforts to do that.

Selly Oak hospital trust and the medical defence unit are in my constituency. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s firm words about the disservice done to NHS and military staff by comments made by journalists and politicians. They should be very careful, because from what I have seen the service is responsive to any criticisms. Those people should pay more tribute to the input that the NHS has had to the medical services of the MOD, which should not be forgotten.

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. On my recent visit to Selly Oak, I was struck by the quality of the NHS staff, all of them dedicated to dealing with trauma cases that they would rather not see, and all the associated issues. We are trying to deliver the best, both in theatre and at home.

No, I wish to make some progress on the medical theme.

The MOD’s defence medical rehabilitation centre at Headley Court is the premier facility for the rehabilitation of injured service personnel. There is nothing quite like it in the NHS, and both the facilities and the staff who work there are second to none. Personnel with less serious injuries may also be referred to one of the MOD’s 15 regional rehabilitation units in the UK and Germany, which provide accessible, regionally based assessment and treatment, including physiotherapy and group rehabilitation facilities.

Over the years there has been a growing awareness of the need to care for military patients’ mental health as well as their physical health. We put a high priority on increasing awareness, providing effective diagnosis and ensuring professional treatment of psychological illnesses. Our mental health services provide community-based health care. There are now 15 military departments of community mental health across the UK, plus satellite centres overseas to provide out-patient care. We have made significant progress in that area and I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has responsibility, is constantly reviewing and updating our delivery of mental health care to serving personnel and veterans.

Another important area is the care and attention paid to the families of our serving personnel. Our service personnel on operations need to be reassured that the needs of their families are being met. I have already mentioned the improvements to service families’ accommodation and I want to give a few more examples. We have invested £250 million in education for service children, both at home and in service schools overseas. We have partnered the Department for Education and Skills to make sure that children moving between schools get the best possible deal. We are changing the structure of the services so that moving house becomes less frequent, and we are changing Government policy so that schools are legally required not to disadvantage children from military families who are in transition from one school to another. Last month I announced a new service life insurance scheme which offers guaranteed life insurance to our personnel and their families. We remain committed to reviewing our support for service families so they get the best possible assistance.

I understand that during business questions there was a question raised about the MOD’s refusal to purchase more helicopters. It may be worth commenting on that. It is another charge that is without foundation when examined in detail. It reminds me that the Daily Mail used to be called the Forgers’ Gazette, because it used to make up stories and let the perception take the place of reality. The story was that the MOD shunned a chance to hire more helicopters. The Minister of State with responsibility for defence procurement, my noble Friend Lord Drayson, wrote to the newspaper—the letter has not yet been published, and it remains to be seen whether it will be. The letter states:

“On the basis of military advice we rejected the option to lease helicopters as these would be much less useful than new platforms, not just for current operations but also for the long-term.”

I repeat, that decision was taken on military advice. The Minister of State also says that

“we are spending £230M making 14 extra Merlin and Chinook helicopters available to our forces.”

So we are purchasing better equipment than that which was offered for lease.

The article also made two false claims about helicopter availability. It said that Apache helicopters were unable to fly on 31 May because they had used up their flying hours, but that was not the case. They were engaged in operations at that time. Nor was a garrison unable to be supplied with mortar rounds by helicopter. The garrison was resupplied by helicopter following the engagement. I make those points because I wish that Opposition Members would question the veracity of what is said in the newspapers.

No, I will not give way. I have been very generous in giving way, and I just ask hon. Members to question the veracity of stories before they run with them. A simple query to the MOD would help.

Support to our people extends to those families who have to live through the tragedy of a loved one being killed on operations. They deserve and receive our deepest sympathies. Sadly an unacceptable backlog of inquests has built up. We have tackled that with the Ministry of Justice, as announced in the statement to the House yesterday by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). In addition I have written to the Scottish Executive, in the form of Kenny MacAskill, the Justice Minister, suggesting an early meeting to discuss the scope for holding fatal accident inquiries in Scotland where appropriate. At present, the law in Scotland prohibits the holding of such inquiries if the death occurred outside Scotland. Hopefully, the Scottish Executive will agree to a change in the law.

I am conscious that no member of the Scottish National party is in his place. I received howls of outrage when I said, when winding up a debate a few weeks ago, that they were interested only in sensationalism, undermining our work and the break-up of Britain. They claimed that they were concerned about our armed forces, but not one of them has bothered to turn up for this debate today.

Wherever we operate, civilian personnel are adding significant value. Civilians contribute to defence in a huge variety of ways and, increasingly, they support military commanders deployed in operational theatres. They are essential to the smooth, successful running of operations. I take this opportunity to recognise their important contribution and thank them for their often unnoticed service.

Britain’s defence depends on people more than anything else. We are fortunate to have such committed and professional personnel in our armed forces and civilian staff. This Government will continue to ensure they have the support that they need to do the important and dangerous tasks that we ask of them.

May I begin by adding my condolences and those of my colleagues condolences to the sympathy that the Minister extended to all the families of personnel killed recently in Iraq and Afghanistan? The thoughts and prayers of the whole House are with them in their suffering.

Like the Minister and some other parliamentary colleagues, I spent the past week or so in the Falklands. The visit was a poignant and moving reminder of the courage, resourcefulness and commitment of all our armed forces—and of the members of the Merchant Navy, whose contribution to the conflict is often overlooked. It was a reminder to us all that freedom does not come for free and may require substantial sacrifices.

The men and women who serve in our armed forces are unique. They are expected to be separated from their families for long periods, increasingly on a repeated basis. They are asked to risk life and limb for the security of their country and its people, and they are asked to make literally life-or-death decisions on the spur of the moment. No other group in our society is asked to do all those things and, sadly, that is something that our current society seems to forget all too often.

What do our armed forces expect in return for their sacrifices? They expect to be properly trained and equipped for the tasks that they undertake, and that the Government will not ask them to do more than they are willing to pay for. They expect that their families will be properly looked after, especially in their absence. They expect that the Government will always maximise the chance of success of any mission, and minimise the risk to those on the front line. In addition, they expect that they will be properly treated if they are injured. That is not too much to ask in return for the risks that they take, but all too often their expectations remain unfulfilled.

The backdrop to this debate and to the others that we have had in recent times is that our armed forces are overstretched and undermanned. When the Government came to office, they published the excellent strategic defence review, which still holds good today. From that came the defence planning assumptions, and from that the Treasury’s budget for the MOD. Yet the defence planning assumptions have been exceeded for the past five years, so much so that they are largely fantasy now. That is the root of the problem. In April this year, the armed forces were undermanned by 5,850 personnel, according to Government requirements—the Army by 2,520, the Navy by 1,860, and the RAF by 1,460. The recent National Audit Office report also identified especially alarming manning shortfalls in pinchpoint trades, with intensive therapy nurses being 70 per cent. undermanned, and accident and emergency nurses 68 per cent. undermanned.

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body stated that there are more than 80 operational pinchpoint trades—18 in the Royal Navy, 24 in the Army and 41 in the RAF. The harmony guidelines, which determine the frequency of deployment and separation from families, are broken so regularly as to render them meaningless.

I do not wish to be pedantic, but the hon. Gentleman has repeatedly used the term “undermanned”. He should remember that there are women in our armed services.

That remark is so trivial and puerile that it is not worthy of a response.

All the problems that I have set out are made fundamentally worse by a Government who are fighting two major conflicts but refusing to fund them in full. No one could have put the problem more clearly than our outgoing Prime Minister, who said in his HMS Albion speech that defence spending had stayed

“constant at roughly…2.5 per cent. of GDP”

since 1997, if

“we add in the extra funding for Iraq and Afghanistan”.

In other words, even though we are now fighting two major conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Government expect to expend the same proportion of our national income on our defence forces as they did in 1997, when we were not involved in those conflicts. The consequence of failing to fund in full the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that our armed forces are being systematically salami-sliced. The incoming Prime Minister is the man responsible for the underfunding and he must understand that he cannot increase our armed forces’ commitments without also increasing the resources to do the job.

How has all that affected our armed forces personnel? I turn first to the question of equipment. The Government’s failure to ensure that sufficient equipment was available on time for the war in Iraq is well documented, not least in the tragic case of Sergeant Roberts. I remind the House that the board of inquiry into his death said:

“During the summer of 2002, constraints were placed on military activities (including procurement) which might have negatively impacted on negotiations with the United Nations.”

In September 2002, the then Secretary of State for Defence was asked to agree 16 urgent operation requirements, but he agreed only to 12. The procurement of enhanced combat body armour was not agreed at that time, owing to political considerations—despite a clear warning that 2nd Royal Tank Regiment was 40 per cent. short of enhanced combat body armour for 1,015 troops. In other words, to avoid accusations that they had already agreed to go to war with Iraq, the Secretary of State for Defence delayed the order of vital body armour, with the direct result that Sergeant Roberts was killed unnecessarily. That remains one of the darkest stains on the record of the current Government—and of course no Minister paid the price for that scandal.

However, that was not the only way in which our forces were being disadvantaged. When the individual helicopter programmes were amalgamated in the overarching future rotor capability process, the overall budgets were reduced by £1.4 billion. In other words, when the Government introduced a single helicopter programme they used smoke and mirrors to reduce the budget, at a time when we were involved in two major conflicts. Spending on helicopter equipment has fallen from £662 million in 2001-02 to just £183 million in 2005-06, yet all hon. Members who have been to Iraq or Afghanistan will have heard complaints about the shortage of helicopters and the lack of lift capacity. The only people who appear not to hear that message when they visit are Ministers.

What of the Royal Navy? At a time of difficulty with recruitment and retention, what messages are we sending out? Since 1997, our frigate and destroyer fleet has been cut from 35 to 25, and our submarine attack fleet from 12 to eight. In addition, it is widely rumoured that an additional six ships will be mothballed, which would mean that almost half the fleet of 44 warships was mothballed. The six ships in question are four type 22 frigates—the Cumberland, Chatham, Cornwall and Cambleton—and two type 42 destroyers, the Exeter and the Southampton. The latter is due to relieve HMS Edinburgh in the Falklands in the coming days. All those reductions are based on the strategic falsehood that, because ships are now more technologically capable, numbers no longer matter. It ignores the basic truth that, however sophisticated a ship, it can be in only one place at a time.

The welfare of service families is of crucial importance. The surest route to a retention crisis is to create unhappy servicemen and women, and the easiest way to do that is to create unhappy service families. The quality of service housing has been shown to be deeply inadequate and the Minister of State admitted as much, although he said that changes were under way. The quality of service children’s education has been a key concern, with improvements delayed by administrative problems. That is simply not good enough.

The interaction between the armed forces and the NHS remains disgracefully inadequate. When they move to different parts of the country, service families on NHS waiting lists must rejoin the new waiting list at the bottom and start all over again. That happens time and time again, and it is scandalous. After 10 years and huge increases in public expenditure the Government have yet to deal satisfactorily with that basic problem, and the House demands that something be done now.

I acknowledge the problems about the quality of accommodation for service personnel, although I seem to recall that it was the hon. Gentleman’s Government who flogged off half the defence estate. My question is a practical one. Has he seen some of the new developments, for example at Culdrose in the south and Faslane in the north, where modern single living accommodation is available, and does he agree that it matches the standards appropriate for our personnel?

I have indeed visited some of the newest accommodation, which is of exceptionally good standard, but the hon. Gentleman pointedly referred to single accommodation, which indicates that too much accommodation still remains substandard. There is no point in a Government who have been in office for more than a decade saying that it was the preceding Government who caused the problems; this Government have had plenty of time, taxation and public money to put the problem right faster than they have done.

Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that the estates built in the 1960s and 1970s need continuous maintenance, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said? Under the project developed by the Conservative Administration, that maintenance did not happen, so we inherited an enormous backlog. The task is huge and, like the railway problem, it cannot be tackled overnight.

It is an interesting definition of overnight that after more than 10 years the Government are still unable to get to grips with the problem properly. I am the first to admit that improvements are being made—we have all seen them—but the fact remains that the problem is still far too great and the quality of accommodation far too low in far too many parts of the country. To say that the Government have not had time to deal with it is one of the lamest excuses I have heard.

In my opening comments I indicated a substantial increase for accommodation in our budget. How much more would the hon. Gentleman provide?

The Minister knows his parliamentary technique, but he well knows that as the Opposition have no idea when the election will be called and what the state of public finances and our commitments will be then, we will never get involved in those budgetary debates. We look to the Government currently in charge, who are raising taxes from the current UK working population and have responsibility for the armed forces, to discharge their duty properly while they are in office. When we come into office, which will not be a day too soon, we shall make sure that we deal with the issues at far greater speed than the Government have, in their “overnight” 10 years.

The medical issue of greatest concern for military personnel and their families is the quality of care they receive if they are injured on operations. As I have a medical background, when I visited the Shaibah logistics base I looked intensively at the quality of care being provided. I concur with the Minister: the quality of care would not have been out of place in most district general hospitals in the UK. I spoke to an NHS surgeon who had been seconded to Shaibah and had decided to join the Army as a consequence of being able to treat his patients when he wanted without interference from managers and with no Government-applied targets. He said into the bargain that in the three years they had been operating in Shaibah there had not been a single case of MRSA. Perhaps the NHS might want to learn from the excellent record of those working in our forward bases.

I note that the Select Committee on Defence is visiting Selly Oak hospital today to examine the provision of care. During my visit to the hospital I was highly impressed by the quality of medical care, although the House is obviously well aware from cases highlighted in the media that other elements of the care were criticised by families. I fully accept that injured personnel must be treated where there is access to a wide range of specialist services—orthopaedic, burns, plastic, reconstruction and so on.

The reduced size of our armed forces makes separate military hospitals utterly unviable, but there is absolutely no reason why we cannot have exclusively military units at Selly Oak. A military-managed unit is not enough. We want service personnel to be able to recover from their injuries securely, in the knowledge that those around them understand what they have been through, which cannot happen when there is a mixture of military and civilian patients. It is not good enough. Such conditions are particularly important for those who have suffered mental as well as physical trauma.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have previously said in the House that we and the chiefs of staff are considering the development of a military ward as part of the new building at Selly Oak in Birmingham, but can we be clear about the Conservative view? Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if there were empty beds on such a ward and there was an emergency or an urgent need for beds, civilians would never be allowed to occupy them?

In a real emergency, it would obviously be up to the managers of the hospital to consider the situation in terms of the overall well-being of patients. We are saying that there is a difference between what the Government are suggesting—a military-managed unit—and what we want, which is that normally such a unit would be exclusively for military personnel. It is difficult for us to predict what might happen in exceptional circumstances, but it is clear that the Government are proposing a unit that has a mix of patients and is managed by the military. The Opposition want a unit that is exclusively for military patients. That distinction is important because there has been confusion between what the chiefs of staff have said and what the Prime Minister said in the House.

If the Minister wants to tell me that the Government’s intention is that when the new unit is established at Selly Oak it will be exclusively for military patients, except in exceptional circumstances, that will be a welcome advance in the Government’s position.

Let us be clear. The chiefs of staff have not yet made a decision about the military ward; it is something that Ministers are happy to consider, but we are waiting for their decision. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that in no circumstances whatever will civilians be allowed into such a ward? Can he be clear about that?

The Minister is introducing a red herring. I have already said that it is impossible to say what would happen in a medical emergency. However, what the country wants is clear: treatment for our service personnel in appropriate circumstances. In my view, those appropriate circumstances are exclusively military units in NHS facilities. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to want. Ministers might now and again like to take decisions and govern rather than waiting for the chiefs of staff. Why cannot Ministers take the decision to do what large parts of the House and the country want?

My hon. Friend brings his professional expertise to bear in a powerful criticism of the Government. Some of the interventions he has taken show just how rattled they are. The Minister may laugh—

Those who serve in the armed forces may not find it quite so funny.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the pressures on injured Territorial Army personnel from delays in medical treatment? What does he think about mental health provision generally, and in particular for TA personnel, who do not return to garrison towns but to their individual communities, where they feel far more exposed? Sadly, as far as the Government are concerned, this all appears to be just a matter to giggle about.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend raised that important point. Mental health facilities for the armed forces are key. As a country we do not deal with mental health problems as well as we should; in many cases the treatment we offer is disgracefully inadequate in the world’s fifth richest country. Armed forces mental health staff are even more under strength than their civilian counterparts. According to the Government’s figures, the Army requires 15 psychiatrists but has only six, and requires 53 mental health nurses but has only 43—yet service personnel are returning from the conflicts raging in Iraq and Afghanistan with mental health traumas ranging from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder. At the start of this year, nearly 2,000 personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had been diagnosed with mental health conditions. Let us remember that conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder can take many years to manifest themselves.

Over the past four years, the Ministry of Defence has spent more than £10 million employing the Priory Group to treat service personnel, but even if there is success in the acute phases, the real problem lies in chronic illness, which my hon. Friend alluded to in his question. That is where charities such as Combat Stress come into the equation. Combat Stress is an ex-services mental welfare society that specialises in the treatment of mentally ill veterans. It keeps its administrative and fundraising expenses to a minimum and in my view is one of the most deserving charities in the country. Many people will be listening to the debate, but I am sure that if the audience numbers are not as high as we would like, our friends in the media will communicate the necessary information to the public. The website for Combat Stress is and donations can be made online. A donation of £20 buys an hour of nursing care and £150 pays for an hour of psychiatric counselling. My plea to the public is to be generous.

Tragically, the suicide rate among Falklands veterans is utterly unacceptable. We must do anything that we can—through a combination of the public and the voluntary sectors—to reduce that in the future. As my hon. Friend says, there are particular problems with the way in which we treat reservists. On return from deployment, they do not have the comfort of being with their comrades for a defined period of time in the way that the regulars do. They need to be especially closely monitored and we are currently failing to do that. The negative signal that the Minister of State admitted is being sent out by the cut in the Territorial Army budget will do nothing to give the impression that those reservists are fully valued for the service that they give our country.

My hon. Friend began his remarks by talking about the events that took place 25 years ago in the Falklands, and he has just mentioned the number of suicides among people who served in that conflict. Is it not a worrying statistic that more than 300 of those service personnel have committed suicide, which is more than the number of people who were killed in the initial conflict? That shows that this country—this Government—must do far more to look after our service personnel, who do so much in very extreme circumstances.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his specific point, but there is also a generic point that applies to our society as a whole. Our society, in common with a number of Anglo-Saxon societies, does not deal with mental health issues appropriately. There is too much stigma attached to mental health issues—something that does not apply to any other illness of any other type. That encourages late presentation of illness and, consequently, our outcomes are poorer. There is a particular problem in the case of those who have served in the armed forces, who are often reluctant to seek psychiatric help from a general practitioner or a civilian psychiatrist because they believe that those people will not understand the originating trauma that they have been through.

We need to look at a co-ordinated way of improving all our mental health services. That is the last great public service reform that needs to be carried out in this country. We need to look at how we treat our armed forces in developing further the psychiatric services in the military. There will always be a culture gap; those who have been in the armed forces will always be suspicious of how well those in civilian services understand their problems. Perhaps the only way to deal with that is to recognise that we must have yet another expansion of military psychiatric services, as well as of civilian ones. We need to deal with that as a country. I honestly do not believe that this is a party political issue. It is a cultural, deeply ingrained issue which we need to deal with in a much more open and sympathetic way.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those who have trained to become general practitioners are taught about mental illnesses for only a limited amount of time? Does he agree that if somebody went to their GP with a mental problem, it would be a good idea if the GP were to ask, “Were you ever in the services?” and act as a signpost to point that person not only to a proper consultant, but to organisations such as Combat Stress and the Veterans Agency, which can give the kind of embracing support that the military can provide?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. It is important in two ways. First, a relatively small proportion of GPs have any training in psychiatry and, secondly, an even smaller number will have any background in the armed forces. It therefore seems perfectly sensible for the Ministry of Defence to liaise with the national health service and ensure that doctors are reminded that there are other services available for veterans who suffer from mental health problems. Far better co-ordination between the two would be a positive development following today’s debate. The point is well made.

While the hon. Gentleman is in a bipartisan mood—and following the intervention from the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) about the Falklands—will he acknowledge that this is not a new problem? Historically, there has been a shortage. Based on his comments about the way in which mental health has been stigmatised in society, he will know that there has been a problem historically in relation to the military. Work is currently going on. The response that he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) reflects a joining together of ideas based on an acceptance that mental health should not be stigmatised as it has been in the past.

The way in which mental health issues are dealt with in our country has been one of my political interests for some time, but we need more than a bipartisan approach in the House of Commons. The situation requires far-reaching changes in our attitudes to mental health on the outside. All politicians in all parties would do well to dedicate themselves to that.

The hon. Gentleman also alluded to another issue: it can take some time for things to appear. The PTSD problem was denied during the Vietnam war. Only some time later did it come to be accepted that it was a genuine medical entity that needed to be dealt with. I appeal to Ministers to look at what is happening in the United States in respect of traumatic brain injury. The Minister of State quite rightly pointed out that the quality of the body armour that we have today means that servicemen and women may survive injuries that would previously have been fatal. Our society will have to adjust to the consequence that there will be many more long-term disabled people following current conflicts. Another pertinent issue is the increased risk of concussion faced by those who survive blasts that might previously have been fatal. The United States is introducing protocols for its armed forces, which involve assessing the results of blast injury in theatre and again on coming out of theatre.

During Question Time, or in a previous debate—I apologise for not remembering which—the Minister gave an assurance that the Government would look into that matter. Perhaps we can be given more details today about what exactly is happening. A lot of service personnel were needlessly lost because of the length of time it took in the Vietnam conflict to recognise that PTSD was a real entity. How tragic it would be if we lost other service personnel because we did not understand how much of a problem traumatic brain injury is. It would be doubly unacceptable if the United States put in place protective measures to identify those problems in the case of their service personnel, but we did not do so in the United Kingdom. In future, we would find that to have been a bad decision which was unacceptable from the point of view of the duty of care.

Those with a mental illness are among the most vulnerable in our society, and how civilised a society we are can be judged by how we treat the most vulnerable. When mental illness results from military action designed to enhance the security of us all and we fail to deal with it, as we often do, it is a national scandal. We should all be ashamed that those who put their lives on the line for our safety are failed by our public services in that regard. A land fit for heroes it certainly is not, in that respect.

As I said, the demands placed on our armed forces are unique. Despite the many problems that they face, they remain the best in the world. It is the absolute duty of any Government to put national security at the top of the political agenda and to ensure that our armed forces are funded, equipped and cared for in a way that reflects their unique contribution to our national life. They deserve better than they are currently getting.

This debate on armed forces personnel comes just after we have marked the 25th anniversary of the end of the Falklands war. I join colleagues in all parts of the House in paying tribute to the courage of our forces who liberated the Falklands and those who continue to serve our country in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The commemoration of the Falklands conflict puts into focus the way in which we in Britain look at former service personnel—our veterans. Like many others, I was disturbed to read press reports that more veterans of the Falklands war have taken their own lives since 1982 than were killed in the conflict. The South Atlantic Medal Association says that it is almost certain that the suicide toll is greater than the 255 men who were killed in the Falklands. If the figures are correct, it is an indictment of all of us, and it is a wake-up call that we must do more.

There are many and various misconceptions about veterans and the problems that they face. It is important to emphasise that the overwhelming majority of men and women who leave the armed forces settle successfully into civilian life. But not all of them adjust to life outside the service, and in extreme cases that can lead to self-harm and to suicide. Recent statistics show that in a 23-year period—1984 to 2006—there have been 687 suicides among serving men and women in our armed forces: 672 men and 15 women. There appear to be no figures for veterans as a whole, but just one case is one case too many. We should be totally committed to reducing the incidence of suicide and self-harm in the armed forces and among our veterans.

I do not think that I am alone in being dismayed that significant numbers of those who are sleeping rough on the streets of our country are ex-services. Many of them suffer long-term combat-related psychological problems. I welcome the announcement by my hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans at St. Thomas’ hospital in London that the programme of medical assessments set up for Gulf war veterans will be expanded to allow larger numbers of veterans to receive the service.

The medical assessment programme will now offer a mental health consultancy for all veterans who have seen military service since 1982, which includes those who fought in the Falklands campaign 25 years ago. The assessment will cover veterans who are worried that they may have a service-related mental health problem that is not fully understood within the national health service. My hon. Friend’s decision is an excellent one and I sincerely hope it will be extended to all veterans, no matter when they served.

When I was a Defence Minister, I was invited to speak at the British Medical Association conference, but I received a phone call from the Prime Minister giving me the DCM, so I never got to the conference. In any event, in the conference preparations, I suggested that GPs should as a matter of course, whenever someone comes to see them with a psychological problem, ask whether they are ex-services and point them in the direction of organisations such as Combat Stress.

I pay tribute to the hard work that Combat Stress does. I share the view of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). It is a specialist provider of clinical care and welfare support. It is an excellent organisation that should be supported. I spent a day as a fly on the wall, so to speak, with a Combat Stress caseworker, and I know that the support given is highly regarded by mental health professionals and is critical to improving the lives of ex-servicemen and women. That experience confirmed my view that we have to do more.

There is a view in the Ministry of Defence that veterans who have health problems following their discharge from the services get priority treatment in the national health service. I do not believe that that is the case. The NHS is a wonderful organisation that delivers world-class health care every hour of every day, but I have not seen evidence that ex-servicemen and women take priority.

If we are to recruit and retain the very best men and women to our armed forces, we must provide those exceptional people with exceptional support, which means looking after our people throughout life. As I have said before, the treatment of veterans has a real and direct bearing on our ability to recruit, train and retain the people we need to sustain our current and future operational capabilities.

The National Audit Office published a report in November 2006 entitled “Ministry of Defence—Recruitment and Retention in the Armed Forces”. It stated:

“Evidence from our survey of pinch point trades, as well as from Department’s own surveys and the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body’s findings, suggests that there are several common factors which persuade Service personnel to leave. These are mainly related to the impact of service life on family life, including the ability to plan ahead and work-life balance.”

That is why I argued for a value agenda when I was in the MOD. We value our servicemen and women and their families; we value our reserves, cadets, their families and their employers; and we value our veterans, their widows and their families, and do everything in our power to demonstrate that we do value them.

Members of the armed forces draw heavily on the support that they get from their families and loved ones. The operational welfare package is so important because, among other things, it provides an additional 20 days’ leave after a six-month tour. Families receive concessionary travel and support through advice centres and internet access. It is an excellent way of demonstrating the value agenda, but such support initiatives for our servicemen and women must be continued when they leave the armed forces.

The Veterans Agency does tremendous work in providing a one-stop shop for advice and information, catering for veterans both young and old, and helping on issues as varied as advice on compensation and war pensions, housing, employment and commemorative events. The agency has a free phone number—0800 169 22 77—and a website. There is a growing need to expand its excellent services.

The Government have a good record of supporting the 5.5 million veterans we have in this country. We created the first ever Minister for Veterans. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans for his work. I want his role to be enhanced. It is time to take the next step and create a Department for veterans, which would strengthen the role played by my hon. Friend and ensure even greater focus on the services provided to our veterans. It would develop, strengthen and co-ordinate links between Government Departments such as Health and Work and Pensions, and the voluntary organisations such as Combat Stress, the Royal British Legion, St Dunstan’s and others.

A Department for veterans would provide a focal point in the public eye for veterans’ issues. It would also send a positive message to the men and women who serve in the British armed forces that we will honour their commitment and their sacrifices—sacrifices that they are making in defending our country. Such a Department would make it clear that they and their families would have all the support that this country can provide for them for as long as they want it. A Department for Veterans would be able to take positive action on issues such as employment, homelessness, education, training, employment, financial benefit and research into matters such as post-traumatic stress and mental health.

On the train coming up from Wales last week—the train was delayed, so I had a long, long journey—I got into a conversation with a young man who had served in the Army for six years. He told me that he had been injured. Unfortunately, the level of support that he received was wholly unacceptable. From the information that he gave me, the Army had failed him. As we talked about his experience, my interests and so on, he asked me why there is no skills database that employers who are recruiting can use to access people who have left the armed forces and take advantage of the skills that they have. Our armed forces have highly transferable skills. Employers speak highly of former servicemen and women and of the excellent training provided by the armed forces.

Servicemen and women need to know that when they choose to leave the forces and take up a second career, we, as a country, will provide them with the necessary guidance, career advice and access to vacancies.

I want to take advantage of the right hon. Gentleman’s experience. He discussed mental health problems, which, as has been mentioned in debate, may take some time to present themselves. Is not the point of departure from the armed forces a good moment to provide some advice on the possibility of mental health problems developing some way down the line and to make it clear what services are available?

That is a good idea, and I believe that that is done to some degree. In my constituency work and as a Minister, I met people who had left the forces feeling strong, healthy, fit and ready to face anything that the world could throw at them, but one day something had hit them—family break-up, drink, drugs or God knows what—their lives changed dramatically and they did not know where to turn.

A year or so ago, I was sitting in my constituency office with a veteran who attempted suicide several times and who, but for the South Atlantic Medal Association, would not have known where to go. That is not acceptable today. An organisation such as the Veterans Agency should be as well known as the BBC, so that ex-servicemen and women know where to go for help. We must do more than we are.

In advocating the idea of a veterans department, I point out that the United States created one in 1989. In 2005, as a result of pressure from the veterans department in the United States, the United States Department of Labour distributed more than 300,000 wallet-sized cards to veterans and serving personnel. The cards include information about careers and health. That is a simple idea, but it has proved to be effective, so perhaps we should consider introducing a similar scheme here. Our most valuable asset is our people, and ex-servicemen and women—our veterans—can make a massive contribution to our economic well-being when they leave the services. We must encourage that and create opportunities for them.

Support for our veterans is about not only welfare issues, but recognising and remembering the sacrifices that they have made on our behalf. Campaign and service awards, the veterans badge and veterans day on 27 June, which is a big event next Wednesday, are all ways of demonstrating to our veterans that we appreciate and value what they have done in serving our country.

I have tabled early-day motion 356, which has attracted 179 signatures. It calls on the committee on honours and privileges to change its advice to Her Majesty the Queen on the wearing of the Pingat Jasa Malaysia medal, the PJM. I ask my right hon. Friend the Minister, of State, who has been hugely supportive, once again to press the committee on the matter. Her Majesty, as Queen of Australia and of New Zealand, on the advice of her Ministers, has agreed that Australian and New Zealand ex-servicemen can accept the PJM and wear it. The 35,000 British veterans of the Malaysia campaign deserve to be treated no less well than that. I think it wholly wrong that they cannot accept and wear the medal. They were told that they could receive the medal but that they were not permitted to wear it on public occasions. At best, that decision is unjust; at worst, it is a disgrace and a shame on Britain. I know that my right hon. Friend has taken an interest in the matter, and I ask him to press the committee once again to review its advice to Her Majesty.

This country has made great strides in recognising and supporting our veterans, but we can do much more. I hope that Ministers will find some merit in the points that I have made. I do not expect a full response today, but I look forward to a time when this Government, this Parliament and this country show even greater commitment to the men and women who have served in Britain’s armed forces.

I welcome this afternoon’s debate and the opportunity to pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces for their courage, commitment and continuing efforts in operations around the world.

I echo the words of condolence that the Minister expressed at the beginning of the debate in respect of those who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also want to express my concern about those who have returned after being physically injured or, indeed, psychologically wounded in those conflicts.

As other hon. Members have said, this is the 25th anniversary of the conflict in the Falklands. I pay tribute to the many service personnel who served in that conflict, to those who lost their lives and to the families who were here: then, as now, our armed forces rose to the challenges facing them and worked tirelessly and bravely in a hostile and challenging environment. Twenty-five years later, we are deployed in two conflicts, one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, with more troops stationed around the world who are involved in both peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.

While we are demanding so much from our troops, we must be sure to repay their work in kind, and we must not neglect the essential duty of care that is promised to them. Can we truly say we are fulfilling that promise in all circumstances? As we hear about critical overstretches, equipment shortages and shortfalls in welfare and health provisions, we need to take a hard look at what we can do better for the men and women of our armed forces and their families. We need a holistic approach, because piecemeal, bitty measures will not patch up the visible gaps and problems that we know need to be addressed.

Our current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken an unquantifiable toll on our armed forces. Ministers are always loth to use the term “overstretch”, but they have acknowledged that the harmony guidelines are being breached and that there are manning problems—equally, there are sometimes equipment problems. That is overstretch, and I cannot see any point in denying that the armed forces are overstretched, because it is apparent to anyone who examines the situation that that is the case.

Our work in Afghanistan is vital, and it will continue for a very long time—I hesitate to speculate how long it will take, but it is perfectly clear that we are in Afghanistan for the long haul.

On Sunday, General Sir Richard Dannatt called for an increase of 3,000 front-line soldiers to help the Army operate more effectively. That is a much-needed measure, and the Defence Secretary appeared to acknowledge that it is necessary to avoid the degradation of our armed forces. Unless we do something to address the manning and capability gap, our armed forces risk being physically and psychologically worn down, which will impact on their well-being and their ability to carry out missions successfully. Overstretch becomes more acute when troops feel little recompense for the added demands on them, which is why a comprehensive welfare, care and family package is needed.

For the past two years, notwithstanding what the Minister has said about recruitment, outflow from our armed forces has exceeded intake from civilian life in all three services. That has happened at a time when conflicts have become more critical and our armed forces are obviously overstretched. Between April 1990 and April 2007, the size of our regular forces has decreased by more than one third, but operational demands have increased. Although our operations were relatively small in the 1990s, we are now involved in two large conflicts. It is concerning that infantry battalions have been reduced, particularly when present operations are largely land-based. This has again served to exacerbate the overstretch of the infantry. The fact that more than 11,000 cases of soldiers going absent without leave have been reported since the start of the Iraq war, with 1,000 still unaccounted for, is testament to the difficulties experienced by our troops.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to take account of what I said about the future infantry structure, future Army structure and the ending of the arms plot, the reality of which will be that there will be more available battalions, although there will be fewer in total. He just seems to gloss over that. We are making more available in that role without increasing the size of the Army. Will he address that point?

I am not glossing over it. The fact that the head of Army has said that he believes that he needs a further 3,000 troops seems to be a siren warning to which we should listen.

That was certainly what he appeared to me to be saying. I rather thought that the Secretary of State for Defence had more or less acknowledged that. I am astounded to hear the Minister demur from a sedentary position. I am disappointed; I thought that Members on both sides of the House agreed on that. Perhaps Ministers have not listened to the advice of General Dannatt.

We have to do more to retain our good men and women and to encourage more to enrol. Soldiers, especially those joining up as privates or lance-corporals, are still on comparatively low wages—notwithstanding the improvements to which the Minister referred—particularly when one looks at the demands being placed on them. When one measures the levels of pay per hour worked, one sees that many soldiers’ salaries are below even the national minimum wage. Even when one adds the X-factor to compensate for the extra demands upon them, there seems to be little comfort.

The Defence White Paper of 1999 stated:

“People give us the critical edge that leads to success”

and went on to talk about the need to

“look after people properly and make sure that they are highly motivated.”

We have to listen to the warnings that we are getting from our armed servicemen and ensure that we do more to meet that objective.

One of the most significant issues in human terms that we still face—this has been touched on at some length by others—is that of mental health. I welcome reports that the Government seem to be waking up to the fact that the psychological wounds of war are just as serious as the physical wounds, and are beginning to include more measures to provide mental health care. That is absolutely necessary, but we cannot just pay lip service to such a significant consequence of war. It is not easy to reconcile the many disturbing and difficult experiences of being in a conflict zone with the normality of everyday life back home. We have to work to make the transition easier.

The main obstacle for some personnel is admitting that things are not right and that they are unhappy, depressed or in distress; we must make this hurdle easier to cross. As the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, we have to tackle the problem at the core, which is the stigma throughout our society—this is not unique to the armed forces—that attaches to mental health problems. I do not think that the military ethos makes that any easier to deal with in the military context.

Already, personnel from Iraq and Afghanistan are being referred, with more than 1,000 service personnel receiving treatment from the Priory in the past three and a half years. I imagine that it will take some years yet until the full scale of these hidden wounds becomes apparent. I see from a written answer yesterday that, so far, 21 members of the armed forces have committed suicide after operating in Iraq between 2003 and 2006.

Reference has been made to the work of Combat Stress, and I endorse the words of others about the excellent work it does and has been doing for a very long time. The expertise that it has worked up in this field should not be underestimated, but Combat Stress is now facing a financial crisis. In future, the Ministry wants it to undertake its work on the basis of individual contracts and referrals. If Combat Stress is to be left with the task of developing bureaucratic systems to cope, it will end up needing a larger administration than the totality of what it has at present just to process the paperwork and the bureaucracy. It is vital that Combat Stress continues in the future as it has in the past to perform its role on the basis of one block contract. I urge the Government to engage with Combat Stress and to make sure that that is possible.

The hon. Member for Woodspring urged the Minister to take note of work going on in America on brain injuries. I urge the Minister to take more heed of work going on in America on Gulf war syndrome and, most specifically, toxicology work that appears to put some of the problems down to events at the very beginning of the Gulf war conflict, when some of the attacks on enemy weapons and armaments locations may have released into the atmosphere substances that may have in no small part contributed to the problems that followed. I hope that the MOD is in full contact with the American authorities on this and will take heed of that work.

As well as mental health, we have often highlighted in these debates the need to ensure that our troops are cared for in the general medical sense and that they receive the specialist attention they deserve. In theatre and in the immediate aftermath, some of the medical care available is of an enormously high standard, but Members on both sides understand that it is over the longer term and after the initial treatment has been given that things can be found lacking.

The Minister said that the service being offered to troops in Afghanistan should not be measured simply in terms of the time it is taking to get people to a hospital. I understand that, but, as the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) said, the critique offered last weekend came from someone very well placed to make it. I hope to see Ministers attending to the detail of some of the points that were made. Among those is the ongoing problem that we always reach in these debates: the lack of helicopter capacity. In the hostile terrain of Afghanistan, helicopters are indispensable and invaluable, both in conflict and medical situations. The Americans have dedicated medical helicopters and, although we cannot match the capabilities of the Americans, we need to consider how we can prioritise and improve the cover that we give to medical and military services. Helicopters remain a very high priority.

There are still persistent complaints about the standard, quality and availability of essential equipment. A report in The Daily Telegraph last week suggested that in Afghanistan, 50 per cent. of Apache helicopters are not working and only 70 per cent. of Chinooks are available, with no air assaults having taken place since the Paras left last year. There are indications, which the Minister denied in respect of the month of May, that flying hours are being used up before the end of the month and that we lack the spare parts needed for essential repairs to keep the helicopters flying. This is a big obstacle to the success of our mission in Afghanistan.

We have talked about the problem of British soldiers being killed in Iraq in “snatch” Land Rovers. I am disappointed by the vagueness of parliamentary answers to me and others about when more robust vehicles will reach the front line. I hope that we can have some reassurance on that. How can we expect our personnel to do their best and achieve success in difficult and enduring conflicts when we are not providing them with the necessary equipment to do the job?

Inevitably, housing has been referred to today. There is still far too much substandard housing. Whatever might be said about the deal with Annington Homes in 1996, the fact remains that that was 11 years ago. There has been plenty of opportunity to make some serious investment in the housing estate over the past 11 years, but not enough has been done. The Public Accounts Committee noted recently that many people are leaving the service on account of the “appalling” state of accommodation. Vice-Admiral Tim Laurence said:

“The standard of accommodation has played a significant role in the recruitment and retention of personnel.”

In addition to the problems of housing while they are in the services, there is also the problem, when people leave the service, of finding suitable and affordable accommodation in their local areas. I welcome what has been said today about addressing the local connection anomaly. That certainly should help, but it will gain only a certain number of points within the housing allocation system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is normally with us on these occasions, but I know that he is sorry that he cannot be here because his participation in the armed forces parliamentary scheme means that he is out on Salisbury plain today. Were he here, he would undoubtedly wish to pipe up on the subject of education for service families, because in Colchester the Alderman Blaxill school, which has been serving military families and children coming out of the garrison for 50 years—and which the Defence Committee visited last year, and where, unusually, it held a formal sitting—is now, astonishingly, threatened with closure. I very much hope that the Ministry of Defence will make contact with colleagues at the Department for Education and Skills and with the local education authority. I am well aware that there are falling school rolls, not only in schools serving military families but across the board. I deplore the fact that many of these schools have had far too many pupils in them for far too long, and just as the opportunity presents itself to have schools of a smaller size and a more human scale, with a far more family atmosphere—which is particularly necessary where they are serving a lot of military children—they are threatened with closure. It would be a much better idea to allow the schools to continue with smaller numbers, rather than feeling obliged to close them and herd the children into larger schools.

Before leaving the subject of education, I urge Ministers to take seriously the best possible deployment of ICT—modern information and communications technology—to provide continuity in the education of children who are required to change school when their parents are posted. If they could take with them more educational records of achievement, and take coursework with them as part of a universal ICT programme, it would surely make their transition from one school to another all the more effective.

Ultimately, all these issues feed into the well-being of our forces, and that contributes to the success of our missions and the morale of the troops. The military covenant refers to morale. It says:

“The effectiveness of the team depends on every individual, seen or unseen, playing their part to the full, and contributing to the cohesion of the whole. Success in such conditions depends above all on good morale which is the spirit that enables soldiers to triumph over adversity. High morale is the basis for the moral superiority and dominance required for success on operations and triumph in battle.”

Those words should be ringing in all our ears, and should ring in the ears of the Ministry of Defence. Based on that definition, I think that a great deal more needs to be done to reinforce, improve and enhance morale. Our men and women are doing a difficult and challenging job, often in very difficult conditions, in these two major conflicts, and so far I do not think that we are doing enough to meet their basic needs, and to fulfil the duty of care that is owed to them.

I should like to take the opportunity to commend our armed forces for the invaluable service that they have given our country. Britain has the best armed forces in the world and their courage and dedication are respected the world over.

The men and women of our armed forces have a tough job—perhaps the toughest job there is—and we as a nation depend on them in times of crisis both at home and abroad. That is recognised by the Labour Government, who since 1997 have invested and built up our armed forces. Unlike the previous Government, who slashed the defence budget by £0.5 billion a year during their last term of office, this Government have raised the defence budget by £1 billion a year to meet the needs of our troops and fulfil our international obligations.

Given the observation that the hon. Gentleman has just made, would he tell the House how many major armed conflicts British troops were involved in when those changes took place? Not as many as under this Government, I would bet him.

I do not have the answer to the question that the hon. Gentleman is posing, but I am happy to take advice and get back to him, perhaps in written form. But certainly the result of this Labour Government’s consistent funding is that last year, the defence budget reached something in the region of £30 billion for the first time—20 per cent. more in real terms than the budget we inherited from the Conservatives in 1997. Over £1 billion more comes from the reserve for forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. There may be selective amnesia on the Opposition Benches, but I can well remember, as a shipyard worker on the Conservatives watch, that insecurity in the shipyards was the norm, and contrast that with today, where workers and management have extreme confidence in the future.

I am proud that the Government recognise the achievements of our armed forces, and equally proud that the Government understand that having good armed forces is not simply down to how much money we spend. That is why I am happy to support the Government as they move forward to deliver the changes to ensure that our armed forces are available to fulfil their duties and meet the challenges in an ever-changing world.

In today’s environment the UK’s armed forces can expect to be called upon to respond nationally and internationally to a broad spectrum of tensions, crises and conflicts. Our servicemen and women can therefore expect to deploy over great distances, often rapidly and unexpectedly, and for indeterminate periods, either in support of UK national interests or to strengthen international peace and security arrangements. Engaging in combat operations will remain the most demanding task that our service personnel will ever face.

People are the single most important aspect of our armed forces’ operational capability. The Government recognised that as the key during the strategic defence review in 1998, which identified the need to recruit and retain personnel in every branch of the military. To that end, personnel issues were placed at the top of the reform agenda for the armed forces.

I am also pleased that the Government have focused their efforts on ensuring that the considerable demands placed on our service personnel are manageable, and that in their personal and family lives and in their terms and conditions of employment, they are fairly and appropriately supported. This the Government have achieved through the armed forces overarching personnel strategy, which provides a framework for all aspects of the service personnel policy agenda. The armed forces overarching personnel strategy utilises a whole-life approach, from encouraging the young to join to supporting and remembering former service personnel.

That emphasis on improving personnel issues was expanded in the 1999 defence White Paper, which highlighted the fact that it was personnel who give our armed forces the critical edge that leads to success, whether in high-intensity conflict or peacekeeping operations.

It is no secret that recruitment and retention have been a big problem over the past 30 years, with figures dropping from 320,700 in 1980 to 190,420 this year—a fall of 130,280. Admittedly, the end of the cold war undoubtedly reduced the requirement for such large standing armed forces, but given the many strains placed on them by peacekeeping and operations in the war on terror, it is clear that the Army needs to be seen as a desirable career path. That is difficult in light of the socio-economic context, with employment at high levels in the public sector and the commercial world, offering other competing attractions for young people. Moreover, more and more young people are staying on in further education and training, again limiting the number of potential recruits.

The 1998 strategic defence review also highlighted the correlation between overstretch, whereby the armed forces were trying to do too much with too little manpower, and the higher than expected exit rates of service personnel, which led to more overstretching, creating a Catch-22 situation.

Despite those issues, the measures that the Government have introduced in an effort to encourage recruitment and retention in the Army, Navy and Air Force have helped and will continue to help in bolstering morale among serving soldiers, and act as an incentive to those considering careers in our armed forces.

The Government have also introduced the operational welfare package, which provides those deployed on operations with free internet access, free phone calls, newspapers, free mail, fitness equipment, free laundry, a rest and recuperation package, entertainment and an additional 20 days’ leave after a six-month tour. Families receive a concessionary travel allowance for keeping in touch with relatives, and support through advice centres and internet access. The welfare package has been independently assessed twice by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body as being one of the best available when compared with those of armed forces around the world and our allies on operations.

Poor service accommodation has recently been picked up by the media and it has been highlighted as a factor in the high numbers of people leaving the armed forces. This is a problem with much of the accommodation dating back to the 1950s and 1960s, and I for one welcome the news that the Government are spending £1.3 billion on modern en-suite single bed spaces for service personnel as part of a £5 billion improvement project over the next 10 years. It must also be noted that during the past six years the percentage of service families’ housing at the top standard has risen from 40 per cent. to 59 per cent. Nevertheless, I am aware that the Government attach the highest importance to improving living conditions further and this will hopefully turn the tide on the numbers leaving due to poor living conditions.

Given the nature of the work undertaken by the armed forces, it is necessary to ensure that the pay that soldiers receive is appropriate, and again the Government have successfully balanced this; the armed forces pay award this year was a good one. Basic pay for the lowest ranks will be increased by 9.3 per cent. and there is an increase of 3.3 per cent. across all ranks. In addition, the 3.6 per cent. increase in the tax-free operational allowance paid to British troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is a positive step in recruiting and retaining personnel.

The operational allowance is better than tax-free pay. It is fairer—the same benefit for everyone—tax-free, and for the lower paid, much better. The amount is pitched to ensure that the more junior personnel on operations are compensated for their tax bill while deployed. It is based on the tax paid on salary and allowances received on operations by a private with five years’ service. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has also awarded new financial retention incentives to address key operational pinchpoints.

The Government have also considered the family lives of service personnel and have established the Service Families Task Force, specifically to assist the families of service personnel and offer advice and assistance in cases where problems are being experienced with issues such as child care facilities, communication on matters relating to a spouse's deployment, education, health and housing. These measures, which ease the difficulties facing servicemen and women and their families and thus make it more likely that people will continue their service, are very welcome.

Indeed, some benefit can already be seen from these measures, with the numbers of personnel recruited in 2005-06 being 3 per cent. higher than in 2004-05 as the services achieved 96 per cent. of their target. In the six months between April and October 2006, 10,180 personnel joined the services, up from 8,810 in the same period in 2005.

I have welcomed all the initiatives undertaken by the Government in creating modern armed forces, which take into account and support service personnel. However, ordinary soldiers still lack a means of conveying their concerns to senior officers and Ministers except by way of their immediate superiors. In any environment, making a complaint or a comment to one’s boss can be an intimidating prospect, and in an environment filled with rigorous discipline such as the armed forces this can be even worse.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that a so-far unofficial group calling itself the British Armed Forces Federation was formally constituted in December last year by former members of the services. The federation's objectives as stated in its constitution are to represent, promote and protect the professional, welfare, and other legitimate interests of all members of the federation in their capacity as serving or retired personnel of the armed forces. Furthermore, the British Armed Forces Federation also seeks to improve members' employment and working conditions and pension arrangements, and their treatment by the Ministry of Defence, and to promote the professional and personal development and economic and social well-being of members.

I must emphasise that the federation will not be a trade union for the armed forces. It will not conduct or condone any form of industrial action or insubordination within the armed forces. The federation will seek to work with the Ministry of Defence to put in place a form of understanding that could deal with such issues. It will also recognise the importance of the chain of command. If we look at its website, we see that it clearly reinforces the point that the chain of command is to be recognised, not overridden. The proposal might be seen as radical and dangerous by certain members of the armed forces, and possibly by some Opposition Members, but many other nations, including the United States and Australia, already have such federations, which have the support of the military command in those countries. The British forces federation will reflect the ethos and robust traditions of the three fighting services, but it will also meet the requirements of men and women who are serving in our armed forces.

Those aims in many ways tie in with the objectives set out by the Government for improving the welfare of service personnel and offer a unique channel of communication without the pressures that can be present with complaints and comments passed up the chain of command. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) introduced a Bill to this House earlier this month, which I am co-sponsoring, which calls for the British Armed Forces Federation to be recognised by the Ministry of Defence for that very reason. Recent controversies surrounding accommodation, treatment given in medical facilities to injured personnel returning from Iraq, and the scandal at Deepcut, highlight the increasing need for members of the armed forces to have an independent voice and to ensure that it is heard.

I am aware that the Armed Forces Act 2006 has introduced a complaints commissioner, who will be able to receive allegations and complaints from service personnel and third parties. The commissioner will have the power to refer allegations and complaints from service personnel and third parties—concerning bullying and other forms of unacceptable behaviour—to the chain of command. The chain of command will have a duty to ascertain whether the individual concerned wishes to make a complaint, and to ensure that he or she understands clearly how to go about it. The commissioner will also review the effectiveness, fairness and efficiency of the whole redress system and provide an annual report to the Secretary of State which will be considered by the House. That is welcome, but it does not cover the broader views of the armed forces as a whole in the same manner as an armed forces federation. I ask the Secretary of State and the Government to consider supporting the Bill when it returns to the House in October for its Second Reading.

I would like to address one other issue: wounded soldiers and veterans. As is only right and proper, the medical care for the armed forces on operational missions is widely recognised as being of a very high standard. Military medical teams have the equipment and resources that they need, including large stocks of blood, plasma and oxygen. Military commanders are required to ensure that casualty evacuation and treatment facilities are in place before they approve an operation. The Government have made it a clear priority to ensure that service personnel who are seriously injured receive a very high standard of care, including returning them to the UK for specialist treatment. Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham, which is the primary reception hospital for casualties evacuated back to the UK, is at the leading edge of medical care for the most common types of injuries. The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, said in a BBC interview on 13 March 2007:

“There is nowhere better in the country, nowhere more expert at polytrauma medicine, than that hospital in Selly Oak. That’s why our people are there.”

The Government recognise and appreciate the importance of our service personnel continuing to feel part of the military family, and have continued to increase the numbers of military nurses and welfare support at Selly Oak. The Ministry of Defence has worked with the hospital authorities to change the layout of the ward to produce a separate area for some military patients whose condition allows them to be nursed together, utilising the two bays and isolation rooms at the far end of the orthopaedic trauma ward. A rolling survey this year of military in-patients undergoing treatment at Selly Oak shows almost total agreement among respondents that their treatment overall was good, very good, or excellent.

Decisions on closing military hospitals were made in the mid-1990s by the previous Government, and there is insufficient demand, even when our military forces are in action, to warrant an independent military hospital. Serious casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan need and receive advanced levels of care across a wide range of medical disciplines that can be found only in a major trauma hospital. Our numbers of casualties would not sustain a separate military hospital with the modern specialist equipment and skills of medical staff needed to provide the treatment that they justly deserve. For many years, the Royal hospital Haslar has had nothing like the range of medical facilities and expertise that a major trust hospital such as Selly Oak has.

On the issue of veterans, as the Member of Parliament for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North, I cannot make a speech without mentioning the work of Erskine, which, since 1916, has provided nursing and medical care for former members of our armed forces. The work undertaken by Erskine throughout Scotland is remarkable and highlights a continuing need to support former service personnel. Since its inception, Erskine has cared for soldiers from both world wars as well as more recent conflicts, and is already looking after young men and women who have come to Erskine from current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our veterans’ needs are constantly changing, and the new home that Erskine is building in Glasgow, along with the additional beds planned for the Edinburgh home, will provide them with much-needed facilities. Erskine has established four dedicated care homes in Scotland and a fifth is due to open in Glasgow in the autumn. It also operates a bursary scheme in areas without an Erskine care home. In partnership homes in Aberdeen, Inverness, Perth, Dundee and Dumfries, the highest possible standards of care are provided.

We can therefore see that Erskine’s experience and skill in helping sick and injured former service personnel is providing an invaluable service. However, the need for Erskine as a charity also indicates a lack of such provision. I wonder whether the Minister will agree that, given the “whole-life” ethos brought forward by the armed forces overarching personnel strategy, his Department could work more closely with charities such as Erskine to ensure that the care for those who have served our country so well is provided locally across the UK.

To conclude, the reforms brought forward by the Government—to make life in the armed services a desirable option and to treat service personnel as people— are important in ensuring that the British armed forces remain the best in the world. Our armed forces can only benefit from that, and will continue to lead the way in peacekeeping and in securing the defence of the UK.

It is a genuine pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), who made a sincere and brave speech. I am sure that his Front-Bench colleagues will be grateful for his support. He will understand if some of us are not quite as enthusiastic about the record of this Government, but at least he made a brave attempt to defend them.

Such debates typically have a formula. The Minister makes a fairly optimistic speech, or is as optimistic as he can be, and the Opposition present their list of moans. However, although criticisms have been directed at the Government, none of them is personally directed at the Minister of State, who has had to leave his place, or his colleague the Under-Secretary, who now defends the Dispatch Box. Our criticisms are of the Government overall; we realise that lurking in other Departments are people with clunking fists who have as much influence over MOD policy as any Minister who has the privilege to serve in that Department. It would be unfortunate if the Minister, who got a little prickly in dealing with some of our interventions, thought that they were attacks on him personally, because he is highly regarded as having done a good job. Although he may be re-roled in the next seven days—we will have to wait and see—he can look back on his tenure in office with some pride.

Today’s debate has been slightly different. We often sit in the Chamber endlessly during long opening Front- Bench speeches, but the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who is not currently in his place, was a powerful analysis of what is going on in our armed forces. It was one of the most powerful opening speeches that I have heard in this House; his critique of the Government was very telling. He fulfilled his brief extraordinarily well, given that it is about holding the Government to account—not necessarily forever explaining what he would do should he become Secretary of State for Defence, but making that Department’s Ministers account for their stewardship, while they have it, of our armed forces.

In the borough of Bexley, we are very proud to have the headquarters of the 71st Yeomanry Signal Regiment, which is a Territorial Army unit. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Evennett)—who shares with the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) the representation of the borough of Bexley—and I recently visited that unit to see what training and morale was like. It is always impressive for Members of this House when they have an opportunity to visit regular or Territorial regiments and see the level of commitment and dedication that the men and women who serve there bring to their task. Although that unit is a Territorial unit, their training standards are exceptionally high and their level of commitment is second to none. We in Bexley are proud of our local regiment and think that it does a very good job. Like many Territorial Army units, many of its members also see active service.

Many members of the armed forces, regular and Territorial, wonder whether society as a whole values what they are doing. As our society moves away from large-scale wars, which are increasingly a matter of history, and from institutions like national service, it becomes difficult for the civilian population, and indeed parliamentarians, to understand what servicemen do, how they live their lives, how they train, and, from time to time, their perverse sense of humour.

The hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North mentioned Tory defence cuts. Now that I am becoming such a greybeard in this place, I can say that I was fairly involved when Tom King, as he then was, announced in this Chamber the defence cuts that were supposed to be part of the dividend from the fall of the Soviet empire. As politicians, we have to understand that all Prime Ministers, whether Tory, Liberal Democrat or Labour, are the same—they get very grand. It is all very well for them to float around on the international stage making agreements and committing the country to do this, that and the other, but it is the troops on the ground who bear the brunt. So although Britain remains a member of the Security Council, has the fifth largest economy in the world and perceives itself as having a major part to play in many international conflicts, it behoves hon. Members, especially senior Members and those in the Government, to have a little humility when they sign up to great exercises and bear in mind the serious consequences of their actions.

Although my party when in government undoubtedly had an impact on restructuring the armed forces—we cannot deny that—one has to put restructuring in the context of the demands that are being made on our armed forces. There is much talk about overstretch, but there is also a genuine feeling that we are asking far too much of far too few people. Politicians must either curb their pomposity in wanting to get involved in conflicts around the globe or be duty-bound to ensure that the people whom they commit to certain injury and possible death have as much support as possible.

Although recruitment could always be better, it is—perhaps perversely—fairly strong. Several hon. Members who take a particular interest in reserve forces visited a unit called 4 Para, which has a strong recruitment policy. It trains in many areas—it is all macho stuff, but it comprises an impressive bunch of Territorial Army soldiers. It is interesting to note that 88 per cent.—a high proportion—of that battalion have been on active service in Afghanistan, Bosnia or Iraq.

About 300 years ago, at a time when I could fit into a uniform, I was in the Territorial Army and a major with a NATO infantry battalion. At least then, when we were training for the Russian hordes to come charging across the German plains, most of us knew that it was unlikely to happen, so any injuries were normally sustained on training exercises. As a TA major, it made me slightly nervous to see the coffins that we had to take on the exercises. We thought that we had signed up for weekends, not to come back in a box. The training that one receives and the commitment that one gives when one is not expected to stand opposite someone who is actively trying to kill are different.

That is not the challenge that faces our TA soldiers today, however. They are deployed in challenging theatres of action. Some of our colleagues have, to their credit, experienced recent active service. I therefore hope that the Under-Secretary takes on board the reason for our dismay about his colleagues’ announcements on cuts in TA funding. There is undoubtedly a link between training for the TA in the uniformed civilian capacity and that for those who will be required to go on active service. There is no point in having a TA unit such as 4 Para, with 88 per cent. of its servicemen deployed in active theatre, training on kit that will not have to be used on active service, where more modern equipment will probably be available. The Under-Secretary must therefore ensure that TA soldiers train with the equipment that they will have to use when they are in a life-threatening situation That is why the training budget is important.

Most TA recruits go through a version of a regular training course, which has modernised to take account of young people today. They are sometimes not quite as fit as their grandfathers would have been at a similar age; they have different expectations, and they are not brought up in a culture of deference, yet they are shoehorned into a regimental system that can be a bit of a shock. Most, if not all, adjust to it quickly. Most people are impressed by the training that is available.

Most people will think, “Do we care? Does it really matter?” about today’s announcement of the cuts in competitions. However, the competition cups are an important focus for both TA and regular Army units, especially the infantry. Being up against regular Army teams is an important part of reserve Army and TA training. One of the greater pleasures of being a Territorial soldier was when the TA teams beat the regular teams, because there is inevitably some rivalry. It is therefore a pity that competitions can be written off as if that had no genuine impact on training. The Minister responsible for the armed forces will find that that is not the case. Although the Ministry will have offered the cut because the Treasury is making it find savings, I doubt whether many infantry personnel involved in the process believe that it is a good idea.

Is the skill base of our armed forces today any use? Is it better or worse than that of previous generations? Many old sailors—and no doubt old soldiers—would have watched what happened to the hostages in Iran, perhaps with a little despair. Personally, I do not think that the young people involved had very much choice in how they behaved, but eyebrows were probably raised when one of them went off from an active unit with an iPod plugged in. I am sure that not many soldiers would patrol the streets of Iraq and Afghanistan with their iPods plugged in. But that is the sort of generational change that people have to come to terms with.

Are the current generation as good as previous generations? I certainly find when I visit units that they are a very good crowd indeed. I believe that the young men and women who have decided to join the armed forces are a very impressive bunch. One could hardly say that they are joining for great riches. The Minister made great play of the changes to armed forces pay levels—that is to be welcomed; all credit to the Ministry for bullying something out of the Treasury—but as the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said in a wide-ranging speech, the pay is still far too low. It is quite pathetic that privates and lance-corporals on active service could be earning more money stacking shelves in Tesco, where the greatest threat to their lives is likely to be a can of beans dropping on their foot. That is really quite a scandal. The Minister may well be right that armed forces pay has improved, but, by God, it has a long way to go. Frankly, we do not pay these people nearly enough for the risks that they have to face.

We have already talked extensively about housing conditions, so I do not want to labour the point. However, I do believe that we have a duty to ensure that the kit deployed, particularly to those in active theatre, is the very best possible.

When Ministers say that everything is pretty good, and when the Prime Minister always says that our troops can have anything they want, it is easy to be rather confused when on an almost fortnightly or monthly basis we also read reports of senior officers and those serving with practical experience saying that their impression in the field is not quite the same as the impression given by Ministers to this House. There is clearly a bit of a mismatch between what Ministers think is happening in the field and what our soldiers are actually experiencing.

Are the risks to our armed forces greater than they once were? At the moment, they are most certainly greater than they were during the cold war. Are the rewards better? In fairness to the Government, it would not be right to say that it is all doom and gloom, but there have been additions and changes that do not make it any easier to be a soldier—particularly a soldier—today. During one Prime Minister’s Question Time, I criticised the Prime Minister in respect of the intervention of the Attorney-General. I suggested that it was pretty hard for a young 18 to 19-year-old soldier to be looking ahead for a sniper on the streets of Basra, while having to look behind his back to the Attorney-General. That may well have been a rather facetious example to put to the Prime Minister, but I hope that the point was made and taken. It is quite difficult, particularly for very young people on active service, to cope with legal pressures, which were never placed to the same extent on previous generations.

An important part of our duty of care relates to medical provision, which I thought my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring was right to concentrate on. It is all very well for Ministers to say that it is all about the press niggling. The reports we read this weekend from Colonel Parker about what is going on should give pause for thought about how casevac—casualty evacuation—is actually operating. Undoubtedly, the mental health pressures, particularly on those who are not returning to regimental bases—for example, those in the Territorial Army—should be taken more seriously.

The subject of helicopters may already have been flogged to death, but it has to be said again that they are a very important part of modern warfare. There is a widespread and genuine feeling among the armed forces that they are being let down in that regard.

One area that we hardly ever mention in the House is particularly important to how the infantry operates—the work of the regimental associations. My own regiment, the Light Infantry, is now called the Rifles. Names come and go and everybody accepts that that is part of life. However, for most of those who serve now and who have served in the past, the most important thread of consistency comes from the work of the regimental associations. They often have a very small staff indeed, but a great deal of voluntary work goes on, too, to ensure that there is a continuing sense of belonging to the regiment.

It is also worth putting on record the thanks of the House to the benevolent charities for the armed forces. They do an amazing job in raising funds and getting help to people very quickly. I hope that the Minister will not take this as a criticism of his Department, because it is not meant unkindly, but there is a belief that the armed forces charities react much more quickly to immediate need than the Department does. I am sure that there are obvious reasons for that, including the pressures and regulations that Government Departments face in relation to the way in which they operate. It seems sad, none the less, that a regimental charity can react almost instantly to the demands of someone in need while the Department seems to grind on at a much slower pace even though a bit of speed is desperately needed.

As we hold the Minister and his Friends to account this afternoon, we must ask whether the Government have failed. I do not think that it would be fair to say that they have, but the Minister must understand that the demands that he and his party have placed on our armed forces have been exceptionally high. The duty of care that is placed on him and his colleagues must therefore be even higher.

It is a pleasure to be able to contribute to the debate today. I should start by reminding the House of my interest, in that I am a serving officer in the Territorial Army.

It is especially a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway). Between us, we represent how the TA has changed. He spoke of serving in the TA some years ago and going on exercise on the north German plain, hoping to defend the United Kingdom against the Russian hordes. Of course, that is not the TA of today.

Before I speak further about the Territorial Army, I would like to thank the Minister. I want to acknowledge that the welfare package for servicemen on operational service has improved in recent months, and certainly since the time I served in Kosovo in 1999, when I used to have to queue for 20 minutes for my weekly two-minute phone call to my wife. The situation is much better now. I want to ask him a question that he will not be able to answer now. Will he confirm that a problem that existed in Afghanistan last year has been addressed? Under the Paradigm phone system, the soldiers who were out in remote units and having to use the mobile Paradigm system were being charged three times the amount that those using the landline system were paying to top up their units. Those people were being discriminated against, and I would be grateful if the Minister wrote to me to confirm that that practice has now ceased.

Since I first joined the Army on 11 November 1988—yes, I was a very young man at the time—I have seen rapid changes taking place. It is clear that the Territorial Army has never been under as much strain as it is at the moment. Its numbers are at an all-time low, at just over 32,000. That does not include the officer training corps, but the OTC cannot be deployed. Among the 32,000, there is also a significant number who cannot be deployed on operations, either because they have already been so deployed, have come back and are within the time bar, or because they are going through recruit training. In those circumstances, they are not fit for role and cannot be deployed. Perhaps it says much that, in recent years, I was deployed as a Territorial Army soldier to Kosovo in 1999, to Bosnia in 2002 and to Afghanistan last summer, as the Minister knows. I fear that he might want to deploy me again after he has heard some of my comments this afternoon, but that is a different matter.

Only last year, General John McColl said that the equivalent of 21 infantry battalions had been deployed by the Territorial Army in the past three years. That is why I want to say a few words about today’s official announcement that there will be a £5 million cut in the Territorial Army budget over the next two years. I said in my intervention on the Minister of State that that would probably be the equivalent of a £50 million cut for the regular Army, and I was not exaggerating. All too often in the House, we tend to talk in generalities, but I intend to go into specific detail to explain exactly why I said that.

Fortunately—unfortunately, perhaps, for the Minister—I have a copy of the paper that has been prepared by General John McColl on the exact arrangements being proposed to implement a £2.5 million cut this year and a cut of the same amount next year. I want to take this opportunity to describe to the House the impact that the proposed cuts will have. The first relates to capability.

The Territorial Army future army structure was designed to rebalance the TA. It was a recognition of the overstretch that the Minister of State described in his opening speech. Some units—Royal Engineers, Army Air Corps and Medical Corps—were suffering such overstretch that their harmony guidelines were not being met, and they were having to go on repeat tour after repeat tour after repeat tour. The FAS was designed to give uplift to some units so that they could better support units in the regular Army that were being directly affected by the overstretch, and other units that were not affected could be downsized.

The Minister of State recognised that in March 2006, when he said in a statement to the House:

“The organisational changes of TA rebalancing will include strengthening the Royal Engineer element of the TA”.

Can the Under-Secretary of State explain why, as a direct result of the cuts announced today, 124 Squadron 71 Engineer Regiment and 139 Squadron 73 Engineer Regiment will now not be established until 1 April 2009, two years after they were originally to be established? Indeed, there is no guarantee that they will be established then. That will rely entirely on the reinstatement in future years of the funding that has been cut for the next two years.

We have talked at length about the pressure on helicopters in theatre—lack of helicopters and lack of crews. The Minister of State recognised that problem as well when he said, in the same statement in March last year,

“The following new TA units will be formed: an Army Air Corps regiment to support the Apache attack helicopter regiments in the Regular Army”.

If it is so important to create those units, why is it that, as a result of today’s announcement, 2 Squadron 6 Regiment Army Air Corps will not be formed until 1 April 2009 either?

That, alas, is not the end of it. We shall also have to wait for the formation of 280 Squadron 162 Regiment The Royal Logistics Corps; 155 Transport Regiment The Royal Logistics Corps will not expand any further; and crucially, the squadron to support our medics who are under such pressure in Afghanistan and Iraq will not be established until 1 April 2009.

It is not only capability that will be hit so badly in the TA. Personnel will be affected as well. In his statement last year, the Minister of State acknowledged that the Territorial Army was not the same as the regular Army. TA soldiers like me train perhaps one evening a week and over the occasional weekend. We all have busy jobs. Although they are not necessarily Members of Parliament, by definition most TA soldiers are busy professionals—successful, can-do people with busy day jobs. We are entirely reliant on a very small number of permanent staff in TA units who act as the backbone or skeleton to keep the organisation on the road. But as a result of recent mobilisations many TA soldiers have gone off to Afghanistan and Iraq, and enormous pressure has been put on those permanent staff.

We have had major problems with both pay and mobilisation. In his statement, the Minister of State said:

“we will strengthen the support we give TA units, with about 240 permanent staff recruited to provide administration, welfare, training and employer support.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2006; Vol. 444, c. 427.]

The document, however, is very revealing. Not only is further recruitment of non-regular permanent staff to be stopped entirely, but of the 244 who were originally promised, only 31 have been recruited to date. That figure will not increase, despite what the Minister of State said in his statement about what a genuine requirement this was. I should be grateful if the Under-Secretary of State explained why that is.

My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup mentioned competitions. It might be thought that they would be easy to cut because they are not particularly important, but so much of the spirit and ethos of the TA is about doing things not only for the right reasons—my colleagues and I want to serve our country and do the right thing—but because they are great fun. I assure the Minister that if he removed the fun element from the TA, we would very soon see a reduction in the numbers turning up on drill nights and at weekends.

The proposed cuts in competitions are severe. The Cambrian patrol is a traditional competition that takes place in Wales every year. It is designed not for officers or senior non-commissioned officers, but for the smallest blocks—sections. It offers a lance-corporal or corporal on the first rung of the command ladder their first opportunity to take their small unit away to do genuine training. That is being cut next year, and I understand that it is being cut for the foreseeable future; no TA unit will be able to participate. The Nijmegen march in Holland has been running for about 94 years. It provides an opportunity for junior TA commanders and their colleagues to do something fun; they go overseas and do a 100 km march. That is also being cut for the foreseeable future.

One of the key skills that we must give our TA soldiers is basic skill at arms, especially if they are going to be sent on operational service in Afghanistan or Iraq. However, as a direct result of the £5 million of cuts, all divisional skill-at-arms meetings have been cut and will not be reinstigated for the foreseeable future.

Employer support of the TA is often taken for granted. I would not have been able to take part in my first two mobilisations, to Kosovo and Bosnia, without the support of my employer. I recognise that it might be easy to sell to employers the idea that if they send their TA soldier employee away for six months he will return a far better employee; he might be employed as a storeman in the TA, but he will come back capable of being a stores manager, such is the benefit of his experience. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 rightly protects TA soldiers and reservists by ensuring that they get their job back, but it does not guarantee them a promotion when they return. That must be looked into.

Because so many TA soldiers have been deployed time and again, employer support is beginning to be lost. We had one measure in place to repay employers: exercise executive stretch. It was run regionally, and every year there was an opportunity for employers who had supported the TA to send their non-TA employees to take part in a team-building exercise over a weekend. The employees would participate in a series of military activities, such as assault courses and command tasks. It was an ideal way to thank employers and to offer them a service by putting their non-TA employees through a team-building exercise. It was greatly valued by employers across the country. Yet as a direct result of the proposed £5 million of cuts, it will not happen next year.

The biggest impact of the cuts will be on recruiting. I understand that the recruiting element of the cuts will be about £2.5 million. The directive has been handed down that all recruiting for units that are not directly supplying soldiers on mobilised service in Afghanistan and Iraq is to stop next year. That is incredibly short-sighted. I speak as a former squadron commander who had 120 soldiers in my unit. The average length of service for a TA soldier is only 3 years. Therefore once every three years, a third of the unit will leave. To turn off the tap and not recruit in one year might create a saving in that year, but it will have an incredibly dramatic impact in years two, three and four.

TA units simply will not recover. A TA unit by its nature can only do one thing at a time. It may have 124 soldiers, but some of them—probably at least 20 at present—will be away on operations, and at least 30 will be recruits who can do nothing other than their recruit training. That leaves a possible total of about 60 who could turn up on any given Tuesday; and of those 60, perhaps only 20 will come in. It might therefore be possible to achieve only one project on a Tuesday or a weekend.

When I was a squadron commander, I was fortunate in inheriting a squadron that was 90 per cent. recruited because it had done a lot of recruitment activities in the two previous years to increase its numbers. The mistake I made was that as soon as I inherited that squadron I focused on genuine training—the Minister will appreciate that bomb disposal experts need a lot of training—and we did not focus on recruiting for six months. The impact was felt the next year and the year after, when my numbers went down by 20 per cent. That was a tough lesson to learn.

The decision to turn off the tap for recruiting for all non-TA units not directly delivering to Afghanistan or Iraq is, therefore, possibly the most damaging measure in the proposals. I urge the Minister of State to look again—

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and I am sorry that I was not in my place for the opening portion of his remarks. I have listened to the latter portion and he makes a strong case. As ever, I will take stock of the points he has made and set them against the advice that we have received from others in the chain of command. I can give him the commitment that I will give due consideration to the weight of his arguments.

I am grateful to the Minister, who has a reputation for being very fair-minded. He has demonstrated that once again this afternoon, and I have great respect for him.

I have one concern with which the Minister might be able to help me. I asked a series of parliamentary questions this week, and one of the answers revealed that not a single representation had been made to the Minister—he is nodding in agreement—and that concerns me. So the Commander, Regional Forces, the ultimate head of the TA, made no representations about the proposed £5 million cuts? Did the assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, the senior two-star TA officer, make no representations about those cuts? Did the Deputy Inspector General TA, a TA brigadier, make no representations about those cuts? If that is the case, I find it very sad. It is a sad state of affairs when lowly Major Lancaster has to stand up in Parliament to argue the case for the Territorial Army. I urge the Minister to look again at the announcements that are being made today, because the long-term impact on the TA will be very severe.

It gives me great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who has made an important and impressive contribution to the debate. I am delighted that the Minister responded in the way that he did. I shall come to the question of budgets, as my hon. Friend’s speech was a microcosm of the great debate about budgets and the way in which that is affecting personnel policies in the Army.

I start, as everybody else has started, by taking this opportunity to pay tribute to our armed forces, their professionalism and dedication, and especially to those serving on operations. I also extend my sympathies to those who have suffered injury or been bereaved, and I honour our fallen.

I wish to explain to the House the reason for the absence of so many members of the Defence Committee. Once again, somehow, one of the key armed forces debates has coincided with a long-planned visit by the Committee. Today, the majority of my colleagues on that Committee are visiting the military unit at the Selly Oak hospital. I would not dream of suggesting to the House that there is any intention on the part of the Government to hold these debates while the Committee is on a planned a visit, but it does seem to happen remarkably often. We cancelled a trip to NATO for a debate earlier this year in order perhaps to wrong-foot the Government. I suggest that the House authorities could take a little care when planning these debates and liaise with the Defence Committee. We know quite far ahead when we will be abroad or on a visit. We have a heavy programme of work, and it would assist us and the House if greater co-ordination could be achieved. I appreciate that that is not a point directly for the Minister, but I hope that my remarks will be noted in other quarters.

This debate is about armed forces personnel. I was most impressed by what I heard about Combat Stress from my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I should like to join them in expressing concern about the future of a charity that undertakes very important work. Just last week, the Defence Committee took evidence from representatives of Combat Stress and of other service charities including the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, and the Army Families Federation. They all welcomed the fact that the Government had appointed a Minister for Veterans, but they expressed some disappointment that that had raised expectations that have yet to be delivered.

I make no criticism of the Minister for Veterans, but I agree with the right hon. Member for Islwyn, who is no longer in his place, that the MOD should have a department for veterans that can deliver something. In contrast, a Minister with that responsibility is just a conduit for information. It would help recruitment and retention if we could help people who have served in the armed forces to feel that they remain in that wider family. I do not think that that happens at present.

I want to concentrate on three main issues: overstretch, training and morale. As the hon. Member for North Devon remarked, no one can deny that our armed forces are overstretched. Indeed, when pressed, the Chief of the Defence Staff admitted to the Defence Committee a short while ago that the armed forces were stretched to the point where the elastic could stretch no further. Perhaps the elastic has to break before the MOD’s definition of overstretch is reached, but he was pretty blunt and forthright in saying that the situation could not be allowed to continue for more than 12 months.

If that is so, my sense is that the Government are gambling on being able to contain the overstretch by drawing down some of our present commitments. However, unless the new Prime Minister introduces a dramatic change of policy, I do not foresee that there is much prospect that we will be able to reduce our commitments. If we do so in Iraq, I fear that we will use the slack to increase our commitments in Afghanistan. Indeed, I understand that a further battalion has been deployed to Afghanistan, with not so much as a whisper of an announcement to this House. If that move is planned, or if the battalion has been deployed, I should be grateful for a response at the end of the debate.

Overstretch, of course, impinges on armed forces personnel. Earlier today, and at very short notice, I obtained what I believe to be the MOD’s latest monthly manning statement. Why cannot this report be placed in the House of Commons Library automatically and as a matter of policy? I have asked that question before. In a written answer of 24 June 2002, the Minister of State told me that “UK Armed Forces Trained Strengths and Requirements”, which is a tri-service publication, was placed in the Library on a regular basis. The raw figures in the monthly manning statement are more useful, yet this morning I was told that I had to table a written question before the Ministry of Defence would put the information in the Library. When I asked the Library to point out to the MOD that there was to be a debate on armed forces personnel today so it might be quite useful to have the information beforehand, the MOD generously relented, but there is a degree of formality about the process that we could dispense with if the Minister ensured that when the statement is published a copy is placed in the Library. I am sure that would assist the librarians.

I shall refer only to the Army figures, but the same patterns are reflected for all three forces. The monthly manning statement shows that the whole trained Army strength stands at 99,030, which is 2.7 per cent. below the target of 101,800. When the strategic defence review was published, it was supported by the Adjutant-General, who gave evidence to the Defence Committee that the target trained Army strength was to be 108,500. That figure was never achieved, and armed forces personnel are taking the strain of manpower shortages—in undermanned units, undermanned battalions, shorter tour intervals and curtailed or cancelled training exercises.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes discussed the cuts in the Territorial Army. It is ironic that the situation is exactly the same as in the regular Army. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring pointed out that although it has been implied that the SDR was duly funded, that was not the case. We know from the biography of the former Chief of the Defence Staff, now Lord Guthrie, that he never received the money that he felt had been implicitly promised at the time of the SDR. He even went to see the Chancellor about the matter—the language was florid, we understand.

As the Government make more commitments for equipment programmes, operations and support for operations, manpower suffers, so unfortunately I am not surprised to learn that the TA has suffered yet another cut with no complaint from any of the service chiefs. They all have budgets to protect. If one of them were to complain about the TA cut to which my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes referred, the first question would be, “What other cuts will you offer?”

Our defence policy is determined not by what is required to support military operations but by the limitations on resources. That is why the manning statement shows that the soldier strength of the Territorial Army stands at 30,550, which represents a shortage of 6,300 men and women—a shortfall of 15 per cent. It obscures the fact that the SDR target strength for the TA was between 41,000 and 45,000, which is considerably more than the current target.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring pointed out, we are spending less on our defence than our commitments demand. The budget is determined by spending limits, not by the military requirement. In particular, whatever increase in budget has been delivered, it does not reflect what is widely regarded to be the inflation rate for defence costs. The Select Committee received evidence that the defence costs inflation rate is somewhat in excess of 8 per cent. per annum. Therefore, given less-than-inflation increases in the defence budget year after year, alongside a heavy equipment programme that looks as though it cannot be funded and which escalates in cost as the years go by, the only way to fit our defence activities into the budget envelope is by cutting personnel. The headcount is such a high proportion of the cost in the armed forces; that is why the target size of the Army, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy is reduced year on year.

The graphs presented in Ministry of Defence briefings to Members of Parliament show sliding, declining numbers of personnel employed in the armed forces year on year. They show those numbers declining below the actual target. I do not think that we shall ever see fully trained, fully manned armed forces under this Government, even according to the target figures that they now give us. This is a serious situation. It is quite obvious that all three services are extensively deployed on operations and all three are suffering the kind of overstretch that we have been talking about. That is as much true of the Army as any of the other services.

May I help the hon. Gentleman by pointing out one detail? He mentioned the manning requirement and targets. As I recall, during the ’90s, when his party was still in power, it was fairly normal to have a manning requirement of, let us call it, 99 or 100 per cent. and a manning target that was a lot lower—about 90 per cent. That meant that the targets were quite readily hit, but those targets were a great deal lower. They were simply based on what it was thought could be practically achieved. Does he recognise that the manning requirement and the manning target are now something like 96 and 97 per cent.? They are very close, or, at least, they are an accurate reflection of the situation—unlike in the early ’90s.

The manning requirement has been reduced to reflect what the Government can afford. Quite early on in my defence career, when the Government were something like 6,000 or 7,000 men short in the Army, I said at a meeting in the Ministry of Defence, “If you could recruit 6,000 or 7,000 extra men, where would you get the money from?” In our 2001 election manifesto, we said that recruitment should be carried out to allow the Army to reach its fully trained requirement. The Government immediately said that that was a £1.6 billion defence commitment—until we pointed out that it was their own target and they were publicly pledged to achieve it. That £1.6 billion never existed.

The tragedy that we face now—perhaps tragedy is too strong a word; I shall use the word “challenge” instead. The challenge that we face now is that the situation is different. In the ’90s, a larger gap might have passed without comment. In 1990, one would have been hard-pressed to find one in 10 armed servicemen who had ever fired a shot in anger. We are now living in a different world and one would be hard put to find any armed serviceman or woman who has been in the armed forces for any length of time who has not served on operations. I put it to the Minister that the Government are not fulfilling their obligations to the people upon whom we depend for so much.

That is reflected in the tour intervals. I attended Colchester military festival in Colchester, which my constituency circumnavigates, a few days ago. It was an impressive display.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I am intrigued by his earlier argument. He seemed to be saying that we should have a much bigger Army, and much bigger armed forces overall. I set out in my contribution the difficulties that we face in trying to recruit to current levels. Can he tell me what magic formula he has that would allow us to grow, assuming that such growth was necessary, by the thousands that he thinks are required? He is arguing for a figure bigger than we are able to attain.

I put it to the Chief of the Defence Staff in the Select Committee that as a “back of a fag packet” figure, if it were to meet the harmony guidelines set out in the strategic defence review and the requirements for tour intervals and so on, the Army would be about 130,000 to 135,000 strong. I am sufficiently realistic to recognise that that will not be the case. However, I suggest to the Minister of State that where there is a will, there is a way. If there were resources, it could be done. As in every other branch of military activity, there is probably not enough money in recruitment.

I know that strenuous efforts have been made. I have had meetings in the past with the director of Army recruitment, who has taken me to task about how difficult it is to attract and recruit people in today’s labour market. Where unit-led recruitment is properly incentivised, and where a commanding officer of a battalion makes it his job to ensure that his battalion is fully recruited, it can be done. There is not the will to recruit those numbers, because if they were recruited, the money would have to be found from other budget headings, and that would be a painful process.

I was speaking about tour intervals. It is surprising—[Interruption.] I hear the Minister of State muttering in frustration at my comments. We have incredibly talented and able people, who could run the fire service and who sorted out the foot and mouth crisis. They are extremely capable. Is the right hon. Gentleman seriously asking the House to believe that it is beyond the wit of any general in the British Army to work out how we could recruit to strength, if the money were available? I am sorry—I do not believe it.

That is not what I asked the hon. Gentleman about. I asked him to say what his magic formula would be to get the figures that he had in mind. The notional figure—not the defined figure in the SDR—was 108,500, which was reduced to 105,000. The present figure is 101,800. That is an Army strength that we find it hard to achieve, no matter what resources we throw at the market. It is not just a matter of good will or determination. There must be something else that the hon. Gentleman is holding back from us. If he can give me that formula, I will make sure that it is applied.

I understand the question from the Minister of State. I reiterate that with resources and willpower, the necessary numbers could be recruited.

One factor that will not make things any easier is the cutting of excellent products such as the defence schools presentation team and replacing them with an internet-based tool. I know that it is not a recruitment vehicle, but it goes into our schools to tell our young people exactly what the Ministry of Defence and our armed forces do, and it has excellent resources and excellent feedback from those schools. It is madness and very short-sighted to cut that, and it is such lack of thinking that leads to the problem.

I welcome that comment. I draw attention also to what my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) has regularly pointed out. If a commanding officer sets targets for all his officers to recruit and to achieve recruiting targets, it can be done. His former battalion, the Sherwood Foresters, was very well recruited as a result of that philosophy.

Let me move on to training. When I visited the Colchester military festival, I found 16 Air Assault Brigade already starting its training for its second tour in Helmand, where I believe it will be deployed some time in the spring of 2008. That brought home to me how the commitments that our armed forces face today produce a relentless treadmill of operations for our front-line infantry battalions.

The Defence Committee recently visited Helmand province, where we were immensely impressed by Brigadier Lorimer’s 12 Mechanised Brigade. It is doing a marvellous job, although it has its work cut out and is insufficiently supported by some of our NATO allies. Overall, there are not enough troops in theatre. NATO’s combined joint statement of requirement for Afghanistan has not been fulfilled by all the NATO nations that signed up to the principle, and once again British armed forces personnel are taking the strain. Incidentally, it is striking to see a man wearing naval uniform in the middle of the desert, but it underlines the tri-service nature of operations and how the three armed forces have integrated so well.

As 16 Air Assault Brigade is commencing its training to return to Afghanistan, I asked someone, “What equipment are you training with?” The mobility and firepower of a vehicle known as WMIK, which is an open Land Rover with a .50 calibre machine gun strapped to its top, are vital to operations in Afghanistan. Almost all the vehicles are deployed in Afghanistan, so the entire brigade has one WMIK vehicle for training purposes in the UK, and will not be able to do any training until it returns to Afghanistan.

The fact that the Government appear to have been reduced to buying and providing equipment for the front line only, because they cannot afford enough equipment for the front line and for training, is affecting morale and the effectiveness of our armed forces personnel. As every soldier knows, however, sweat saves blood, and sweat on the right equipment will also save blood. If we are sending our troops to Afghanistan without their having had sufficient training on the equipment that they will use in theatre, we are putting lives at risk. I cannot put it any more clearly, but that is what the Government are now doing. I fear that there is complacency about the professionalism of our armed forces. We always ask our people to take up the slack or make up the shortfalls through their ingenuity and professionalism, but there are limits. I hope that the Minister will give me an undertaking that brigades preparing for deployment in Afghanistan or Iraq will be able to train on the equipment that they will use.

Finally, I want to address two points on morale. First, I want to discuss the aftermath of the HMS Cornwall incident. I am privileged to be a member of the Defence Committee, which was briefed on General Fulton’s report earlier this week. I encourage the House to understand that the report is hard-hitting and comprehensive, although it leaves some questions unanswered. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Defence Committee Chairman, has made it clear that the Committee will examine the report further, and I hope that we can make some concrete recommendations to the Government as a result.

I wonder whether the Minister will confirm one thing that did not come out in Monday’s statement. The Secretary of State told the House that

“The central lesson is that we must improve our ability to identify and assess the risks that this complex environment generates, and to train and posture our forces accordingly.”—[Official Report, 19 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 1256.]

That underlines the comprehensive nature of the failure that resulted in the capture of those sailors and Royal Marines.

I understand the reluctance to find a single scapegoat for that failure; indeed, we should not scapegoat any particular service in this episode. Will the Minister confirm that HMS Cornwall was ultimately under the command of the commander of joint operations at PJHQ? It was part of a tri-service operation, the complexity of which—particularly multinational tri-service operations—perhaps led to the lack of flow of information, to which the Secretary of State referred in his statement, which contributed to an obvious mis-assessment of the threat at the time of the capture. If that is the case, will the Minister set out whether the report has considered the chain of command right to the top, which is absolutely vital for the credibility of the report?

Finally, on morale, what contributes to poor morale are judgments made by the courts that add considerably to the complexity of military operations because of the number of lawyers who have to be deployed alongside the soldiers, sailors and airmen. Having studied the judgment in the case of Baha Mousa, which the House of Lords decided last week, I am reassured that the international applicability of the Human Rights Act to British public bodies working overseas is very limited and does not extend to military operations. It extends only to detainees—who can blame the family for bringing the case?—contained in a British-controlled environment, even in another sovereign state.

There was a dissenting opinion among the six Law Lords. Lord Bingham made it clear that he did not think that the Act extended to international jurisdiction. Article 1 of the convention, which extends the jurisdiction, was not carried into UK law. The other Law Lords understood that that was Parliament’s intention, even though Parliament expressly left out article 1 from the Human Rights Act.

I am probably not explaining this particularly well, but the point is that the soldiers, sailors and airmen whom we deploy on operations now have to operate in what can only be described as a very fluid legal environment.

The Minister shakes his head. Why did the Government contest the case? Why did the Government’s QC go into the court and contest the international applicability of the Human Rights Act? That was what was set down in the Act of Parliament. The Act does not apply British law internationally; that is read, by implication, directly from the convention. This puts our armed servicemen and women in an increasingly invidious position.

I sat on the Delegated Legislation Committee that last week dealt with the orders arising from the Armed Forces Discipline Acts. Our armed servicemen have to operate in a much more complicated legal environment. There has to be a limit, because I gather from the Joint Services Command and Staff College at Shrivenham that we now have an 11th principle of warfare, which servicemen have to learn—legitimacy. Effectively, we are asking our armed servicemen to question the orders they are given, in case they are being given an illegal order. The two soldiers who refused to be deployed to Iraq in 2003 were never court-martialled, because the Government did not want to test the legality of their refusal to deploy. I believe this is undermining the chain of command on which our armed servicemen depend.

Far preferable would be a system of armed forces discipline that rested on comprehensive Acts of Parliament that were not internationally justiciable, either under the convention on human rights or by the International Criminal Court. If we in the House can satisfy ourselves that our armed servicemen are acting legitimately and according to law, what business is it of a judge from another nationality who knows nothing about the national interests at stake in a military operation? I think that is why the United States refuses to sign up to the International Criminal Court. It is why the French Government opted their military out of the convention on human rights. I think that is the position that we should have for our own armed servicemen, so that when they face a military tribunal and are exonerated, they do not face the double jeopardy that was suffered by Trooper Williams, who was exonerated by his commanding officer but subsequently prosecuted by another court, only to be exonerated again, or by the Parachute Regiment men who came back from Iraq and were acquitted in a court of law after they had already been acquitted by their commanding officers. I think we owe our armed servicemen a clear framework of discipline and procedure, which these international arrangements do not give them.

I am very pleased to be able to take part in this debate and pay my tribute to our servicemen and women, who carry out very difficult tasks on our behalf and often suffer severe injuries. Like the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), when I meet service personnel I am always impressed by their quality and their commitment. They are rightly held in very high regard by this nation.

I represent the town of Brecon, which houses 160 Brigade Wales, headquarters of the Army in Wales, and I must say that the relationships between the local communities and the military have never been better. I should like to compliment successive brigadiers who have commanded 160 Brigade Wales, and their officers, for the work they have done to achieve that. The Army makes very heavy use of the countryside in mid-Wales, but the population understand that the Army needs to have well-trained troops ready to pursue the national needs and interests. The Minister must have heard this before, but the more Welsh land the Army eats, the better disposed are the farmers and landowners in mid-Wales to the use that the Army makes of the facilities.

Derring Lines, which is based in Brecon, is where senior NCOs and junior officers are trained in their leadership duties as company and platoon commanders. We welcome the fact that Sandhurst officer cadets now spend the last six weeks of their training in Derring Lines, being tested on the Sennybridge ranges—and they certainly are tested on the Sennybridge ranges. I remember talking to a Gurkha in Brunei, and when he heard that I had come from Sennybridge he said, “The Arctic was cold but it was dry, the jungle was wet but it was warm, but Sennybridge was cold and wet and you needed a high degree of personal organisation to survive there.” We have a Gurkha company based in Brecon, the Mandalay company, which acts as a demonstration company for training purposes. It is very well respected in the military and civilian communities based in Brecon, and its members have had improved terms and conditions, including extending accompanied service, so that their wives and families are with them longer. Their wives are well respected in their workplaces in Brecon and their children are made welcome in the schools.

With almost every infantry soldier being either stationed or trained in Brecon at some time, I meet a lot of the infantry, and they complain about the quality of the kit issued to them. A number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), have drawn attention to concerns about high- technology issues—for example, those relating to helicopters—but often soldiers complain about basics such as assault vests and other types of kit. Whenever I see them, it seems that they are trying to buy kit to replace what has been issued or to modify or enhance the kit that they have. They do that with their own money, which saps their confidence and enthusiasm for their job.

I talked this through with a number of soldiers the other day. I will not go into every example they gave me, but I thought it might be interesting to set out a few of their concerns, because it is unacceptable that they have to spend their own money modifying kit that should be issued in a usable form.

The pouches on the right shoulder of assault vests are properly positioned for firing from a standing position, but from a prone position it is impossible to get the butt of the weapon into the shoulder because the pouch is too high. The solution is to move the pouch down, making the vest fit for purpose, but it is bizarre that soldiers have to pay for that, rather than be issued with the kit in that form.

Soldiers also complain that the ammunition pouches are too small to carry the A2 magazines for the SA80, but are perfect for the magazines for the SA81. The solution is to place the pouches further down the vest with a larger flap, once again at a cost to individual soldiers.

Soldiers are even complaining about their trousers, which are sourced from China and have to be reinforced around the knees and crotches because on deployment they wear out. What could be worse than having kit that is not fit for purpose on deployment?

A lightly built soldier was issued with Osprey body armour for a 104 cm chest size. It was too big for him and the Velcro fastening was only partly engaged, so when he ran it came undone. One can understand how dangerous that was. The solution was to modify it to make it fit.

I was told that the molly strips put on body armour to hold pouches and carry other equipment are too thin—19 mm rather than the 25 mm that other armies use—so equipment falls off. I was also told that soldiers would wear neck armour when they were in vehicles, but not outside them, because the pop studs that hold that neck armour on are shiny and can be easily seen. A toned-down colour would have solved that problem.

I have been listening carefully and my imagination was caught by the hon. Gentleman’s reference to reinforced crotches. His points might be perfectly valid, but is he aware that the armed forces already have procedures in train whereby quartermasters and commanding officers ask such questions and the information is fed back into the design process?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point, because I was about to refer to it. I asked the soldiers whether they were feeding back their points so that standard bits of equipment could be better designed. Their response was that they do feed back, but changes are rarely made. Will the Minister say whether there are any other systems or facilities to ensure that kit is better designed in future, so that individual soldiers, especially junior ones, who are not well paid, do not have to spend their own money on replacing, modifying or enhancing it?

It is great to come into contact with serving soldiers in my constituency, which has a strong tradition in regiments such as the 24th Foot and the South Wales Borderers. Recently, we have gone through tough times, with the amalgamation of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales to form the Royal Welsh. It is too tough that young soldiers either to have to buy replacements for their equipment or enhance it and make it fit for purpose. What processes are in place to ensure that design can be enhanced?

Our armed forces have never been so well equipped in terms of personal equipment. Anyone who visits any theatre of operation remarks on that. The hon. Gentleman has given a litany of issues that, he said, need to be addressed. The likelihood is that they are all being addressed. The problem is that there is usually a lead time between examination of what is wrong and delivery of a correction. We must get it right; the worst thing is to get something that does not function. Note will be taken of the issues he has mentioned. If a corrective measure is not in place, there might be a good reason for it; if not, we will attend to it.

I thank the Minister for that response. Many hon. Members have spoken of their admiration for his approach to the job, and I accept his commitment. From the point of view of morale, and being able to use the more complicated equipment, it will help if the basic equipment is fit for purpose.

I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. I express my condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost their lives in the service of our country, and to those who have been injured. I shall return to that later, when I focus on the issue of mental health services and health services for the armed forces in general.

It is a pity that the Minister of State has just left the Chamber, because I was about to compliment him on his dedication to the job. Although we often disagree, I do have respect for him, despite the fact that he can start a fight in an empty room. I agree with him that it is unfortunate that the Scottish National party Members are absent again today. Their leader, the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), who claims to want Scotland to be an independent nation, is not sufficiently interested in the armed forces to be present in the Chamber today.

While we are on the issue of Scotland, I was disappointed that the Educational Institute of Scotland teachers conference criticised the Ministry of Defence’s efforts to recruit from our schools and to educate young people about the value of the armed forces. We should encourage as many people as possible to join the armed forces, because it is an honourable and significant profession.

I wish to focus primarily on overstretch, which has been mentioned several times this afternoon. I am pleased that the Minister has admitted that there are problems to do with what he would describe as “stretch”, some would describe as “very stretched”, and others would describe as “overstretch.” It might be pedantic to make such distinctions, but at least the Minister has accepted that there is an issue. To me, this is about what we do about the problem now that we have recognised that there is one. How far does it have to go before we say, “Enough is enough” and take some remedial action to solve it? The chiefs of staff say that they can cope with current commitments with the current numbers, but how long will it be before we cannot cope, and how will we know when that has happened?

The National Audit Office says that our armed forces are about 5,000, or 2.8 per cent., below strength. That has been the case for the past five years as they have been operating above protected deployment levels. During that period, some 14.5 per cent. of soldiers have been sent on missions more frequently than recommended by harmony guidelines. Medical services have been hit worst, with reservists filling 66 per cent. of vacant accident and emergency department and intensive therapy nursing posts. 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 different countries, the Committee found that 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”.

Apparently he has spoken out again recently, calling for an extra 3,000 front-line soldiers. General Dannatt fears that the Army risks being so worn down by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that it cannot operate properly. He called for extra troops during an impromptu speech at the end of a conference in Whitehall a couple of weeks ago.

Adrian Weale from the British Armed Forces Federation has pointed out 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.”

Our very own Defence Secretary admitted recently that the scale of operations meant that

“we could be in danger of degrading our armed forces”.

There is no “could” about it. There is no doubt that we are degrading our armed forces, and that is having an effect on their sustainability and on the morale of our troops. All the indicators that I mentioned earlier are clear evidence that our armed forces are being degraded.

It will come as no surprise to Members that Liberal Democrats believe that the Iraq war has contributed significantly to the retention problems in the armed forces. I again 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 have 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 earlier this year the Liberal Democrats said that it is time for us to go. We reached the conclusion that our troops should get out, and soon. Unfortunately, the Government have not listened to that advice, but we hope that they will listen sooner or later.

What are the consequences of this overstretch? According to an MOD survey, a rising number of soldiers are no longer given full recommended rest periods between operations. 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 in four saying that their morale was low.

The same survey found that one in five soldiers want to quit 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. That is why figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency show that approximately 14,500 left the Army in 2006. Many left before their period of engagement was up. The retention crisis has led to some of our most skilled and experienced soldiers quitting the armed forces. I acknowledge that recruitment levels are okay and tend to meet the targets that have been set. However, the structure is like a big leaking tank—no matter how much one puts in the top, it simply pours out at the bottom.

Overstretch effectively breeds overstretch. The more our forces are asked to do, the more they want to leave early. The more personnel leave early, the greater the overstretch, and so on. We must break that vicious circle if we are to maintain the high standards and worldwide reputation of our armed forces.

I want to outline more examples that show that our forces are being degraded. Ministers will have read reports that show that the Army is so short-staffed that military bandsmen have been put on standby to replace infantry battalions guarding Cyprus. Fifty musicians from the Welsh Guards will be the first band scheduled to go to Cyprus, followed by the Grenadier Guards and the Rifles. The first deployment is expected in January next year. One musician said:

“The worst thing about this is that we are essentially professional musicians who have not seen a rifle since our basic training”.

Members of the armed forces have raised concerns with me about being in the storeroom one moment and finding themselves on the front line in Iraq the next. They were led to believe that they would not undertake front-line duties, only to find themselves thrust forward to conduct patrols and raids, even though they did not have appropriate training to fulfil such dangerous roles. I have asked the armed forces Minister to explain that in a previous debate and through parliamentary questions. So far, despite persistence, I have not received a satisfactory answer. Perhaps the Under-Secretary can enlighten us in his summing up.

It is unacceptable that, with an ethnic minority population of just under 10 per cent. in the United Kingdom, the current figure for the recruitment of ethnic minority military personnel in the three services is just below 5 per cent. That is half the proportion of the ethnic minority population in the UK. All the services missed the target for UK ethnic minority intake in 2005-06, but the RAF and the Royal Navy did especially badly, despite the fact that the Ministry of Defence said that it would take action in the past year. I acknowledge that the Army is managing to achieve its recruitment targets for black and ethnic minority recruits, but the Navy and Air Force are well short.

Other countries, such as the USA and Canada, which adopt proactive recruitment policies, invariably have a higher proportion of ethnic minority recruits. In the US army, three times the proportion of recruits are from ethnic minority groups compared with the US population as a whole. Recruitment from our own ethnic minorities could be even worse, with recruitment from overseas masking the genuine problems in the UK. Figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) obtained reveal 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 in other parts of the world, but that also sends a message that we are failing to connect with our ethnic minority communities in the UK.

To revert to my original point about ethnic minority recruitment, I am extremely concerned about the position, especially in the Navy and the RAF, but also in the Army because its apparent success may be due purely to overseas recruitment. Action is obviously required, which is why I was particularly pleased to see and take part in an exhibition earlier this week. It was called “We Were There”, it was run by the Ministry of Defence and it took place upstairs in the House.

The exhibition highlighted the little-known contribution of the ethnic minorities to our armed forces over the last 250 years. Let us take the example of Indra Lal Roy, who was attacked by German Fokker aircraft in the first world war. His plane was shot down in flames during the engagement, and he was posthumously awarded the distinguished flying cross. Another example is Regimental Sergeant-Major Khamis Juma, who was twice wounded during his service between 1905 and 1945. He received nine different medals.

The UK has a great tradition of recruitment from ethnic minority communities, which should be recognised by all. Those brave men whom I have highlighted and many more should be used as role models—I am sure that the Ministry of Defence would want to do exactly that—to promote the ethnic minorities and encourage them to join the armed forces.

I want to mention briefly a constituency issue that I have had to deal with. A primary school teacher recently approached me. She is a naval reservist down at Rosyth and she was concerned about being prevented from taking part in what she considered to be essential training. We investigated the issue and looked back into the guidelines that stretch all the way back to 1945. I recognise that the issue of primary school teachers in education is a devolved matter, but I would welcome the Minister’s intervention.

My constituent has not been able to participate in this essential training. Under the guidelines, teachers are somewhat bizarrely allowed time off during the school term for a variety of different purposes—including to attend the river purification board, which no longer exists in Scotland. We really need to look further into those guidelines. My constituent views this training as essential, but the education department did not want to release her from her duties. I have been trying to press upon that education department the real value of taking part in such training, whether it be for the Territorial Army or the Royal Naval Reserve. Excellent training is provided and the education department should recognise it. As I said, I would welcome the Minister’s intervention in this matter.

Let me deal now with mental health. Last week, along with the Defence Committee, I visited Combat Stress, which has been mentioned several times in the debate. We also had the opportunity during that visit to meet ex-servicemen who were receiving care from Combat Stress. Many of them were there for post-traumatic stress disorder. Combat Stress provides a service that is well appreciated for what it is—a first-class service provided in a military-friendly environment, which is almost unique in the UK. Combat Stress has three centres, but it only touches the surface of the problem. It has high waiting times and there is a long waiting list, even for those who know about the service, but I believe that awareness among ex-servicemen is very low. That problem of awareness has to be addressed, especially among primary care health professionals, who are often unaware that this specialist service is available.

We are now seeing earlier presentations of these problems. Between 2001 and 2007, the average age of Combat Stress patients has fallen from 64 to 44—a drop of 20 years in just six years. In that same time frame, the percentage of women has increased from 1 per cent. to 4 per cent. From the Falklands war, there have been 400 cases over 25 years, but from Iraq there have already been 140 cases in three years. There is a great need for an expansion in the service. I am aware that the Government are taking great steps to try to deal with the problem, but I hope that they will take even greater and more urgent steps. With increased coverage of post-traumatic stress disorder in recent months, we are likely to see a huge increase in demand, as I mentioned earlier. We need quick and significant action to deal with the problem.

Awareness of Combat Stress needs to be improved among nurses, doctors and other health professionals, especially those working in primary care. Two ex-servicemen from my constituency approached me last year about their frustration at the lack of support they received for what turned out to be PTSD. They said that their GP had provided little advice or support, and that it was only after they found out about Combat Stress that things began to happen. Awareness of Combat Stress among primary care health practitioners really must improve.

Entitled ex-servicemen pay for their treatment through their war pension, which covers 100 per cent. of the cost of six weeks’ treatment. About 60 per cent. of Combat Stress funds are generated in this way, leaving 40 per cent. to be raised through charitable fundraising. If an ex-serviceman cannot access his war pension, or requires more than six weeks’ treatment, the costs are covered by Combat Stress.

Ex-servicemen resent having to rely on charity for something that they believe should be paid for by the Government. They already feel as though they have been dumped, ignored and neglected by the armed forces, and they now feel extremely bitter that they have to rely on charity. I urge the Government to consider new ways of funding Combat Stress, other than through the war pension, which is not a satisfactory method of funding.

Finally, I want to make a plea. I can see some benefit in channelling money for mental health services for ex-servicemen through the NHS, as it might provide the connection that they need between the general NHS, Combat Stress and the MOD. I am worried, however, that if we rely solely on the NHS to fund Combat Stress, it might not be given the same priority. Local NHS departments face huge pressures and conflicting demands, and I do not believe as they would give Combat Stress the same priority as the MOD does. I am extremely concerned that going down a new funding route for Combat Stress might have the effect of de-prioritising the organisation, and I would encourage the Minister to consider that point.

It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, and an honour to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who made a powerful speech about the importance of dealing with combat stress and the pressures being placed on bands. I served in Cyprus, and I appreciate the importance of the strategic role that it plays. I am saddened that we are now having to man the forts there with regimental bands, important though the service that they provide is.

It is also sad that we have had only two Back-Bench speeches from Labour Members, compared with about six from the Opposition. I hope that that is a reflection more of the fact that changes will soon be taking place on the Government Benches than of the importance that Labour Members place on military matters.

I am pleased to be able to participate in the debate, not least because my own regiment—the 4th Battalion the Rifles—is now based in Basra, in Iraq. On behalf of the House, I should like to wish Colonel Sanders and the battalion a safe tour of duty and a safe return to the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State began by saying, rather defensively, that Britain could cope with its commitment. That sums up the difference between the Conservative and Labour approaches to the armed forces. We feel that there is an element of overstretch in our armed forces, that they are over-committed and that we are asking too much of a force whose size is ever diminishing. The Government continue to state that we have the right sized Army, Navy and Air Force for today, and that we are managing our commitments well. I would like to illustrate why we are struggling to cope by brutally examining how the size, the funding and the commitments have changed over the past 10 years.

The Navy has shrunk by about 9,000 personnel. The frigate and destroyer fleet has been reduced from 35 to 25, and the number of our submarines has been reduced from 12 to eight. Another six ships are about to be mothballed, and a cloud is hanging over one of our major naval bases. Indeed, reference has been made to our naval force being smaller than that of Belgium. I do not understand the Government’s wanting to close naval bases. Circumstances and threats change; what would happen if there were a requirement to increase our naval power? Where would we put the ships that were required, if we had got rid of a naval base such as Portsmouth? It would be difficult to rebuild such an important strategic location.

There is also a question mark over the aircraft carriers. We have been given no indication of when we will see the two replacements. We have heard many announcements about how great the T45 is. It is indeed an amazing ship, but the fact is that there are fewer T45s than T22s, or the T42s that they are intended to replace. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), one ship can only be in one place at any one time.

We have seen a reduction in Army personnel since 1997. There were 101,300 then; now there are only 99,400. It would be possible to fit every member of the British Army into Wembley stadium, should anyone wish to do so. That is a sad reflection of the size of our armed forces in view of the weight at which we continue to punch and the respect that we continue to command across the world. We are now down to 36 battalions, we have seen regiments disappear and the time between tours of operational duties has been reduced, giving soldiers less of that critical time to be spent with their families before being redeployed. We now have a smaller Army than Italy, Germany or France, although, as we all know—we do far more than any one of them, or, indeed, all three put together.

I am afraid that the position in the RAF is no different. We have seen the closure of a number of bases, including those at Lyneham and Coltishall, and a reduction in fast jet training hours. There are now huge capability gaps: our ability to deal with circumstances and threats is being reduced because we no longer have the aeroplanes in the skies. The Sea Harriers used to be based on our aircraft carriers. They are quite distinctive, because their radar capacity allows the sea fleet to see further over the horizon than the new T45, or indeed the carriers themselves. Taking the Sea Harriers out of service puts our surface ships under threat as never before. The Jaguars are also being removed from service. We do not have the Typhoons, and the F-35—the joint strike fighter aircraft—has not even been built yet, although it is supposed to be replacing the Sea Harriers. We are struggling with other aircraft too, including Nimrods. That capability gap is becoming bigger and bigger, yet we see no evidence of any attempt to expedite the replacement process.

As if that were not bad enough, manning has been reduced by around 9,000. I saw the impact of that when I visited the Falkland Islands recently on HMS Chatham, another ship that is, sadly, destined to be mothballed. I spoke to various RAF and naval personnel, and it was clear that they were being asked to do more. The frequency of their operations was greater than ever before. They used to be posted back to the United Kingdom to perform various light duties that allowed them to spend time with their families, perhaps looking after a naval base or helping to run an air base. Those duties have now been outsourced, and as a result many more demands are placed on all soldiers, sailors and airmen in operational environments.

I intervened on the Minister of State earlier to make a point about recruitment and retention. It is clear that more personnel are leaving the armed forces than joining them. There is a haemorrhaging of strength, to the tune of about 1,500 a year. That is unsustainable, particularly given the number of commitments in which we are involved. The Minister has been forced to reduce the target size of the three main armed forces, which allows him to announce that we are meeting percentage targets of around 97, 96 and 95 per cent. for the respective forces. Moving the goalposts so that he can tell the House that the targets are being met is a rather unsubtle and disruptive way of trying to prove that he is meeting requirements.

In reality, we are losing experienced personnel. The people who are leaving the armed forces are the corporals and the sergeants, those with valuable experience, and we need to do more to try and retain them. I acknowledge the importance of initiatives that have been mentioned today, some of them connected with remuneration, but I still believe that we could do much more. I think that Members on both sides of the House agree that the present circumstances are different from those of 10, 15 and 50 years ago. The armed forces face stiffer competition in recruitment and retention because of the jobs that are now available in the private sector. Money is also an issue.

Our armed forces are both smaller and busier. The Prime Minister said aboard HMS Albion on 17 January that the defence budget has remained fairly constant if the funds that have been put forward for Iraq and Afghanistan are included. That amounts to a shocking admission that we are having to pay for those huge operations out of existing defence budgets. That is wrong; it did not happen in the Falklands, and it should not happen in Afghanistan and Iraq. The consequence is that in order to pay for these two large operational commitments other budgets are continuously salami-sliced.

I hope that the new Prime Minister will take account of the many voices expressing continued concern about various aspects of our armed forces. General Sir Mike Jackson, in his Dimbleby lecture, attacked the pay and conditions and the medical support for our troops. General Rose has also commented that our armed forces are inadequately equipped, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. The most damning indictment has come from Admiral Sir Alan West, former head of the Navy. He has condemned what is happening to our armed forces and he said:

“I suppose we should retire to our island and hope no one gets to us”.

General Dannatt has also subtly raised significant concerns about the size of our armed forces. He said that we were only just able to cope in Iraq. I think that he was then sat on by various Ministers and others in the armed forces to make sure that he was not too vocal in expressing his views. However, he did let the cat out of the bag by saying that there were concerns and explaining the impact of our commitments in Iraq on all the other activities that we are undertaking.

This debate is timely, as all the European Union Foreign Ministers are meeting at the European summit. As if our armed forces did not have enough to do under their current UK and NATO commitments, there is also a push to introduce ever more responsibilities under the EU umbrella. I would be grateful if the Minister explained what the situation is in relation to the constitution and committing our military personnel to what I term double-hatting by providing troops to the 60,000-strong force created by the EU to serve as a rapid reaction corps.

I disagree with that proposal. It stems from an agreement that came out of the St. Malo summit in 1998, which was supposed to focus on Africa but which ended up committing the EU in this way:

“The Union must have the capacity for autonomous action, backed up by credible military forces, the means to decide to use them, and a readiness to do so, in order to respond to international crises.”

That was a deliberate attempt to create something outside the NATO umbrella: the document goes on to say that the force would be a

“national or multinational European means outside the NATO framework”.

That led on to the Berlin-plus agreement, giving the EU access to NATO assets. In addition to claiming those assets, it asks generals and commanders and their units to double-hat by being in two places at once, which simply cannot be done.

There is also the danger of the duplication of roles. In Sudan at present, there is an EU mission with military personnel, and just down the road there is a NATO mission doing exactly the same job of reporting back and working with the Sudanese. That is an unnecessary duplication. The Minister squirms but I assure him that that is the case and it must be looked into.

The European Defence Agency—as it is termed—was part of the original EU constitution, and I hope that the Minister will consider that, especially as we did not have an opportunity to vote. An example of the split in interest between what NATO and the European Union are doing is in Afghanistan, where the French are pushing for one system of electronically marking vehicles so that they can be tracked by satellites, but all the other NATO countries want to use another—the blue force tracker system. That is confusing to our personnel, an overlap and a complete waste of money.

The ambassador in Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, has said that we will be in that country for decades. I am pleased that the Minister is back in his place, because he mentioned the Hip helicopters that were offered to the UK, and the misreporting by the press. I have looked at what was actually reported and it is clear that there was a genuine offer of helicopters for £20 million. It was turned down by the Government. That could have been the right decision, but I tried to ask the Minister earlier—he would not take interventions on the subject—what the cost of replacing those helicopters with Chinooks or other craft would be. If the Soviet-designed models could be used as transport helicopters more cheaply than bringing in operational helicopters, it should have been considered. Had the deal been accepted, it would have freed up Chinooks for combat operations, rather than using them as a taxi service, which is why they are needed in Afghanistan.

Both my hon. Friend the shadow spokesman and the Minister mentioned the medical facilities in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to the medical support that our armed forces receive, but it must be improved. I question why there is a logistical chain stretching from Afghanistan back to the UK, which is duplicated by the German chain, the Italian chain, the Dutch chain and the American chain. Many of the casevacs go through Dubai in any case, where there are excellent medical facilities. If we are operating in Afghanistan under a NATO umbrella, why do we not share the assets and the logistical chains? The problem occurs not only with casevacs, but with avgas and other logistical issues. There is huge duplication and it causes a phenomenal waste of money. I would be grateful if the Minister would look into that.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) commented on the embarrassing fiasco a couple of months ago in the Shatt al-Arab waterway. This is my first opportunity to comment on the report, because many hon. Members were prevented from contributing when the Secretary of State made his statement. The case of the 17 service personnel arrested by the Iranians has been described as not being our finest hour. In fact, it was a deep embarrassment. We became the laughing stock of NATO and the middle east, and I am saddened that the reports have been shrouded in secrecy despite the many schoolboy errors being made very public. Nobody has been sacked, reprimanded or even blamed, and that is astonishing. It raises more questions than it answers. It was not our finest moment, but we should be able to draw a line under it by determining the facts and somebody falling on their sword. That is not going to happen, and we will somehow tuck it away and move on as if nothing had happened. That is wrong.

I am rightly proud of serving in our armed forces and I am glad that we are able to debate these issues today. I pay tribute to the work that they do while we sit in the comfort of this Chamber. Again and again, Britain steps up to the plate while other countries shy away. On both sides of the House, we can be proud of the role that we play in the world. However, I do not think that we can keep up the pace of our commitments without dire consequences for our combat effectiveness. I hope that the new Prime Minister will take note.

I fear that this will be the last debate in which we will see some of the faces on the Government Front Bench today. If there is to be a reshuffle in the next couple of weeks, I wish Ministers all the best. This country will be moving into a new chapter with a new Prime Minister, and we will see whether there is a new approach to prioritising the needs of our armed forces.

May I begin by offering an apology to the House? A long-standing commitment meant that unfortunately I was unable to be here for the opening speeches. For that reason, I am very grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak so that I can raise a constituency matter.

I suspect that the problem about which I wish to speak—the difficulties faced by armed forces personnel leaving the services in finding accommodation and housing—is one that arises in many other constituencies. Obviously, some will have bought properties, and I am pleased that the MOD has found ways to facilitate that and to extend the encouragement given to people to purchase their own homes, but it will not be a viable option for many members of the armed forces.

Armed forces personnel can be stationed anywhere in the country, with the result that they find it difficult to access social housing in their home area. However, their families, roots and connections do not change. One of my Chelmsford constituents was due to retire from the Royal Marines at the start of last year. Before he did so, his mother came to see me about exactly that problem. People who have served in our armed forces and taken part in active operations should be treated as a special case. They have been prepared to put their lives on the line for this country, and they deserve to be given special treatment when it comes to housing provision on leaving the forces. If such people want to be housed in the town or area that was their home before they joined up, they should have that option.

I know that the tri-service regulations provide guidance and help to members of the armed forces and to local authorities, but problems have arisen when councils have not understood or appreciated in full their role in helping retiring service personnel. Indeed, local authorities have treated those people as though they were making themselves deliberately homeless, even though the MOD gives retiring personnel certificates that specify that that is not the case. Some armed forces families have found themselves facing the prospect of being put temporarily into hostels or bed and breakfast establishments before more suitable housing is made available. To me, that is wrong.

I wrote to the Minister of State in February or March last year, and I received a response that was helpful, at least in the context of the rules and regulations as they stood at the time. The rules are well intentioned but they do not provide what I wanted: immediate special treatment for retiring members of the armed forces. In addition, the Minister’s response highlighted the problem that many local authorities do not understand the regime or operate the rules as the MOD would like.

Subsequently, I have raised the matter at various times, and did so again at Defence questions on Monday. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence tried to be helpful in response, but he has been more helpful in the letter that I received from him today. I suspect that other hon. Members who have expressed a concern and interest in this matter will have received the same letter, and I welcome the joint statement on the problem issued by him and the Minister for Housing and Planning at the Department for Communities and Local Government. As the statement rightly points out:

“Local authorities in England are responsible for framing their own policies and procedures for allocating social housing.”

However, it makes the important point that not all local authorities fully consider the local connections of armed forces personnel. I do not know how Ministers plan to proceed, but if they were to issue local authorities with guidance, or a reminder about that requirement, it would be extremely welcome, as it could eliminate some of the confusion, or ostrich-like behaviour, of some local authorities.

I welcome the Government’s commitment that pending the outcome of their current review of housing policy they anticipate making proposals “in due course” to enshrine—I assume in legislation—more action to ensure that retiring members of the armed forces get a better deal for housing and social housing, with a local connection where it is relevant. That is important.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Given today’s announcement and my previous statements, there is no excuse for local councils to be in any doubt about our intentions. I am sure that he will agree that Members of Parliament can play a vital role by taking matters up directly with their local authorities and housing associations in their constituencies.

I am grateful to the Minister and I assure him that I shall be writing to my local authority to make sure there is no misunderstanding.

I wholeheartedly support what the hon. Gentleman, my Essex colleague, is saying. May I use this opportunity to remind my hon. Friend the Minister that he can deliver only for England and Wales? Will he undertake to ensure that the Scottish and Northern Ireland Executives will be able to deliver in terms of housing? The Minister is mumbling or rumbling, and I am not sure whether he is saying that he cannot deliver for Scotland, but the need for social housing in Scotland and Northern Ireland is as great as in England, Wales and Essex.

Order. I do not think that “mumbling and rumbling” is unparliamentary, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will be disappointed if the Minister has not heard what he said.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Thurrock, my colleague from Essex. I hope it is not unparliamentary—or lese-majesty—for me to point out that I was just about to tell him exactly what you said, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has certainly heard the hon. Gentleman’s important intervention and will no doubt respond to it in his own way in due course.

I do not want to push my luck, but I should like to refer again to the statement, which I warmly welcome. It says:

“The Government have therefore decided to make the necessary changes to housing legislation, at the earliest opportunity, to ensure that Service personnel are treated fairly and put on an equal footing with other people applying for social housing.”

On the face of it, that is welcome but, quite apart from the armed forces context, the application process for social housing is not always as fair to everyone as the statement suggests. There were changes in the regulations on social housing in 2002—not for local authority allocations, but for 50 per cent. of housing association allocations. People can get allocated housing association accommodation more quickly than the indigenous population who are on a local government housing waiting list.

If members of the armed forces, particularly those who have served on operations around the world, need to exercise their local connections and return to the locality where they were born and brought up, I would like—if I am not being too greedy—the service that they have given their country to be recognised in preferential treatment, so that their families can be housed. Those families should never have to go into hostels or bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I hope that the Minister will give some consideration to that, because the system as it has operated since 2002 is not quite as fair as the statement suggests. However, I do not want to be churlish or spoil the moment, because I broadly welcome what he and the Minister for Housing and Planning have done.

On a completely different point, I am particularly pleased that the Under-Secretary is winding up the debate and I would like to refer to another matter that has been of great importance to my constituents and a source of considerable pleasure and pride: the introduction of the veterans badges. As anyone who is familiar with the scheme will know, the Government keep altering the time scale—rightly so—so that the scheme will encompass more people who have served their country in all wings of the armed forces. For a variety of reasons, the scheme—like many other schemes—was not as well known to individuals as it could have been. There were a number of veterans, particularly in the first wave, who were unaware that they were eligible and did not apply for badges, notwithstanding the tremendous work that the Royal British Legion and other veterans organisations did to try to get as many people as possible to receive their badges.

I welcome the fact that the Ministry of Defence and the Veterans Agency encouraged and facilitated Members of Parliament to help their constituents to acquire those badges. Having acquired a significant number of them for my constituents over the past 18 months, I must say that I am particularly pleased not only by how easily, but by how quickly, effectively and efficiently the system works. One takes it for granted—probably through bitter experience—that when one is dealing with a Department, regardless of who the Government are, things can get bogged down, there can be issues with the time scale, or there can be minor problems that string out the whole process. When acquiring the badges on behalf of my constituents, I was amazed by how quickly, effectively and efficiently things were done, and I pay tribute to all those involved. I am also pleased that we were able to have an input and that we were allowed, in effect, to get those badges on behalf of our constituents.

I thank the Under-Secretary, who had only just taken up his post when I had a presentation ceremony and a tea party arranged for 180 veterans and their families in my constituency. It is a shock to a Member of Parliament who has put a considerable amount of work into organising such an event—as did the staff in my office—to discover four days beforehand that the Under-Secretary was no longer the Under-Secretary and so would not be able to come. I will not go into the gory details of why the previous Under-Secretary was no longer the Under-Secretary; he ceased to be a Minister and we were Minister-less.

The veterans, many of whom had served in the second world war, in the Korean war, and in the Malaysia conflict during the late 1940s, were looking forward to a Minister being present. He may have been a Labour Minister of Defence, but that did not matter to the Minister or to the veterans, because party politics had been cast aside in recognising the debt that we owed to our veterans. The current Under-Secretary very kindly and at very short notice agreed to come to the ceremony. He did not just swan in, present the badges, get photographed and swan out. It was noticeable and greatly appreciated that he stayed to the end, mixing with the families and the veterans, and showing an interest in their lives and what they had accomplished.

The feedback that I got after the ceremony was tremendous. The veterans were genuinely appreciative not only of the efforts that went into arranging the presentation of the medals, but of the fact that a Minister who had been in post for 48 hours was prepared to come, as was the Lord Lieutenant of Essex, who kindly stepped in when we thought we would be Minister-less.

Indeed, and medals.

I thank the Minister for taking part. It is an extremely good scheme, because it gives veterans recognition and a badge that they can wear with pride, and it reminds them of the service that they gave to their country, at whatever time that was.

We have had a good debate, with five contributions from the Conservatives, two from the Liberal Democrat Back Benches and two from Labour. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) referred to the unfortunate scheduling of the debate, which clashes with the Defence Committee’s visit to Selly Oak. I am sure that was unintentional. At business questions, it was cruelly suggested that the debate was scheduled to enable comrades opposite to attend Ascot. I am sure that was an unworthy slur.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), in a powerful performance, set out our belief that the armed forces are overstretched. The latest figures, released today by the Ministry of Defence, show once again that the deficit in the trained strength of the armed forces compared to the requirement has widened to 6,670, with another fall in the strength of our armed forces. We do not know how many people are serving in the Army this month because data are not available following the introduction of the new personnel administration system. I suspect that that figure has not been going in the right direction, either. There is an ongoing problem.

The Ministry of Defence’s refusal to accept that there is any overstretch is incredible. A little honesty would be much more sensible. The Secretary of State for Defence, having returned from Iraq with the Chancellor, admitted that the armed forces were in danger of being significantly “damaged” if they continued to fight in the same numbers abroad. He also admitted that with so many troops deployed on operations, training vital to the military’s long-term effectiveness had taken a back seat. The Secretary of State admitted that if we were seeking to sustain the operational tempo that is under way, we were in danger of degrading our forces. When Ministers try to pretend that we are not overstretched, just stretched, they do not do themselves any favours. A little openness, transparency and engagement with the argument would be welcome.

In his opening remarks the Minister of State suggested that recruitment was looking much better. Indeed, over the past year recruitment is up, compared with the year before. To be fair, he said only that it was an improvement on the year before. However, in recent years recruitment has been very poor. Over the past five years recruitment has fallen from 26,350 in 2003 to 23,540 in 2004, and was down to 17,590 in 2005, which was the worst year. It is only from that very low base that we see an improvement. It is true that things are starting to go in the right direction, but it is from a very low base. It is still true that the number of people leaving our armed forces considerably outstrips the number joining. In both of the past two years, the size of our armed forces has fallen by more than 5,000, which is clearly unsustainable when we are engaged on operations overseas.

It is worth repeating the key point made by my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary and one or two other hon. Members. As the Prime Minister has said, we spend 2.5 per cent. of GDP on defence, and it has remained constant. Common sense suggests that if one spends the same amount when one is engaged in two military conflicts as when one is not engaged in military conflict, something has to give. What is giving is the long-term sustainability of our armed forces, and training is under threat and cuts in equipment are being made. We are in great danger of damaging our armed forces for the long term if we do not address the situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex raised the issue of cost inflation in the armed forces. Notably, when the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) discussed funding, he talked about it only in cash terms, but the correct way to examine it is as a share of GDP. My hon. Friend put his finger on it, when he pointed out that costs in the armed forces are rising faster than in the economy generally, which is why one must keep pace with growth in the size of the economy.

On recruitment and retention, the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) drew attention to the important part that Commonwealth citizens play in our armed forces, which is worth remembering. Frankly, if we were not recruiting armed forces personnel from Commonwealth countries, we would be in even greater difficulty than we are at the moment.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring discussed our concerns about mental health with impressive clarity, which was acknowledged on both sides of the House. There was also an excellent contribution by the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) drawing on his experience. There was general acknowledgement and endorsement of Combat Stress, which is an excellent organisation.

Turning to the treatment that armed forces personnel receive for physical injuries, I, too, have been fortunate enough to visit Selly Oak, and I have also visited Headley Court. Conservative Members have always been clear that the medical care at those establishments is excellent, and Front Benchers have never criticised it. Having spoken to our service personnel, some of whom have suffered severe injuries, I was struck by their attitude and continuing courage, which is humbling. They do not complain; they just get on with things.

The support that injured personnel get from their home communities makes a tremendous difference. Several people whom I spoke to had featured in their local press. They had received letters from people whom they had never met before, and football teams had been very supportive—some of them had received a visit from the local football manager. Such support from the local community is incredibly helpful to them, and it also helps communities to understand a little better just what our armed forces do for us, which we should always remember.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring said, although the medical treatment is very good, it is important to have a dedicated military ward. Negotiations are under way for the new private finance initiative hospital in Birmingham, and it is incredibly important to include a dedicated military ward in the plans. Uncharacteristically, the Minister made rather a silly point when he challenged my hon. Friend about the exceptional circumstances. If a tragic event resulting in a requirement for medical care were to occur, one would, of course, use those facilities in the same way as a military hospital would have been used 20 years ago. In the normal scheme of things, however, a dedicated ward for our military personnel is necessary. As the new PFI is put together, it would be worth making sure that we achieve that.

On mental health services, a recent report from Health and Social Care Advisory Services, carried out with Combat Stress, drew attention to the fact that the guidance from the Department of Health spends very little time talking about the needs of veterans as a specific category. The guidance mentions other groups that need particular care, for example prisoners, but does not really talk about veterans as a social category. The Minister, with his Government colleagues, could perhaps do something about that.

I do not need to dwell on the cuts in the Territorial Army because my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) gave an excellent exposé of the damage that would do. To his credit, the Minister of State agreed to look at that issue again. If he is unable to reverse the cuts completely, I hope he will go some way to putting them right. The examples that my hon. Friend gave would be tremendously damaging and the signal they would send to those serving in the Territorial Army would be unfortunate given the work that we ask them to do.

The Minister mentioned the statement from the Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice yesterday about the progress on military inquests. The treatment of families who have lost their loved ones, who have paid the ultimate price, is incredibly important. I know that the Department takes it seriously, but although it has put in extra resources the brutal truth is that the rate at which we are losing service personnel is outstripping the capacity of coroners to deal with their inquests. The backlog, at 109 inquests, is only one lower than it was last October, which was the level that prompted the extra resources. I do not know whether it will require extra resources or whether the coroners involved—the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner now—need to disperse more of the inquests. Very few have been dispersed around the country.

I do not know what the solution is, but the current situation is not sustainable. If the backlog is still well over 100 in a few months, that will not be acceptable to the families. Inquests are still outstanding four years after people have lost their loved ones. I know that the Minister wants to deal with that, but the current system is not working.

I know that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) referred to the important military training that is performed in his constituency, but I hope he will forgive me for missing his speech. I am not sure how favourably everyone who serves in the armed forces looks upon the training that they undergo in his constituency, but the training is necessary to get our armed forces in good shape for operations abroad.

A couple of Members raised the Iran hostages issue, on which we had a statement this week. I wanted to draw the attention of the House to the photograph that was printed in many national newspapers at the time, and was reprinted in the Daily Mail yesterday, of our service personnel, in their rather ill-fitting suits, waving at their captors. I thought it was interesting and I wanted to say something positive about some of those personnel. Three personnel on the right-hand side of the photograph deserve particular praise. The way they conducted themselves—by standing there rather grim-faced and failing to wave at the camera—demonstrated how, in a very difficult situation, some of our personnel were able to demonstrate clearly to those who chose to look that they were not going to play along with the propaganda exercise conducted by the Iranian regime. They should be very proud of themselves, particularly the young man third from the right, who was an example to the others.

I want to raise with the Minister a subject that I mentioned in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex—the defence schools presentation team. My hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) spoke of the lack of understanding of the armed forces and the military ethos in society as a whole. The defence schools presentation team is not a recruiting exercise. It is a tri-service team, which includes even Ministry of Defence civil servants. It visits schools and teaches them about the importance of defence and the Ministry of Defence. It plays a critical role, and its presentations fit very well into the citizenship curriculum.

I went for myself to see one of those presentations at Cove school in Farnborough last week. I did so because the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, in a written answer, explained how powerful the presentations are, and said that schools frequently ask for the team to come back, and that the team does very good work, and in the second half of the written answer explained that unfortunately the team was being done away with—for cost reasons, effectively. I think that is short-sighted and I want to explain why.

The team gives schools a comprehensive briefing. Schools give up about half a day. The tri-service team, including MOD civil servants, makes a presentation about the role of the armed forces in society and the constitutional position. It goes through some of the recent operations that we have been involved in. Most importantly, it gives the students the opportunity to do a role-play of a crisis in a fictional country, and it takes them through some of the challenges in deploying military assets, and some of the difficult challenges that Ministers and the armed forces have to grapple with. The children then present their solutions to the problems in front of their classmates. Having been there for a morning, I thought that the exercise was incredibly worth while, and that it would be very short-sighted to get rid of it. One thing amused me, though: not one of the students or staff in the room knew the name of the present Defence Secretary, so the 229 staff in the Ministry of Defence press office need to do a little more work to improve the MOD’s public relations.

I want to raise three further points. The first is on war pension priority in the national health service, which is incredibly important. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who has held the job of Minister for Veterans and therefore should be in a position to know these things, said he did not believe that priority was being given. For Members who do not know, the NHS is told that if a war pensioner needs medical treatment they should be treated as a priority. That is a difficult promise to deliver because it sets up a conflict for clinicians, who want to deal with patients according to their clinical priority. But of course that promise is made to veterans. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I am not sure that priority is being given.

There is one further issue of confusion. It was my understanding, and it is in the guidance that is given to doctors and NHS trusts, that the priority applies only to veterans in receipt of a war pension, and it applies only to the specific thing for which they receive the war pension. But in a debate in Westminster Hall, the Under-Secretary of State said he was happy to confirm that

“priority treatment applies to all disablements that have been found to be due to service, irrespective of whether they result in a pension…three groups are eligible for priority treatment from the health services for a service-related condition: those who receive a continuing war pension; those who receive a one-off gratuity; and those whose condition has been found to be caused by service, but has not attracted an award.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 12 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 262WH.]

My understanding is that that is certainly not the Department of Health advice that is given to NHS trusts. I am not sure that it would be that practical anyway, because I do not know how a doctor or NHS trust is supposed to know whether a condition has been caused by service if there is no war pension. It would be very helpful if the Minister clarified that today, or wrote to me and placed the letter in the Library, because this is very important and clear guidance needs to be given to those veterans and war pensioners.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) referred to the Government’s welcome statement today about changing the rules for eligibility for social housing. That change is promised for England, but the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said that such matters are devolved, and I hope that Ministers will work hard with the devolved Assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to ensure that our United Kingdom armed forces personnel, wherever they live in the UK, receive consistent and equal treatment. I know that that is slightly more challenging now that not all the Assemblies are under the control of the national governing party, but I hope that the Government will try to achieve that, because that would be better for our armed forces.

The central problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring has outlined, is that our armed forces’ commitments have outstripped the resources available, and there is no sign that that will improve. Even if we see some reduction in commitments, the fact that our armed forces have been shrinking for the last two years and that there is no sign of that process going into reverse, means that we have no spare capacity—quite the opposite. That is the central point that leads to many of the issues raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and that is the central fact that the Minister needs to address when he replies.

I welcome today’s wide-ranging debate. I was struck by the number of comments on the job done by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. As someone who is fairly new to the Department, I have found his experience and help invaluable, and I can see why he is so highly thought of by the House. I also thank the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) for his kind comments on the veterans badge and my attendance at the event, which I enjoyed. As he said, the widespread popularity of the veterans badge is continuing to grow, and we should reach our half-millionth badge by this autumn. Members of Parliament play a crucial role in getting that message across.

We all recognise the tremendous job that our armed forces do, and their courage, dedication and professionalism, which is clear to those of us who have been out to operations, but also that of the civilians who support them and the tremendous work that they do within the Ministry of Defence and elsewhere. We ask them to do a great deal and there is a high operational tempo, but they do a fantastic job. We have made significant improvements in terms of equipment and support for our armed forces. When I went to Afghanistan and Iraq, the clear message from the vast majority of our armed forces personnel was that they had the best personal kit that they had ever had.

I thank the Opposition for their comments on Monday on the Falklands commemorations, which were a tremendous success. I put on record my appreciation for the hard work of our team in the MOD, many of whom are members of the armed forces, in putting together the organisation and activities. I know from talking to the veterans, families and widows how appreciative they were of their efforts. The commemorations struck the right tone, recognising the tremendous feat that our armed forces carried out. I would also like to praise the South Atlantic Medal Association for its outstanding work in leading the veterans.

We have talked a lot about the problems today, which I will come to shortly, but the armed forces provide tremendous opportunities. We hear a lot about mental health issues and other problems that people face when they leave the armed forces, but for the vast majority the armed forces provide a very beneficial experience. They develop great skills in leadership and teamwork, which they take back into civilian life. That is often forgotten because of the attention that is given to the problems that exist, but for the vast majority, the armed forces offer a positive experience and they then make an important contribution to our communities and the life around them.

Much has been said today about the whole-life approach, not just when serving, but afterwards. That is the right approach and it is the one that the Government are taking and will develop further. I shall not pretend that there are not issues and problems that we need to address—of course there are—and we could do better in various areas. The Government have taken a tremendous step forward in recent years in the support given to our armed forces and veterans. I therefore reject the comment that we are complacent; we are active in improving the situation.

Hon. Members have mentioned a range of issues, one of which is pay. It is important to reiterate that the 3.3 per cent. award was one of the best in recent years, and the increase of about 9 per cent. for our junior ranks is a tremendous improvement. We have also introduced the operational allowance of £2,320 and special pay arrangements for pinchpoint grades to meet shortages. We have made strides on pay: we have recognised the operational tempo and the contribution of our armed forces, and we will continue to consider what more we can do.

This is almost a continuation of a conversation in a previous debate, but does the Minister know how many people, like me, were not part of a formed unit and were mobilised before the introduction of the Joint Personnel Administration, so their operational bonus has still not been paid?

I understand that the hon. Gentleman’s operational bonus has now been paid. He made an interesting point in a previous debate, and it was taken in the right spirit. Clearly, we want to make sure that our people get their operational bonus. I am not aware of any further problems, but I assure him that we will double-check that. I know that he is talking about reservists as a whole, not just himself.

Reference has been made to housing. We accept that the legacy of under-investment goes back many years. The point was made that we have been in office for 10 years and have not solved the problem. The Conservative party was in office for 18 years, and the housing stock and estate that it handed over to us was not in a great state; we had to deal with more problems and difficulties. We accept our responsibility, and I hope that the Opposition accept responsibility for what they did not do in government. We need to get on with the work and improve the housing stock and estate as much as possible. It is like painting the Forth bridge, but we have allocated £5 billion over the next 10 years. Single living accommodation is being improved massively, and service family accommodation is also being improved. There is more to do, and if we can do more than is currently planned in the coming years, we will. It will take some time to reach the desired stage.

As part of the strategic remuneration review, the Government are considering how we can give further help to members of the armed forces to buy a house or equity in a property. Given the changes in the coming years in relation to super-garrisons and other basing strategies, that is the way to go. Most Members would support that, but work is ongoing, and we will make an announcement at the appropriate time.

Housing advice is provided to service leavers, and we have developed several projects to support those who become homeless. There was a particular problem with homelessness in London, and that has been reduced significantly.

The announcement today on local connection has been welcomed by the House, and many Members of the House have pushed for the change. The situation in Scotland has been mentioned, and we will take that up with the Administration there.

In relation to recruitment and retention, supporting families and providing good accommodation is very important. Having that support and stability at home is crucial to members of our armed forces serving in operations, not least in Iraq and Afghanistan. The service families federations also do an important job in that regard. We are aware that our families need to be given the best possible support.

Cadets are not often mentioned in debates on the Floor of the House, so I just want to make a few comments about them. They are a huge success story, with 130,000 young people spread over 3,000 villages, towns and cities. They are one of the biggest youth organisations in the United Kingdom. Through the cadets, young people from all backgrounds gain valuable skills and experience, including problem-solving, leadership and physical training. I pay tribute to all of them and to the 26,000 adult volunteers who support and mentor them. I think that it is the best youth organisation in the country.

We are keen to give increasing numbers of young people the opportunity to benefit from the cadets. That is why we decided to introduce a scheme to pilot the expansion of the combined cadet forces traditionally associated with public and grammar schools into a wider range of state schools. We have already announced the first five schools that will participate in the scheme, and I am delighted today to announce the sixth—Walker technology college in Newcastle upon Tyne. There is much to be done to prepare this new contingent, but based on the enthusiasm that we have already seen I think that that will be easily taken forward.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s announcement on extending combined cadet force schemes in schools. However, several Members have been concerned over many years about the disparity of funding between the three cadet forces—the air cadets, the sea cadets and the Army cadets. The RAF cadets have full funding whereas the others are funded on a comparable basis to the Scout Association. I do not begrudge them that one little bit—in fact, I would like to see it extended to the other cadet services—but it is an unfair anomaly that needs to be remedied soon so that there is parity of treatment.

I take my hon. Friend’s point entirely. I cannot offer him any change to that situation in the near future, but part of the reason for mentioning the cadets today was to highlight the tremendous job that they do, and I take on board his concerns.

Further to the youth aspect and the Army presentation teams that the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) mentioned, I made clear the reasoning behind what happened and what is involved in that work. As he knows, we are considering another proposal called Defence Dynamics—a web-based system that we believe will be popular with schools. I have offered to give him a presentation when that is possible.

Let me turn to the issues involved in the health and welfare of our personnel, which is why we are here. On Afghanistan and the report that appeared at the weekend, I have spoken to the Surgeon General and to other clinicians, and they are clear that our approach is the right one. The newspaper article was written in an unfortunate way that gave the wrong impression. What is important is that we have dedicated, often consultant-led medical teams out there at the front, not far from the operations that are taking place, to support our injured service personnel. It is important that that rapid medical attention is available, because that saves lives. Of course, they will eventually have to be transferred back through medevac, but it is important that that essential medical expertise and help is out there. That is why we take that approach. As regards helicopters, one cannot compare what went on in Vietnam with Afghanistan, because it is completely different geographically. We ensure that our people are well looked after and that they have the emergency treatment that they need when out there on operations and supporting operations.

The article did not explain the improved facilities that are being provided in Afghanistan and Iraq, such as scanners, digital X-rays and telemedicine, as well as the clotting bandages and tourniquets that are also helping to save lives. It is clear from the medics I speak to, and from many of the service personnel who have been wounded and their colleagues, that lives of our service personnel are being saved today that would not have been saved a number of years ago. Talking to clinicians and seeing some of the wounded service personnel who have been saved makes it clear that our medical teams out there in operations are doing a tremendous job.

I have a copy of the full article to which the Under-Secretary referred, and the reporting of it accurately characterises it. However, it took me a great deal of time to get hold of it. I was transferred from the Army Journal to the Ministry of Defence press office, and I had to threaten to talk to the Under-Secretary before I was allowed to have a copy. I was trying to be good, get the document, examine it in context and do all the things that we are supposed to do. The press office needs to be more open. That would be helpful.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that if he needs such a document, he will get it. There is no reason not to give it to him.

In my contribution, I asked why we are repeating medical services in our NATO structure in Afghanistan. We are under an international remit and working as part of an international body. It is strange that we have replicated operations in Kandahar, and different field hospitals from different contributors, including the Canadians, the Dutch and the British. Not only that, but we have assets in Dubai on which we can lean. Will the Under-Secretary consider whether we can make some cost savings?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and I will examine the matter. Of course, we call on our coalition partners for support, if needed. I assure him that I shall consider whether more can be done to improve matters.

I apologise to the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster)—I understand that he may not have received his bonus yet. I was assured elsewhere that he had. Clearly, he is so well paid that he did not notice.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make progress.

We have considered Selly Oak several times. It is clear to everyone who has been to that hospital, including Opposition Members and other colleagues, that it provides tremendous treatment. There have been massive improvements in welfare support, through the provision of welfare officers, psychiatric nurses, liaison officers and so on. A partition is now being built, to help us group our wounded service personnel together better. There is a link to Headley Court, which has a tremendous record. I was there again yesterday and it is a world-class facility.

Some of the press speculation and stories have been deeply damaging to the morale of our NHS nurses and their colleagues, who have been tremendous. They are part of the reason why so many of our service personnel have lived and recovered better than expected, and they work closely with our military medical personnel. I wanted to put it on record that they do a tremendous job. Press attacks on Selly Oak have not helped them, and we should acknowledge their work.

I was disappointed with the comments of the hon. Member for Forest of Dean about the military ward. I was trying to clarify that we have an opportunity through the new private finance initiative hospital in Birmingham to develop a military ward. However, it is important to understand what that will be. Of course, if a major crash or incident occurs and beds are available, we would use them. However, we must be clear about when we would allow civilians in there. For example, if there are 32 beds, 15 of which are empty and the hospital needs more beds, are we to say that they cannot be used unless a major incident occurs, and that they must remain empty? What if an 86-year-old Normandy veteran needed treatment? Ministers will make the decisions and we always listen to the views of the chiefs of staff on such matters.

Let me deal with mental health, about which there has been some misunderstanding today. There is significant support pre and post-deployment for serving personnel, and advice for their families. Treatment and care are available on operations and when personnel return to the UK. Psychiatric support is clearly provided. I have heard nothing to suggest that that provision is not working well or that it has not been there when people have needed it.

The position of reservists in the context of mental health was raised previously. That is why we decided, as a result of a report produced by King’s college, to provide the reservists mental health scheme. Reservists now have a mental health assessment programme and treatment available to them. That is a new development from last year. As far as I know, the reservists and their families have welcomed it. It is an important step forward.

I recently announced an extension of the medical assessment programme for veterans at St. Thomas’ hospital. This goes back to 1982 and includes the Falklands veterans. Again, an additional service is now available that was not available before, and it will be up and running in the near future. I think that that is another major step forward.

Many hon. Members have discussed the NHS and how we should link into it. We are currently working to develop a number of pilots whereby the NHS, Combat Stress and the Government will work together to provide centres of excellence around the country. We will provide the expertise and training so that NHS clinicians are better able to understand and treat those who come into the system with mental illness as a result of their service. Once again, that is a major step forward.

Of course Combat Stress does a brilliant job, as do service charities generally, whether it be the British Legion, SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—or others. They do a fantastic job for our service personnel and veterans. I can give hon. Members an assurance that Combat Stress will get a significant increase in funding this year. We will continue to work closely with the organisation and involve it in our discussions with the NHS about the pilot schemes. I can also assure the House that we talk regularly to our NHS colleagues and that I have had meetings with the Secretary of State and other Health Ministers about how best to link in and support veterans. I wanted to give the House that assurance.

On the issue of priority treatment, I will write to the hon. Member for Forest of Dean. We deal with people in the NHS and ask them to ensure that the information is sent out to clinicians and GPs about getting priority treatment for these troops. We will continue to do so.

On the tracking system in respect of the welfare of the more seriously wounded, I know that hon. Members are very concerned about the whole-life approach. We are developing a tracking system and we will involve case workers in the Veterans Agency and elsewhere to support and keep track of the more seriously wounded and the people who are most vulnerable. That will be rolling out soon and it will be another important move forward in our support for our wonderful veterans. As a result of the welfare conference with the single services and the service charities, we continue to look for ways to improve the welfare package generally and to support our armed forces personnel and our veterans.

Will the Minister take this opportunity to tell us how the profiling would be done to identify those regarded as at risk of mental health problems later on? There is a very important point at stake here because problems like PTSD often take a long time to present and the individuals affected may have left the armed forces. They will be asked to self-diagnose and self-present, so how will the tracking system work?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important and valid point. Tracking someone who may have mental health problems subsequently is obviously a different issue from tracking someone who presents with a general or a mental health problem or who has received injuries in battle during his period of service. As the hon. Gentleman knows, people with mental health issues and PTSD present some time later, so it is obviously not possible to track in that context. That is part of the reason why we are setting up mental health assessment programmes, which will allow people to get an assessment. It is also why we are developing pilots with the NHS and Combat Stress to provide treatment for our armed forces personnel. It is important to stress that we are seeing a significant development in the approach to mental health for our veterans.

Let me move on to an issue that has not been much debated today, but is very important—resettlement. We have an extensive resettlement package for our service leavers. Something in the region of 20,000 people leave every year. This is a very important package, which provides training, education and general support for our service leavers to give them the best possible start in civilian life. The longer someone has been in service, the better the package. We should recognise the importance of this scheme. About 93 per cent. of those who have been through the resettlement package who want to find work do so within six months. That is another important aspect of our support for service personnel.

I am conscious of the time, so let me make a couple of final points. The issue of how we can best further help and support our veterans and armed forces personnel is important. We have a duty to continue to look at ways of improving such support. We have taken major steps forward, but a key area is to ensure that we work with all our partners, including the NHS, local authorities and particularly the service charities, which do a tremendous job. We will continue to examine the ways in which we can take these matters forward. We have taken significant steps forward in recent years in the support that we give to our armed forces and to their care and welfare, and we will continue to do that work.