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Armed Forces Personnel

Volume 470: debated on Thursday 10 January 2008

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of armed forces personnel.

I welcome the opportunity to debate issues relating to the men and women of the armed forces. It is common ground that they are remarkable people, who perform extremely difficult and arduous tasks in some of the most dangerous places in the world. I have been deeply impressed by their work and, especially through my visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, I have seen at first hand the magnificent efforts that they make. Everything we achieve is down to them and they have my deepest gratitude and most profound respect.

As a Government, we have a duty to ensure that we offer armed services personnel—and their families—the support that they need and deserve. Delivering that poses several challenges, but I believe that the Government are rising to meet them and will continue to do so.

In the past 18 months, we have made real improvements to the welfare package that we offer our forces. I will not list them all in detail here, but they include: the introduction of a tax-free operational bonus of £2,230; council tax discount for those on operations; free post; more free telephone calls and internet access; a new child care voucher scheme that can be used both in the UK and overseas; improvements to mental health treatment; a military managed ward at Selly Oak, and an increase in the number of military nurses there. That is alongside all the improvements made to ensure that those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have the best equipment and kit possible.

Hon. Members will have seen reports in the media this morning about a small number of UK service personnel and civilians who received life-saving emergency blood transfusions of US blood while deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. That blood might not have had a valid retrospective test. First, I should stress that the blood transfusions saved those people’s lives. However, even though only a small number of personnel—18—are affected and the risks of infection are very low, we take the matter extremely seriously. Immediately on learning about the risk to our people, my Department acted quickly and promptly to establish who might be involved and where those people were and to ensure that they were offered the appropriate support, counselling and testing. All 18 UK service personnel, whether still serving or veterans, have now been contacted. I would like to reassure hon. Members that, while our own procedures for blood transfusions on operations are robust, we are not complacent and review them regularly.

We have achieved a lot in the support that we provide not only for our forces but for their families. Families have a key role in supporting their loved ones. Without them, the British armed forces could not be the success story they are. The frequency with which they are required to move location affects their access to health services, the education for their children, employment prospects for partners and, obviously, their personal relationships. We need to take stock of what we have already achieved and what more is needed.

That is why the Government have launched a cross-Government personnel strategy, which is considering—for the first time—what more might be done across all Departments to support past and present members of the armed forces and their families. The personnel Command Paper will consider the progress already made, identify areas for improvement and propose new initiatives for our and other Departments. Key matters on which we will concentrate include accommodation, education, health, welfare and social care and inquests, and veterans support, which cuts across many of those issues and others.

I welcome the review of accommodation because it is important. However, given that the cross-party Public Accounts Committee has described nearly half of all service accommodation as substandard and that the Army’s surveys show that half the soldiers feel that the maintenance of their accommodation is not what it should be, does the Secretary of State at least understand the strong feeling of many soldiers that the Government have forgotten the first world war concept of “homes fit for heroes”?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which I shall tackle in more detail in my speech. To give the matter, which is so important to our armed forces, the priority that it deserves, I shall respond to his point generally now and deal with some aspects in more detail in a few moments.

The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the issue as an important one. I would have more respect for him if his memory of how we came to be in this position was a bit more comprehensive than it appears to be. I say that because we have discussed the issue over some months and I have been impressed by the ability of hon. Members on both sides of the House to recognise that it is a legacy problem, arising from a failure to invest in that accommodation over many decades—and, in some cases, over the best part of a century.

That means that all of us in the House have a responsibility. The issue needs to be addressed in this century, and within a reasonable time period. My responsibility as the Secretary of State is to identify the resources, and a time scale and a programme of work that are reasonable, taking into account all the other challenges that go with dealing with accommodation. They include the fact that we have busy armed forces that have to operate in the same environment in which we carry out that work and the fact that people have to live there. There must be a recognition of the capacity challenge in relation to our ability to do that and the logistical challenge in relation to planning. I have repeatedly set out our plans on that and will do so again in this speech. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is insufficient—that there is a faster and more efficient way of doing the work and that his party intends to put in additional resources of such a scale that the work will be completed quicker—he should give us chapter and verse on that. I would be pleased to hear that, because I have heard no such arguments from anybody.

We have to accept that the responsibility will stretch over a period of time. I believe that I, as the Secretary of State, and the Department are facing up to it. We are putting the investment in and I recognise the effect that it has. There are manifest improvements. I invite the hon. Gentleman to go round the estate and visit the places where those improvements are not just manifest, but are being enjoyed on a considerable scale by our armed forces. He has that invitation, and he can rise to his feet to tell me that he accepts it. If he does, I will make arrangements for him to go and see some of the best, as well as some of the worst if he likes.

I welcome that invitation from the Defence Secretary and will indeed take him up on it. Perhaps he would also like to join me in a visit to the cavalry barracks in Hounslow, to which the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers will return in the spring. I will show him accommodation that is clearly substandard and that has been condemned in the past.

However, to return to the Defence Secretary’s earlier point, although I accept that we cannot consider the issue in isolation, the Government have been in power for 10 years. No matter what he does, he cannot run away from that fact, nor can he run away from the fact that the Army’s own surveys and the House’s—

Order. May I say to the Defence Secretary and the House that we have a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches today? Time is of the essence and the hon. Gentleman is seeking to catch my eye. Interventions take time and so does responding to them, however seductive that might appear, as the Defence Secretary will be aware. I ask the House to bear that in mind.

I am conscious of the need for me to respect the rights of Back Benchers to make contributions to this important debate.

The hon. Gentleman and I have much more in common on the issue than would appear from this exchange. We will seek an opportunity to share invitations outside the Chamber in such a way that we can both see the best and the worst, and the scale and nature of the challenge.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem with the example of the Hounslow barracks, to which the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) referred, is the fact that the Army needs to make a strategic decision in London on where it will concentrate its housing? That decision must be taken before the major investments come forward, so although Hounslow is an example of bad practice, it is also a false example.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing that out. It would not serve this debate well for me to go through all the individual challenges that we face in accommodation and on the estate. It would serve us and our relationship with the armed forces well if we recognised that the issue has been neglected for far too long and that it is now being addressed on a scale that will improve the situation within a reasonable period of time. I will ensure that the resources that are devoted to that are properly invested and that if I find more, I will devote them to it, bearing in mind the challenges created by other work going on across the country on securing the building capacity to carry it out.

Let me move on. The personnel Command Paper to which I referred is being prepared. The Government would welcome constructive contributions to the strategy that underpins that. I assure the House that all contributions from right hon. and hon. Members will be considered.

We also want to see the nation as a whole understanding and appreciating our armed forces. That is why we are undertaking a national recognition study to identify exactly what more can be done. My hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) is leading that study and I am sure that the whole House looks forward to hearing his proposals. The end result will, I hope, be a nation that better demonstrates its appreciation of what our brave servicemen and women do on our behalf. They deserve no less.

Will the Secretary of State consider or put his weight behind requests for a decoration, medal or award for the families of the dead and those who have been wounded in action?

The issues that underpin the hon. Gentleman’s question generate a significant amount of support across the House and in our wider society, as is also seen in campaigns to achieve the same. They are welcome to the extent that they show the level of support generated in recognition of what our armed forces are doing. I am sure that he, among others, is particularly well placed to understand what I am going to say.

As a Minister of the Crown, I am very wary of expressing opinions about individual medals and honours for the very reason that this country has a system that relies on a process that is independent of politicians—and most certainly independent of politicians in the Executive. Taking decisions about whether medals should be struck for service, valour or other contributions involves a process that this Department reports and accounts for, but in respect of which decision making lies outside and independent of that Department, which is as it should be. The assessment of whether recommendations should be made to the independent committee is made in the traditional way—and it is now constitutional, I believe, as it is a convention of the constitution that is well practised by the chiefs of staff. That is where it is should lie. That is why, when I am constantly invited to express views about this issue, I resist the temptation to do so.

Candidly, at the end of the day, if most politicians are honest with themselves, we all understand why it is better if politicians stand well away from this particular form of Executive decision making. I suspect that if it were left to politicians, there would be a tendency to over-decorate and present awards and baubles to too many people. That is not what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, but I think that he understands my point, which is why the convention exists. I trust that he will allow me to respect that convention, without diminishing my tribute to the motivation that underpins his argument.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend about an issue that affects many service personnel. When we debate the treatment of casualties, we tend to focus on what they receive when they get back to the United Kingdom rather than on the first hour or two after suffering their injuries. However, if we want to ensure that they live, the first hour or two is the most important time for intervention. Is he confident that we do everything that we can in theatre and that we explore every scientific advance to ensure that as many of our casualties as possible are kept alive?

I unequivocally assure my hon. Friend that, if not the best, we are as good as the best in the world in the medical care that we provide to our forces in operations. I believe that I have made a total of 12 visits to Iraq and Afghanistan in the last 18 months and on every occasion, if my memory serves me correctly, I have made a point of attending the hospital and medical facilities in order to pay respect to, and admire, the enormous skill displayed there. The equipment is second to none and the facilities are second to none. That is now playing through.

I cannot remember precisely the evidence that the surgeon-general gave to the Select Committee, but he provided some striking evidence of survival rates. Candidly—this relatively crude way of putting it does no disrespect to the nature of these circumstances—very experienced consultants have said to me on more than one occasion that many people were returning from theatre in circumstances in which it might have been thought that they had no right to be alive within a comparatively short period of time. The success of their treatment during that period and thereafter is second to none. I believe that those people are receiving the best possible treatment, and that the centre is the match of the best polytrauma centres in civilian hospitals and the equal of any other military medical facility in the world. That is to the credit of those who—during our time in office, but before that as well—have met the difficult challenges of designing a modern medical facility and service. By common consent it was not always the best that it could have been, but I believe that it is now.

Given that this is a comparatively short debate, and given the House’s new rules about Front-Bench speeches, time is of the essence. I intend to concentrate for the remainder of my speech on a small number of issues that are of key concern both to the armed forces and to hon. Members.

I do not deny that, at present, members of the armed forces bear a heavy load. As I have said before, along with the chiefs of staff, they are stretched. We are asking a great deal of our service personnel, and the operational tempo is high. However, we have taken decisive action to address that. In the last 12 months alone, we have reduced our commitments in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq. Between July and September this year, 17 per cent. of regular forces were deployed on operations. That is a reduction of 5 per cent. on the previous quarter. This spring, conditions permitting and subject to the advice of commanders on the ground, we aim to improve on that and reduce numbers in Iraq further.

All three services are undergoing restructuring to realign personnel numbers so that they can be focused on where they are needed most. The retention incentives that we have introduced are proving successful. Of those offered the incentive package, 100 per cent. of unmanned aerial vehicle operators and 88 per cent. of infantrymen have accepted it. Contrary to what hon. Members may have been led to believe by recent media reports, recruitment to the armed forces has increased. The most recent annual statistics show an increase in the number joining the forces. In 2006-07, we gained 19,790 new recruits from civilian life—99.6 per cent. of the target. That is an increase of 9.3 per cent. Army recruiting increased by 8 per cent. during the last financial year, with infantry enlistments up by 25 per cent.

I thank the Secretary of State for his generosity in giving way again. The fact remains that while recruitment may be improving, he knows very well that retention in training is appalling—40 per cent. of infantry recruits fall out—and retention in service is equally dreadful. Will he be quite clear about the depth of the crisis that faces, in particular, our combat arms, many of which are having to deploy at 50 per cent. of their combat effectiveness?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have enormous respect for his knowledge of the circumstances, but I do not accept that there is a crisis, although I do accept that there are issues in relation to retention. We are operating in an employment market that is very different from the one in which the forces operated 10 years or more ago, when many young men in my constituency had no alternative but to join the armed forces. We are competing now. Another crucially important point is that the added value of an armed forces training makes it a very valuable commodity. The private sector is competing to attract away from the armed forces people whom we have formed, matured and trained to a level which, in my view, would not be reached in any other walk of life.

Those are the realities, and they face not just our armed forces but armed forces throughout the developed world. All the Defence Ministers to whom I speak face the same challenges and problems. I recognise that we must develop methods, along with a modern response to the armed forces by society which is such that people will not only volunteer or allow themselves to be recruited but, once trained and effective, will stay in the forces and continue to contribute. We have had considerable success in some areas, although there are issues which I do not seek to avoid. The retention incentives need to be developed—and we have been developing them with some success, as is clear from the examples that I have given.

Obviously, a high percentage of personnel are currently deployed on operations and, because of that, harmony levels have been affected. Harmony levels have, however, improved over the past year by 3 per cent. for the Army, and they have remained steady for the Royal Navy, but they have worsened for the RAF, with 6.7 per cent. breaching harmony compared with 2.9 per cent. a year ago. I am grateful to all our personnel for their efforts, but particularly to those whose harmony guidelines have not been met. We have a duty to recognise such commitment; living up to that duty underpins everything I have set out today.

In recognition of the Government’s commitment to the armed forces, we granted them the best public sector pay deal last year: 3.3 per cent. In particular, we addressed the concerns of the lowest ranks by increasing their pay by more than 9 per cent. In fact, in all but one of the last five years armed forces salary growth has exceeded that of the whole economy.

One of the key issues affecting both families and single people in the forces is accommodation. To be frank, when our men and women in uniform return from theatre to their barracks, it is deplorable that some of them return to a very poor standard of accommodation. Progress is being made. In the last financial year, we delivered 5,822 modernised bed spaces; this financial year, we expect to deliver approximately 7,000 modernised bed spaces, and in the next financial year we also plan to deliver 7,000 bed spaces. Overall, it is expected that about 60,000 modernised bed spaces will be delivered by April 2013.

For the last year our public position has been that some £5 billion will be spent on housing and other accommodation over the next decade. That figure was an extrapolation of future spend based, in part, on current spending levels, and was made before the outcome of the comprehensive spending review was known. However, the £5 billion figure did not take into account a number of large private finance initiative projects that include living accommodation. The most notable of them is Project Allenby/Connaught, which will provide modern living and working accommodation for some 18,000 military and civilian personnel in the Salisbury plain and Aldershot garrisons. Maintenance and leasing of service families accommodation and single living accommodation worldwide was also excluded. In addition, the amount we plan to spend on maintenance work is now higher than that included in the £5 billion figure. Accordingly, we have reassessed our likely spend on accommodation for the next 10 years to take account of those elements previously excluded. The total amount will in fact be £8.4 billion. Of that, £3.1 billion will be spent on new-build and upgraded accommodation, £2.3 billion on refurbishment and maintenance and £3 billion on routine costs, including rent, other leasing costs and the equivalent of council tax. Over that same period, we also expect to receive £2.4 billion in rental income from service personnel, leaving a net expenditure of £6 billion.

We want to help personnel become independent home owners. We already have in place the offer of a personal loan towards a deposit after four years of service, but I think that we can improve on that and, as part of the Command Paper, work is being done to introduce arrangements to make housing more affordable for military families. We have also just extended the key worker status scheme so that all servicemen and women can qualify for the open market homebuy scheme—a scheme that can boost the buying power of a forces family by up to a third. Finally, we have agreed with the Department for Communities and Local Government that those leaving the services will have access to social housing on a par with everyone else in the area in which they will settle; they will no longer go to the bottom of the local authority housing lists as they did before.

Can the Secretary of State confirm not only that his wish that that happens has been conveyed to those local councils that have large numbers of military personnel, but that those councils are carrying out what he wishes to happen?

The intention is that it will be a statutory duty, so if the councils behave legally there will be no problem about them knowing about it. A problem we faced in the past was that there was a variable interpretation of parts of the legislation but, in consultation with the DCLG, we have agreed that we will amend the legislation so that there is clarity and that best practice will be applied across the board.

Should the worst happen and families lose loved ones, our support must be the best possible. At such a sensitive time, we must deliver the right support and care in the right way at the right time. I am very sorry that that has not been the experience to date for some families.

Every serviceperson killed on operations overseas whose body is repatriated to England or Wales is the subject of an inquest. Currently, all repatriation is done through RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire. Once repatriation has taken place, it is now policy, wherever possible, to give jurisdiction to the coroner closest to the bereaved family. That avoids backlogs and improves access for families. Extra resources have been made available to both the Oxfordshire and Wiltshire coroners. Those extra resources, and recent policy changes, have made significant improvements. Some 75 inquests were completed in 2007, which is more than were completed in the previous five years put together.

This Government value our service personnel highly. They are top of my agenda and the Government’s agenda. We are committed to supporting them, both on operations and at home, with actions not just words and during service and after it, helping both them and their families.

Does the Secretary of State agree that behind the military personnel lie those who supply the forces? They also need guarantees of job security. Will he clarify where we have reached with the placement of the military afloat reach and sustainability—MARS—project orders? Will he tell us in particular whether or not there is a guarantee that they will be placed in a way that ensures that job continuity is maintained, particularly on the Clyde?

My hon. Friend is a persistent and, on occasion, imaginative advocate for his constituents who work in the Clyde shipyards. He is equalled in his capacity to raise these issues in any circumstances only by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson). They share an important business, representing people on either side of the Clyde, and they know that those yards have recently enjoyed a particularly purple period in terms of the placing of Government orders.

For those who do not know what the MARS project is about, I should say that it is designed to provide the floating logistical support for the Royal Navy—what used to be known as the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service; it aims to replace those ageing ships. There are several elements to it, one of which, the tanker element, has been advertised in the Official Journal of the European Union. No decision has yet been made as to where the order will be placed, and no decisions have been made about the other elements of the process.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) recognises in the Government’s actions—and, indeed, in their words—our commitment to maintaining a sustainable shipbuilding capacity well into the future, for the good reason that we are making significant investment in the Royal Navy. We want to ensure that we maintain the skills in this country to be able to continue to make that investment and to make the best of that substantial investment once we have made it and these ships are afloat. He can rest assured that his constituents on the Clyde can look forward to many decades of work delivering orders that will be placed by the Government.

An underlying allegation has been made from numerous quarters that deep down the Government do not really care about the men and women in the British armed forces, that the covenant between the Government and the armed forces is broken and that we are sending people into harm’s way without due care and support. That is wholly wrong and false, because we do care and we deliver—we will continue to deliver. We are demonstrating our gratitude and the nation’s gratitude, and we are fulfilling our duty properly to support the men and women of the armed forces in return for their self-sacrifice and hard work. They carry out the work on behalf of this nation, and it makes this nation, and the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan—and indeed the world—a safer and more stable place.

May I fully associate myself and the Conservative party with the praise offered by the Secretary of State for the courage, professionalism and sacrifices of our armed forces? As we all recover from the celebration and, in some cases, the excesses of the Christmas period, it is worth remembering that this time of year brings hardship and sacrifice to the family members of some of our armed forces. Unfortunately, war does not stop for Christmas, and our brave servicemen and women, along with their families, have done an outstanding job 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the holiday season. While the rest of the country enjoyed the Christmas break, they were defending our security every single minute.

Knowing that one’s husband or wife, mum or dad, or child spent the holiday in harm’s way brings little happiness, of course, to service family members. That is why it is so important that the Government not only get their military policy right, but are open and honest with service members and their families. That is why spin for political gain is so damaging.

The Prime Minister announced on 2 October that force levels in Iraq would be reduced by 1,000 from 5,500 to 4,500 by the end of the year. No doubt it made many family members very happy to learn that their loved ones might come home in time for Christmas. But like everything else to do with this Government and the armed forces, one has to take a close look at the small print. We now know that when the Prime Minister made his announcement in early October he had given himself a head start of almost 500 troops. Figures released by the Government show that on 9 September, three weeks before the Prime Minister’s announcement, there were only 5,030 troops in Iraq, not the 5,500 that he mentioned in his announcement.

Far from the number of British troops in Iraq being reduced by 1,000, troop figures released just before the holiday recess show that levels in Iraq have been reduced by only 120. During the same period, MOD figures show that the total number of British troops deployed in support of the mission in Iraq, but based elsewhere in the Gulf in Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and at sea, has actually increased by 570. Far from being home by Christmas, British personnel were simply deployed to other locations in the Gulf region. Whether one is in Iraq or somewhere else, separation is still separation and there must have been many disappointed households this Christmas.

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that some of those troops based in the Gulf serve the Afghanistan theatre, as well as the Iraq theatre?

They do indeed. I am not complaining about the military decisions or the presence of the personnel: I am complaining about the fact that the Prime Minister purposely gave one impression, knowing that it was at least partly not true even as he said it.

During the last defence policy debate on 16 October, the Secretary of State hinted that he was willing to give personnel diverted from service in Iraq to other bases in the region the operational allowance. Now we know, according to a letter sent from his Department to the three services on 2 November, that some British personnel based in Kuwait, specifically at Camp Beuhring the Kuwait support facility, are now entitled to the operational allowance. The appropriate section from the letter states:

“Following advice from PJHQ, the qualifying locations have been reviewed and personnel deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan are to continue to receive the Allowance. That said, personnel who are soon to relocate from Iraq to Beuhring in Kuwait will continue to be eligible for the Operational Allowance, as they will support coalition operations in Iraq.”

Is that clear? Not really, because by that argument one would have thought that those at Al-Udeid in Qatar or working with Nimrods in Oman, or those elsewhere in Kuwait, were also supporting coalition operations in Iraq. But the letter goes on:

“Other Service personnel deployed to Kuwait will not be eligible for the Allowance.”

The Secretary of State dug a hole for himself during the debate on 16 October and frantic talks were held with the Treasury to do something to get him out of it. But rather than a fair remuneration package that supports all personnel deployed in support of both Operations Telic and Herrick, including those in Kuwait, and the wider Gulf region, the Government have produced an inconsistent, incoherent mish-mash. We now have a shambolic situation whereby some personnel in Kuwait will receive the operational allowance while others will not. Those supporting Nimrod reconnaissance missions in the Gulf, the dangers of which have been highlighted, will not receive it. Does anyone seriously think that that is a fair or satisfactory state of affairs?

That brings us to a related issue. Troops in Iraq are rightly given some recognition with the award of the Iraq medal. Is that medal now to be given to the personnel serving in Kuwait who also receive the operational allowance? One would think that that would only be logical. How can troops be given the operational allowance based on the personal danger to them and not be given the medal? Will they get it?

During my speech, in response to an intervention, I explained at some length my position on the awarding of medals. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House or whether he was listening to what I said. Such decisions are not made by Ministers. I do not know whether what the hon. Gentleman says is correct, but I shall check it with those who take responsibility for such things. He knows—we have discussed this before—that such decisions are not made by Ministers. I shall not make decisions on medals at the Dispatch Box, but I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s point to the appropriate people, who are the chiefs of staff.

I am grateful for that assurance, but I would have thought that the Secretary of State and his Ministers would want to know about that when making decisions. Such things impact on morale. If those serving get different allowances and if different people who serve together may or may not get a medal, the whole thing is a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

The plans for the council tax refund are linked to the operational allowance, so will some in Kuwait receive a council tax rebate while others will not, because some receive the operational allowance while others do not? It is a simple question. Either they will or they will not. The Secretary of State seems to be telling us that the Government do not really know who gets medals, whether that is related to the allowance or whether the council tax rebate will be related to the operational allowance. That is not a satisfactory state of affairs. The movement of troops on such a scale was in the planning process for weeks if not months. Surely Ministers have simply forgotten, ignored or not bothered to understand the complexity and interaction of the separate issues.

The Government were in such a rush to gain political points by announcing a draw-down in Iraq that they have overlooked detailed issues that matter a lot to those serving in the region. We are left with a situation where some troops in Kuwait will get the operational allowance while others will not. Troops just across the border in Iraq will get the Operation Telic medal, but those receiving the operational allowance in Kuwait might not. Thousands of British troops across the Gulf region who do important jobs supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan might get nothing at all. What sort of message does that send out to our forces? It is no wonder there is a problem with retention and morale.

The House is used to hearing comments from the Secretary of State, his Ministers and even the Prime Minister about how they value and support our service personnel. We can argue about the scale of that support—we have and we will—given the considerable overstretch that we see in all three services. However, surely we can unite—as we did before Christmas when we debated the military covenant—in the belief that, unlike any other Crown servants, we owe our service personnel not only our gratitude but fair recompense for the uniquely dangerous work that they undertake on our behalf.

If the Government are serious about upholding their half of the military covenant, a couple of issues must be addressed. Most of us are aware of the importance and value that serving personnel place on the armed forces pension scheme. Can the Secretary of State or the Minister tell us what work is being undertaken by the Department on the cost and structure of the armed forces pension scheme? Is the Department reviewing the affordability of the military pension and, if so, is that as a result of Treasury pressure? If a review is under way, the armed forces and the House will want to know why the work is being undertaken, who is undertaking it and what terms of reference have been issued to the review team. I am sure that the Minister will deal with that when he winds up.

The second issue that must be considered is armed forces pay. Like the police, our armed forces have no right to strike but, unlike the police, they have no federation to represent them. That is why it is vital that the Government accept the valuable work of the independent pay review body. The Secretary of State’s message today of support for our armed forces will be viewed against the action taken when the report comes out.

We do not know what the pay review body will recommend, although the Secretary of State might. The armed forces will be looking for the Government to implement the review body’s recommendations in full but, if for some reason they decide not to do so, I hope that the Secretary of State will explain to the House of Commons, and to our armed forces, exactly why.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, across the board, the British armed forces, quite rightly, had the largest public sector pay settlement in 2007? That was in recognition of all the factors to which he has drawn attention.

As I have made clear, I believe that our armed forces are in a unique position. If the Government decide not to implement in full the independent review body’s recommendations, it is only fair to ask the Secretary of State to come to the House of Commons and explain why. Armed forces pay is very important when it comes to improving recruitment and retention, and the House would be entitled to a full explanation if the Government decide to do something different from what is recommended by the independent review body.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) is right to say that the armed forces received pay increases of between 3 and 9 per cent. last year. The Secretary of State can claim great credit for that, but the trouble was that the pay increase had to be funded out of a real increase in the MOD budget of only 1.5 per cent. That meant that the rest of the budget is under considerable pressure—something that must be a real worry for the MOD.

My right hon. Friend is, of course, correct. I can say with all sincerity that it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the Secretary of State, given the budgetary pressures that he is going to face as a result of the spending settlement that he has received. That is why I did not ask him for a specific commitment on the pay review body’s recommendations, but only for a commitment to explain any decision fully to the House. We are aware of the pressures facing the MOD as a result of its current financial settlement.

Armed forces personnel do not live in a vacuum, and the current high levels of deployment have a great impact on service families. If we were to say that a group of people in our society move home more often than the norm, have lower levels of home ownership, higher levels of substandard housing, rising divorce rates and higher levels of family separation, we would not be describing the disadvantaged in the inner cities. We would be talking about our service families, who offer so much to this country.

We have spoken many times recently in the House about housing, health care and education for service families, and about the need for proper mental health services operating on a through-life basis. Dealing with all those problems is a matter of urgency, but there are places where some people are already making a difference.

In Cyprus, for example, the organisation Relate is carrying out splendid work to help to hold service families together, with excellent results. The same work could be undertaken more widely here at home if there were greater Government support. I ask the Secretary of State to look at the work that Relate is doing and at the high success rates that it is achieving, because it has brought something very positive to bear on the welfare of service families. I hope that he will find an opportunity to meet Relate staff and discover what help that organisation can give to service families in the UK.

The Government talk about how they value our armed forces, but their inaction and the subsequent breaking of the military covenant have merely added to the strain already placed on our armed forces. That will have a long-term impact on Britain’s military readiness to meet the unexpected challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead.

The next Government will inherit a military that is both overstretched and undermanned, and in possession of equipment that is worn out as a result of the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is not an assumption; it is a fact. Equipment is wearing out faster than expected—faster than in the original plans—and there seems to be no visible attempt by the Government to do much about it.

We are still not properly prepared or equipped for our current undertaking in Afghanistan. When I visited that country a few weeks ago, I found that we had too few serviceable Apache or Chinook helicopters. Spare parts had not been given sufficient consideration in advance, and the current tempo of operations means that there is no option on the ground but to cannibalise other aircraft. The Government’s catastrophic decision in 2004 to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion is now biting hard. Even some of the excellent new Mastiff armoured vehicles—I give the Government full credit in that respect—are sitting idle because of a lack of spare parts.

In personnel and manning, the numbers are only getting worse, despite the gloss the Secretary of State tried to put on them. In April last year, the Government’s own agency reported that the British armed forces were 5,790 trained personnel short; in December last year, we learned that, in the span of six months, that figure had increased by 1,240 to more than 7,000. The position is deteriorating—it is reaching crisis point. That is a scandal.

Troops are leaving in droves, to the delight of their disenchanted families. The July 2007 Public Accounts Committee report on recruitment and retention stated that

“70% of those intending to leave and 53% of those who had left said that their inability to plan ahead in life outside work was an important factor in their decision to leave.”

That is a direct result of overstretch. Service members are now deployed more, with less time in between deployments, which places a tremendous burden on service families who are left behind in the UK.

After six years of intense fighting and overstretch, our military is nowhere close to being capable of meeting this Government’s defence planning assumptions. The 1998 strategic defence review, which is 10 years old this year, is, for all intents and purposes, out of date. We need another strategic defence review.

Since 1997, the percentage of total Government spending allocated to defence has fallen from 6.7 to 5.9 per cent. That is a drastic reduction, given that that period covers major operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, but it reflects where defence comes in this Government’s priorities. The first duty of Government is the defence and security of the British people. In using our armed forces personnel for that purpose, the Government have a responsibility and moral obligation to ensure that they are fully trained and fully equipped and that their families are adequately cared for. To date, this Government have failed—not only part-time, but second rate.

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I remind the House that Mr. Speaker has put a 10-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches. That applies from now on.

I join other right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to the professionalism and dedication of our armed forces, and in expressing support and admiration for those now serving on operations.

In recent years, the demands that we have made of our armed forces have been great, but consistently, in spite of the most difficult circumstances and in the most dangerous operational theatres, those demands have been met. Our armed forces truly are the best in the world and they deserve only the best from us. It is our duty to show them that they are valued by the people of the country that they serve, by their Government and by their Parliament.

At the same time, to ensure that our armed forces remain the best, we must not only recruit the best but retain the best. I know that that is easier said than done; recruitment and retention are major challenges in the private sector, as well as in the armed forces. In a strong economy such as ours, the competition for well trained, highly skilled people is fierce in every sector, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. However, the nature of the work and the dangers that come with being a member of the British armed forces make that problem especially acute.

Each year, we need about 20,000 new recruits to retain our operational capability, and I am encouraged by the figures that my right hon. Friend gave. In 2006-07, there were 19,790 new recruits, which is an improvement on previous years. That is a positive sign, but we need to do more to keep that level of recruitment, and to maintain the strength of our armed forces. Our success in recruiting personnel and retaining those in service is bound to be affected by how they are treated, and how they seem to be treated. My mission statement when I was a Defence Minister was simply this: we will value our servicemen and women and their families. We will value our reserves, our cadets and their families and employers, and our veterans and their widows and families, and we will do everything in our power to demonstrate that. We can begin to demonstrate that we value them by ensuring that they have the most attractive pay and benefits package in the jobs market.

We must address the problem of the cultural drift that I sense between society and the armed forces. Fewer and fewer people have any idea of what it is like to serve in the armed forces, because fewer people know someone who is serving in the armed forces, or who has had military experience. That is why we must make sure that young people can have a taste of military life while they are at school. I welcome the pilot scheme to extend combined cadet forces to state schools.

The right hon. Gentleman gave great service as a Defence Minister; he was much respected for what he did. There is an unnecessary disconnect. Does he agree that the public response to the “help for heroes” appeal in national newspapers before Christmas was outstanding, but that the fact that the appeal was necessary shows why many people feel that the covenant has been broken? For want of a tiny amount of money, the Ministry of Defence gives itself a very bad public relations image. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect on the fact that, although many people support our armed forces, they often get the impression—perhaps for the wrong reason—that the Government are not doing so in the way that they could.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. The instinctive reaction of the British people is to support our armed forces. The point that I was trying to make is that there is a growing disconnect, because ever more people do not have knowledge or experience of people who serve in the armed forces, and that is not healthy.

To return to the issue of combined cadet forces, the pilot scheme that has been rolled out moves us in the right direction. I hope that the scheme will be rolled out across Britain. That would allow us to enhance the education and training of young people in skills and trades that are often in short supply, while giving a head start to those who want to make a career in the armed forces. I should like more to be done; I would like a trust fund to be created specifically to support the development of the cadets services, to which private firms would be asked to contribute. The cadets do a wonderful job, creating all sorts of interesting and exciting developments in young people’s lives.

It is no bad thing to raise funds by helping to fill shopping bags in supermarkets at Christmas, but that is not a certain funding stream, and we should not encourage it to be viewed as such. We need to do more, and as the private sector has a strong interest in developing a skilled work force for the future, I expect that quite a number of companies would be willing to support such a trust fund. There is more that we can do to engage private companies in co-operation that would benefit both them and service personnel. We could set up partnerships with firms to ensure that when someone is coming to the end of their forces career they can contact a company that will guarantee them an interview, provided that they meet the basic requirements. After all, those with military experience bring a wide range of skills and abilities to civilian life that no one else can contribute to a business or organisation. Civil society and the armed forces have many shared interests that are often overlooked, and the Government must do more to strengthen co-operation in respect of those interests, for the benefit of all.

A major factor in the recruitment and retention of our service personnel is housing. Measures such as the £700 million invested in forces accommodation last year, and the commitment to spend at least £5 billion on housing in the next decade, are certainly encouraging developments. However, our servicemen and women are no different from anyone else in society when it comes to wanting to get a foot on the housing ladder. Given the sacrifices that we expect from them, and the demands that we make of them, we should do all that we can to support servicemen and women in that ambition. We should look at ways of working with financial institutions, with a view to offering discounted mortgages, perhaps at a rate that is fixed at the time when the mortgage is taken out, and which applies for the duration of servicemen and women’s time in the forces.

Alternatively, as I have suggested in the past, we could offer service families a lump sum of, say, about £30,000 as a contribution towards a deposit on a mortgage. We could look at ways of developing a savings scheme in which someone could earn above commercial interest rates throughout their time in the forces, and the amount saved could be matched by a lump sum from the MOD when they leave. The money could then be used as a deposit on a house. We could engage financial institutions in exploring that.

I applaud the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. Does he agree that the huge merit of that proposal is that it does not put service people early in their careers in a position where, having bought early because they so badly wanted to get on the housing ladder, they become more likely, according to the huge study that was done in the 1990s, to leave the forces prematurely?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important and valid point. There is evidence that that has happened. I am trying to suggest ways in which we can stem that drift from the forces. Such measures would demonstrate loud and clear to servicemen and women that we value them, and would certainly have a significant impact on recruitment and retention. However, the most basic measure that would surely make the biggest difference to recruitment and retention is pay.

I welcome the best public sector pay deal which our armed forces had last year. I welcome the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he says that the armed forces’ salary growth has exceeded the whole economy in all but one of the past five years, but competition with private sector pay is a fight that we must stay in, or we will not retain our people in the armed forces. We could also look at introducing an increased tax allowance for members of the armed forces, or an income tax rebate for servicemen on active duty. That would be welcomed by those serving.

We must do much to underpin our support for our veterans. They have made a tremendous contribution, and the way in which we treat them has an impact on recruitment and retention. If we can demonstrate our gratitude for their efforts in securing our freedom and protecting our interests, we are much more likely to encourage others to join the armed forces. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench that it will surely impact very positively on recruitment and retention if we show people who have served in the armed forces that, as far as the Government are concerned, they remain part of the forces family for the rest of their lives.

Again, I renew my call for the creation of a separate veterans department—a department that would provide a stronger voice for veterans within the Government. It would act as a focal point for veterans issues, and send out a powerful message that help and support will always be available for ex-servicemen and their families as long as they need it. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to these points and others that I know will be raised in the debate today.

It is my hope that, by our words and deeds, we can go some way towards matching the commitment of the brave men and women of the British armed forces, who demonstrate their service to us day in, day out, and their service to their country. That would be the true covenant between the British people and our armed forces.

It is an honour to contribute to the debate today. I am in the place of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), who has to leave early for a long-standing constituency engagement. He apologises to the House, although I am sure that he is able to speak for himself.

Today’s debate follows a debate on the military covenant last month led by the Liberal Democrats. There were some excellent contributions to that debate. Then, like today, no Members from the Scottish National party were present. They claim to be a party of government who want to govern Scotland, but they seem to have little interest in the defence of the nation, as I am sure Members across the House would agree.

I shall be vacating my position on the Defence Committee. Members of the Committee have entertained my serving as a spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats and as a member of the Committee at the same time, and I am grateful to them for that. [Interruption.] I particularly enjoy the contributions from the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who seems unable to keep quiet today. I thank the Chairman for his leadership of the Committee during that time. It has been an enjoyable experience. We have done some good work, as I hope the Secretary of State for Defence would agree. I shall be sad to leave the Committee.

Without turning this into a mutual appreciation society, may I say that the Defence Committee will certainly miss the hon. Gentleman? His contribution has been outstanding.

I will leave the matter there for today.

My main proposition is that we are asking too much from our armed forces. The strategic defence review in 1998 envisaged one major operation, such as Gulf 1, or a lesser deployment, such as Bosnia, or a small brigade-sized operation elsewhere. But since 2003 we have been operating on two major fronts, and, as we have heard today, that is leading to overstretch. We are breaching the harmony guidelines and have done so for the last seven years.

The Army harmony guidelines clearly state that over a 30-month period people should not be away from their base for more than 415 days, but 10 per cent. of the Army are breaching those guidelines—that is 10,000 personnel. What we do not know from the figures is whether there are repeat offenders—whether people breach the harmony guidelines over a number of years. Therefore, we do not know how many people have been affected in the longer term rather than just in the previous year. The medical services are suffering the worst. Among general surgeons, 21 per cent. are breaching the harmony guidelines.

We have also seen huge shortages as a result of the breaching of the harmony guidelines. It is a vicious circle. When we ask too much of our armed forces they leave early, which results in shortages, which in turn leads to more overstretch and breaching of the harmony guidelines. We need to get a grip of that, because it results in the disillusionment of huge numbers of armed forces personnel. Ministry of Defence surveys showed that only three in 10 felt valued, and in one in four personnel morale was low or very low. As a result, more are leaving the forces, which results in retention difficulties. During the past year, 5,000 people have left the forces, and among officers the situation is particularly bad. In the last six months of 2007, 1,350 officers left the forces, which is double the figure for the previous 12 months. Since the start of the Iraq war in 2003, 6,000 officers have left the forces. As a result, we are 7,000 below strength in the armed forces as a whole.

Over the Christmas period, I met a long-standing friend who has been in the forces for 10 years. He is a skilled tradesman and over the past few years he has been asked to go to Iraq and Afghanistan. Having just returned from Iraq, he has been asked to go back to Afghanistan, but he has decided that he has had enough, and many of his friends feel exactly the same because we are asking far too much of our forces. Hon. Members have heard me say before that we are now trawling around looking for volunteers, such as storemen from Faslane, bandsmen who are going out to Cyprus, and even politicians, including Members of the Scottish Parliament.

The hon. Gentleman mentions Faslane and he brings up an interesting point in Liberal Democrat policy. The fleet of submarines there are nuclear powered, and the Liberal Democrats seem to support the presence of naval personnel on those submarines, yet they are not keen to support nuclear energy on the ground. Why is it not good for the citizens of Britain to be near a nuclear power station, but it is okay for our naval personnel to be operating on a nuclear-powered submarine?

Order. We are debating armed forces personnel, and I would not want the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) to be diverted too far from that topic.

You may be reassured, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we will not be entertaining too much discussion on nuclear energy this afternoon. The hon. Gentleman wrongly conflates those two important issues. Serious considerations apply to both and to conflate the two is inappropriate.

We are also asking too much of our reserve forces. Just before Christmas, I visited HMS Scotia in Rosyth for its Christmas carol concert; some of the Royal Naval Reserve forces are going out to Basra airbase to man Phalanx guns to protect it. Reserve forces members are now regularly being asked to go to the front line, but that was never envisaged when they first joined. It puts huge strain not only on them but on their employers and families. It is unsustainable to continue to ask the reserves to contribute too much to the front line.

The real reason why we are at this state of play is due to the decision in 2003 to invade Iraq. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) talked about overstretch, but in 2003 I do not remember him opposing the war in Iraq that has led to that overstretch.

I am testing the hon. Gentleman’s patience, but I am pleased that he has given way because he is now, perhaps inadvertently, misleading the House. Our concern about Iraq relates to what has happened since the initial invasion and the management of the peacekeeping. That should not be confused with the initial invasion. We Conservatives are very concerned that the Army is still there in large numbers because the peacekeeping operation and nation building have been such a failure.

That is a slight extrapolation from what is the case. We are overstretched because we are in Iraq. In the 1998 strategic defence review it was envisaged that we would be able to operate only on one major front. The decision in 2003 led to two major fronts—Afghanistan and Iraq. That is why we are in this situation today.

I am afraid that, with respect, the hon. Gentleman is showing his ignorance about what the military are expected to do. They provide an umbrella of security, but the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other agencies need to build the governance and infrastructures. That has not happened in Iraq and that is why our military forces have been there for such a long time. I am afraid that they are now receiving the brunt because of the ineptitude of those Departments.

The hon. Gentleman is fabricating a rather contorted argument. We are in Iraq because the Conservatives and the Government agreed to go there. That is why we are overstretched. Making up some elongated story involving DFID and so on does not reflect the reality.

I return to the issue of minimum force protection. When I visited Iraq last year with the rest of the Defence Committee, we were told that the minimum force protection required for the south-east would be 4,500 to 5,000. A month later, the Minister for the Armed Forces came before the Committee and said roughly the same. However, when last year the Prime Minister told the House that he had decided to withdraw 2,500 troops as of the spring, suddenly the minimum force required was 2,500. We have been told that the jobs required in Basra have changed. However, a minimum force is a minimum force, no matter what the jobs are.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the spate of thefts from Basra airbase and associated issues involving the security of our personnel. I should be interested to hear, perhaps privately, from the Secretary of State what is being done to deal with that and whether it has anything to do with the fact that our force numbers may be too low even to guard the airbase.

The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point, and I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with it, on a private basis.

Ministers shook their heads when we talked about minimum force protection, but when we visited the airbase last year they were adamant that 4,500 was the minimum that would be required just for protection purposes, not to conduct many more operations beyond that. How has that figure suddenly changed to 2,500? Are we now relying on the Iraqi forces for our protection? If so, the House has a right to know. If not, we need a more detailed explanation as to the reason for the sudden reduction. It is clear that we have been part of the problem in southern Iraq and that we should withdraw from there. It used to be that 90 per cent. of attacks were on our forces in the south, but the number of attacks fell dramatically when we withdrew from Basra palace in the heart of Basra city. It is therefore clear that we should get out of Basra and out of Iraq altogether.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s details on some of the progress that has been made on inquests, but it is still embarrassing, and a travesty for the families, that it has taken far too long to conduct them—months, sometimes years. So far, the system has been unable to cope. Will the Minister give a wee bit more detail about what further progress he hopes to make in the next year? Have discussions with the Scottish Government led to any results? If some of the inquests or fatal accident inquiries were conducted in Scotland, that would relieve some of the pressure in England.

On housing, more than half of armed forces single living accommodation has been independently assessed as substandard. That is a significant reason for many officers and soldiers leaving the forces. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has determined that 14,000 bed spaces have been lost since 2001, yet during that period £2.2 billion worth of asset sales has gone from the MOD to the Treasury. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for providing more details on the £5 billion figure, which has now grown to £8 billion or so. Unfortunately, however, some spinning went on previously as to what that money was. It was presented as new money—extra investment in housing—when in fact much of it was going on rent and maintenance. It would be helpful to have a wee bit more clarity on some of the figures as previously presented. As Ministers have said, the basic problem is that we are relying on the legacy that was left to us by the Conservative party, which sold off MOD housing to Annington Homes—the most disgraceful waste of money and resources that there has ever been. The Conservatives should say less on this subject in future because their record warrants some scrutiny.

Progress has been made on health, as I have seen for myself through the Defence Committee. Defence Medical Services does a good job. The Selly Oak facility is first class, providing excellent, quality care for our armed forces in a military-led environment. I would like there to be a move further towards a military-only environment; I think the Minister said that more military nurses are being recruited.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a pity that the additional assistance and changes within Defence Medical Services seem to have come only when there has been a great big hoo-hah in the press, and not to have been driven by the Government? People working internally in this area say that that rather mystifies them.

I am sure that the Secretary of State, having gone through the agony of the past year, will be keen to make this investment sustainable, and that we will see long-term benefits.

There are other improvements at Chilwell, Headley Court and the regional rehabilitation centres, but concerns remain about investment in Combat Stress. There has been some, but there needs to be more. There is also concern that the NHS will fund Combat Stress and veterans’ health care after this period of investment. There must be improved connections between the NHS and the military, because the NHS does not understand many of the problems that the military face in terms of primary care.

I understand that the Priory Group contract is coming up for renewal this year, and I would like the Government to consider whether the Priory Group is an appropriate body to provide health care for the armed forces, with regard to mental health. It is neither fish nor fowl. It is neither centralised nor military, but a regional, non-military environment. We have heard many times that serving soldiers need a military-only environment, but we need specialisms as well. I would like the Government to look at that area again and consider whether there is a better model that is both military and specialist.

Finally, I would like to conclude with some questions for the Minister. If we are serious about recruitment and filling the shortfall of 7,000 personnel in the armed forces, why is there no Government budget line to recruit those personnel? I questioned the permanent under-secretary in the Select Committee on Defence last year, and there was silence when we asked whether there was a budget to recruit those masses of people. There is no serious intention of recruiting. The Department is being realistic; it does not expect to recruit them, and as a result there is no budget line. I would like to hear some response from the Minister on that when he sums up. Finally, will the Minister explain when he believes that the Government will withdraw from Iraq?

I welcome this opportunity to take part in today’s debate, although it is a brief one. I must say that I think it is too brief. The House should set aside much more time to discuss armed forces personnel.

I intend to spend most of my contribution on a crucial aspect of personnel matters, which is the provision of first-class training, and I shall refer to the Government’s radical and courageous policies that will transform the entire phase 2 training programme in the armed forces. I begin by paying tribute to the role of our armed forces personnel. I have the honour and privilege of representing the special forces support unit at MOD St. Athan, and I am fortunate enough to receive frequent updates on the activities of our brave men and women on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much more time should be spent exposing what our soldiers are doing every day of the week—the sheer courage and bravery of the men and women on the front line.

Far from what we hear constantly about bad morale and so on, in the correspondence and e-mails that I receive I hear only positive comments: a commitment to and belief in what they are doing, and a willingness and desire to succeed. I believe that the Government’s record of looking after armed forces personnel is a good one. Do I think more could be done? You bet I do, but we have a reasonable track record. I do not base that on the facts and figures churned out by the Government, but on the comments I receive from my constituents who are serving on the front line.

We heard references to medical services. I have an e-mail that points out that in the opinion of one commander, our medical services are second to none in the world. In fact, one of his platoon commanders was shot on the front line in Helmand, and after his condition was stabilised, he was receiving intensive care within 23 hours, not in theatre, but in Selly Oak in Birmingham. There are numerous examples of the sort of treatment that they are receiving—it is the best in the world.

We hear a lot about kit, and it is true that every commander in the field wants more kit. But the people who correspond with me say that the kit they have is the best it has ever been. Yes, they want more helicopters on the front line, but the kit is good, and it is improving. Let us not talk everything down.

I want to focus on training, because I believe that it holds the key to many issues that are raised about armed forces personnel, especially recruitment and retention. If we can offer our servicemen and women the best possible phase 2—technical—training in the world, we can recruit more easily and retain our forces better. In the Government’s announcement on 17 January last year on the defence training rationalisation programme, it was decided to do just that and transform the phase 2 training of non-commissioned officers and lower ranks throughout the Army, Navy and Air Force. That modern, state-of-the-art training would use new teaching methodologies and all the technologies that are available to train and educate our forces personnel, and be provided in a purpose-built, new-build project on a 600-acre site in St. Athan in my constituency. Our servicemen and women deserve nothing less.

The facilities will be outstanding and the training will be superb. I was pleased when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced on 25 October that package 1—the provision of all aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering and computer information and technology—was on course and on time. It was also announced that negotiations would continue about package 2 and would probably be extended because the military were not sure whether they could achieve the savings that they expected by combining the two packages under the Metrix consortium.

I was therefore interested when my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces made a written statement this week about the future of Deepcut barracks and the proposal to place the site in the local borough council’s core planning strategy, with a view to vacating it by 2013. I hope that my right hon. Friend can tell me in his winding-up speech whether that will have any bearing on the decisions, which we know are due in the near future, on package 2 of the defence training rationalisation programme, given the relocation of such a large facility and given that not many places in the country can accommodate it. Of course, St. Athan can. It was—and will be again—the largest military base in the United Kingdom.

The proposals as they stand will bring thousands of military personnel to my constituency. I was addressing a small community council in St. Athan, which will be directly affected, the other night. That small council is 120 per cent. behind the development and looking forward to welcoming the forces back to the constituency. At the height of activity in the camp, we had 17,000 military personnel at RAF St. Athan in the old days. We could approach such numbers in future if we make the right decision, combine the two packages and base the whole training programme on one site in the United Kingdom, which will offer young men and women a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous welcome to the armed forces.

The majority will take up phase 2—non-military training—shortly after being recruited into the forces. It is an old trick that the Americans used much better than us in the past to give recruits the best facilities, involvement and quality of life, which they can use to build their career in the services and—just as important—given the new nature of the training, when they leave the forces, because the skills will be used directly in civvy street.

However, we must get the project right. The infrastructure must be right because the project is so vast. Several aspects will be affected, but the most important are housing and transportation—surface access to the site, especially roads. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a difficulty. The local planning authority in the Vale of Glamorgan is to accommodate the £16 billion project, which will create 5,500 direct new civilian jobs in my constituency. It must work in co-operation with the Ministry of Defence and the company providing the project, Metrix.

Unfortunately, the planning authority has failed in the draft local development plan that it published in December to recognise the scale of the project and the need to think strategically. The planning authority has not identified enough land banks for the new housing development. The pressure on housing will be enormous. The planning authority has also downgraded Llandow, another 500-acre former second world war airfield—a brownfield site—and failed to identify it as an area for housing that could accommodate the people coming into St. Athan for the new development. I also understand that the planning authority has not safeguarded land for direct access to the military training academy at St. Athan from the M4, which has to be done.

There is now a two-month consultation period, from January to March. I ask the Ministry of Defence to look into the issue—it is the customer in the project, which is a private finance initiative—and to make representations to the local planning authority, to ensure that it recognises the strategic importance of the success of the project.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) on two of the comments that he made. First, he said that this debate is too short. The new topical debates, which have turned out to be simple re-launches of the Government’s current initiatives, do not seem to be a good idea, particularly when they take time out of armed forces debates, which tend to take place on Thursday afternoons. The second point on which I should like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman is the fact that his constituency will receive from Bordon in my constituency many people who work in mechanical engineering. He is lucky to have those people coming to his constituency. When they arrive, I hope to be invited to visit and see how they are getting along.

This is a short debate. Last week the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust produced a report suggesting that the Ministry of Defence was glamorising war. I do not think that it is doing that at all. The Minister was absolutely right to suggest that it is not in the Ministry of Defence’s interests to give, in any sense, a false idea of what people are going in for when they join the armed forces. However, it is also right to draw attention to the benefits of a career in the armed forces. In many respects, it is a fantastic career. One gets qualifications and finds a camaraderie that cannot be found in any other career. It is therefore right to pay tribute to the type of career that can be had in the armed forces, as well as to the extraordinary and wonderful men and women who take up that career.

It is also right to pay tribute to the families of our armed forces. We often think of the armed forces as they serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in many cases the real difficulty is faced by those who are left behind at home doing the worrying, but without the constant adrenalin and local support that the work of the armed forces involves. All that—the men and women of our armed forces, the careers that they provide and the quality that they generally produce—is now a part of what it means to be British and is a matter of national pride.

I should like to make another tiny point about national pride, part of which derives from military bands and the music that they play. They bring to an emotional head some of the strength of our military. I worry nowadays that our military bands are being reduced in number and that we have taken a financial approach to them, without appreciating the strength that they give to our armed forces. I hope, one of these days, to be able to persuade the Defence Select Committee to carry out an inquiry into our military bands because they are so important.

My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State referred to overstretch and the Secretary of State referred to stretch: it does not really matter which word is used, because the reality is what matters—and the reality is as follows. On the planning assumptions, our armed forces have now been operating above the levels for which they are resourced for seven of the last eight years—for every year since 2002. It is utterly unacceptable that that has gone on for so long. We can manage that sort of problem for a year or two—perhaps for a year or three—but continuing with it for so long is unacceptable. The Chief of the General Staff has said that

“we now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected”.

That is also unacceptable.

The Ministry of Defence has a target—public service agreement target 3—to

“generate forces, which can be deployed, sustained and recovered at the scales of effort required to meet the Government’s strategic objectives”.

That is not at all surprising, one would think. It seems a perfectly ordinary test; it is, actually, a crucial test for the armed forces of this country and of any country. However, according to the MOD in its most recent quarterly report:

“Owing to the continuing high level of operational commitment, we do not now expect to reach the target level by April 2008”.

It will therefore not be able to generate the forces that can be

“deployed, sustained and recovered at the scales of effort required to meet the Government’s strategic objectives.”

That is deeply worrying.

Reductions in the commitments to Iraq and the Balkans are welcome in that regard. Some people expect us to be completely out of Iraq soon. I have to warn the Secretary of State that the Defence Committee had a meeting this morning with the United States House Armed Services Committee, which made it plain that for the US to remain in Iraq without substantial support from its closest friend, the UK, would not be well understood or received in America. We need to take that into account.

What of the harmony guidelines? The Army’s guidelines have been mentioned, but the RAF guidelines say:

“Unit Tour Intervals should be no less than 16 months”.

However, that is routinely breached. RAF regiment field squadrons have an average tour interval of around 10 and a half months.

We met the Chinook crews, who are based at Odiham in my constituency, when we were in Afghanistan last year. They are flying all hours of the day and night—thank God, because of the critical work they do in support of our armed forces. Their tours are long, they get little time to rest, and they are flying in the most difficult conditions imaginable. Landing a Chinook in the dust of Afghanistan is a highly skilled task. People cannot see the ground because of the dust blowing up. At night, it is even harder, and people are probably being shot at, after having very little sleep. Luckily, our crews are the best in the business. They manage to cope with all that, but we must never take them for granted. We sent them there; they are doing all this for us. We must treat them right, pay them well, house them well, educate their children well, provide proper medical care and give them the very deep respect that they fully deserve.

I pay tribute to the Defence Select Committee, whose members work extremely hard at what they do. In recent months, we have completed reports on the defence education service, which is doing a good job in circumstances of great turbulence. On housing, we drew attention to our worry that it will take so long to get the standard of all defence housing up to an acceptable level. The Secretary of State made some perfectly fair points about that today. We are just concluding our inquiry on Defence Medical Services. Of course, we have some concerns. For example, there is a severe shortfall in some specific specialties, but we have found much in the Defence Medical Services that is excellent.

My final point concerns visits to our armed forces deployed abroad. The Secretary of State often visits them, as do other Defence Ministers, and I think that as a result they have a good understanding of the experiences that our forces are undergoing. The same cannot be said of the Ministers who make the financial decisions—the Ministers in the Treasury. I welcomed the Prime Minister’s recent visits to our troops, but while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer such visits were rare.

I hope that Treasury Ministers will arrange a programme of visits. If they do, they will be impressed. They will see a group of wonderful young men and women upholding the values of Britain, standing up for our interests and putting their lives on the line for us. When those Treasury Ministers see what is really going on, they will have a changed perspective when they return to the United Kingdom to negotiate with the MOD; and the MOD, our armed forces and our country will benefit accordingly.

I want to touch on three Stafford experiences in my brief speech, and to draw from each of them a point of national significance.

Last year, the status of the military base at Stafford as RAF Stafford ended 59 years after it was established, and most of the uniformed personnel were moved to Wittering. In the run-up to those events, it looked very much as though the entire military presence in Stafford could come to an end, but as a result of the great public support for the military in Stafford and the constructive approach taken by me and by the local community in representations to Ministers about that how could be averted, the story today is entirely different. There is a very positive future for an Army-led base at Stafford—now MOD Stafford—and the Beacon barracks for the 22nd Signal Regiment, and the prospect of a secure and growing future as we give further consideration to the super-garrison approach to the basing of our military personnel.

That brings me to the first of my points of national significance. I should like to know Ministers’ thinking on super-garrisons. As I understand it, their development will coincide with, but is not dependent on, the return home from Germany of large numbers of our personnel, itself a significant event in the coming five years or so. Does the Minister agree that it will give components of our armed forces that will eventually be deployed and fight together an opportunity to train together as well, and to be deployed to the same places at the same times? Does he agree that of wider benefit to our military and their families is the fact that with super-garrisons will come greater stability in their home lives? They will know about the schools that their children will be able to attend, and it will be possible for them to buy homes in the area if they wish to do so.

This may not be so much a point in favour of super-garrisons, but I think it could be described as a point of national significance. I mentioned the survival and future prosperity of Stafford’s military base. The Minister at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), was extremely receptive to my arguments and those of a delegation that I took to see him several times. I want to record my grateful thanks to him for listening and for making a difference through the decisions that he made.

Let me give an example. At an early stage in the process, at a meeting at which I put the case to my right hon. Friend with a delegation from the Stafford community, we were faced with the prospect of 800 civilians losing their distribution and storage jobs at Stafford. My right hon. Friend decided to start early, along with the MOD’s human resources personnel and Jobcentre Plus, on the objective of guaranteeing people new jobs or help with finding jobs outside the civil service. If there are people with a low opinion of the MOD’s HR personnel, I ask them to reconsider. My impression was of a dedicated group of people making a very effective job of what was a very difficult exercise, with the result that of the 800 people who were to lose posts at Stafford, only two were made compulsorily redundant. I consider that an impressive performance.

My second experience involved the contribution of the civil servants at Stafford to Operation Telic back in 2003. I attended a very sad occasion in December 2007, when we marked the end of their work at Stafford’s base, but back in 2003 I saw with my own eyes the dedication of those people, working seven days a week on a short time scale to make sure that all the equipment the troops needed in Iraq got to Iraq in time for the start of the military action there. Although there were stories about lack of equipment in the right place at the right time—the most tragic event that we can all recall was that of Sergeant Steven Roberts, who gave up his body armour and was then shot and died—the subsequent National Audit Office report gave absolute credit to the people back in Stafford and around the UK for their part in getting the equipment there. The report spoke about twice the material getting to the region in half the time compared with the 1990 Gulf war; so the fault in people not getting equipment such as body armour and the right sized boots at the right time did not lie with people in Stafford. I recall that the NAO drew attention not only to the shortage of time for the whole operation because of the diplomatic efforts at the United Nations—something that might now be a constant pressure given the commitment to a vote in this House before committing troops in future—but to our country’s policy in terms of what we keep in store ready for such an eventuality and what we depend upon quick procurement for. That balance must be got right, and we must have robust procurement arrangements for the equipment that will be procured at short notice.

Another important issue that I want the Minister to say something about is the tracking of equipment in theatre and ensuring it gets to the right place in the battle theatre in time. A lot of work was done immediately after the NAO report on in-theatre tracking, and I wonder whether he can say anything new today about developments in technological solutions as well as in military training and practice.

The hon. Gentleman and I share, as it were, distribution depots, and it is sometimes forgotten just how many civilian staff work with great credit for the Ministry of Defence and that they have also been going through a period of turmoil. The demands placed on them from managing what are two large operations are phenomenal, and we should never forget the contribution of civilian staff in the MOD.

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to those staff for their dedication to their duty and the pride that they feel—it is every bit as much as that of the uniformed armed forces—in serving their country.

The ultimate sacrifice that members of our armed forces make to this country is to give their lives. Back in 2003, we in Stafford had the experience of the death of young, brave Trooper David Clarke. We quickly knew—and this was confirmed at the inquest—that he was killed when his Challenger 2 tank was fired on by another British Challenger 2 tank. The point of national significance that I draw from that incident is the vital question of combat identification, and I have pursued that with Ministers in the years since 2003. Can the Minister say anything new about the work being done on that? As we deploy increasingly often with many international partners, it is important that we have approaches and solutions that are compatible with those of our partners. New technologies assist to some extent, but there is always the issue of human factors. Time and again, training and communication are what make the difference. I have talked of the tragic loss for Stafford of the loss of David Clarke’s life, but it is important that we learn the lessons of each individual incident.

We in this country can be proud that we have some of the best—and sometimes the best—armed forces in the world. That is because of a combination of their personal courage and commitment, the leadership that they have, the training and equipment that they get and the backing of our nation. I want to say how proud I am of our armed forces for what they do so often on our behalf and at our request. They serve the country superbly, and I admire the values that they hold and uphold. As a country, our support for them during their service, for their families, and when they are veterans is growing all the time. Long may that continue.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made a number of interesting points, particularly those relating to super-garrisons. I hope that the Minister will at least investigate that matter further.

I welcome this debate. It does not take me to suggest that Parliament has a special duty to look after service personnel and to honour the military covenant. That duty is born of the fact that Parliament, on behalf of the nation, has a moral duty to repay the dedication shown by our service personnel. In addition, because politicians ultimately decide on deployment, and as there is an absence of a union or any other representative organisation, Parliament has a direct role to play in the welfare of our service personnel. Despite that special duty, there is mounting evidence to suggest that this Government risk failing our service personnel.

Poor housing is perhaps a key example of that. Various statistics have been bandied about in this short debate. We have heard about the Public Accounts Committee’s suggestion that nearly half of all service accommodation is substandard. I think I am right in saying that a Select Committee on Defence report suggested that some accommodation was appalling. The Army’s own continuous attitude surveys suggest that half our troops believe that the maintenance of their accommodation is not what it should be, and senior figures have added their voice on this matter. General Sir Michael Rose has said:

“The situation has become so extreme that it is driving soldiers out of the Army in increasing numbers.”

It seems to me that the Government have forgotten the old first world war concept of “homes for heroes” when it comes to our troops. In fairness, their single living accommodation modernisation—SLAM—initiative has resulted in some additional funding, but the Public Accounts Committee made it clear that even at the current rate of improvement it would take 20 years for all the accommodation to be removed from the substandard category.

As if to illustrate the point, I raised the issue of the accommodation at the Hounslow cavalry barracks with the Defence Secretary. The 2nd battalion of my regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, will be returning there from overseas deployment in the spring. The Minister will be aware that that accommodation was condemned in the 1960s, and that it has a reputation in the armed forces of being probably the worst accommodation. Most of the troops’ accommodation will be about 250 ft below the Heathrow flight path. The senior non-commissioned officers’ accommodation is the worst of all—the rooms are so narrow and small that one must close one’s door before one can open one’s locker. I welcome the Defence Secretary’s apparent acceptance of an invitation to visit the Hounslow cavalry barracks, because they are worthy of a visit. Although funds are being put into those barracks, by most accounts they are insufficient to deal with the deficiencies.

The hon. Gentleman made reference to the Defence Committee’s report on housing. We visited Hounslow barracks, and I sympathise with some of the points that he is making. Did he also read the report’s recommendations? They clearly state—I also said this earlier—that the answer to the appalling conditions at Hounslow is not just pumping money into that facility. The Ministry of Defence and, in particular, the Army, must take a strategic decision about what is needed in the capital area.

Yes it has. Spending on the military has fallen from 2.9 to 2.5 per cent. of our gross domestic product—[Interruption.] I am not wrong. It has fallen by that amount during the past 10 years. That may not sound like a big percentage but it represents £5 billion in today’s money, which could put right a lot of what is wrong in the armed forces, certainly when it comes to service accommodation.

That leads me to the point about overstretch. I agree that many terms are used with regard to the concept of overstretch. The bottom line is that the armed forces receive about £5 billion less because of that decrease in spending as a percentage of GDP. That 0.4 per cent. drop in expenditure does not sound a lot, but that money would put right the Army’s 4,000 personnel deficit: it does not sound a lot, but it has a big knock-on effect on deployment. When the Chief of the General Staff visited Parliament and made a presentation—if I remember correctly, the Minister was there—he said that the time spent on deployment was normally around 20 per cent. of total time. At the moment, the Army is running at 37 per cent. and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) pointed out, that over-deployment has been going on since 2002. The Chief of the General Staff made the point that that cannot continue indefinitely and we are reaching breaking point.

Most recent figures show that most Army units now fail to meet the 24-month average interval between tours. That leaves units and individuals separated from their families for far too long, and training and recuperation inevitably suffer.

We must also ensure that we supply our troops with the right equipment. Troops returning from theatre tell of life-threatening shortages of kit, including body armour, satellite phones, oil to prevent guns jamming and electronic equipment to detect roadside bombs—

[Interruption.] I shall move on.

I should warn the Minister that the public take those failings very seriously. It is no credit to the Government that the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support announced that he was walking away from politics to drive racing cars on the very day that a coroner ruled that a shortage of kit cost Fusilier Gordon Gentle his life. That is not lost on the public.

The Defence Committee has highlighted the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan, and that is especially important in that region, because it has a knock-on effect in the strain put on crews, especially when they have to land in the conditions there at night. It also has an impact on our successes on the ground. One of my concerns about Afghanistan is that many of the victories that we are accomplishing now could become pyrrhic victories if we do not dominate the ground that we have won. It is no good taking towns if we cannot dominate the ground around them, and helicopters have a vital role to play in achieving that. If we eventually cede that ground to the Taliban, the victories will indeed be pyrrhic.

I welcome the rule changes to compensation claims, and I give the Government credit where it is due for those. It is right that service personnel can now claim for each injury. However, I would ask the Minister to address directly why the limit on compensation remains at £285,000, and will the Government and MOD do any work on that? To put the figure into context, Peterborough borough council spends some £285,000 on awarding compensation to those who trip over paving stones, and that is a useful comparison.

Given the litany of failings by the Government, I have to say, as an ex-serviceman, that it is bemusing to hear Ministers say that when they are visiting troops, they do not hear them grumble too much, so perhaps Opposition Members and the media exaggerate some of the concerns. That is the wrong approach. Partly because service personnel are taught not to complain, and partly because of their deference to the chain of command, they do not grumble. It is ludicrous to suggest that because nothing is said, all is well. It shows how out of touch Ministers risk appearing.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as I realise that we are near the end of his allotted time. Does he see how what he has just said contrasts with what the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff in the other place say? When they visit troops, all they hear is grumbling.

I am not sure that the question made sense, but the bottom line is that Ministers are saying too often that they do not hear complaints when they visit troops. That is nonsense. As I have seen comrades pay the ultimate price on operation, it galls me when Ministers seem incapable of understanding the nature and substance of the armed forces commitment.

Service personnel will give 100 per cent. to their country. They will suffer conditions on the front line that some in this place would not believe in this world of human rights. They will not grumble; the British Tommy gets on with the job. That is why it is so important that Ministers listen to those at the top when they break silence. Lord Guthrie has talked about the services feeling as though they are being taken for granted. Admiral Lord Boyce accused the Prime Minister of treating the armed forces with contempt and disinterest. The Chief of the General Staff clearly said that the military covenant is out of kilter and that the troops are feeling devalued, angry and fatigued.

Let us be clear that it is regrettable when senior officers and retired senior officers think it necessary to speak out. It is not the way we do things in this country. However, it shows the scale of the problem. Those people are not seeking publicity. They are speaking out for those who do not have a union or a federation to speak out on their behalf and who will not and cannot strike. They are making the Government aware of problems as best they can, because Ministers will not listen in private. In many soldiers’ minds, the proof that the Government are not 100 per cent. committed to their interests is the part-time Secretary of State. Those on the Government Front Bench do not understand the strength of feeling. The wrong message is sent out.

Troops give 100 per cent. and expect 100 per cent. in return. The Defence Secretary has openly asked what more he should be doing, and enough has been said this afternoon to illustrate what needs be done and the issues that need to be dealt with: substandard housing, the fact that the Army is overstretched and the shortage of kit.

In conclusion, the fact that the Royal British Legion has felt obliged to mount a campaign about the military covenant along the lines of “We count on him; can they count on us?” illustrates the state of affairs. The Army is being asked to do too much with too few men and resources. The Secretary of State has admitted that the Government can do better. Let us hope that now is the time for action.

I have had the privilege of serving on the Select Committee on Defence for the past six years. I have seen men and women in our armed forces not only in this country but in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. I want to put on record my respect for them. The armed forces offer rewarding careers, mentioned by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, to many people who would not get such chances elsewhere. A lot of those people, at very tender ages, take on a huge amount of responsibility. If anybody wants some reinforcement in response to people who write off the youth of today, they should meet some of the young men and women in our armed forces.

I am pleased that armed forces personnel, their families and how we treat members of our armed forces are high on the political agenda. The only thing that I ask is that the debate should be based on fact rather than fiction. The trend over the past few months in the media and in the House—an example was provided just now by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron)—is that if someone says something, it is deemed to be a fact. If someone stands up, for example, and says that there is a shortage of body armour in Iraq or Afghanistan, that is taken as a fact. Some of the problems in our armed forces are seen as having been pickled in aspic and it is believed that somehow nothing ever changes.

There has been a tremendous change in the equipment available in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have seen that, as have other members of the Defence Committee. If the hon. Member for Billericay thinks that members of the armed forces do not grumble to us when we go around bases, that could not be further from the truth. To be fair to the Chairman of the Committee, he insists that wherever we go, we should meet members of the armed forces away from senior officers. I can tell the House that they are not short of a range of issues and grumbles to raise. One must be selective, as some grumbles deserve to be taken up while others are the sort of moans expressed by people in any job. It is important to separate what needs to be investigated from ordinary, everyday dissatisfaction.

I said that I had heard Ministers say at the Dispatch Box that they do not hear grumbling from armed forces personnel, but I was not referring to members of the Defence Committee. Moreover, my remarks were not based on hearsay. I have looked at what the Public Accounts Committee has said about accommodation, for example, and at the Army’s own continuous assessment surveys.

I shall come on to accommodation in a moment, but I assure the House that armed forces personnel are not afraid of coming forward.

I welcome the commitment given by the Government to the Command Paper, as it is very important that all the threads to do with housing, medical welfare and other matters are drawn together. Another important aspect is how the MOD interacts with other Departments. The Defence Committee has worked on reports dealing with housing, education and medical services, and it is clear that the MOD is something of an island. It does not always work well with other Departments, and the Command Paper will have an important role to play in improving its performance in that respect.

The Command Paper also needs to spell out what should be provided by the MOD, and what by charities. I have great respect for the service charities, which do tremendous work on behalf of both serving and retired members of our armed forces. We need a grown-up debate so that we can decide what they should provide, and what the MOD should.

On the armed forces medical services, the Chairman of the Defence Committee said that we had been very impressed by what we had seen on our evidence-gathering trips, and I want to emphasise that the care being given to personnel—both in-theatre in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Selly Oak—is the best in this country and among the best in the world. That was recognised by the Surgeon General in the evidence that he gave to the Defence Committee, and it also accepted by General Dannett, who is a strong advocate of the Selly Oak facility. People need to look at the facts, and not at the media hype or some of the other, rather disgraceful claims that have been made.

I have been impressed by the dedication exhibited by both NHS and military staff in the hospitals that I have visited, but I went to the military-managed facility at Northallerton a few weeks ago. The previous Conservative Government quite rightly began the process of closing military hospitals: six were closed during their time in office, and anyone who suggests that we should return to that regime is talking nonsense. A proper throughput of people and expertise is needed if medical care is to attain the necessary standard.

The hon. Gentleman has said that there must be a balance between the work done by charities and the MOD. Does he agree that the MOD could surely have found in its budget the £5 million for a hydrotherapy pool and other facilities needed by the seriously wounded people in therapy and recuperation at Headley Court? That is a tiny amount, and it should have come from the MOD’s budget and not from charities.

I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman has fallen into a trap. When the Defence Committee visited Headley Court to gather evidence, people told us that the facilities to which he has referred were not the priority. It is fine if charities want to install a hydrotherapy pool as an addition to existing provision, but it is certainly not a priority for patients. We need to be careful about such matters, but that is why we need a debate about what the MOD should provide, and what charities should. Service charities have an important role to play, and they can provide some services for our armed forces far better than the Government can.

We cannot ignore the legacy of the previous Conservative Government or the way that they sold off Army houses but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) suggested, we also have a great opportunity in that regard. The replacement of the arms plot and super-garrisons allows us for the first time to talk about letting armed forces personnel get on the housing ladder. I am very pleased that the Government have taken that on board. I am also pleased that they have accepted the amendment to the Housing and Regeneration Bill that provides that people leaving the armed forces and returning to their home area will get priority for council housing.

The hon. Member for Billericay talked about Hounslow. The problem there is not money; it is that a strategic decision is needed on what accommodation the Army needs in London. As we highlighted in our report, that urgently needs to be assessed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the facilities in Hounslow are unacceptable, but no one would put money into a facility that might be closed a few years later. That indecision has led to the decline of the barracks.

Strides have been made in relation to military inquests, but I put it to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces that he should urge the Government to introduce the coroners Bill. That would remedy some of the delays and archaic systems operating in the coroners service, which would also help some military inquests. I am totally against feeding lawyers and giving them more money to represent families at inquests, because there is no role for the families there, but I would insist on the maximum support being given to families who attend inquests.

We have heard about the voice that armed forces personnel can have, which in the new media age is increasingly heard on the internet and in other forums where they can comment. I proposed adding to the Bill that became the Armed Forces Act 2006 a new clause that would have given legal recognition to an armed forces federation. I believe that an armed forces federation is long overdue in this country—not a trade union that would represent armed forces personnel, allow them to go on strike or do anything like that, but a body that would provide a voice for ordinary servicemen and women in the chain of command. I am not for one minute saying that such a body should be able to interfere in the chain of command; however, there is a problem with how far up the chain of command some of the legitimate complaints made by members of the armed forces have gone. Do they reach senior generals and Ministers? Such a federation would be important.

Finally, we should honour the men and women who have been injured or killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq and in other conflicts around the world. I pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for its “Honour The Brave” campaign and to Colonel Richard Kemp, who is leading the fight for a medal. The Secretary of State says it is up to the generals to decide on the awarding of medals, but such a medal, which is commonplace in other countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, is long overdue in this country. A medal should be awarded to men and women who lose their lives or are injured in service of their country. Two hundred and six Members of Parliament have now signed my early-day motion 95, and I urge any who have not to do so. I see that only a minority of Conservative MPs have signed it; again, I urge them to do so. We need some movement on the medal, because those people deserve such recognition.

I finish where I started by saying that we owe a great debt to the servicemen and women who are working on our behalf. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, I wish to mention the civilian personnel who work for the MOD, some of them in very dangerous parts of the world in support of the armed forces. They, too, should have our thanks for the work that they do on our behalf.

Order. I do not want to slash the time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but only 26 minutes are left and five hon. Members still wish to speak. A degree of restraint on the part of hon. Members will help their colleagues.

I will try to adhere to your recommendation, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who made some important comments, particularly on the subject of inquests. It is bizarre that under our system, wherever the Hercules or C-17 lands, that is where the inquest has to take place. I encourage the powers that be to ensure that a Bill is expedited, so that we can remove that quirk in the system.

In this debate on armed forces personnel we have heard a lot about cuts to the size of our forces and reductions in budgets that have led to overstretch, and to pressures on members of our armed forces across the board. As we have heard, that has certainly led to challenges for recruitment and, more worryingly, for retention. Since 1997, the Army has been reduced by 9,000 people, the Navy by 10,000 and the RAF by 16,000. Those are colossal numbers, considering the expectations and burdens that we put on our armed forces personnel across the world.

I shall focus my attention on two issues. The first is the aftercare provided to service personnel once they have left the armed forces. We have rightly covered a range of issues, including welfare, equipment, and frequency of tours. Those are all important, but we have to remember what happens to a soldier when they have picked up their armed forces long service and good conduct medal after 16 years, or when they have taken an honourable decommission, and decided to go to civvy street. I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion and many of the veterans’ associations that look after our heroes once they have decided to take a role in civilian life. They play an important role, providing reunion opportunities, support, and the mechanisms and facilities that are needed to ensure that armed forces personnel make a healthy, informed transition from a military to a civilian environment.

After the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, it was horrifying to learn that more than 300 veterans of that conflict had committed suicide since returning—a statistic that will shock the House. That is more than were killed in action on the islands. It is an unacceptable figure. One would think that things would have changed, but a recent report in the British Medical Journal highlights some of the psychological disorders and concerns that affect Army personnel, particularly those who are in combat situations for a total of more than 13 months. They include post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological distress, multiple physical symptoms, and symptoms connected with alcohol problems.

I appreciate that much has changed since the 1980s and the Falklands conflict, but I was horrified to learn, in response to a written question that I asked the Defence Secretary, that 17 serving soldiers who served either in Iraq or Afghanistan have committed suicide. We are talking about Army personnel who were still in uniform. They had not even left the protection of the military family, but decided to take their own lives. I would hazard a guess that the total number of people who have committed suicide having served in those two areas of conflict is double that figure, because there are those who were not receiving the attention and security that the military environment can offer. I do not know the numbers, and I seriously urge the Minister to investigate and try to find out the number of suicides among those who served in those conflicts but who left and were civilians.

I am afraid that the US does not fare any better: 99 American soldiers have killed themselves since 2006. That is the highest suicide rate in 26 years. We have not touched on that issue before, and I hope that the Minister will heed our concerns. We have a duty of care, which I do not believe we are fulfilling. We have a responsibility that goes far beyond the battlefields and parade squares, and we have an obligation to look after our heroes long after they have hung up their uniforms.

My second theme is the changing role of our military. We had a little engagement on that subject with the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), the Liberal Democrat spokesman. It was interesting to hear the Foreign Secretary’s recent comments on the “Today” programme, in which he promised to prioritise the Government’s work on conflict prevention, and to work better with the armed forces. That is the stance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Secretary also pledged greater integration and better co-operation with the Department for International Development.

I agreed with those sentiments, but I shall not hold my breath. I agreed with the comments of Sir Hilary Synnott, who is a respected commentator on Iraq. He has worked in the civil service and written and travelled extensively throughout Afghanistan and Iraq. He said:

“We shall not be holding our breaths. We have heard the like before. The imbalance of effort, of outlay of blood and treasure, between the military and the civilian arms of government has brought shame upon the Government.”

Those are harsh words from somebody so respected and so knowledgeable about such matters.

I shall touch on our concerns. We had a statement from the Liberal Democrats pointing out that our military are still in Iraq, and I am sure they would say the same about Afghanistan. We should be more concerned about what happens underneath that umbrella of security. The only reason why our military personnel are in those two operational environments is that we have not been able to achieve the level of infrastructure and improvements to those countries that would allow the military to move from a war fighting capacity to a peacekeeping one. That is because we do not have a proper co-ordinated plan in either of those environments.

I visit Afghanistan frequently and I was in Iraq not long ago. In both cases, we went in not understanding what was expected of DFID and of the FCO. The only expectation was that our military were to go in and somehow kill the bad guys and make the place safe. Let us suppose that that happened, and that in Helmand province we reached an agreement with the Taliban that was put in place. We would then have to start infrastructure-building from scratch. It is not the military who do that. It should be done by a combination of DFID and the FCO with the United Nations and the European Union. That is not happening in any part of Afghanistan on the scale that it should.

That is the concern, and it applies to Iraq as well. There are conflicts in Basra between the Mahdi army and the other groups, and the only thing that links them is their hatred of the British, who are seen as hostile because we are no longer liberators but occupiers. That is a horrible thing to say about our British forces and the good work that they do—[Interruption.] I hear barracking from the Government Benches. Does the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) wish to intervene?

I have not heard the hon. Gentleman mention armed services personnel for the past five minutes of what is now an eight-minute speech.

Another bizarre intervention from the hon. Gentleman. Does he not understand that the reason why we are facing pressures on the budget and why people are leaving in droves is the work that they are expected to do? The reason why the work is so tough is that the people who are supposed to be working next door to them—DFID and the FCO—are not able to conclude their jobs in time.

When we go into a country, there is a small window of opportunity to win over hearts and minds, and we are failing miserably to do that. That is why five years after we went into Iraq and six years after we went into Afghanistan, we still cannot walk away with pride and say, “We are leaving a country that we can be proud of.” Those are the challenges that we face and the problems that everyone in the armed forces is complaining about. Any soldier or sailor I spoke to during my visit to Iraq had little to say about the rest of the civil service. They were frustrated in their work. They were trying to provide an element of security and they did not feel that their efforts were being matched.

I should be careful about what I say because individual members of those Departments work very hard, but the lack of leadership and co-ordination leads me to believe that it is time to review the work of the MOD, the FCO and DFID and create something new. DFID has passed its sell-by date in its nation-building work. We are doing a disservice to our armed forces and the personnel who operate and wear the uniform with such pride, because we are putting them in harm’s way. They are creating a level of security and we are not taking advantage of it.

This has been a fruitful debate. Our armed forces deserve so much more, and until there is better co-ordination, armed forces personnel will feel frustrated with the work that they try to perform.

I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence had to say about the personnel Command Paper, and it put in my mind the importance of advocacy. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) referred to his attempt to gain some recognition for the British Armed Forces Federation, an interesting subject that provided food for thought. There is often debate around whether a union is or is not applicable, and most hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that a union in its conventional format would not apply to the armed services. Interestingly, however, the legal position with the armed services as I understand it would be that, although service personnel could join a trade union, they simply could not be represented in the conventional way, and there is no move by the trade unions to take on that role.

Nevertheless, that raises the important issue of who advocates and how that advocacy is done. The personnel Command Paper and other such matters give us the opportunity in the House to comment and organisations outside to make their presence known. I have read much that the British Armed Forces Federation has sent out and I have looked at its website. It seems to have many sensible things to say, and perhaps that is the way in which it can contribute.

There has been some advocacy recently, apparently on the part of service personnel, but I do not particularly agree with the style of what has been said. It has been done from the other House by former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. I have looked through the last 50 interventions and speeches made by Lords Inge, Guthrie and Boyce, but I have not seen a single reference to their own commercial interests—directorships in various companies. They are companies of particular note, for which I have considerable respect. I do not see the need to mention them again here, although I have mentioned the matter to the companies concerned.

If those senior and experienced former officers want to make their interventions, the least that they can do is have the same standards that are required by this House. Sadly, we are not at liberty to make a complaint to the other place. We can write to the Lords Speaker, but we cannot instigate any kind of inquiry; it must be done there, so they are beyond reproach in that sense. However, it behoves us to put qualifying parameters around what these former senior officers say. They may technically be serving officers; I think that Lord Inge may still be a serving officer on half pay as a retired five-star officer.

It is important when we hear advocacy deployed by people in this House or next door in the other place to understand what other interests they may have—particularly if they have considerable pecuniary interests, as Lord Inge and Lord Boyce especially have in the defence industry, but choose not to declare them. We have heard from the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) how those Members of the other House choose not to court publicity, but I cannot imagine anything further from the truth. More recently, they have been making intervention after intervention in public debate, courting publicity where they can. That does not serve debate or advocacy on the part of armed services personnel particularly well.

Others wish to speak, so I simply conclude by saying that there is plenty of room for advocacy. The Government have made it clear that the personnel Command Paper that is coming up is a perfect opportunity. I shall certainly be making a contribution and I urge hon. Members to help others outside this place who want to make contributions, while being wary of possible unstated vested interests.

Order. Just two hon. Members wish to speak. The winding-up speeches will start at 5.35 pm and I leave it to them to see how it can be arranged.

I pay tribute to members of Her Majesty’s armed forces. In particular, I mention 16 Air Assault Brigade from the Colchester garrison, who in the course of this year will be deployed to Afghanistan. We wish them Godspeed and a safe return.

I shall confine my remarks to two narrow areas of personnel. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) who, through parliamentary questions, has elicited the fact that half of the country’s single service personnel accommodation is substandard. I will balance that by saying that the new Merville barracks in Colchester provide the best possible accommodation, and that is the yardstick for which we should strive for all single military accommodation in a much shorter time frame than is currently envisaged, with only 38,000 rooms, apparently, achieving a top rating. I was not so happy to learn that almost 9,000 families remain stuck in grade 4 homes and another 387 are in accommodation so poor that it does not even reach the lowest official grading.

I am bound to observe that the sale by the last Conservative Government of the Ministry of Defence housing stock to Annington Homes must have been the biggest privatisation rip-off of the lot. When he sums up, perhaps the Minister will confirm that since that privatisation the Ministry of Defence has paid Annington Homes more in rent than the Government received when the 55,000 dwellings were sold in 1996. What makes the situation even worse is that if those sales of surplus accommodation—there have been many sales of such accommodation and Army land—had been invested in Ministry of Defence housing, all our Army, Navy and Royal Air Force families would now be living in family accommodation that was second to none.

I shall cite examples from my constituency of Colchester, and I cannot believe that they are isolated. Annington Homes managed to convince everybody that certain houses were so deplorable that they would have to be pulled down. The site has subsequently been sold off; land prices in Colchester are exceptionally high. Annington Homes made a financial killing, and only a tiny percentage came back to the Government—not even to the Ministry of Defence.

I shall give one other example, because the maths involved are easy for me. Some 40 former Ministry of Defence surplus dwellings on a single road had been purchased at an average price of £15,000 at privatisation. They were subsequently sold for £115,000, giving a gross profit of £4 million on just 40 dwellings. That story can be repeated right across the country, wherever Annington Homes has been selling off properties.

I turn to education matters, in particular the “Educating Service Children” report, which has 33 recommendations. It would be interesting to know how many of them have been adopted by the Ministry of Defence. I shall concentrate on recommendation 5:

“The MoD and local education authorities should begin planning for the impact that the creation of Super Garrisons will have on pupil numbers in schools located near Service bases.”

Clearly, that recommendation has not been followed through in Colchester with the Ministry of Defence and Essex education authority; there is a proposal to close the secondary school to which the children go from age 11. That was the subject of my Adjournment debate of 22 October last year. Alderman Blaxill school is the smallest secondary school in Colchester; between a fifth and a quarter of its pupils come from Army families and its closure has clearly not been discussed with the MOD. I ask the Minister to look at that issue. Will he and his officials also look at my Adjournment debate of 25 October 1999 on the education of Army children? Clearly, issues raised then have not been addressed.

Finally in my short contribution I want to mention three primary schools whose pupils come predominantly from services families, in the context of the closure by Essex county council of the hot school meals service in the county. Some 90 per cent. of children at Montgomery infant school are Army children, as are 70 per cent. of Montgomery junior school pupils. No hot meals are provided for them. I suggest that if the Army can provide meals for our service personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, there should be a system for providing hot school meals to children back in Colchester. About 60 per cent. of children at another school, St. Michael’s primary, are also from Army families. I urge the Ministry of Defence to consider seriously the whole question of education provision. It should look at what the Defence Committee said and act accordingly.

I have obviously drawn the short straw, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am grateful at least to have been able to draw one, however short.

One of the gratifying things about this debate is that it will be apparent to anybody who listens in from outside that there is absolute unanimity among everybody who has spoken, and in all parties in this House, about the importance of the military covenant and the commitment of any Government who send our troops abroad to ensure that they are properly supported, trained and equipped, and that they have fair and decent terms and conditions.

On that latter point, in my 20 years in the House there have never been a Government who have made so much progress in such a short time. Clearly, one never meets all one’s desiderata in life; equally clearly, there will always be public expenditure constraints. However, in the short space of time—18 months—that the Secretary of State has been in his present role, we have had the introduction of the operational allowance, which is tax-free and amounts to about £2,400 at the end of a six-month deployment; that is very significant. We have had an improved deployment welfare package, including 20 additional days’ leave at the end of a six-month deployment. We have had new rules and better ceilings for the compensation scheme. We have had the tax-free council tax rebate. We have had the new military wing at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham.

We have had, very importantly and for the first time ever, a cross-Government strategy for military personnel involving the MOD and the other Departments that are so crucial: the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which is important for reasons that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) mentioned; the Department of Health, which is important in terms of access to dental care and general practitioners as well as the military wings such as those at Selly Oak hospital; the Ministry of Justice which is important because of the sad matter of coroners’ inquests; and the Department for Communities and Local Government, which deals with access to council housing—I think that everyone in the House greatly welcomes the announcement of the legislation on that subject.

Last but not least, there is the pay deal, which has been very good, with the lowest ranks achieving 9.2 per cent. I personally express the great hope that this year the Government are again generous, because the military deserve to be treated as a very special case in relation to everybody else. That includes even the police, who may once or twice in their careers face a life-threatening situation, whereas the military live for six months at a time, on one deployment, with the prospect of being killed at any time. That is a very different psychological situation and a very different career pattern to adopt.

Apart from the covenant that the Government of the day have with the military— although, as I said, this Government have a wonderful record, taking into account all the obvious realities and constraints—there is a wider public covenant with the military. After all, the people who are in Helmand province and in Basra are risking their lives for our sakes. There is no doubt that if the terrorists who attacked last year in London and Glasgow had had the benefit of a six-month training course in Afghanistan in bomb-making and detonation techniques, the results of their endeavours would have been very different. There is no question but that the young men and women who are defending us in Afghanistan are risking their lives for our sakes. The covenant is not confined to the Government; it is an obligation that we all have.

There is overwhelming support in the country for the armed services in principle, with perhaps a few unfortunate exceptions, to which I shall refer in a moment. People often do not have the opportunities that they would like to express their sense of solidarity with the armed forces. The point has already been well made that there is probably less personal contact with and understanding of the military than there was in previous generations. In the world war two generation, or indeed the national service generation, almost every family had someone in uniform. The situation is very different now, and there are greater opportunities for misunderstandings or simple ignorance. The degree of public support for and understanding of the military is very important, because that is the context in which our armed services operate and recruit. It is also vital for morale, because nothing could be more demoralising than feeling that one is risking one’s life for people who are profoundly indifferent to, ignorant about or ill-informed as to what one is doing. Any sense of misunderstanding or misperception is very unfortunate and one would want to remove it.

Recently, there have been one or two very unfortunate incidents; they were exceptional and egregious, but extremely unattractive incidents. In one case, according to the popular press—I have not yet investigated this directly—a soldier in uniform was refused service on the forecourt of a BP service station. That was widely reported. In another incident, which I have investigated, having written to Mr. al-Fayed about it, a soldier was refused admission to Harrods because he was in uniform. That sort of thing is utterly disgraceful. Not very long ago, a woman was apparently insultingly rude about some wounded or crippled soldiers who were using a swimming bath. These unfortunate incidents are, of course, blown up by the popular press, but the fact that they exist must be a matter of deep concern to us.

That is the context in which the Prime Minister has asked me to undertake a study of national recognition and public understanding of the armed services in order to see what possible measures might be taken and what initiatives might be envisaged to enhance public understanding and respect for the armed services. In that, I am well supported by Air Commodore Martin Sharp, and Bill Clark OBE, who is a senior MOD civil servant. I hope that we can make a modest contribution to improvement in that field, as the Government have so laudably done by fulfilling their obligations under their military compact with the armed services.

I begin by drawing the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I would also like to add my expression of admiration for our men and women in uniform, their long-suffering families, veterans and the organisations that look after them and their interests, often unsung. Veterans Aid, an organisation that I visited on Tuesday with my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), is a drop-in centre near Victoria station, and many such organisations are doing similar work unsung, day in and day out, and we must pay tribute to them.

We have had an interesting and varied debate. A total of 11 Back-Bench speakers have all added, in their individual way, to the debate on this important subject. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) said that he was concerned about cadets and how people’s exposure to the military may have been reduced in modern times. He might have mentioned the abolition of the Government’s school visits teams, which were doing a great deal to increase the profile of the military in our schools but have been replaced by a compact disc.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) talked about mental health problems. I sincerely recommend that he visit the medical assessment programme at St. Thomas’ hospital, which I did on Tuesday. I say in all sincerity that if he did so, he might gain a slightly more profound understanding of some of the extremely complex—and in many ways highly technical—issues that relate to mental health, and of the occupational implications of service in the armed forces.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) was greatly exercised about training, quite obviously, because MOD St. Athan lies within his constituency. He did not mention the voids and cancellation rates that apply to much of our training effort at the moment as a result of operational pressures and undermanning.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) rightly took exception to the Rowntree report. However, when we recruit people to our armed forces, it is appropriate that we highlight the positive aspects that represent a truthful reflection of what they are likely to be exposed to. Certainly, things such as sport and adventurous training, which have deteriorated in recent years because of operational commitments and pressures, are not quite as obvious an attraction to our young men and women as they were 20 or 25 years ago when I joined up. It is right that we paint an accurate picture of what the future holds in store for our recruits. My right hon. Friend also echoed Lord Guthrie’s remarks about the now Prime Minister’s apparent disinterest in military matters when he was Chancellor.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) talked about the importance of logistics. Again, that is understandable, given his constituency interest. He was right to mention the importance of in-theatre tracking.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) spoke authoritatively about his battalion and its return to Hounslow barracks. The Secretary of State said that he was interested in Hounslow barracks—I am, too, and I would like to visit. Perhaps we can all visit together and the Secretary of State might like to give us a lift.

The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) talked about health care, which is close to my heart, and the importance of taking a balanced view of the military covenant.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) rightly paid tribute to the Royal British Legion, which has done so much to highlight the military covenant in the past few months. He spoke knowledgeably about suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder, which is related to overstretch and harmony guidelines.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) railed against retired top brass. I have one or two things to say about the top brass, but in a slightly different vein.

I thought that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) would refer to early-day motion 2030, which he tabled in the previous Session. It related to a windfall tax on our defence suppliers and the impact it may have on our defence community.

It is important to place what we now call the military covenant in a proper historical context. Rudyard Kipling talked about the trials of Tommy Atkins in 1892. He was observed to be the saviour of his country in wartime but at other times was denigrated by an ungrateful and unappreciative public, who misunderstood him.

A hundred years on, it seems as though Tommy is still being slighted in some quarters. We have heard about people being told to remove the Queen’s uniform in British hospitals, airports, even sports facilities and being refused service in retail outlets. The difference between then and now is that our society is less deferential, less civil and arguably less polite. People’s ire today is freely and frankly expressed. Disapproval of the military has been heightened by unpopular conflicts and the Government’s failure to win the British people’s support for them.

The military covenant is a deal that is struck in recognition of our troops’ willingness to sacrifice everything. It is a tripartite deal, which involves, in equal measure, our armed forces, the people and the Government. According to ex-service chiefs and charities, two of those parties have reneged on the deal. Understanding the public’s attitude to the military does not necessarily help us fix it. Tommy Atkins may simply have to put up with the cold shoulder of public opinion, but there is no excuse for the third party to the covenant, the Government, to mirror society in disregarding the Army and its veterans.

It is odd that the Government should set up an inquiry into the relationship between the people and the military while apparently ignoring their part in the covenant. Given the unpopularity of their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this Government, more than any other, owe it to the armed forces to do the right thing.

Who can doubt that overstretch and incompletely funded discretionary commitments lie at the heart of the current sad state of affairs? They run as a thread through everything that relates to the armed forces today. Our troops put up with single accommodation for trained soldiers that first-year college students would laugh at. They put up with a gulf between social housing and homes apparently fit for heroes and with a Government who refuse to adopt even the minimal decent homes standards that apply elsewhere. As the Public Accounts Committee said in November, housing is viewed as low-hanging fruit when savings are required.

Our soldiers put up with inequitable Government funding for Army schoolchildren in counties such as mine. In a letter to me this week, the Minister for Schools and Learners suggested that he would consider a revision to the funding formula to reflect forces children only in the context of people such as migrant workers, whose children also changed schools frequently. No special consideration—so much for the military covenant.

We have seen harmony guidelines routinely breached, with 10 per cent. of the Army’s trained strength currently affected and dire consequences for mental, physical and domestic well-being, as we know from a recent study published in the British Medical Journal. We have seen delayed coroners’ inquests, as well as a gross shortage in medical staffing, including a monstrous 55 per cent. shortfall in trained doctors in the Defence Medical Services, and a Government unwilling to say whether increased spending on the NHS has been reflected in full by a commensurate uplift for defence medicine. We see compensation for wounds that looks tawdry when set against settlements for relatively minor industrial injuries.

All those are examples of how a mismatch between commitments and resources and the traditional grudging attitude of Labour Ministers to the military has fractured the covenant between the armed forces and the Government. The result is that people who can leave do leave, hence the Public Accounts Committee’s revelation in July that there are now more than 80 operational pinch points, from medics to aircrew. That is why 1,344 Army officers quit in the final six months of last year, which was twice the comparable six-month figure for 2005-06 and three times the figure for 2004-05.

Unfortunately time is extremely limited, but I have two anecdotes that exemplify fairly well the problems that we face through the Government’s and the public’s attitude to our military. The new year has already brought us two bad weather stories that, in their own different ways, encapsulate the shoddy way in which the public and the Government deal with our troops. The first anecdote is about 200 homecoming soldiers who were apparently ordered to strip off their desert combats on freezing tarmac before entering the terminal building at Birmingham airport, to which they had been diverted because of fog at Brize Norton. An airport spokesman said that

“certain airlines may refuse to accept personnel in military uniform.”

Will the Minister clarify who told those soldiers to remove the Queen’s uniform and assure the House that whoever it was has been rigorously re-briefed? Will he also undertake to blacklist any airline that presumes to stipulate that our servicemen may not fly in rig?

Fog at Brize was apparently also responsible for the diversion of 130 soldiers returning from Basra to Prestwick in a horrific 36-hour transit fiasco that got them back to their home base in Wiltshire at 5 am on Christmas day. Why were soldiers left stranded at Prestwick, armed only with a railway warrant? Why was the charter flight sent over dozens of fog-free English airports to dump those troops at Prestwick? On Christmas eve, why did somebody from Whitehall’s newly refurbished, incredibly plush MOD retirement home for the top brass not get their finger out to ensure that those boys and girls got home on time?

Is it not the truth that the Government’s commitment to honouring the covenant does not extend to replacing clapped-out airframes, showing bargain-basement contract operators the door and coughing up the paltry runway dues or whatever else it takes to get our people home for Christmas? I look forward to hearing the fogbound Minister’s account of what on earth was happening on both those occasions and to listening to what he thinks they say about our commitment to the military covenant.

At the end of that we have to remind ourselves that the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) started his contribution by telling us how our society had become less polite.

I am replying to a shortened debate with a shortened contribution. I am sorry that I will not be able to respond to all the points that have been raised, but I thought that it was more important that the hon. Gentleman and I should both agree to shorten our contributions to enable those who have made the effort to turn up to speak. There is a degree of expertise in the House that is recognised on both sides. I will do my best in the time remaining to respond to the many points that have been made and will write to hon. Members afterwards if I do not manage to cover the issues that they raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) asked me about super-garrisons and our continued commitment to them. We are indeed still committed to the creation of super-garrisons. He is right that they will offer opportunities for improved individual development and have the potential to give stability to Army families. I know that he is anxious that we should do something in Stafford—he is relentless in his representations on behalf of his constituency—but such issues are complicated and are tied up with the issue of bringing home troops from Germany, as he said. We are looking to travel in the direction that he would want us to travel in, but not necessarily at the speed at which he would want things done.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) welcomed the Command Paper and raised a couple of important points that are worth addressing. First, he asked about the appropriate role for charities and for the Government? We have a long-established principle in this country that charities should play a role. Is there any hon. Member in any political party who wants to see that diminished, who does not want it continued, who does not acknowledge the fantastic work that many military charities do and have done over many years? It is not for the Government to do everything, but of course the Government have responsibilities and must discharge them. There is no way that we want to disincentivise the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the Royal British Legion and all the other organisations that support our military.

Secondly, my hon. Friend, along with other Members, raised the issue of inquests. We are making progress on inquests, as we have given additional resources to both the Oxford and the Wiltshire coroners to enable them to do more. As part of the Command Paper, we are looking into whether we should do more to support service families in their bereavement. I accept my hon. Friend’s point that changing this may not necessarily be my top priority, but I ask other hon. Members who call for a change to think very seriously about what they want us to do with the coroner service.

The Ministry of Defence is represented by lawyers at only a minority—a small minority—of coroners’ inquests. If we want to give families legal aid in order for them to be represented at such inquests, we are effectively saying that lawyers should have a role in them, which fundamentally changes the nature of coroners’ courts. I do not know whether Members really want that fundamental change and I am not at all sure that that is the best use of the money we have to support families, particularly bereaved families. There is a lot more that we could and should do, so we are looking into that as part of the Command Paper.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) felt that other Government Departments were falling down and not necessarily doing the business, leaving the military to hold the baby, as it were, in areas of operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present when the Prime Minister announced the “next steps” for Afghanistan, recognising the need for a comprehensive approach. We acknowledge the hon. Gentleman’s point that the military can do only so much and that other organisations—not just our own Government organisations—have a role to play. The politics of Iraq underpins some of these issues and it is the politicians of Iraq who can and should pick them up and take them forward. They have the ability, the wherewithal and the finances to do so. Our military cannot be blamed if everything has not been put in place at the appropriate time, when they have done a good job in providing the stability that has allowed progress to be made in the first place.

One subject that I have discussed with the Secretary of State is the introduction of a co-ordinator or a lead figure in Afghanistan to join together the work of all the key bodies—the EU, the Department for International Development, the United States Agency for International Development and so forth. There has been a great deal of talk about that, including from the former Prime Minister and our current Prime Minister, so can the Minister update the House on what is happening about this appointment? I understand that there is tentative agreement between the EU and UN about this appointment, which is timely when Tom Koenigs, head of the current UN Afghanistan operation, has retired.

We will update the House on that, but it is not appropriate to spend much time on it in an already shortened debate. There is no huge disagreement between what the hon. Gentleman is saying in principle and what we agree needs to be decided on those issues.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) talked about homes, particularly the contract for Annington Homes. He is right: we still live with the consequences of that contract. As he said, we have paid more in rent than we have received. However, the contract was entered into and we must honour it. The company had the good fortune to buy property at the bottom of the market at a time when it was impossible to lose.

The hon. Gentleman said something that has been said repeatedly in the House. As the Secretary of State said in his opening speech, we recognise what still needs to be done to improve accommodation, but let us stop this nonsense about half our accommodation being substandard by any measure. The standards that we use to measure our service accommodation are higher than the standards applied in civilian life—and rightly so—and we have aspirations to ensure that our people live in the best grade of accommodation. The fact that we are not prepared to lower our aspirations should not allow people to exaggerate the situation. There are people who must put up with bad accommodation, and I accept that it is 100 per cent. bad for them, but huge progress is being made. Money is being spent and has been spent over a long period, and we have plans for continued spending which the Secretary of State set out.

The hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), whom I was about to mention, made an extraordinary speech. He came pretty close to saying that we needed to spend an extra £5 billion on defence. He claimed that people going out to theatre did not have body armour, and that we did not listen to our troops. He should go and have a look. Everyone going out to theatre has his own body armour. It is irresponsible to say in the House that that is not true, and that we are sending people into theatre without body armour.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman genuinely believes that we should spend an extra £5 billion on defence, but if he does, he will have a job to do with those on his own Front Bench as well as with the Government. Not a single party in the House has committed itself to increased defence spending, notwithstanding all the extravagant claims that are made. The hon. Gentleman needs to discuss that with his own party as well as others.

I am afraid that I am very short of time.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said that we needed an extra 7,000 people in the Army and we had no budget for recruiting. I remind him that a month or so ago his party presented the House with a paper describing its commitment to the armed forces, and a disclaimer: “By the way, we have not put any budget into this”. That was a rather bigger commitment than the commitment to recruitment. We have recruitment capability the length and breadth of the country, and it is budgeted for. I hope that the hon. Gentleman did not mean that. I think he was saying that we needed additional resources for recruitment, but if his party cannot include any commitment in a strategic paper, claiming that we are letting our armed forces down and then saying that there is no money attached to its proposals, he hardly has a case for saying that we have no money for recruitment.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who opened the debate for the Conservative party, attacked the Prime Minister again for the figures that he claimed in relation to Iraq. The Prime Minister came to the House and said that by Christmas there would be 4,500 of our troops in Iraq. They were; they are. It is no good the hon. Gentleman going around talking about regional variations and throwing out figures. Of course figures will go up and down. As we RIP—relief in place—troops in and out of theatre and make other commitments in the near-theatre area, there will be fluctuations; the hon. Gentleman knows that. What was said in the House was that our troop numbers would be down at 4,500 by Christmas, and they are. [Interruption.] They are down to the figure that was said. The hon. Gentleman also claimed that we were short of helicopters; he should know that we have increased helicopter flying hours—

It being Six o’clock, the motion lapsed, without Question put.