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Service Personnel (Active Service)

Volume 475: debated on Monday 28 April 2008

As at 23 April 2008, the endorsed force levels for southern Iraq and Afghanistan are 4,000 and 7,800 respectively. The precise number of personnel in theatre at any one time fluctuates on a daily basis for a variety of reasons, including mid-tour rest and recuperation, temporary absence for training, evacuation for medical reasons and the roulement of forces.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he join me in paying tribute to those from RAF Leeming who are currently serving, and those from RAF Linton-on-Ouse, Dishforth airfield and Alanbrooke barracks, Topcliffe? Will he also have regard to the fact that the numbers serving and the length of tours is having a tremendous impact on overstretch and morale? How can we ensure that morale is not affected by the long tours and the short time those serving have at home with their families in between?

I am very happy to do as the hon. Lady asks by paying tribute to those forces, and to all our forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I must say to her that despite the fact that our armed forces are stretched—we recognise that that is the case—and working hard, the morale of our forces in theatre is good. When I go out to theatre, I find that not only is it good, but that those forces at the sharp end on the front line who are in the most austere of circumstances have the best morale. They are soldiering—they are achieving and doing what they wanted and trained to do. Their morale is good, and they are doing an excellent job and they deserve the support of the House.

The Government argue that our troops are stretched but not overstretched, yet the drawdown from Iraq has been postponed and serious recruitment difficulties cannot be entirely masked by a massive increase in recruitment from the Commonwealth. For how much longer can we operate beyond defence planning assumptions without doing damage to our future capabilities? Do we really have the spare capacity to undertake further commitments—in Kosovo, for example—and if we do, what lessons have we learned from Iraq and Afghanistan about making it clear that we are going in for a time-limited shift and not taking on another open-ended commitment?

There is no untime-limited commitment open to us in Kosovo. There is a commitment we will have to deal with and respond to, but it is a time-limited commitment to provide forces to Kosovo. Of course we must be mindful of the hard work we are asking of our armed forces. We must keep that under assessment at all times, and we do so. We take advice from the military chain of command on what is feasible and what is acceptable, and we must ensure that we stay on top of that and do not ask too much of our armed forces, because they are working hard. We are asking an awful lot of them and they deserve our support. They are doing an excellent job, and I am satisfied that they are capable of continuing to do so.