I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of armed forces personnel.
We are fortunate to have the best armed forces in the world. What I see as I visit them around the world, including in Afghanistan just before Christmas, is always profoundly impressive and often humbling. Their extraordinary commitment and dedication make the world a better place. They fight terror on its front line to enable the rest of us to sleep more easily. That all comes at a price. We ask much of our armed forces and their service exacts a toll on them and their families and on veterans. For example, this year as the rest of us opened presents and ate turkey on Christmas day, our people in Afghanistan were fighting hard in Operation Sond Chara, near Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
In return for such service, the Government have an obligation to the armed forces. It is an obligation that I am determined that we fulfil. Equally, it is an obligation that should never be viewed as complete. We must continue to strive to do better, to respond to new challenges and to minimise the downsides associated with service life. I welcome the opportunity to set out what we have done and what we will continue to do in that regard. This is our commitment to the men and women of our armed forces.
First and foremost, I know that the House will join me in paying tribute to all those armed forces personnel who have given their lives in the service of our country. They include the four people in Iraq and the 51 people in Afghanistan who made the ultimate sacrifice in 2008. Most recently, this year, we remember the five men who have been killed while patrolling in Helmand province. These deaths are utterly tragic and our thoughts and our deepest sympathies are with those families affected by such a terrible loss. Their loved ones did not die in vain. Our mission in Afghanistan is part of a coalition of some 40 nations. We are there helping to create the space in which Afghan capacity and institutions can develop. Eventually, those institutions will be mature enough to meet the needs of the Afghan people. It will take time, and we will need to be patient.
Our mission in Afghanistan is sometimes presented as having little relevance to our country. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are in Afghanistan because it is in our national security interests to be there; otherwise it would once again become a failed state from which al-Qaeda or other terrorists could launch attacks on to our streets, either from the ungoverned space that would exist or under the protection of the Taliban. It is this unthinkable scenario that our armed forces are preventing through their courage and their sacrifice in Afghanistan.
When I saw those remarkable men and women in Afghanistan just before Christmas, I was struck as always by their professionalism and sense of pride and commitment. I found them in good spirits despite the difficult and dangerous work and the losses that they had suffered. They recognised the importance of succeeding. They also see a different picture from that which is sometimes painted back here—a picture where increasingly the Taliban are in retreat, first a year ago in Musa Qaleh, then in the south around Garmsir, and more recently around Nad Ali following the operations over Christmas and the new year.
I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way and I agree entirely with him about the outstanding service that our personnel are giving to us. He will agree with me though, I believe, that our military personnel are spending far more time now than even a few years ago in theatres of war. With that goes additional pressure on their families, their wives, husbands, partners and loved ones back in Britain. Of course, that has caused enormous difficulty in relationships. What is the Ministry of Defence doing to help family members cope with the stress and strain of having loved ones who are now far more likely to be in theatres of war than before?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have been asking a lot of our armed forces—that they have been operating above the planning assumptions for some time now, and no matter how people try to mitigate them, those stresses come out somewhere. They come out in breaches of harmony guidelines, and therefore create additional pressures on service life.
There are plenty of support mechanisms. People in post are constantly monitored to try to assist, both at local unit level—regimental level—and more widely, at Army level or Royal Marine level or Navy level, to try to mitigate those effects. For instance, we brought in the decompression facility for people coming home from theatre to try to get them in a better place and give them advice on their way home after, in some cases, some very hard fighting and some intense operations. So we are constantly looking at how we can relieve that pressure, and as I shall explain later in my speech, we hope to improve our performance against harmony guidelines, because that in itself is so important.
As well as recognising the personal strains that can be imposed on families and individuals, does the Minister accept that the fact that our Army is “running hot”, as Sir Richard Dannatt described it some time ago, has a consequence in respect of people’s willingness to go on serving, and in particular has an impact on the most important elements of the Army—personnel at the level of sergeant and corporal, who at a particular stage of their development in the Army find that these strains prove intolerable for them and their families?
It can. That, in addition to the moral duty, is why we need to mitigate the effects as best we can. However, these are marvellous, impressive people who wish to serve their country and to develop the necessary skills to carry out operations. There has recently been an upturn in some of our recruiting potential, although we do not know whether this trend will continue with the economic problems. However, we must monitor the retention problem all the time because we need the skills of the type that the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about at corporal and sergeant level. The point at which people reach maturity and are giving their most is when we need to try to hang on to them.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much indeed for giving way, although he might not thank me now. Would it not have been easier to achieve the harmony guidelines if the Government had not cut four battalions from the infantry in 2004? In hindsight, was not that a bad decision? When will the Government address the under-recruitment and lack of retention that leads to the Royal Marines, for example, being 9.8 per cent. under-strength? Seven battalions in the infantry are 20 per cent. undermanned: the Scots Guards, 4 Scots, 2 Fusiliers, 2 and 3 Yorks, 1 Mercian and 40 Commando. If the Government addressed those problems, the pressure on individual infantry servicemen, who, due to that pressure, the Government now say are in a pinch-point trade, would not be so great.
I know that the hon. Gentleman looks into these things and that he has talked to many people over a period of time. I also know his party’s policy, although I do not know how it would pay for it. The policy changed recently from a position in which there was no guarantee of the spending to which we are committed, to one in which the Government’s existing spending will be at least met.
I have spoken to the Chief of the General Staff about the exact point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He does not want additional battalions, but he wants the thickness of his existing force to be recovered, because moving people around to fill gaps and mitigate the imposition on individuals causes additional stretch. His main priority is recruiting to get back the strength of the individual battalions, not the three additional battalions about which the Opposition talk, which is not something that he would want as head of the Army.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one way of meeting harmony guidelines would be to minimise the number of armed forces personnel on operations? He accepts that when Tornado replaces Harrier, the uplift for ground personnel will be some 50 per cent. more than at the moment. However, will he reassure the House that the decision to replace Tornado with Harrier will not be made until Tornado meets its final operating capability and that that will be the driver, not the artificial internal planning date of 1 April 2009?
The hon. Gentleman has made much of this and has said things in the House that he ought to think seriously about. The need to replace the Harrier force is, in large part, because of harmony considerations. He does not need to go into great detail; he just needs to apply a bit of logic to think about that. There are three Harrier squadrons and we roll them round—
Order. I know that the Minister is responding to an intervention, but before he goes too far down that road, I gently remind him that today’s debate is about personnel, not equipment in detail.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With the greatest respect, it will be impossible to conduct this debate if my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) cannot raise the issue of the impact of the roulement between aircraft types on pilots and ground staff. If the Minister is denied the opportunity to respond to that point, I venture to suggest that the public, let alone the armed forces, will not understand why we cannot debate those matters in the round, as they go to the heart of dealing with armed forces personnel.
I very much understand that point of order, and it is difficult to separate equipment from the members of the armed forces who use it, but this is a debate on armed forces personnel. Clearly, lack of equipment, or delayed introduction of equipment, can have an impact on armed forces’ morale. Passing reference to equipment is therefore in order, but extended discussion of particular projects is not. Defence equipment will be debated on another occasion.
Order. There is no more that I can say on that point of order. I think that I have made myself perfectly clear.
If it is an entirely separate point of order, I will hear it, but I do not think that I could have made my point clearer.
On a separate point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure that the Leader of the House or the Government are aware of the points that you have made in your statement. Will you take all possible means to ensure that they understand the implications of what you have said, as we received advice from the Leader of the House, speaking at the Dispatch Box, on what we might discuss in this debate? Of course, you are the final arbiter of what we can discuss in any particular debate.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of order and, in this instance, the Chair is in a rather difficult position because of what has been said on another occasion, and is on the record. As far as today’s debate is concerned, I am simply setting out the position, and it must be adhered to.
I accept that ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope to be able to answer the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) while sticking to your strictures by majoring on the issue of people and the potential stretch on them, and not on the issue of equipment. I shall certainly try to do that.
Let me try to answer the intervention to which I was responding before I allow another intervention; I was trying to respond to the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes. He has made a series of allegations about the reasons for replacing Joint Force Harrier with the Tornado GR4. There are three squadrons of Harrier; if they stay in Afghanistan, they become very Afghanistan-centred, and suffer skill fade in some of the areas in which we need them to be capable. We are rolling them around, so that they effectively have two periods in, one period out. They have been there since 2003. We have seven squadrons of Tornado. We are therefore far better able to give the Tornado people the required harmony protection, ensure a sustainable deployment, and enable the Tornado squadrons to maintain the other skills that we need them to have. That will enable the Harrier force to rejuvenate fully after such a long deployment in Afghanistan. That makes eminent sense to me.
The hon. Gentleman has been given information and has latched on to the fact that there was an internal deadline. He worried himself, and others, with the idea that we would deploy Tornado before it had the required capability, so that we could relieve that situation. We will not. We have to have internal deadlines to try to make things happen, to motivate Departments and to get things done in the most timely fashion. However, despite the harmony pressures on Joint Force Harrier, Ministers and the Chief of the Air Staff do not intend, and would not allow, the Tornado to go into theatre before it is up to spec and has full capability, in terms of protecting our troops on the ground. Having given the hon. Gentleman the assurance that Tornado will not go into theatre until then, I hope that we can finally put the matter to bed, and need not continue this debate any longer.
Recruitment has been mentioned a number of times. The Minister knows of my grave concern about deaths at Deepcut Army barracks in the past. In order to attract people to the Army, potential recruits have to be assured of their safety. Is there anything he can do to release the Devon and Cornwall police report into the Surrey police’s treatment of the deaths? It is very important, very much in the public interest and very much in the interests of Army recruiting that we know what that report says and whether those individuals were murdered or not.
The issue has gone on for some time. My predecessor explained the situation in the House. The Dhali-Blake process was put in place as a result of the case to try to make certain that we were doing all we could to provide the necessary protection for very young people, sometimes vulnerable people, who join our armed forces. Since I have been in post, I have tried to make sure that all those processes are as thorough as they can be. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman whether a police report, which is not in my ownership or in my gift, can be released. I know that there are continuing concerns and that some of the parents find it difficult to accept the situation, but I firmly believe that we have done what needed to be done to try—we could never be certain—to mitigate the situation exposed at Deepcut.
The Minister and I have spoken about the manning crisis—I use the phrase advisedly—that faces the Army in particular at present. I accept that recruiting figures look a lot better, but now that we are talking strictly about personnel matters, may I ask him to address the two terrible problems? One is the problem of infantry retention in training, where, as he knows, 35 per cent. of all those men who have been so carefully recruited consistently drop out of training. The other is the thorny problem, which is just beginning properly to emerge, of the number of long-term sick who continue to be held on strength, particularly in the combat arms. For instance, the Third Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery have nearly 22 per cent. of their personnel sick and undeployable.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, those issues tax the Army and the Royal Marines, who seek to deal with similar issues all the time. The Army is trying desperately to drive down what it calls, in its imitable way, the breakage rate in training. I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman outside the Chamber. I am more than happy to pick his brains, and the Army is more than happy to accept any contribution that he or anyone else can make to try to improve that situation. The offer remains open for an ongoing conversation.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, many people are applying their brains to the problem. Nobody wants a 35 per cent. drop-out rate in the infantry, but people want hard, tough training that turns out recruits who are capable of surviving in the kind of environments in which we expect them to operate. It would do nobody any favours to soften that training in order to lower the drop-out rate. The result may well be personnel who are not properly equipped, and therefore casualties in theatre that could be avoided. Getting that balance right is enormously difficult. People are applying themselves. I know the hon. Gentleman thinks an awful lot about this issue, and I am more than happy to continue the conversation with him about whether he can make a contribution to it.
The Minister mentions the justified criticism of the shortfall in some of the infantry battalions. Is he aware that the Royal Anglian regiment had a reception at the House of Commons this week, at which we were told that it is the best recruited infantry regiment in the British Army and is at full strength? Perhaps other regiments should look at what the Royal Anglians are doing, to see whether they can make up their shortfall in recruitment by following the Royal Anglians’ example.
We should seek to spread best practice in the armed forces, as anywhere else. If the Royal Anglians are doing something from which people can learn, of course we need to see whether it is transferable to other units within the Army. I shall now make some progress, as I have allowed a lot of interventions.
In the past year, we have contributed to a transformation of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Our people have brought the Iraqi forces very close to the point at which they will no longer need our help and support. The plan was to enable Iraqis to take responsibility for Iraq. The armed forces have achieved that plan, and I salute them for it. I fully appreciate their frustration, articulated by the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff, at commentators who ignore both the price and the progress, and who seek to belittle those efforts. The armed forces have succeeded in their mission and should be commended for doing so. Basra is a far better place now than when we found it, and the nation should be proud of our forces. Also important is the fact that as they leave Iraq, we will be able to reduce some of the stretch that we have had to deal with, and to improve our performance against the harmony guidelines.
Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan rightly provide the focus. However, we should not forget that our men and women are constantly deployed in the UK and all around the world—providing our nuclear deterrent, countering piracy or narcotics, or contributing to better futures in places such as Sierra Leone. All that places a heavy burden on our soldiers, sailors and airmen and their families, and we are doing our best to support them properly.
The centrepiece is the unprecedented service personnel Command Paper. It sets out, for the first time ever, a range of commitments to the armed forces constituency from across the full range of Government services. To implement it, we are working closely with other Government Departments and in conjunction with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Executives. The Command Paper was drawn up in consultation with the chiefs of staff, the single services, the families federations and an external reference group including the service charities. I was delighted that the chief executive of the Royal British Legion joined the Chief of Defence Staff and me in launching the Command Paper in July. Indeed, the Royal British Legion claimed that the Command Paper means that the military covenant is now being honoured.
The Command Paper includes more than 40 specific commitments and is based on two key principles: first, the removal of disadvantage associated with service life; and secondly, where appropriate and especially for sacrifice, entitlement to special treatment. It covers compensation, medical support, education, housing and much more. As the Prime Minister announced last month, we have doubled the maximum lump sum available to the most seriously injured personnel to a new limit of £570,000 for the most serious injuries. That will mean that an additional £10 million will be paid to injured personnel who have already been awarded lump-sum payments. The lump sums are in addition to a tax-free, guaranteed income for life. Taken as a whole, the package can amount, in the most serious cases, to in excess of £1.5 million over a lifetime.
As the Minister has said, the doubling of the compensation package is broadly welcomed by the Royal British Legion and others, but will he comment on two aspects of it? First, in the old days, the onus was on the Department to pay the war pension or prove that it should not be paid. Now, that has been reversed: the claimant has to prove that he deserves the pension. Secondly, there are five and 10-year time limits on claiming the pension. Should that not be lifted on the grounds that someone might realise that he is due compensation only long after his service?
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned an issue that has been raised with Ministers; the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), deals with it on an ongoing basis. We have a duty to ensure that payments are made appropriately. We have therefore said repeatedly that if people who are concerned about this can give us evidence that this is causing a genuine problem to people who should be paid compensation under the scheme, we will address it. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), when he was Under-Secretary, saying that to veterans’ charities, as well. We want to ensure that those who are genuinely in need of and entitled to this compensation get it. If there is evidence that this is causing them a problem, let us see it and we will act.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman and covered his point, which he and others have raised before.
Those who receive lump-sum compensations now have that payment disregarded from their means test for affordable housing. Our people and their families no longer slip down NHS waiting lists when obliged to move around the country; previous waiting time is now taken into account. Our wounded personnel require and deserve special support. The House will be aware of the world-class facilities at the defence medical rehabilitation centre at Headley Court. We have been working with the Help for Heroes charity to provide additional recreational facilities at Headley Court, and we are investing millions of pounds as our contribution to a joint project to provide a new gym and pool. This is in addition to the £24 million investment for upgraded wards, accommodation and prosthetic facilities. Moreover, the NHS in England has undertaken to ensure that the highest standard of prosthetic limbs provided to injured personnel is matched for life for veterans retiring from our armed services.
Most of our very seriously injured personnel from operations are treated in the UK at University of Birmingham foundation trust hospital at Selly Oak. I was delighted that last year’s all-party Defence Committee report concluded that Birmingham’s
“clinical care for Servicemen and women seriously injured on operations is second to none”.
I visited Selly Oak in December and saw first-hand the remarkable people there, including patients and staff. I was most struck by my military assistant meeting an old friend who was coping marvellously with the awful and perhaps unique distinction of having been repatriated to Selly Oak, courtesy of enemy action, twice: a marvellous man, very brave, recovering from his injuries second time around, and very appreciative of the care that he was receiving.
I entirely agree with the Minister. Those of us who have visited Selly Oak have nothing but praise for the people who work there and for the treatment that our wounded troops receive. On my last visit there, I met a battalion welfare officer and the commanding officer’s wife visiting wounded members of their unit, and it struck me that rear parties are the unsung heroes of operations. They told me about their experiences of having to inform wives and loved ones of serious injuries and deaths, and the horrendous job that that involves. That makes us understand that we have to be extremely grateful for the work that rear parties do and hope that they get all the support they may need in the difficult work they have to do.
I do not think that I can do better than that; the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have repeatedly had the same experience whereby people are being supported from within the regiment—the appreciation is fantastic. At those times, the Army family or the regimental family—the RAF and the Navy are the same—wrap their arms round people in pretty much most circumstances. We can do better, and we must look to do better, in ensuring that visiting officers are appropriately trained and given all the skills and back-up that they need to deal with families in a bereavement situation and suchlike. The rear parties do a truly excellent job.
I mentioned Selly Oak, and we will not be complacent. We have an important stake in the new Birmingham hospital that is being built close by, which will open in 2010 and will include a new bespoke military ward. I should also tackle the myth that has arisen that there is a lack of priority NHS treatment for veterans whose ill health relates to their service. That is quite wrong. All primary care trusts have been issued with, and accepted, guidance regarding priority treatment for such veterans, and we are also ensuring that our people—the veterans—are made aware of their individual entitlement.
It is vital also that our people are not disadvantaged educationally. The children of our servicemen and women now enjoy priority access to state boarding schools, second only to children in care. Those with special educational needs benefit from guidance that has been given to all local authorities that they should ensure that service children experience no disadvantage in accessing the services that they require. Furthermore, from August this year, service leavers with more than six years’ service will be entitled to study for an additional qualification up to degree level, free from tuition fees. The armed forces are sometimes characterised as a way for many people from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve themselves and make their way in life. With the provision that I have described, that will be the case more than ever.
The Minister refers to education for the children of service personnel. Will he and his colleagues examine the Defence Committee’s excellent report on that matter and relate it to what is happening in the real world? Notably, Essex county council decided this week to shut the very secondary school that military children go to, and to which the Committee went to get evidence.
I am not aware of the circumstances of that case, but I will of course examine the report. It has been studied, as are all the Committee’s reports. We talk to people all the time about service educational needs, and one issue dealt with in the Command Paper was that of statemented children with special needs. When their families were obliged to move because of their service life, they had to start the statementing process all over again. We are ending that and ensuring that those statements are transferable. However, I do not know about the particular circumstances that the hon. Gentleman mentions.
May I inform the Minister that Essex county council carried out a wide-ranging consultation about the future of secondary education in Colchester? The resulting decision reflects a lot of opinions that were fed in, not least by those who wanted to keep education in the south of the town, near the garrison. There will be a vocational school there, with which the garrison will be invited to be involved. I am extremely grateful to the Minister’s colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for receiving Lord Hanningfield, the leader of the county council, to discuss how the military might be more involved with Colchester’s schools than ever before, and particularly with the new vocational college. I fear that the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is now rather isolated on this issue.
The hon. Gentleman has said what he has said, and I have given him the opportunity to do so.
We recognise that one of the main concerns of service personnel and their families is the state of service accommodation. Although some of it is very good, much of it is not, as the result of decades of underfunding. Addressing that matter is a huge undertaking, but we are making progress. Since 2003, we have delivered about 30,000 new or improved single living accommodation units. A further 25,000 are planned by 2013, and 90 per cent. of service family accommodation in the UK is now in the top two standards, in marked contrast to the situation a few years ago. By the end of this financial year, no service family will have to live in the lowest standard of accommodation.
We are also tackling home ownership. All military personnel in England now qualify as key workers and are eligible for affordable housing up to 12 months after leaving service. Work is also ongoing to explore the feasibility of a bespoke forces affordable homes scheme.
To ensure that all the measures in the Command Paper are implemented, we have an external reference group, which includes representation from academia, the service families federations and key service charities. The group has a clear remit—to hold the Government to account for their progress on implementing the commitments of the Command Paper. In line with this, 10 Departments and two devolved Administrations have appointed senior armed forces advocates to ensure that the needs of service personnel are fully reflected in developing and implementing policies.
I am sorry, but I have given way a lot and taken time from others who want to speak.
It would take far too long to describe the entire Command Paper or the many other strands—pay awards, operational and deployed welfare packages and the procurement of urgent operational equipment, to mention a few—that contribute to our personnel policy. Our policy seeks to fulfil our obligations to our armed forces. However, as I have said, it is a work in progress. It is too serious a business to be complacent about it. It will never be complete—indeed, it should never be complete. We must constantly strive to do more, to do better, to detect emerging problems and to prevent regression from our achievements in recent years. The work needs to be done at every level and requires the support of many organisations. Only in that way will we truly discharge the debt we owe to the armed forces of our nation, and ensure that it continues to be discharged in the years ahead.
I start by declaring my registered interest as an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve.
I welcome the opportunity to debate our armed forces today. I pay tribute to the men and women who serve our country so well under the most difficult circumstances.
I also pay tribute to our Defence Ministers—I had not realised how hard they work, but the Library informs me that they responded to no less than 4,592 questions in the previous Session. We can debate the quality of some of the answers; nevertheless, that is a lot questions. The breakdown is even more interesting: 2,853 questions were asked by Conservatives and only 605 by the mighty Labour party. Even the Liberal Democrats did better than Labour Members. Given the interest from Labour Members, we should not be too surprised that the Government Whips could not muster more foot soldiers, even if quantity is offset by quality.
I thank Ministers for adopting suggestions floated by the Leader of the Opposition’s military covenant commission. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, and we welcome some of the familiar good ideas that appear in the service personnel Command Paper—transferable waiting lists are a particular favourite of mine. My right hon. Friend’s commission, which is chaired by Frederick Forsyth and staffed by a wide range of experts, including Simon Weston, has made an important contribution to the debate, as has the service personnel Command Paper. We owe a debt of gratitude to all involved, and the service community has welcomed both papers. I want to mention some of the issues that they raised.
First, it is worth reminding ourselves of the provenance of today’s debate. Before Christmas and on 13 January, the Leader of the House conceded that the subject matter for consideration today should be broad, as is traditional in such debates, subject, of course, to Mr. Speaker’s discretion. Clearly, we can no more discuss armed forces personnel without mentioning equipment than we can discuss doctors and nurses without mentioning hospitals, or teachers without mentioning schools. The Leader of the House understood that full well.
In December, our soldiers, sailors and airmen learned from a written statement of the revised in-service date for important bits of military hardware. Perhaps the Minister will now admit that the bumping of the naval programme, with all its defence posture, training, personnel and career implications, had nothing to do with the availability of aircraft, and everything to do with the Government’s desperate financial situation.
Apparently, we cannot use the word “carrier”, but suffice it to say that grey, flat-topped things displacing 65,000 tonnes take some bumping—
Order. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make, but I hope that he will understand the ruling that I have already given. I have explained that this is not a simple matter, and the House has to have rules. There will be a further debate, specifically on equipment, in due course, and I ask him to bear in mind what I have said.
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Heaven loves a trier, and I got further than I thought that I might.
Given the statement of 11 December, the Minister’s remarks today, and the fact that defence will not feature in the Government’s economic stimulus, the men and women of our armed forces will be awaiting the conclusion of the Gray review and the Ministry of Defence’s current planning round in March with trepidation.
I should like to turn to the subject of combat stress. On 12 January, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), said that he was “shocked and surprised” that I had not understood what his Government had been doing for veterans with combat stress. I pay tribute to everything that has been done for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, but the Minister’s apparent complacency shocked and surprised me. What did not surprise me so much was the British Medical Association’s briefing note that was circulated in advance of today’s debate, which featured combat stress prominently. The charity, Combat Stress, has rightly pointed out that the Minister’s rebuttal relied on the research programme run by King’s college, London. The work of Professor Wessely is very important, but the Minister should know that it is a long-term population study, and that it does not necessarily reflect the scale of mental distress sustained on intense operations. The Defence Analytical Services Agency, in its explanatory notes to the data on which I think the Minister was relying on 12 January, sounds the same cautionary note.
I have two requests for the Minister that touch on mental health. First, will he look at the burden of proof and the time limit for claims under the armed forces compensation scheme? Unlike in the war pensions scheme, the burden of proof lies with the claimant, and claims are timed out after five years. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) rightly raised that point earlier. The Minister will understand that mental illness is often far more difficult to relate to a specific insult than physical injury, and that it can manifest itself many years after the provoking incident. It seems to me that the occupationally mentally ill will be relatively disadvantaged by the new arrangements, and I am sure that that is not the Minister’s intention.
May I reiterate what we have said about this? We have asked for examples, following the points raised by service charities and others, but we have received none. If we get any, we are prepared to look at them, but, to date, we have had none.
I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention. He will know that, following the Falklands campaign, the average length of time for people coming forward with combat stress was 13 years, so we will not yet have the examples to which he has referred. However, the burden of proof will remain as it is. I ask him to look at the overarching arrangements again, so that we can perhaps avoid certain unintended consequences. I will leave it at that. [Interruption.] The Minister says that he has not had any examples, but I would point him to the evidence from the Falklands and other conflicts, which suggests that combat stress can crop up many years after the provoking insult. If the Minister would like to come to the Dispatch Box and say that he will waive any out-of-time provision under his new arrangements, I would be very happy to take an intervention from him.
May I stress again to the hon. Gentleman that my predecessor, other Ministers and I have said to the service charities and others that, if there are examples—the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the Falklands—we will look at those individual cases? We need to deal with actual cases, however, and I am prepared to do that. I keep repeating that to the service charities, but I have yet to see a single example.
Is my hon. Friend aware that there are currently 8,500 ex-service personnel in prison? In a written parliamentary answer dated 24 November 2008, the Ministry of Defence admitted that it did not know how many or whether any of those 8,500 ex-service personnel in prison were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse disorders or alcoholism. Surely any one of those 8,500 people released goodness knows when from prison might well fall into the category that my hon. Friend is describing.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Minister for the Armed Forces did not mention it in his opening remarks, but perhaps the Under-Secretary will do so in his summing up. The Home Office is conducting a study of the prison population with regard to mental illness among veterans, and I very much hope that some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire will be dealt with as part of that study. We look forward to its reporting later this year.
Secondly on the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder and combat stress, will the Minister consider adopting another idea from the military covenant commission—the piloting of active case finding so that psychological illness attributable to service in the armed forces can be discovered and people can receive the treatment they need in a timely fashion? I would be delighted if Ministers cracked on with that in pilot form—if they do not, in due course we will.
It is recognised that a period of decompression after leaving theatre contributes to good mental health and domestic harmony. The Minister mentioned decompression in Cyprus. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office gives its personnel a full two weeks; what is more, they can fly at taxpayers’ expense to wherever they like for their decompression. Poor old Tommy Atkins gets a lesser deal and has to make do with 24 hours at Dhekelia barracks in Cyprus. I have to tell the Minister that a couple of tinnies, a medal and a pep talk from a general does not pass muster when set against two weeks on a beach in the Caribbean. What conclusions are the men and women of our armed forces to draw from the fact that some public servants appear to be far more equal than others?
I do not want to go down the line of what civilians are doing, but when I met people during their 24 hours in Cyprus, I found that they not only welcomed it, but were anxious to get home sooner rather than later. The experience fed back to me is that 24 hours is just about right; two weeks is the last thing those people want.
In fact, they do not always necessarily get the 24 hours. Perhaps the picture is mixed: some get rather longer, some less. The point that I am trying to make is that if we are providing two weeks’ decompression for one group of people and 24 hours for another group, there is clearly a very big difference between them. They probably cannot both be right. It would be good to try to work out what is best practice in relation to decompression. One thing that we can agree on is that decompression is a welcome innovation. It appears particularly to improve domestic harmony among returnees, but we could perhaps look a little more into the question of precisely how it is played out.
Does my hon. Friend agree that increased time under decompression should come off deployment rather than off the other end? If soldiers returning from operations believe that that is their own time and that it is eating into the time that they can spend with their families, they will, of course, want less. If, however, our armed forces were not quite so overstretched, we could afford them more time in decompression and they would return to their families in a better frame of mind.
That point is well made, and I shall deal with the issues surrounding it later in my contribution. It is worth reflecting on the studies that have rightly looked into incidents of domestic violence and general unhappiness among returnees. It appears from that work that decompression is a good thing. I have to say that I would be a little cautious about laying into decompression, but I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point.
This is an extremely interesting subject, but should a distinction not be drawn between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence? Members of the armed services who go in for decompression do so within their units. Because they are part of a group, that is part of the decompression. The same does not necessarily apply to Foreign Office personnel. There are very distinct types of decompression.
That is a very good point. We could also cite members of the reserve forces, who are traditionally deployed as individuals or small units. I suppose that their position would be similar to that of people deployed by the Department for International Development or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
During the summer, the Minister of State wrote to the Leader of the Opposition in, if I may say so, slightly hubristic terms, saying that our complaint that servicemen were spending part of their leave in departure lounges was wrong. I am sure that the Minister remembers that exchange of correspondence. It appears that the Chief of the Defence Staff understands the problem, even if the Minister does not. In October, he said:
“We need to make sure our people get sufficient rest and recuperation in the right place—not on a plane.”
I hope that the Minister has been adequately rebriefed by the Chief of the Defence Staff. Perhaps he could tell us what action he proposes to take. I hear him chuckling; perhaps I can take that as an indication that he has indeed been rebriefed.
I have never sought to deny that our armed forces are stretched. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman seriously thinks that we can completely change the order of rest and recuperation without imposing additional stretch on other people in theatre. That has not been said to me by the Chief of the Defence Staff or anyone else. As I have said, I do not deny that the forces are stretched, but given the hon. Gentleman’s comments, one might believe that there is no such thing as post-operational tour leave. People are given leave after they return from operational theatre, and the hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that fact.
I think that there is an element of confusion between post-operational tour leave and in-tour rest and recuperation. In that exchange of correspondence, we mostly debated in-tour rest and recuperation, and I think that the Chief of the Defence Staff was referring largely to that in his public remarks. I am sorry if the Chief of the Defence Staff does not speak privately to the Minister about his concerns and prefers to put his comments in the public domain, but he said what he said, and we happen to agree with him. While I absolutely accept that we do not live in an ideal world, overstretch is a reality, and I am afraid that that is a symptom of it.
There is a general feeling among members of the armed forces that the Government are not necessarily always on their side. That was picked up by our military covenant commission. The creation of the post of Director of Service Prosecutions and the appointment of a candidate with no obvious military experience and unknown sympathies did not help to deal with that perception, and I hope the Minister will accept that perception is very important indeed.
The Director of Service Prosecutions was hired last year and will assume his full duties in the autumn. We have discussed that delay in Committee, but perhaps the Minister will tell the House why there has been such a delay and what Mr. Houlder has been doing with his time. Hopefully he has been acquainting himself with the Army, Navy and Air Force, and attending to his single service duties.
Over Christmas, separate bilateral status of forces agreements were signed by Baghdad and the United States, the United Kingdom and NATO. A further SOFA with Australia was refused by Canberra. We have it on the very best authority that the NATO and US SOFAs are remarkably similar and give better protection to troops, including the 15 UK troops operating as part of the small NATO contingent in Iraq, than the UK SOFA. The message received by our men and women is that their Government are less exercised about them than the US or, indeed, NATO.
Ministers must act to ensure that our military does not suffer from the pervasive idea that personnel operating in the most difficult circumstances are backed by the Government only in so far as they provide a politically obliging backdrop. When things get tough, what are our people to think if Ministers’ first instinct is publicly to blame officers in the field, who traditionally cannot answer back? Nobody should be in any doubt about the damage that that sort of thing does to the morale of our fighting forces and I sincerely hope that lessons have been learned.
I recognise the national recognition study, in so far as it suggests the Government understand the need to inculcate the armed forces into the public imagination. The military covenant commission considered that in some depth and reflected the fact that the most important citizens as far as forming opinions are concerned are those currently at school. I wholeheartedly support the involvement of our armed forces in schools, as the Defence Committee appears to have done in its July 2008 report. I utterly condemn the suggestion by some teachers’ representatives—however veiled—that soldiers in schools are somehow sinister. The suggestion that these laudable public servants and first-rate role models should not be welcomed on to publicly owned and run premises is frankly obscene. It is no good Ministers singing the praises of the troops on the one hand and failing to condemn the prejudices of the left on the other.
In that spirit, I hope that the Government will wish to emulate the UK GI Bill unveiled by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) in September, which draws from the troops-to-teachers experience in the States. It addresses two needs, namely the need to facilitate the employment of people leaving the armed forces and the need for positive role models to whom children will relate. The Minister will know that I have in the past decried the disappearance of school visits teams in favour of the e-learning tool Defence Dynamics. In my view, interacting with an e-learning tool is no substitute for interacting with real people. What review has the Minister undertaken of the e-learning tool, which had its first anniversary in September? Have the overwhelming majority of packages been left to gather e-dust?
As the Minister suggested, nothing is more important to service families than the education of their children, yet authorities that have to cater for substantial numbers of service children find they are out of pocket because of the cost drivers that they bring. My own authority, Wiltshire, does the best it can to smooth that, but it is a challenge.
Before my hon. Friend leaves the question of troops to teachers, I commend the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and the thrust of our party’s policy. May I convey my confidence that the MOD is taking up that challenge, and I hope that an example of that will be the co-operation that the MOD has already indicated that it will give to the new vocational college in Colchester?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, and I look forward to visiting Colchester at some point to see what is being established there. It sounds very imaginative.
As the military covenant commission heard, results for Army children are disappointing and could be a great deal better. I commend the Government for starting to gather figures on service children for the first time in January last year, but I press the Minister to ensure that that data are used to inform the new schools funding formula.
The biggest single issue impacting on personnel is overstretch. It is a bitter irony that some of our manning problems are being resolved by the recession. However, even the Chief of the Defence Staff, who is generally very helpful to Ministers, has pointed out that the current tempo cannot be sustained. Harmony guidelines are routinely breached and the continuous attitude survey makes it clear that separation and tour intervals are a major cause of dissatisfaction, along with the loss of skilled people. A recent report in the British Medical Journal makes the link between long deployments and mental illness. The Royal Logistics Corps tour interval is just 15 months and the last tour interval of 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards was just eight months before it went from Iraq to Afghanistan. It is not clear how the extension of tour intervals announced last week by CGS can be anything more than aspirational if the current tempo of operations is sustained.
It is difficult to see how last week’s announcement of restructuring and streamlining within the Army will address operational deficits caused by gaps in pinch point trades. In particular, it will still leave us short of submariners, helicopter aircrew, mechanics, force protection elements, gunners, firefighters, medics, intelligence staff, weapons system operators and so on. The trained strength of our reserves, without which current operations would be impossible, is appallingly low and on the slide. That will not be reversed by any amount of restructuring.
We await the outcome of the Government’s review of reserve forces in April, particularly in relation to their possible future role in the stabilisation and reconstruction tasks of the 21st century using civilian skills that arguably are under-utilised in the current force structure—a point made in the military covenant commission’s report. In the meantime, we are faced with a charismatic US President who is, no doubt, conducting a charm offensive with the Prime Minister aimed at securing a UK contribution to his post-election surge in Afghanistan. There has been no statement to date from Ministers, simply the suggestion from the Ministry of Defence that between 1,500 and 2,000 additional troops will be forthcoming. As ever in the planning of campaigns by this Government, it seems that a solution is offered before the problem is defined. I hope that Ministers will demand a rigorous business case before any additional UK troops are deployed and firm matching commitments from our allies. In particular, Ministers must secure the erasure of corrosive national caveats, both declared and undeclared.
The contribution of Europeans to ISAF was bumped at the Bucharest summit by the Bush Administration, which wanted to focus on the accession of Georgia and Ukraine. That emboldened President Saakashvili and contributed to the crisis in South Ossetia. Does the Minister agree that the agenda for NATO’s 60th-birthday summit in Strasbourg in April should not be blown off-course, and that it would be a catastrophe if those countries that have contributed disproportionately in treasure and braves to Afghanistan did not come away with a commitment from our allies to play their full and proper part in the joint venture?
Although my attempts to get to Afghanistan have to date been frustrated, I have been to Iraq, both operationally and as part of a parliamentary acquaint visit, and I have to say that in-theatre equipment overall has improved from a low base in 2003. But there are two “buts”—there are always “buts.” Firstly, there is an enduring shortage of fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters—especially Merlins—and armoured vehicles. The safety of our people is heavily dependent on them, and I hope the Minister will confirm that the draw-down in Iraq will result in the redeployment of airframes and appropriate vehicles to Afghanistan. I hope that we can expect an improved air bridge and the reversal of the trend towards longer trooping flight delays. It would be useful if the Minister could give a time frame for that and for the arrival in theatre of the extra hardware promised on 11 December.
The second “but” is that if hardware is being delivered to the front line, training is not. Much of the new kit is highly sophisticated and commanders dislike being faced with it for the first time in operational settings and not on Salisbury plain. The Chief of the General Staff referred to that in his Institute for Public Policy Research speech last week.
Training is increasingly squeezed as a result of the operational tempo. The Government are heavily committed to the defence training review, yet the business case is dependent on the realisation of surplus defence assets. Will the Minister comment on the extent to which the future of the St. Athan project is affected by the fall in estate values in the past 12 months? On the subject of falling estate values, will the Minister update the House on plans for the sale of Haslar? As he knows, we would review the use of the hospital so the timetable and the prospects of a sale are important to us, as well as to the armed forces and the people of Gosport.
Nothing has gripped the public imagination more than the poor state of service accommodation, which the Minister discussed. A year ago, Chelsea barracks was sold and we were told that the receipts would be hypothecated to improve housing. Indeed, the Minister, Baroness Taylor, said the money would be invested fully in service accommodation. Three months later, in March, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), told me that only about half the receipts would go on improving accommodation, and he gave me a spend-profile stretching out to 2011. Given the programme of economy-boosting public works that the Prime Minister has announced, why are the Government scaling back, rather than accelerating, their original plans for bringing service accommodation into the 21st century?
I very much appreciated the opportunity yesterday to discuss the Coroners and Justice Bill with the Minister for the Armed Forces and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice). We must do all that we can to ensure that the coronial process is as helpful as possible to the service community, and in particular the bereaved, but I am surprised at the apparent readiness of Ministers to criticise coroners’ verdicts on the contribution made by inadequate kit to fatalities. From my own observation, I am convinced that military inquests are conducted rigorously and without favour. They are a learning opportunity for all who seek to reduce the risks run by our troops.
I hope the Minister will join me—although, perhaps, through gritted teeth—in paying tribute to the Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, who retires in April. He has done a great job, and his conduct of inquests has, from my own observation, been peerless, and I am confident that his work has improved the lot of service personnel.
The hon. Gentleman attempts, as he does in a number of areas, to paint a picture, which is far removed from reality, that the gap is yawning. I have repeatedly and genuinely—no gritted teeth are needed—praised the Wiltshire coroner, who has done a fabulous job. Yes, he has given us a hard time and made life uncomfortable for us from time to time, but from time to time we will fail to get to the bottom of issues with our internal inquiries and the independent coronial process is an important part of the process of learning the lessons. The Wiltshire coroner has been superb in that regard.
I am sure that Mr. Masters will be pleased with the endorsement that the Minister has given from the Dispatch Box.
May I make a plea for the continued independence of the coronial service in respect of military inquests? I believe that there is no difference across the House on the matter, and it is the firm wish of the service community—the Minister and I discussed this yesterday—that the process should be independent of the military. In a similar vein, I urge him to resist the hiring of counsel by the Ministry of Defence at public expense in what is meant to be a non-adversarial setting. Families want to feel that they are operating on a level playing field.
I should like to finish on a positive note. The Royal British Legion poppy appeal in 2007 broke all records. I do not yet know the figures for 2008, but my own takings from rattling a tin outside Morrisons in Warminster as a member of the Warminster branch of the RBL were double last year’s. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) questions whether I said “Morrisons”—it is Morrisons not Murrisons; I am sorry to say that there is no relation between us. The level of support for the excellent charity Help for Heroes has perhaps surprised but certainly delighted us all. Our armed forces can take comfort in the fact that despite their engagement in two conflicts that are unpopular with the general public they are held in high esteem both at home and abroad, and we should be immensely proud of them.
I usually like to say that it is a pleasure to follow the previous speaker, but I find it a little difficult to say that on this occasion, because the previous contribution was less balanced than is normal in a speech from a Front-Bench spokesperson, which is a pity. I say that not least because if the hon. Gentleman had done his sums at the appropriate time, he would have found that he was supported by the same number of Members on the Conservative Back Benches as our Front-Bench team are supported by Labour Back Benchers today. [Interruption.] I said that was the case at the time that he made his remark—we are here in equal numbers.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to questions. It is true that Labour Members, through their friendships with Ministers on the Front Benches, have many opportunities to ask questions informally, and Ministers are very generous in the visits that they pay to our constituencies, as well as to places represented by Conservative Members. I do not think that he was comparing like with like on that occasion. I could, of course, agree with his last remarks that he made, because we all want to pay tribute to the armed services.
The hon. Lady is terribly gracious. What I could have done, of course, was calculate the number of questions asked per MP. If I was going to be unpleasant, as she suggested I was, that is precisely what I would have done. Perhaps she would like to do that mental calculation—
Order. Perhaps we now ought to get on with discussing armed forces personnel. I call Linda Gilroy.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I take note of your advice.
I want to pay tribute to the men and women—and to the families of those men and women—who have been serving in Helmand province in very large numbers since last September under the leadership of Plymouth-based 3 Commando Brigade and Brigadier Gordon Messenger. It is very important—this is something that we certainly share with those of us who stay for these debates—that the general public and some of our colleagues should understand why British forces are in Afghanistan and see the connection between security abroad and security at home.
That has never been more important than in this year, with the upcoming elections in Afghanistan. Recently, there was an 18-day assault on the Taliban by 3 Commando brigade in Operation Red Dagger. I commend, as I have so often done in the past, the reporting in our local newspaper by its defence correspondent, Tristan Nichols, who was embedded with 29 Commando and 42 Commando during the preparations for that remarkable operation. Red Dagger was named after the Plymouth-based 3 Commando brigade’s shoulder flashes and helped to restore security in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. Four vital insurgent bases were captured, meaning that ordinary Afghans can get on with their everyday lives and register for the presidential elections later this year. Brigadier Messenger said:
“This was a very successful operation that demonstrated the ability of the Task Force to surprise, overmatch, manoeuvre and influence over a huge area. Whilst our efforts have made a significant contribution to the overall Nad E’Ali security plan, it has not been without sacrifice, and we will forever remember the contribution of those who died.”
The British forces were standing shoulder to shoulder with Afghan colleagues and working to provide enduring security so that Governor Mangal can spread his governance across Helmand. They were also working, as we so often forget, with international forces. Danish and Estonian troops fought alongside the British and the Afghan national security forces. They fought in driving rain, slept in mud and were under constant risk of attack by an enemy who knew the ground. As they pushed forward, they cleared compounds and drove the Taliban before them.
Modern weapons were much in evidence, but so were more traditional methods. Troops carried lightweight ladders to scale the walls of enemy compounds, while the Black Knights of Kilo Company at one stage found themselves completely surrounded in a terrifying firefight outside the town of Zarghun Kalay. The discovery of a tonne of narcotics, including 400 kg of opium with a street value of £2 million, showed how the Taliban are funded by the drugs trade. Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Stickland, commanding officer of 42 Commando Group Royal Marines, said:
“The next step we need to make is to find out who the elders are and start our influence in terms of why we’re here and what we’re seeking to do over the coming months.”
I was fortunate enough to go on an armed forces parliamentary scheme visit to Afghanistan just before this operation, and it was a rare chance to try to find answers to some of the questions that I and my constituents have asked about what the men and women from Plymouth who are deployed out there are doing on our behalf, how they feel about it, and how their kit and equipment are serving them and standing up to the harsh treatment that it gets in the high-tempo operations and different terrain and climate. I wanted to see for myself the medical services and find out whether they were as good as our Defence Committee report suggested last year. I had many other questions too numerous to mention.
We spent our first day in Camp Bastion receiving some excellent briefings from Colonel Andy Maynard, who is Op Herrick 9’s chief in charge of logistics. We also heard from Lieutenant Colonel Colin McClean who is in charge of equipment support and gave us a really good overview of the equipment at their disposal for force protection and projection. We got an idea of how that equipment was used, how it gets there and how it is kept in working order. People often make efforts way over the odds to keep it in use. Further detail was spelt out in other briefings. We had lots of chances to see and chat with the people delivering some of it, from Post Office workers and those dealing with the e-blueys to engineers keeping the planes, helicopters and vehicles maintained, and we found out information from how the very good food gets on the tables in the canteen to how the pay and admin issues are dealt with.
A highlight of the visit had to be, of course, the visit to joint force medical group and R2E hospital with Wing Commander Roger Thompson. There are some 15 Plymouth medical personnel operating in Camp Bastion and a similar number elsewhere, including on the forward operating bases.
Another highlight was undoubtedly the visit to 42 Commando Royal Marines HQ and to Camp Roberts. We talked with Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Stickland, who spoke with pace, passion and clarity about the recent ops, the role of his marines and the preparations that they were making for further operations. It was also good to see Lieutenant Colonel Neil Wilson and 29 Commando Regiment alongside 42.
After nearly 40 years of experience in the battleground of politics, I take my hat off the young men, often in their early 20s, who can flex to the physical exploits of supermen, for which they are all so well known, and within very short order, take tea with the mullahs, discussing an amazing range of political, social and economic issues in a way that understands and is sensitive to Afghan culture. “Stunning” and “awesome” were words that I heard my colleagues use after our visit to Camp Roberts, where we learned more of how that was done through practical demonstration and kit and equipment displays.
People seem appreciative of how the urgent operational requirement process has delivered better kit and equipment, with the Plymouth-manufactured Jackal being particularly welcome. The marines and commandos had a lot to say about how kit and equipment could be better still. They are standing up to some of the world’s worst and most vicious bullies on our behalf and they certainly deserve to be taken note of when they raise issues about how these things can be done better and how kit and equipment can be designed to work better together.
I was very pleased to get a letter responding to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and I put to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), after we returned from that visit. We received a very detailed response about how attention is being paid to most of those points. I shall read it very closely, because I know that when the troops return from deployment they will challenge me to say whether the issues that they raised with us in the heat of deployment are being taken seriously. I look forward to continuing those conversations not through questions on the Order Paper but through detailed discussions with the Minister.
The Afghan army is building up steadily. We met and talked to some of the “Omlets”—the military liaison and training officers from the UK and other international security assistance force forces. We did not manage to visit Camp Shobarak, and I suspect that it will be quite a long time before the Afghan army can act to provide security in the challenging circumstances in that part of Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand, but it is good to see and hear that the work to achieve that is under way.
I know from Plymouth Herald reports and the work that I do on the Select Committee on Defence that the insurgency by the coalition of old and new Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists has changed and is increasingly dangerous and challenging. There is an unholy mix of the original religious zealots with narco and other criminals. Some use the Taliban and al-Qaeda brand as a terrorist flag of convenience to hype up the fear factor of the bullying, thuggish behaviour that they inflict on the Afghan people. We are of course there to support the Afghan Government in bringing security to their people and communities. More importantly, some would say, considering the price that we are paying in blood and money, we are there in the interests of our own security, as the Minister said so clearly in his opening speech.
We have been in Helmand as part of NATO/ISAF strategy to support the Afghan Government only since 2005. We often think that it is longer because there has been action in Afghanistan for longer, but it has only come into Helmand for a shorter time. Dealing with the issue there means less trouble on our doorstep. It is remarkable that the country is making some progress. It may be frustratingly slow and halting, but we forget the starting point at our peril: some of the deepest poverty and highest rates of infant mortality in the world, a space in which al-Qaeda camps trained in the region of 50,000—some say 70,000 plus—terrorists; the twisted roots of the 9/11 attack on the twin towers; and a state governed by religious zealots, the Taliban, who let all that happen. For the first time, I heard there of the idea of reducing the dependence on the poppy crop through a sensible, phased approach, which, given time, I thought might just work. Both doing that and creating a safe enough space for the elections this year need to come together to secure the right direction of travel. What we heard was measured and realistic, stated in a fair, low and sombre key, confident but not gung-ho and giving a strong impression that there is a very strong sense of pulling in the same direction—civilians as well as service personnel now, both with good morale.
I kept coming across naval personnel in all sorts of roles, from cooks to drivers to administrative officers, some in their usual day job roles but so many doing quite different things from the usual. That is unsurprising, as this is the biggest land deployment of naval personnel for a long time. The visit gave me a strong sense of commitment to a really difficult task, for which our service personnel deserve to be better appreciated. As a community, we will certainly be doing that in Plymouth when they come back, soon. Some are already back, of course: medics tend to serve shorter but more frequent deployments. In April there will be a major event—a march past—so that we can all come together to mark our respect for what they have been doing. There will be quite a few events leading up to the first armed forces day, when we will be building on the remarkable range of events put together by the city council and the federation of service organisations.
The understanding of what personnel are doing is important to their families, who are looking forward to the homecoming—the end of the deployment. Sadly, as the Minister said in his opening speech, some will not be returning. There has been a very high level not only of deaths but of casualties because of the intense nature of some of the fighting. I was particularly pleased with the progress he reported on the implementation of the service personnel Command Paper, particularly in the long-overdue changes to the compensation scheme.
Some remarkable veterans have been returning from deployment via Plymouth. Some have been featured nationally. Ben McBean and Mark Ormrod come to mind. One lost two limbs, the other three, and yet when I rang the other day to inquire after one of them, I was told he had gone skiing. They are remarkable people, doing a remarkable job for us.
I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion by focusing on one of the small things that can make a difference. We heard when overseas that small things matter, and that it is important that they are not neglected. The problem to which I wish to draw attention does not directly relate to the Afghan deployment; I heard about it from a senior serving officer who serves in my constituency. I have mentioned it in debate and in continuing correspondence, but I do not think that the Department properly appreciates the problem. It is being treated as an equality issue—which it certainly is.
The problem is that when Marines approach retirement age, they need to have two years’ service ahead of them in order to apply for senior tri-service positions, so from their early 50s they cannot be considered for such positions. That cannot be in the interests of the armed forces, let alone fair. If it is truly impossible to bring the retirement ages into line earlier—I know there is a long-term plan to do so—perhaps the alternative is to bring some flexibility to the two-year rule. Obviously, junior positions in the Royal Marines lean towards young, active people, but I see no reason why among senior appointments a Royal Marine officer who is enthusiastic and experienced cannot be placed on an equal footing with his tri-service counterparts.
The armed forces have been working incredibly hard on our behalf. As draw-down from Iraq takes place, the opportunity finally to implement programmes of recovery and recuperation, which need to be well planned, must be fully taken, not just to restore the harmony guidelines so that families feel under less pressure, but so that the training that makes our armed forces world class can be restored and the service personnel can remain world class today, tomorrow and in future years.
I begin, as ever, by paying tribute to the men and women of our armed services, who work tirelessly, bravely and professionally, often in difficult, demanding and increasingly dangerous circumstances. My thoughts are particularly with my constituents, the marines and engineers from Chivenor in North Devon, who are serving in Afghanistan and form part of the wider marine community that is represented by, among others, the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), who are in the Chamber. I join others in expressing my deep condolences to the families of those who have lost their lives serving their country and my sincere sympathy to those who have returned injured—either physically or mentally, or both.
Our personnel are the lifeblood of our military capabilities, yet faced with low pay, long hours, sometimes substandard accommodation, insufficient albeit growing recognition, and the prospect of another 10 or perhaps 20 years in Afghanistan, they certainly do not have an easy time. Our priority in the House must be to ensure that the nation honours its duty of care to the armed forces and that they are backed up with the necessary resources, equipment and support to do their jobs. We must also ensure that the economic downturn does not water down support to the military, especially at a time of heightened threat. The Ministry of Defence’s own credit crunch has already hit with delays in the carriers and armoured vehicle. We must not allow that to undermine our capabilities.
We need to look further at how our armed forces can be even more flexible, efficient and effective as a fighting force. I welcomed some of the thinking sketched out last week by General Sir Richard Dannatt about the way in which he will go about that task. I must restate yet again the need for a new strategic defence review, the principal objective of which should be to assess afresh where to strike the balance between, on the one hand, aligning ourselves for the wars of today and the medium-term challenges that we can anticipate, and acting as a force for good throughout the world and, on the other hand, sustaining adequate capability to provide the insurance that we need to defend ourselves in any future state-on-state warfare.
As we have observed many times before, the key problem is overstretch, which continues to have a severe impact. The extent to which experienced personnel leave the armed forces prematurely remains alarming, and recruitment can plug only part of the gap. Our recruitment has been kept going only by the twentyfold increase over a decade in the number of recruits from Commonwealth countries. Many people are leaving as a result of overstretch, low pay, bad housing and the inevitable strain that too many extended periods away from home places on personal and family life. At a time of economic downturn, perhaps one silver lining might be a growth in armed forces recruitment, with a diminished readiness to leave early and take chances on the job market.
What incentives do we offer new recruits? Those joining in the lower ranks find that their pay is less than that of firemen, policemen and bus or tube drivers. While serving long hours on the front line, they will not get even the minimum wage for a career serving their country and putting their lives on the line. It was pointed out a few months ago that even traffic wardens are paid better than young soldiers, and I heard a caller to a radio phone-in suggest that the solution was to send all of them to the front line. As General Dannatt observed recently, too many soldiers struggle to support their family on the finances available to them. Surely the best Army in the world should not be among the worst paid.
The issue of mental health has often been discussed in this House, and I am pleased to note that awareness of, and attitudes towards, mental health problems have improved markedly, but the psychological toll of our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan means that mental health services will be busy for many years to come. I acknowledge the progress made in improving services, but much more remains to be done. A recent study of the consumption of alcohol and binge drinking in the armed forces revealed a significant increase in alcohol consumption among those who had been deployed, those who had feared that they might be killed and those who experienced hostility from civilians. There are, and always will be, disturbing and difficult experiences in conflict zones, and it is important to tackle drug and alcohol issues alongside mental health issues.
We Liberal Democrats have persistently raised the issue of accommodation. The Ministry of Defence has recognised that there is a problem, and it has a programme of improvements, but it has an inclination to overstate what it is doing by cheerfully adding together the rent that it pays to Annington Homes, the cost of routine maintenance and what it will spend on capital improvements. It likes to give the impression that the total is all being spent on capital improvements. The Department is spending money on capital improvements, and there is some progress, but at the current rate of progress, not all accommodation will be of the top standard as soon as it needs to be.
Only last year, the Public Accounts Committee noted that many personnel leaving the service cited the “appalling” state of the accommodation as a factor that led them to take their decision. More than 9,000 MOD properties were left vacant last year, more than a quarter of which had been left unused for between one and five years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) has pointed out on many an occasion, the Ministry of Defence has therefore spent millions of pounds on renting unoccupied housing, with an average annual bill for each property of £3,600.
It is a very different story for the top brass. Although the Ministry of Defence was paying Annington rent for 648 empty homes in London, it still went to the private rental market and paid £16.6 million a year to rent 1,100 private properties. On just 11 private homes in London, the Ministry spent £290,000 in rent, with the most expensive coming in at £4,200 a month. It is perfectly clear that there is still something very wrong and that there is a long way to go to put right the issues to do with forces accommodation.
I very much welcome the doubling of the lump sum payment in the armed forces compensation scheme to £570,000 for the most seriously injured. Although that still imposes a limit that would not really apply in civilian walks of life, I acknowledge that it could make a huge difference to those affected and their families. However, points have been raised about two outstanding issues. The burden of proof that the injury was caused by service still lies with the claimant. It should be returned to the Secretary of State, which is where it was under the war pension scheme.
On the issue of time limits for claimants, I listened closely to the exchange between the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), and the Conservative Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison). If I understood the Minister correctly, he said that if people came forward with specific cases that were outside the time limits that have been laid down, the Government would be prepared to consider them on an individual basis.
On the burden of proof issue, I was on the Committee that considered the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Bill, along with the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). The issue was raised on numerous occasions at the time. What I was saying, and what the Department continues to say, is: bring forward examples where people have lost out because of the burden of proof issue. There has been none so far. On individual cases and time limits, of course they are always looked at on an individual basis.
I am disappointed by the earlier part of the Minister’s reply, and intrigued by the latter part. If the MOD is prepared to look on a case-by-case basis at cases that lie outwith the time limits, one wonders what the purpose of the time limits is. Nevertheless, that seems to indicate a degree of flexibility, which it would be churlish not to welcome.
That leads me to the subject of nuclear test veterans whose case is going through the courts to see whether they can be given a hearing to claim compensation. I hope they succeed in that action. What kind of message does it send to our current personnel when our Government close their ears to a group of veterans who have suffered cancers, fertility problems and skin defects as a result of their exposure to nuclear bomb tests? Some of those men and their families have fought for years and virtually every other country has recognised and compensated their test veterans, so why does our Ministry try to hide from its moral obligations by using a technical argument about timing as its device for doing so?
We have long campaigned long for the rights of Gurkhas. Everyone is the House recognises the unwavering support that the Gurkhas have given our country in conflicts overseas. Military personnel to whom I have spoken rave about their bravery and skill. They have fought for a country that was not their own and, in return, they have asked for little but the right for them and their families to remain here. However, despite the fact that the Government have faced up to Britain’s moral duty for those serving after 1997, those predating this utterly arbitrary date but whose circumstances are the same also have to go to the courts to seek justice. I hope very much that they, too, will succeed.
There are other issues where progress has been made but more is needed, such as help for those leaving the forces to get their foot on to the job and housing ladders, and making a practical reality of the principle of priority treatment in the NHS. I welcome the Minister’s announcement that letters have been sent to all primary care trust chief executives, but there is a considerable gap between writing to the primary care trust chief executives and priority being given in practice. I welcome that as one step forward, as it is not all that long since I had a reply from an NHS chief executive asking what I meant by NHS priority and saying that they had never heard of it. Perhaps even writing to chief executives is a modest step in the right direction. We also need to help forces families cope with the effects of moving home regularly. I welcome some of what the Minister said about that, but again, time will tell whether we have gone far enough.
Our armed forces play a vital role in conflict theatres, peacekeeping and humanitarian work around the world, but if we are to maintain top level capability, we must go further in reinforcing the nation’s duty of care to them. We must not allow the economic crisis to have a damaging impact on them. Tinkering around the edges will neither solve the recruitment problem, nor make any real difference to retention. We need a new approach to our armed forces, a new strategic defence review and assessment of the context in which they work, and a renewed commitment to delivering the care and support so urgently needed by our service personnel and their families.
I shall be brief, as there are just two topics on which I shall speak. The first is what happens to people as they leave the armed forces and afterwards. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) raised the issue of ex-service personnel in prisons and what can be done by the Ministry of Defence and other Government Departments to help.
Some good work has been done with people who are leaving the armed forces. Recent research examined homelessness in London and people living on the streets. The study was funded by the Ministry of Defence and the Royal British Legion. It found that the popular picture of the homeless squaddie was not matched by what is happening now. Ten years ago, about 22 per cent. of people living on the London streets were ex-services personnel, but this study found that just 6 per cent. were. That is a significant improvement. It does not mean that the numbers are not still significant—they are. One of the things that came out clearly was that a higher proportion of the ex-services people who were on the streets had alcohol problems, or problems of physical or mental health, than did the general homeless population. Furthermore, some were less inclined to seek help; perhaps there was a view that there was something shameful about being in such a position. They did not necessarily seek help.
What was encouraging was that those homeless ex-services personnel who had left the armed forces relatively recently were much more aware of the help available and of where they could go to get it. It seems that the Ministry of Defence resettlement budget has had a positive effect on those ex-services personnel who become homeless.
Recently I was in Afghanistan as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We talked to a number of the front-line troops and saw that they were recording incidents that could cause them mental stress. They felt that doing so would help them to balance their lives when they came out and to understand the nature of their problems. They also had advice on where to go and who to talk to.
That was a useful intervention. It makes the point that things have improved, although there are still problems. One problem among the homeless people interviewed was that some of those who had not been on active service in a war zone did not really regard themselves as veterans; they somehow thought that they might not be as entitled to the same help as someone who had.
The question of ex-services personnel in prison was mentioned earlier. The National Association of Probation Officers did some work on the issue fairly recently. It got case histories from about 22 probation areas, and they showed a significant problem. The prison in-reach project—again, sponsored by the Ministry of Defence—is doing a scoping survey at the moment. In one small pilot study in Dartmoor, more than 16 per cent. of the people surveyed had undertaken military service, although other surveys have come up with rather lower figures.
The NAPO survey made it clear that in all those probation areas, probation officers were reporting that they were dealing with ex-services personnel. Furthermore, in their view, the majority of such people with whom they were dealing had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and there had been no real attempt to identify the problem—either when those people were discharged from the services or when they were arrested and charged. The other point that came out clearly has already been referred to: a very high proportion of those people had been involved in heavy drinking or drug taking at some point.
Some good little projects are starting. Staff at Everthorpe prison have put together a pack that deals specifically with ex-forces personnel, and work on Army welfare is going on in North Yorkshire. There are examples of good practice, but there are also gaps in our knowledge: we know that the problem is there, but we do not know its precise scale. I hope that the Minister accepts—I think that the Ministry of Defence accepts—that we need to look into this problem and put more information together. If there have been successes in dealing with people becoming homeless, we should look at how that can be transferred into helping them not to end up in prison.
My second point, on which I may not get the same support from the Minister that I hope to get on my first, concerns recruitment, specifically the ages at which people are recruited. I would not dispute that a career in the armed forces can offer young people real opportunities, and I have no problems with young people seeing soldiers; the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) talked about soldiers going into schools. However, we must face the fact that many non-officer recruits into the Army are people with relatively low educational attainment living in poor communities and that a significant number go into the Army as a last resort. I see the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), shaking his head, but a survey carried out in 2004 suggested that up to40 per cent. of Army recruits were doing it because they could not find anything else that they wanted to do.
Irrespective of that, about a quarter of all recruits in 2007 and 2008 were aged under 18. We are unusual among members of the European Union in recruiting people into the Army at the age of 16; most countries do not do that. Yet when we recruit people under the age of 18, the regulations mean that they are signing up for a longer period than someone who joins at the age of 18. We have a rule—it had been lifted and was then brought back in regulations that came into force in August last year—that requires young people to serve for a minimum of four years beyond their 18th birthday. Somebody who signs up when they are 18 could sign up for four years, but if they sign up at 16 or 17, they are signing up to serve for four years beyond their 18th birthday. I wonder how that will sit with our debates on the Equality Bill later in this Session. In the first six months, there is an absolute right to discharge whereby someone who is unhappy can choose to leave voluntarily without a problem, but after that it is discretionary. We should consider moving to an age limit of 17, or at least enabling people to leave at any point before they are 18.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard), who made an extremely congenial neighbour when I was Member of Parliament for Wanstead and Woodford. He made some valid points. I will sit down before 10 minutes to 5 in order to give other right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to speak, because I get a fair crack of the whip in these debates.
I have to start by saying an enormous thank you to our armed forces, who show such qualities of selflessness, resilience, good judgment and humour. In the past, I have made the mistake of saying that they do what they do for us. If one suggested to any member of the armed services that they might be doing it for politicians, one would be met with an immediate raspberry. In fact, they are doing it for each other. They are fighting for their mates; that is an important part of their ethos. We are the beneficiaries of that, and we must do our utmost to preserve the coherence of their units, which give them their strength and their abilities, which are unmatched anywhere in the world.
That leads me on to the suggestion that trickle posting may have an inherently destabilising effect on our armed forces. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will bear very much in mind the binding nature of the groups within our armed forces.
The words that we say in praise of our armed forces must be backed up by policies on pay, family support, medical care, basing and so on. Pay has improved, although there is a concern about the joint personnel administration system, which has caused the MOD’s accounts for this year to be qualified. The qualification is serious, as the permanent secretary to the MOD admitted to the Defence Committee. The JPA was raised with the Committee when we went to Iraq, and last year when we went to Afghanistan. It is an electronic system that is produced by EDS, a good and thoroughly worthwhile company in my constituency. It has been trying to produce an electronic system to take the place of a paper system that had become unwieldy and was wrong in many respects. We are often too quick to blame EDS for mistakes that were inherent in the system.
Nevertheless, the MOD may have been a bit too quick to reduce the number of personnel officers who were there to help the forces through the calculation of their allowances and pay. I hope that the Ministry will consider that matter and also whether the system is appropriate given that, as I understand it, it is a pull system. In other words, if someone does not know what allowances they are entitled to, the system will not prompt them to claim them. That is not acceptable. In November, the permanent secretary came before the Committee and we expressed our dissatisfaction with some of the serious glitches that had appeared in the system. We will report on that soon.
Another important matter for armed forces personnel is basing. The MOD is constantly going through reviews of where bases ought to be. Recently in Hampshire, Portsmouth fortunately fought off the threat of closure. However, RAF Odiham, in my constituency, is still ploughing through Project Belvedere. Only a few years ago, a study concluded that it would not be cost-effective to move the Chinooks away from RAF Odiham. We in north-east Hampshire like the Chinooks. We are proud of what they do in Afghanistan and astonished by what they manage to achieve in Sierra Leone.
The town of Odiham has made a significant financial contribution to the families of those who have served their country abroad in recent months, and last summer the people there held a parade and party for the wonderful men and women of RAF Odiham. Returning to their base, they were reported to me as “walking on air”. Well, they are the RAF. We are not just proud of the Chinooks, we actually like them. We like the noise that they make and are used to it, and I suggest that that would not be true if they were moved elsewhere in the country.
I understand my right hon. Friend’s point, and I intervene briefly to say that if the worst were to happen from his point of view, and under Project Belvedere the Chinooks were to move to RAF Lyneham in my constituency, we would certainly welcome them. I was encouraged by what he said about noise, and from our point of view I very much hope that that is what will happen.
My hon. Friend will understand if I say that I hope that will not happen. By and large, my constituents moved to their houses well after RAF Odiham was set up—it was opened in 1937 by, interestingly, the chief of the Luftwaffe, General Erhard Milch. That may be why I get no more than one complaint a year from my constituents. I suspect that the same would not be true if the Chinooks descended upon my hon. Friend’s constituency.
The cost of reproviding the services and facilities that work well and are well established in Odiham scuppered the previous attempt to move the Chinooks. That reason remains valid. Please will the Minister acknowledge that constantly repeated reviews of such matters are a distraction to the armed forces, upsetting to local communities and an unhelpful waste of the Ministry’s money, which, as we all know, is scarce?
I will finish in one minute by referring to one or two of the Select Committee’s current inquiries. We are holding inquiries into: defence equipment; the MoD’s annual report and accounts; the defence support group; UK national security and resilience; recuperation; Russia; the Service Complaints Commissioner; helicopters; and the comprehensive approach. In view of all that, I pay particular tribute to the Select Committee staff, who bear the burden so knowledgeably. We are extremely grateful to them.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate and to follow the considered contribution of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot).
My right hon. Friend the Minister rightly reminded us of the debt we owe those who serve in our armed forces and of their excellent work. I have met men and women stationed at Weeton barracks near Blackpool and learned of their experiences in Sierra Leone. I have spoken to soldiers at Fulwood barracks in Preston and members of the Territorial Army at Kimberley barracks in Preston, who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan. They are proud of what they do, and we should be proud of them. That is why I am so pleased that we are holding this debate.
I applaud the Government’s commitment to members of the armed services, service families and veterans, which has transformed the debate. The Government have created structures that reflect and, year after year, build on our support for the services.
Today is my first opportunity to congratulate formally the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), on his appointment as Minister with responsibility for veterans. I am being nice to him now because I will ask him some detailed questions later. He brings with him a well-deserved reputation for a no-nonsense approach to good governance of the armed services. On the Defence Committee, he pursued duty of care issues with determination. I am sure that he acknowledges the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), who spearheaded the cause of fair and proper treatment of veterans.
As chair of the all-party group on Army deaths, I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary and his predecessor. They have dealt with bereaved families with courtesy and respect, whether the deaths occurred in barracks at Deepcut, Catterick or overseas. My hon. Friend has also attended meetings of the new all-party group on veterans, of which I am an officer, and has spoken again to the people who attended about the importance of making progress on veterans’ issues.
Since we last considered such issues in detail, the Command Paper on support for service personnel, families and veterans has begun to produce change. We have a framework for better recognition of the armed forces and opportunities to show support. The national armed forces memorial and national armed forces day on 27 June supplement remembrance events in November. We have begun to move to a new system of military justice under the Armed Forces Act 2006. The appointment of a Service Complaints Commissioner is an important step towards independent oversight. The conduct of service personnel and the quality of their leadership are important to the reputation of the armed services. Today’s armed forces must be effective in war and in peace.
I want to concentrate my remaining remarks on the theme of independent oversight, but first, I would like to record my appreciation of Dr. Susan Atkins, the first Service Complaints Commissioner. She has met the all-party parliamentary group on Army deaths twice, and she has listened attentively to the concerns of bereaved Army families. Within her powers, she has done what she could, and I look forward to reading and discussing her first annual report. However, her powers are not as extensive as I, or the Defence Select Committee in its reports on duty of care, wanted them to be. Nor are they as extensive as bereaved families want them to be.
I therefore want to ask the Minister to look into the restriction on the power of the Service Complaints Commissioner to receive a complaint relating to the death of a soldier or its subsequent investigation. The commissioner has been advised that complaints relating to these matters are ultra vires on the ground that the deceased is no longer a serving member of the armed services. When we discussed this matter during the passage of the Armed Forces Act 2006, I do not think any of us understood that that would be an issue, and I do not believe that that was the intention of Parliament. May I ask the Minister to address the problem?
I want to say a few words about the press. Although there is seen to be a lack of effective oversight, our media get actively involved. Newspapers produce a regular commentary on matters such as the ill-treatment of trainees or detainees, shortages of equipment, the hardships of veterans and the failure to provide medical care for casualties of war. I should also like to mention “The Undercover Soldier”, which was broadcast in September by the BBC. The documentary focused on disturbing allegations of ill-treatment of soldiers in training, and of casual racism at Catterick barracks. Those allegations have led to a military police investigation. I know that in recent years there have been many improvements in how the staff in our training establishments behave, and in the kind of training that is offered to young trainees. Sadly, however, we are still seeing allegations such as those shown in the “The Undercover Soldier” programme. We are also seeing the theatre getting involved. I will not list all the plays that have been produced about the deaths at Deepcut, but many of them have won theatrical prizes for the way they have portrayed what were tragedies for those young people and are still tragedies for the families involved.
I shall ask several detailed questions about structures for independent oversight. First, the Adjutant-General established a number of independent advisory panels in 2006, in order
“to exchange information, provide feedback and assist in identifying possible areas for improvement across the training estate”.
Such a proposal stopped well short of that advocated by the Deepcut & Beyond families group for the establishment of a lay visitors’ scheme, in which Army mums and dads could enter training establishments and see the behaviour of the trainees. What assessment has the Minister made of the independent advisory panel scheme? How many panels have been established? Who sees their reports? Service families complain to me that external involvement in the panels is restricted to what they call local bigwigs. What outreach will the Minister undertake to involve ordinary families, particularly those bereaved by deaths in barracks?
Secondly, there has been much debate on the issue of an armed forces federation. Other countries have self-organised membership groups to represent the interests of serving soldiers and their families. I have been told by senior Army officers that such an arrangement would undermine the chain of command. That seems to be their regular response to many of the issues that bereaved families, and the families of serving soldiers, raise. Will my hon. Friend look into whether there is a way of pursuing such a proposal?
Thirdly, in response to public concerns over the deaths in Deepcut barracks, the Secretary of State asked the adult learning inspectorate to oversee the regime and quality of Army training. That role has subsequently passed to Ofsted. What plans does the Minister have to provide for the continued monitoring of training? Will he consider tasking such a body to undertake studies in areas such as race awareness?
Fourthly, the Deepcut & Beyond families group has suggested the establishment of an office of Her Majesty’s inspector of the armed forces—along the same lines as Her Majesty’s inspectors for the police and the prison services. Such an inspector would be outside the chain of command and would be charged with a duty to report directly to Parliament. He could look into the sorts of issues raised by service families and by the families of soldiers who have died. Will the Minister give further consideration to that proposal?
Fifthly, we come to whistleblowers. In workplaces up and down the country, employees routinely do a public service by disclosing workplace malpractice, and the Government have put in place laws to encourage whistleblowers in the public interest so that whistleblowers know they cannot be victimised if they raise issues of malpractice in the workplace. Again, the military traditionally argues that whistleblowers undermine the chain of command. I am not so naïve as to deny that comradeship, obeying orders and having strict discipline are crucial in the Army, but, sadly, we do have occasional incidents—they are not widespread—of things happening that should not happen. With modern information and communications technology, anyone can use a mobile phone to take photos and then put them on a website. Will the Minister look further into protecting genuine whistleblowers who have real concerns? I would expect him to act against those behaving in either a frivolous or dangerous way, but if the cases are genuine, will he look into them further?
Sixthly, on human rights, it is important that soldiers are aware of their right to protection against bullying and ill-treatment. In the context of peacekeeping missions overseas, it is also important that they have an understanding of the areas they are going to. At my request, the Minister placed the curriculum and background notes for such training in the Library of the House, but I have to say that they are pretty meagre, with just two pages and only half a page of writing respectively. Will he think about entering into a dialogue with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to review these teaching materials?
Seventhly—I shall be brief, as I spoke in the debate on the Coroners and Justice Bill earlier this week—another important issue not raised so far today is that of testimony given at services inquiries. It may not be admissible before a coroner’s inquest and may not be disclosed to the jury. Will the Minister look into that issue?
We need to be reassured that our armed forces personnel have opportunities to make complaints and get them addressed if they are genuine. We also need to ensure that we have independent oversight of whatever system of complaints is put into effect. That will reassure existing armed forces personnel while also reassuring their families. I hope that it will also lead to improved recruitment and an improved career for our armed forces personnel.
At the beginning of my brief contribution to the debate, I express my respect and admiration for the service and commitment of our armed forces and for their fortitude and that of their families. I also express my sympathy for loss of life and for those who have been wounded in mind or body.
Recruitment, retention and morale have already been raised, but I want to deal with an issue that has not been mentioned thus far in the debate. In this day and age of fast communication and almost instant media coverage, most people like to receive praise, encouragement and recognition for the duties that they undertake—in other words, for a job well done—and none more so than our troops on the front line. They have access to either internet or satellite connections, and—just like everyone else—they like to see their efforts reported by the media, or even promoted as achievements of which everyone in the United Kingdom can feel proud.
A year ago last December, I asked the Prime Minister a question about the lack of MOD media coverage following the taking of Musa Qala in Afghanistan a few days earlier. The answer that I received disappointed me, so I applied for and gained a Westminster Hall debate entitled “Military Operations (Information)”. During that debate, which took place exactly a year ago on 29 January 2008, I made the case that the MOD had completely failed to give clear leadership and to inspire others in its coverage of the military operations leading up to the taking of Musa Qala. As a result, family, friends and the British public were being kept in the dark, and the MOD had lost a wonderful opportunity to promote a great military success story.
We must face up to the fact that sections of the public are somewhat disenchanted with operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, so it is vitally important to win the information war and change minds here at home in the United Kingdom. The starting point in that process is gaining an understanding of the issues and difficulties faced in particular operations, thereby gaining an appreciation of the tremendous successes achieved by these brave and intrepid young soldiers.
Perhaps a more serious charge is that the lack of media reporting of young men and women putting their lives on the line in an extremely hostile environment might undermine the morale of our troops. Surely their efforts should have been fully recognised in the media. When we compare the lack of coverage that they received to the extended coverage that the conflict in Gaza has recently received in its virtual domination of the news, we can perhaps understand why some of our troops may feel that they serve in a forgotten Army.
Thankfully, the majority of the British public do not forget our troops, but we must never forget that we are at war, and the handling of news has a vital part to play in maintaining morale both at home and on operations. Families play an increasingly important role, not least in respect of retention. That role should be recognised and taken fully into consideration by the MOD. After all, it is not that information cannot be gleaned from other sources, such as the internet; it is just that the MOD is not serving as the first port of call for the provision of reliable information, which is what it should be doing. Its core philosophy should be to be first with the news and to give the definitive overview of the operation in question.
In the Westminster Hall debate, I also set out constructive solutions to the criticisms that I had made of the lack of coverage. A year later, however—the dates were almost identical—Operation Red Dagger took place, and absolutely nothing had changed. The first that we, the general public, knew that a month-long operation had been undertaken was when a report was published in The Sunday Times on 4 January this year. Only after that did the MOD’s website show a “one-slot story”, on the following day, 5 January.
It seems to me that the conclusion to be drawn, just as in the previous year, was that that operation was not particularly worthy of much news coverage. Yet—as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who is not in the Chamber at present—the objective of Operation Red Dagger was to secure from Taliban control ground around Lashkar Gar which we had previously been led to believe was under ISAF and Afghan control. What sort of message does that lack of information send to our troops? What sort of a media policy is that? It is almost as if the MOD media machine were seeking to diminish the support of the British public and to undermine soldiers’ morale, when it should be doing exactly the opposite.
Up to and during the Christmas period, we knew that something was afoot, because we heard about the number of deaths of service personnel, which was grim news for all of us back in the UK, but most especially for those who had a family member serving in Afghanistan. We had no knowledge of or information about what was going on, but it was obviously very tough for those on the front line. The MOD media machine performed in December 2008, as it had the previous year in December 2007, with almost total indifference. There was no narrative and no direction, and it did not show any imagination. If it is allowed to continue in that vein, public support may begin to wane and our troops may feel increasingly disillusioned and believe that they serve in a forgotten Army in a forgotten war in a forgotten land. In other words, we run the risk of defeat and disinterest being bred in our own backyard.
The only difference between these two operations undertaken just a year apart was that the rains came earlier in 2008 than in 2007 and our troops had to operate in appalling and even more testing conditions. But where was the media coverage of that operation? Where was the reporting of a job well done? One might get the impression that the MOD public relations team is failing to provide even adequate media coverage, both to improve the morale of our troops and to keep the British public onside. Or is it that they are actually instructed by the powers-that-be to place the minimum information into the public domain? That surely would be a mistaken philosophy in this day and age, and one that could do profound damage.
There will, of course, be those who disagree with me, but the history of both the Iraq and Afghanistan operations will eventually be written, and I doubt that it will make comfortable reading. The truth about operations in Iraq was never divulged at the outset to the public and Afghanistan is turning out to be the same. There is a great deal of catching up to do.
It is very unsatisfactory when the success of so many British servicemen and women, serving in such difficult theatres, is not even adequately reported by the organisation that sent them there in the first place. We can surely best honour our dead by ensuring that we recognise and extol the efforts of those who are charged with completing their task of gaining victory over the insurgents. The MOD should be playing its part in full to secure that objective. It should ensure that news coverage is as accurate, professional and as current as it can possibly be. It has a great deal of catching up to do.
May I first put on record, as have other hon. Members, our thanks to our armed services for the fantastic job that they do in difficult and dangerous circumstances and to their families and friends who support them from afar and often do not know or cannot be told what their brothers, fathers, sisters, husbands and mates are actually doing for their country? It takes a very special person to join up, but it also takes some very special people at home to cope with the uncertainty and worry that a life linked to the armed forces can bring.
We have seen in the past 10 to 15 years a massive transformation in the role of our armed forces in terms of the type of action that they are required to take, the enemy that they have to deal with, the capability that they have to deliver on the ground and the equipment that they wear and use. We know about their ability to fight, but one of their key roles is in strengthening stability, as they are seeking to do in Afghanistan as well as responding to international emergencies. Our armed forces personnel are among the most flexible in the world, working as they do alongside staff in our Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, NGOs, civilians and of course forces from other nations. I have heard it said repeatedly that, given a choice, it is our Navy, Army and Air Force that others will choose to serve alongside.
For too long, the contribution of our personnel was not fully understood by the wider public outside garrison towns, but that is changing. In Plymouth, to ensure that our lads and lasses are made aware of just how much we value what they do, like in many other towns and cities throughout the country, we will ensure that we welcome them back when they return from active service. Our lord mayor in Plymouth, Councillor Brian Vincent, is working to ensure there is a good civic response, not least because our lady mayoress has two relatives, including her son, who are currently serving.
That is why, from our perspective, the publication of the service personnel Command Paper, which set out 40 commitments for support to our servicemen and women and their families, was so important. I want to focus on some of those commitments, and I know from speaking to service personnel—some on active service in Afghanistan—and their families, who are my constituents, that they have been broadly welcomed. The Royal British Legion—I should declare and interest in that I am a member of the Crownhill branch—which I spoke to some months before the announcement, had been campaigning hard for the changes, as had the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association, which had been working on behalf of local lads who had lost one or more limbs while on active service and was seeking a significant increase in the compensation awards. Both organisations have subsequently expressed how pleased they are that the Government responded so positively.
Mitigating the impact of service life on families is important. People at my local schools tell of the difficulties that the children of service families can face, such as the major upheaval in their lives because of the constant moving from location to location. Schools in Plymouth are very good at offering support in those circumstances, and they respond swiftly and sensitively when we lose one of our own. However, I am sure that they agree that the proposals on the statutory schools admissions code, which should take effect later this year, and the provision for enhanced early years support will help to stabilise families and make children feel more secure.
Plymouth also has high rates of adult illiteracy, and some of that stems from people who leave the armed forces without qualifications and who often find it difficult to secure a job in the civilian sector. In turn, that can lead to street homelessness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) has said, and to the risk of committing crime and of triggering mental health problems, which in some cases is certainly compounded by trauma in service—that concern has already been covered at length. We now understand a little better the nature of the mental health problems that service personnel can face. However, where that is linked not to combat stress but to an inability to move back into civilian life, education becomes increasingly important, and the opportunity for people while in service to improve a range of skills, including literacy and numeracy, is vital and makes a difference.
During a recent armed forces parliamentary scheme visit to Camp Bastion and Kandahar, I was extremely interested to meet some of those responsible for in-service training. We were told that there was a great deal of interest among personnel in getting the national vocational qualifications 1 and 2 not only for jobs when they leave the forces, but because the promotion process now requires them to have those basic skills. The additional entitlement to funding for further and higher education, which builds on the enhanced learning credits initiative, will mean that service-leavers with six years service could attain an A-level or equivalent free from tuition fees. Again, that is very welcome.
There are also options that have existed for many years for courses that lead to accreditation in areas of military relevance. We sometimes forget that the Ministry of Defence is Britain’s largest provider of education and training, offering some 7 million days to their men and women across the services and in the wider MOD. The recent announcements build on what was already on offer.
While the importance of upskilling our forces personnel is important, so, too, is ensuring that their needs are met in a range of other areas. Other hon. Members have spoken at length about equipment, and I have to say that the newspaper cuttings about life on board HMS Daring certainly lift the spirits. It is state of the art in terms of its capability, but it has also taken great regard for the needs of service personnel on board, providing a very high quality living and working space. In fact, what we heard in Afghanistan from all ranks—much to the surprise of some members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I think—was that, in the main, they feel that the procurement process is working and that it is much more responsive. Indeed, one person told me that they had equipment coming out of their ears. I am sure that is a slight exaggeration, but it is indicative of the fact that people feel that they are now receiving what they need on the ground.
There is always room for improvement, and it is essential to listen to the needs of the front-line soldier, as they are the ones who have to fight in excess heat and cold and have to carry the equipment they use. I am pleased to see the Jackal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) has mentioned, in service. I recently visited the production line in Plymouth, and, interestingly, the manufacturers are already responding to proposals to change and tweak that particular vehicle, which have come from people who use it on the ground.
There is no doubt that our forces still feel stretched, and that feeds back to the public in the UK. The public and the families respond by wanting to support them by sending food, e-blueys and buddy boxes. In a recent letter to my local paper, a lady suggested that we should all send food parcels to our troops, because she felt that they were undernourished and came back from the theatres in which they were serving looking thin. I would like to tell her, on the record, that the food available in the mess and in the various outlets in which I ate, alongside hundreds of people from across our services and from other nations, in Afghanistan was superb. The range of options was immense, and the food was beautifully prepared. It is probably true that an army marches on its stomach, which is why breakfast ranged from a full English to toast, omelettes, cereals and fruit, and the lunches and dinners were made up of at least two substantial courses. Clearly troops in our forward posts have a more restricted diet, but that is inevitable, as they often have to carry their food supplies with them. I am not surprised, given the heat and the activity in Afghanistan and Iraq, that people return from those theatres looking a little slimmer, but I reassure the letter writer that that is certainly not because they are underfed.
We have to make it clear that our servicemen and women are greatly valued and that we offer them the support they need to carry out the tasks we, as a Government, set them. The Command Paper has reinforced that intention, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to highlight some of the areas where it will make a difference for my constituents and their families.
I rise to speak briefly. That I shall be brief is partly because of the structure of these debates, which we ought collectively to consider reorganising—perhaps there is a message in this for the usual channels, the party managers and the business managers. At a time like this in our nation’s history, sticking a debate as important as this, on defence personnel, on late on a Thursday afternoon, albeit after a very worthy debate on the holocaust, on a one-line Whip, means that the least possible number of people attend and the least possible attention is given to it. We have all these Opposition day debates on Mondays and Tuesdays, but might it not be better to have a three-line Whip Opposition day debate on a Thursday afternoon and to hold a debate such as this on a Tuesday afternoon, when we can give it proper attention?
Given the lack of available time, I hope that the House will forgive me for focusing on two or three issues relating to my constituency, which none the less have broader interest with regard to the services elsewhere. I am proud of the fact that in addition to RAF Lyneham, which I shall discuss in a moment, my constituency is home to 9 Supply Regiment at Hullavington, which I believe is the largest battalion in the British Army; 21 Signal Regiment, which is an air support regiment at Colerne; and 10 Signal Regiment at Corsham, which has an important job to do on disarming roadside bombs. In addition, a multi-billion pound investment is taking place with regard to defence communications services at Corsham, so I probably encounter as wide a range of service personnel and issues as any hon. Member in the Chamber this afternoon.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for that, because I shall come back to precisely that point in a moment.
I also speak as chair of the all-party group on the Army, and I am delighted that it will be welcoming the returning brigade from Afghanistan on 23 February. It confirmed to me this afternoon that it intends to march into Parliament—with Mr. Speaker’s agreement, of course—arriving at the North Door of Westminster Hall, where I hope hon. Members will be to welcome the troops, and going thereafter to a reception on the Terrace. It is good that the all-party group is welcoming the returning troops and saying thank you to them; after all, we send them to these places, so it is right that we return the compliment.
I pay tribute, as I have done before in a similar vein in this House, to the good people of Wootton Bassett in my constituency, who, week in, week out and in the foulest of weathers, turn out in their hundreds up and down the High street to see the coffins, as they come back through RAF Lyneham, and stop for two minutes. It is the simplest of ceremonies, with no commands. There is nothing pompous or grand about it—just the people of Wootton Bassett and the surrounding areas paying their respects to those coffins. That has happened around 100 times now, and I join them as often as I can. I wish that other towns and villages would learn that lesson from Wootton Bassett—some are beginning to do so—and the way in which it pays its respects to our armed services and the contribution that they make to the defence of the realm.
In that context, it is through RAF Lyneham that the bodies are returned from both Iraq and Afghanistan. The ceremonies that are laid on at the base are superbly well done. However, under current plans, the Hercules fleet at RAF Lyneham will be moved to RAF Brize Norton in 2012, although the delays to the A400M, which might be quite serious, may mean some delay in that transfer. However, if it goes ahead the already too busy base at RAF Brize Norton would have the added task of the repatriation of those bodies. I fear that the narrow lanes around Carterton in Oxfordshire would not be as sensible a route as that around RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett.
There are some 750 civilians employed at RAF Lyneham and, if one takes into account their spouses and the associated people employed in the pubs, shops and schools supporting the base, it is obvious that if the base were to close it would be a catastrophe for the local economy. It must not be allowed to happen. Especially it must not be closed temporarily for some years while the MOD think of some other use for it. I have seen the vandals and wreckers move into RAF Wroughton when my party, when it was in government, wrongly closed the military hospital there. We should not have done that, because it was a wicked thing to do, but we did it and the site was vandalised for many years before finally being knocked down and used for other purposes. That must not be allowed to happen at RAF Lyneham.
I am glad to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) that he has only one complaint a year about the noise from the Chinooks and that he is keen to keep them in his area. The good people of Lyneham would welcome them too if Project Belvedere, which is in its final stages of discussion at the MOD, reaches a conclusion. I am told that three of the four solutions would involve RAF Lyneham, and if the Joint Helicopter Command at RAF Odiham and other helicopters are brought there, I assure Ministers—I hope that they are listening carefully as I have taken wide soundings from the local area—that they would be welcome. There would of course be great concern about the noise and the environmental downsides of the helicopters, as opposed to the Hercules, which we all love, but I know from discussions with senior people in the RAF and the Army that it would be possible to work out flying protocols so that the helicopters would not unduly interfere with the lives of local people.
The people of my constituency would welcome the Joint Helicopter Command to RAF Lyneham with open arms, and I would make it my business to explain to any doubters that, while there might be some environmental downsides, having the helicopters would be vastly better than a new town, an extension of Heathrow airport or a prison. I hope that I speak for the bulk of my constituents—not all, because it will be a difficult and controversial decision—when I say that we look forward to the outcome of Project Belvedere and the Joint Helicopter Command coming to RAF Lyneham.
It is an especial privilege and honour to represent a garrison town. I pay tribute to 16 Air Assault Brigade, which undertook a gruelling tour of duty in Afghanistan last year. I visited British troops in Afghanistan twice last year, first as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and then in the autumn to meet soldiers from Colchester, many of whom had suffered injuries. Sadly, there have also been several deaths.
Earlier, I praised the Royal Anglian Regiment, the regional regiment that Mr. Deputy Speaker and I are proud to say is—so we are told—the best recruited regiment in the Army. I pay tribute to them too. I also want to praise the MOD media people, who are doing a good job under difficult circumstances. I want to highlight the Kajaki dam exercise, in which all four battalions of the Parachute Regiment were engaged. It was an incredible achievement which received massive publicity, and I and others had the privilege of meeting many of those young men just one week after the culmination of that extraordinary exploit. I believe that it was the first time in 60 years that all battalions of the Parachute Regiment had been engaged on a single mission. In passing, we should praise the actor Ross Kemp and those who are doing so much with him to bring into our homes the real business of what is going on in Afghanistan. I assume that the MOD publicity people had some involvement in that.
The Royal British Legion, as we have heard, does a good job, as do many of the charitable and support organisations. I want to single out Veterans Aid, which is dealing with those former members of our armed forces who have fallen on really tough times. Perhaps more needs to be done with that.
I recognise the points made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) about the welcoming home process and the tributes being paid to those who have lost their lives. That is precisely how it is in the garrison town of Colchester. The welcome home parade was attended by the Secretary of State for Defence and a service was held for those who had returned safely and in recognition of those who, sadly, did not. On two occasions, the town came together for military funerals; the other soldiers who had lost their lives returned to their home towns and cities. I agree entirely that where there is a military presence, the civilian community comes together.
The House of Commons Library has put together a very useful debate pack. If people do not have it, I recommend it. It is a fantastic document. I praise the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for the introduction of national armed forces day. I shall come in a minute to my favourite subject, housing.
Incidentally, I should have mentioned one point, about 16 Air Assault Brigade. I have had the pleasure of welcoming four separate groups to Parliament. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister, because he welcomed three of those groups to No. 10, invited them in and showed them round. It is often said that the Prime Minister is not interested, and it is not usually my job to praise him, but I praise him for taking time out to ensure that those young men—and a few young women, too—could have thanks given personally to them by the Prime Minister.
Back in the autumn, the Under-Secretary said:
“As promised in the Service Personnel Command Paper we are also improving access to health, housing and education.”
He will know from his recent visit to Colchester that although the new Merville barracks is, I believe, the best military accommodation in the country for single personnel, the family accommodation still has a long way to go. With in excess of 200 empty dwellings, it does not represent good use of public assets. It is also not good use of public money to upgrade properties to enhance the value of privatised houses now owned by Annington Homes. I recognise that the previous Conservative Government were responsible for that, but surely the Government should find a way to ensure that money invested from the public purse in somebody else’s property is reflected in a buy-back, so that the value of the improvements and modernisation goes towards the repurchase price. Such a scheme to buy those properties back could use the same wonderful, very generous terms that the previous Government used in selling them.
Let me draw the attention of the House to the Defence Committee’s “Educating Service Children” report, to which I referred earlier. It would be inappropriate to go into long detail, but I merely draw attention to recommendation 5, which states:
“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.”
I invite the Defence Committee to revisit that recommendation, and I invite the Ministry of Defence to consider whether decisions made this week square with that recommendation.
We have had a very good debate, if, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said, somewhat truncated. It is unfortunate that a debate on all those men and women—200,000 of our armed forces—should be curtailed to the extent that it has been, and I hope the usual channels on both sides will seek to find a way in which the House can debate more adequately these very important issues.
On an Opposition day.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He may only just have become a Minister, having crossed the Floor, but he ought to understand that these matters are a responsibility of the Government in the first instance, and therefore I think that the whole House believes that it would have been better if we could have had a longer debate on these matters. Perhaps the Minister will at some point tell us when we will be able to discuss those grey metal, flat-topped 65,000-tonne displaced things, about which we are not allowed otherwise to speak today.
We have had some interesting speeches from Members on both sides. I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), who were both on the armed forces parliamentary scheme visit with me in Afghanistan. They gave an excellent account of what has been going on there and reported faithfully how well our armed forces are performing in very difficult circumstances. Reference was made to the commanding officer of 42 Commando, Lieutenant Colonel Stickland, and I strongly endorse everything that was said about him. His card will be marked; he is going places. He is a very able officer.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) was absolutely right when she pointed out, in a telling speech, the failure of the media properly to cover what is going on out there. The universal cry from our armed forces—soldiers, sailors and airmen—out in theatre is that only casualties get reported. They appreciate the fact that they are reported, but they would also appreciate it if the sort of commentary that was given on the Kajaki dam were greatly broadened to cover other areas where they are performing so well.
My hon. Friend made mention of the contribution that Ross Kemp has made, and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) endorsed that. I am afraid I was unable to attend the preview last week, but I have high hopes that many of our constituents will turn on their televisions on Sunday night to watch Ross Kemp on Sky, reporting as he did so well last time round.
My hon. Friend is right to say that we need the Ministry of Defence to look again at how it can improve access for journalists, and in a sense try to get the journalists to understand. I am not blaming the Department entirely, but I do think this is a real issue, and if the Department needs to redouble its efforts, I am sure that it will do so. As I think the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), knows, my experience with media ops in Aldershot has not been entirely happy, and I think that sometimes the media ops people are not operating in the best interests of what Ministers want.
Indeed. If possible it should do that, but as I have also said to my hon. Friend, there is a real responsibility on the media as well to step up to their responsibilities and the challenges that they face. Perhaps I might say to Ministers: putting people in uniform in charge again might be the answer, to ensure that they get the message across in the way that they are best able to do, as they are in uniform.
Absolutely; I entirely endorse that. The Aldershot News does not exactly the same job, but—[Interruption.] I am hearing noises off about Colchester. I am sure that such a thing happens in garrison towns, but families throughout the land are contributing to a fantastic effort on behalf of our armed forces. Families who do not necessarily live in garrison towns need to be informed of what our brave men and women are doing in our name.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who represents my neighbouring constituency, made a strong case for the Chinooks to remain in Odiham. I am bound to say that I entirely endorse that point. I am sorry for my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire—bad luck—but there is a real problem when the Ministry of Defence is trying to compress our armed forces into an ever-reducing footprint across the land. We will have to address that problem when we come to office, which we hope will happen shortly.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that the nation owed a duty of care, and that will be accepted on both sides of the House. He also talked about the welcome increase in compensation, which was debated when we considered the Bill that became the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004. I am glad that the Government have at last responded to the public outcry. We must address the tendency of ex-service personnel to turn up in prison in ever-larger numbers. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) drew particular attention to post-traumatic stress disorder and the proposals that we hope to be able to implement to ensure that that is picked up. This nation faces a bow wave of problems to which it will, at some point, have to pay attention.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire referred to the JPA, about which I have also heard complaints. The Ministry of Defence, like other Government Departments, seems to have problems with IT, and the situation is causing the military great concern. I met someone at Odiham who had found that the system had taken £500 out of his account, although that happened some time ago. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham, will address the problem in his winding-up speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury set out the formidable challenges that must be met by the Ministry of Defence if it is to have any hope of maintaining our armed forces’ capability to fulfil the missions with which they are tasked. I am afraid that the greatest of those challenges is clearly resources. I hear that the Ministry of Defence is looking for savings of between £1 billion and £2 billion. Additionally, procurement costs must be rising due to the fall of the pound, so the Ministry is in a dire situation.
Nothing better exemplified the high tempo of operations to which personnel are subjected than when I had the privilege of presenting campaign medals just before Christmas to Royal Air Force personnel at RAF Odiham, which is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire. RAF Odiham is the home of the Chinook helicopter force that forms the backbone of logistic movement and, most importantly, provides casualty evacuation in theatre in Afghanistan. A number of those receiving medals were young people who told me that they had done five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. We need to salute these young men and women for what they are doing.
That was why I became worried when I read some remarks attributed to General Sir Richard Dannatt, who has been an outstanding commander. He was quoted by The Guardian—so Labour Members will have to take this as true—as saying:
“We have seriously stretched our soldiers to the very limit. Many families and marriages have unfortunately fallen victim to the relentless pace of operations.”
That is a serious indictment, and it is little wonder that the armed forces are nearly 6,000 short and increasingly dependent on new Commonwealth personnel to backfill, as the hon. Member for North Devon pointed out. The most recent figures show that those personnel account for more than 7,000 of our forces’ current strength.
I ask my hon. Friend to comment on the announcement that Radio 4 has just made that the Ministry of Defence plans to put a 15 per cent. cap on the number of foreign nationals in the Royal Logistics Corps, the Royal Army Dental Corps and Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. I hope that the Minister will have time to comment on that, because it seems strange that the story should be on the BBC when there is a debate on armed forces personnel in the House of Commons today.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, because I have raised the issue before, and it has not been addressed by Ministers. If the news has been mentioned on the BBC, the House is entitled to be informed. I hope that the Minister will deal with that when he winds up.
The latest performance report by the Ministry of Defence shows that there are serious shortages across the board. Let me list one or two. There are just three Royal Navy Harrier instructors, against a requirement of seven. There is a 38 per cent. shortage of Merlin helicopter pilots, and there are just 95 Army bomb disposal corporals and sergeants, against a requirement of 222—a 57 per cent. shortfall. The RAF is short of 88 loadmasters, a trade critical to operations in the fields. We also know that only 85 per cent. of the armed forces are fully available and fit; 15 per cent. are not fit. The Government have a target of 90 per cent., and it is clearly not being met. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) drew attention to that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury drew attention to the harmony guidelines. The Royal Logistic Corps has a 15-month average tour interval, against a target of 24 months. That cannot be sustained. Furthermore, there is an outflow of personnel. We now know that in the year ending 1 September last year, the voluntary outflow rate of RAF officers was 3 per cent., against a long-term sustainable rate of 2.5 per cent. The figure for other RAF ranks is 5.8 per cent., against a sustainable rate of 4 per cent. Clearly, if that trend continues, there will be serious consequences for the maintenance of capability. In the first six months of last year, there was a net outflow of something like 1,250 people—overwhelmingly, that means 12,200 experienced people being replaced by 10,960 rookies.
The Prime Minister is falling over himself to ingratiate himself with the new US President, so who can doubt that he will press service chiefs to accede to any request from the United States for more troops in Afghanistan? I understand that one battlegroup is all that can be afforded; Ministers need to tell us how many troops they are prepared to contribute. The truth is that our armed forces are overstretched. They have received much better equipment in the form of improved armoured vehicles, as has been mentioned, but the Snatch Land Rover remains in operation, which causes great concern for the safety and security of our armed forces, and we were told just before Christmas that a whole series of programmes were to be cut, curtailed, reduced or scrapped altogether. That is not at all satisfactory. If the Government want our armed forces to do what they are being asked to do, the Government have to back them with resources; otherwise they will have failed our armed forces.
I will conclude on a positive note, by paying tribute to the British public, who I think do support our armed forces. The welcome home parades have been mentioned. I salute Wootton Bassett for what it has done, and I salute my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire for what he has done as chairman of the all-party Army group. The nation owes a huge debt of gratitude to our armed forces, and the more that we can show that we are understanding of their commitment and the sacrifice that they are making on behalf of all of us in this country, the better we will be able to impress on them that we really are concerned about them and value them, and will do much more than we are doing to ensure that they get a fair deal from the Government of this country, whoever is in power.
I start by echoing the sentiments expressed by Members in all parts of the House who paid tribute to the commitment and valour of our armed forces who have done a tremendous job on our behalf, and this debate is a good way of saying a big thank you to them. Obviously, if I do not cover points that have been raised, I will write to individuals, but I should like to answer directly that raised by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). Yes, the announcement has been made. As to whether I am angry that the BBC got the story before the announcement was made to Parliament, I am, and I shall look into that as a matter of urgency. I shall certainly do all Members present the courtesy of writing to them with the reason why that happened.
I want to address some of the points that the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) raised. He seems to think that the more parliamentary questions asked, the greater a party’s commitment to defence. Whoever is organising this in the Conservative party, may I ask that duplicates are not submitted? Two or three hon. Members have been doing so on a regular basis over the past week, and it ruins my Sunday afternoon having to sign the duplicates off when they come in my Red Box.
The subject of time limits was raised. Under the scheme, five years is the time limit, which is more than the three-year limit in civil litigation. There is a provision for those time limits to be relaxed and extended in certain cases—the late onset of illness, for example—where a claimant cannot submit a claim until the illness is identified.
The hon. Member for Westbury and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) spoke about veterans in prison. That is an issue which I take very seriously, as would all hon. Members who care about veterans. The figure that was highlighted is not correct. A study is under way to identify the number of veterans in prison and how we should respond to that.
On decompression time, I agree with the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). When I have spoken to individuals coming back from operations, I found that the last thing they want to do is spend two weeks in Cyprus. I think we have got the time right.
The hon. Member for Westbury should not denigrate the role that civil servants play in theatre. Some of them are in extremely dangerous situations, doing a tremendous job in support of our armed forces.
I will not, because I have limited time.
The issue of visits to schools was raised last year. I will have no truck with any organisation trying to stop our servicemen and women going into schools. In my constituency, my experience, which is shared by many hon. Members, is that most schools welcome servicemen and women because they are a force for good and they make good role models. Around armed forces day on 27 June I would like to see more of our armed forces going into schools to project positive messages.
May I put on record the fact that the defence training review is going ahead and is affordable? There have been delays but the momentum exists. The work on a successor to Land Securities Trillium is well advanced and an announcement will be made shortly.
Reference was made to stand-alone military hospitals and Haslar. I have to say to the hon. Member for Westbury that I wish the Opposition would not make a political issue out of that. When his party was in power, it closed military hospitals. That was the right decision, supported by the Defence Committee’s report last year, which also stated:
“We also support the decision by the MoD to disengage from the Haslar site.”
That decision ensures the best medical care for our armed forces. To highlight one such site is a mistake.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), who are strong advocates, and say a big thank you to the Royal Marines in their constituencies for their dedication and for the role that they play in Afghanistan. I also pay tribute to the lord mayor of Plymouth, Councillor Brian Vincent, who is working hard to make sure that the parade is a success.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) raised a number of issues, including pay. I do not accept that the pay for our armed forces is as he described. The basic salary is between £16,270 and £25,182. In addition, there are operational allowances of £2,320, council tax relief of £240, and the longer service separation allowance of £1,100. That would leave an individual on a six-month tour in receipt of about £11,500. Can we do more and try to advocate more for our armed forces? Yes, we can. In the past few years, the Government have shown that they have accepted the recommendations of the independent Armed Forces Pay Review Body. That has meant that the armed forces have had some of the better pay increases in the public sector.
The hon. Gentleman also mentioned nuclear test veterans. Obviously, I cannot go into much detail as the court case is ongoing. However, I want to scotch the rumour, which is nonsense, that somehow the legal action is a technicality. Defending the cases has been made more difficult as time has passed, so the current case is to determine the issue of time limits. I should like to put on record the fact that the notion that other countries are compensating the individuals involved and we are not is wrong. We are. Those who can show that their medical condition is related to their service can apply for the war pension. That is clear.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the Gurkhas, which is my responsibility. The Government have given good support—not only to Gurkhas in service who are not in receipt of pensions, but in allowing those who served after 1997 to settle in this country. Some 6,000 have already done so. The hon. Gentleman said that a technical point was involved, but that is not true: the High Court held that setting the date was justified as that was when there was the move from Hong Kong to the UK. The role of the Gurkhas is tremendously important.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow talked about homeless veterans and veterans in prison. The York university study has been useful in trying to ascertain the extent of the problem of veteran homelessness in London. My hon. Friend rightly says that that is less of a problem than it was 10 years ago. Before Christmas, I chaired a meeting of the Veterans Forum that was specifically about homelessness, and I am determined to do research in other parts of the country so that we can provide the support that such individuals need. I am thinking of the excellent projects at Mike Jackson house, which gives support to homeless veterans. I part company with my hon. Friend on the issue of under-18s. If he cares to visit the Army foundation college in Harrogate, the sixth-form college at Welbeck or Catterick itself, he will see tremendous work in supporting and developing young people and providing some of them with educational opportunities on which they have missed out.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire mentioned the joint personnel administration scheme. It is firmly on my radar screen. Yes, mistakes were made early on; savings may have been taken out when the RAF first introduced it, and that led to some of the problems. Overall, however, it is a good system, and compared with other IT infrastructure projects across Whitehall, it is a success story. I am conscious that we now need to ensure that it beds in. However, we should not try to pull it apart—the three services must not try to reinvent what they had before, because that would lead to further problems. I should put on the record the fact that the issue is a standing item on the agenda for when I meet Vice-Admiral Wilkinson, the deputy Chief of the Defence Staff.
I understand the frustration of the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) about Project Belvedere: in the past few months, I have found quite a few things frustrating as I have tried to drive things forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble) raised a number of issues and I shall write to her about the specifics. The head of the Army and I are clear that bullying and racist behaviour are not acceptable anywhere in the armed forces. She mentioned “The Undercover Soldier”. I cannot say much more about individual cases because, as she knows, an investigation is under way. However, the Adjutant-General and I will visit Catterick next month to look at the work being done there and to see what can be done to address some of the issues. My hon. Friend is aware of some of the excellent work being carried out by Lynn Farr and Daniel’s Trust, for example.
I accept some of the criticisms made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). However, some Members from her party have tabled questions about what we are spending on press officers. Such work is done by dedicated men and women, many of them in the armed forces.
Finally, I should like to say a big thank you to the people of Wootton Bassett for their work in honouring the dead who are returned. I also thank everyone—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).