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Armed Forces Morale

Volume 542: debated on Monday 26 March 2012

I continue to be impressed by the morale and commitment of those putting their lives at risk on operations on a daily basis. This was particularly evident to me during my recent visit to Afghanistan. More broadly, the Ministry of Defence uses a number of measures, including the annual armed forces continuous attitude survey, to monitor and understand changes in morale across the services. In the 2011 survey across the three services, 46% of respondents reported that their morale was high, and 31% were neutral.

May I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s earlier comments, and in particular convey my deepest sympathies to the family of Captain Rupert Bowers of the 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment, who was killed in Afghanistan last week? The people of Bromsgrove are rightly very proud of having given the Mercians the freedom of the district last year. Does the Minister agree that if more cities and towns throughout the country followed their example by conferring a similar honour, that could help to boost morale?

I do agree, and I applaud the local communities that are taking part in the armed forces community covenant scheme. Over the past five or six years, the community in general has increasingly recognised the contribution that our armed forces make, and has become increasingly willing to make spontaneous gestures of respect for them. That is very welcome, and it undoubtedly has an impact on morale.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential to the morale of our troops on operations that they know that in their absence their families are safe, secure, and surrounded by understanding and like-minded communities such as those in the neighbourhoods of married quarters, which are known as “patches”? Can he reassure service families that the forthcoming review of accommodation options under the new employment model will take account of the intangible benefits of such communities in towns where there are married quarters?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There is a balance to be struck, but the community support that results from the collocation of armed forces families is tangible. We must also concentrate on the ability of families to secure employment in local communities, and that is another consideration that we take into account.

I thank the Minister for his thoughtful response. Forces’ morale is closely linked with events in Afghanistan, and I join the Secretary of State in offering condolences: the thoughts of all of us, and the prayers of many of us, are with the families and friends of those who have been bereaved today. I do not want to go into the specifics of that attack, but attacks on NATO forces by Afghan forces have resulted in 75 fatalities since 2007, and most of the attacks have taken place in the last two years. In the light of previous incidents, what new procedures have been implemented to vet Afghan recruits, and will Afghan forces be responsible for the protection of UK trainers who remain in Afghanistan post-2014?

We keep force protection issues under continuous review, and we have changed our procedures in the light of events that have occurred both recently and over a longer period. The decision of the Government —the last Government, as it happens, but that is not relevant—to adopt a partnering strategy and put our troops in alongside those of Afghanistan undoubtedly carried a considerable degree of risk, and there are those who think that that is the wrong approach, but I do not agree. I believe that the last Government were right to compute that the risk was worth taking, and I believe that that is the only way in which we will engrain the necessary skills and culture in the Afghan forces and complete our mentoring task.

Forces’ morale often depends on success in Afghanistan. Last week the Prime Minister made clear his view that the handover to Afghan forces could be achieved satisfactorily without a political settlement, but that is contrary to all experience in Afghanistan. Such a vacuum would encourage neighbouring countries to seek influence, allow the Taliban to return, and allow other elements to exploit the ungoverned space. Does the Minister accept that while there can of course be significant military success in Afghanistan, stability in the country will ultimately rely on a political settlement?

I certainly agree that a political settlement will be required if there is to be enduring stability beyond the end of 2014, but I think that the hon. Gentleman conflates two issues. It is perfectly possible for us to complete the security challenge of handing the lead over to the Afghans district by district, area by area, which we are doing now, and doing successfully; but if that is to stand a chance of sustaining peace in Afghanistan in the long term, a political settlement will need to come behind it to return the country to the stability for which we have all been trying to work.