Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Dr Murrison.)
Instead of the normal pleasantries of wishing you well in chairing the debate, Mr Walker, may I express my particular thanks? Owing to the peculiarity of parliamentary procedure, I was told that I was chairing the debate this morning, but it would have been difficult to be in the Chair and making my speech at the same time. I am therefore particularly grateful to you for taking my place at this early hour in the morning. I am also grateful to many colleagues for turning up to discuss this extremely important subject. Indeed, I extend my thanks to Mr Speaker—I do not know whether he selected the subject for debate or it came about in another way—for making the debate possible.
It is often said that the first duty of Government is the defence of the realm, and that is absolutely true. The first duty of Parliament is to examine what the Government are doing in defending the realm. Over 25 years, the armed forces parliamentary scheme has played a significant part in helping Members of Parliament from all parties to examine what the Government are doing. I emphasise “from all parties”, because it is important for the Opposition to have the opportunity to find out more about the armed forces through the scheme. Frankly, however, Government Back Benchers do not have easy access to the armed forces, so using the scheme as a way of finding out what our people are doing on the ground and finding out a little more about defence is an extraordinarily important thing for Back Benchers of all colours to do. I have put myself carefully in a Cross-Bench position at the end of the Chamber this morning to illustrate that this is in no sense a party political matter.
For 25 years, the armed forces parliamentary scheme has done a fantastic job in enabling Back Benchers—and, indeed, on many occasions, Front Benchers—from both sides of the House to embed themselves with our armed forces in the Army, Navy and Air Force, and to find out what is happening on the ground. They are finding out not necessarily about strategic matters or ground defence, but about how our boys and girls, as we often call the members of all three of our armed services, do their work on the ground.
We are honoured to be joined in the Chamber by the Conservative Chief Whip. Not so long ago, when he was briefly the shadow Defence Secretary, he joined us in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It is nice that he has been able to find time to join us in the Chamber this morning.
For 25 years, the scheme has enabled an enormous number of people—265, if my counting is correct—to find out what happens to airmen, and soldiers and sailors of both sexes on the ground. There is a third level to the scheme in the Royal College of Defence Studies, where those who have graduated from the lower levels can find out more about the grand strategy and the bigger defence picture. Largely, however, the purpose of the scheme is to find out precisely what is happening on the ground.
None of that would be possible were it not for the imagination, initiative and management over 25 years of Sir Neil Thorne, ably supported by his excellent wife. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] The approbation around the Chamber confirms that everyone this morning wants me to thank him extremely sincerely for all the magnificent work that he has done in setting up the scheme and making it work. It is completely out of order, Mr Walker, to call attention to anyone in any gallery attached to the Chamber, and I would not wish to incur your wrath by doing so, but were there anyone in the Public Gallery who happened to have the name of Sir Neil Thorne, we would be happy that he happened to be here and most grateful for everything that he has done. It has been a magnificent scheme for 25 years.
The scheme has operated at four different levels—perhaps three in future—and 265 people in total have gone through it. In the introductory course, people learn a little about what the armed services are doing in general terms. There is also a postgraduate scheme, the advanced postgraduate scheme and the even more advanced postgraduate scheme, as well as a number of other schemes, all of which, I am glad to say—call me an anorak—I have very much enjoyed doing. My interest and involvement in defence have come about largely as a result of the scheme, so it has been a superb way of learning about what happens on the ground.
About a year or so ago, the Lord Speaker, Mr Speaker and the Secretary of State for Defence decided that it was time to do two things: to re-establish the scheme as a charitable trust; and to do so within Parliament. Happily, we have been able to do that over the past year or so. Last night, in Committee Room 14, we relaunched the scheme under a new name, the armed forces parliamentary trust. It is to be run by nine trustees: two appointed by Mr Speaker, namely the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and me; two from the House of Lords, who I think will be Lord Wakeham and Lord Rogan; two from the Ministry of Defence, Air Vice-Marshal David Murray and Sir Bill Jeffrey, the last but one permanent secretary; and two from industry, Helen Kennett of Rolls-Royce and Bob Keen of BAE Systems.
I am delighted that Sir Neil Thorne has agreed to become the ninth trustee and that, in response to an invitation from Mr Speaker, he has undertaken to become the life president of the scheme. We welcome Sir Neil’s continuing involvement and interest. In all, that is a good group of people to set up a charitable trust—a charitable incorporated organisation, which is a kind of mini-charity under the charity commissioners—which will be entirely within Parliament. Only last night, Mr Speaker told me that he has found accommodation in Parliament for our staff of one person, to whom I shall return. The scheme will be wholly accountable and transparent, with annual accounts, annual general meetings and the rest of it, as we must have in modern times.
Having taken part in the old scheme and expressed a number of concerns about its corporate governance, I am delighted that the Minister and the Speakers have overhauled the scheme. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the new trust is to be properly accountable? Will it allow pesky Back Benchers, such as me, to ask all sorts of pesky questions without getting chucked out of it? Will the role of any corporate contributors be clearly defined and constrained?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. The answer to both his questions is yes, on one condition: that he commits to take part in the scheme. We would welcome his contribution—he will be the lowest of the low, the most junior private soldier that it is possible to imagine, and we will put him through an absolute beasting, but I am happy to give him that reassurance. He has been a mild critic over the years, so it is useful and kind of him to come to the Chamber to offer his support this morning.
My hon. Friend asked who would be paying for the scheme, and it is worth expanding on that. Traditionally, it has been paid for by the defence industry, and there have been four main sponsors. One of the things that I have been doing over the summer is going round all the defence companies, and I have now secured promises from at least 10 and possibly 15 of them—all the majors, such as Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Babcock, as well as others of a similar nature—each paying a small amount of funding, which will be sufficient to cover our anticipated costs.
The reason why that is a better arrangement is because, with 10 or 15 sponsors, we can say that none is achieving anything. Indeed, my pitch to them has been to say, “I would like some money from you, please.” They have asked, “What do we get back?” and I have replied, “You get absolutely nothing in return whatever. This is CSR—corporate social responsibility—for the defence industry. You get no lobbying, no access nor your name on writing paper, unless we choose to do so, but you get the warm feeling, Mr Rolls-Royce”—for example—“ of knowing that you have helped with the education of Members of Parliament.” All of them accepted that.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he recognise that one of the benefits that may come to the defence industry by helping the scheme is that Members of Parliament will be significantly better informed about the industry and the issues faced by our armed forces day to day?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. There have hardly been any defence debates or oral questions over the past 25 years in which hon. Members have not stood up and said, “Thanks to the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I know a little bit more about the armed forces. Therefore, the following question comes from my experience in the scheme.” My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the defence companies do not want anything directly in return, but it is good for them to know that there is a cadre of people in Parliament who understand defence, are interested in and sympathetic towards defence, and who have some kind of expertise when we consider broader defence matters in future. No lobbying is involved, but there are advantages for them in having a group of people who are more attuned to defence questions. That is how the sponsorship will work. Everything will be listed, declared and above board with minuted annual general meetings and so on. My hon. Friend can be reassured on that point.
The scheme will continue the movement started by Sir Neil Thorne over 25 years ago. We believe that the ethos he established of embedding Members of Parliament with the three armed services is right. Last week, I was happy to visit to RAF Brize Norton with other hon. Members, but we wore suits, we were VIP visitors and we did not get together with people on the ground or learn what they were doing. The whole ethos of the scheme is to be there as one of them and fully involved as an ordinary individual with people of all ranks.
It is important to maintain that ethos and to do so in a similar way, with visits of up to 20 or 22 days. The trustees are considering whether 15 days would be slightly easier, but broadly speaking the visits will remain the experience that hon. Members have enjoyed over the past 25 years or so, and they will no doubt tell us about it. I say “enjoyed” intentionally because the scheme is not only educational and helpful to our defence industry and to hon. Members in defence debates but good fun. That is key. The visits are fantastic fun, and it is important that that ethos continues.
We are continuing the movement, as the military say, rather than starting something brand new. The organisation is wonderful, but it needs a bit of change and thanks to what Mr Speaker, the Lord Speaker and the Secretary of State for Defence have asked us to do, we are continuing the movement under a new guise. The transition to the new scheme has been helped by the Minister, who has handled negotiations with great care and tact, for which I am most grateful. He had a useful group of civil servants behind him, particularly Mr Roy Brown and Ms Anna Platt in his private office, who were immensely helpful with the process. We should pay tribute to them, and we should also pay tribute to Sir Neil’s private staff, who have been much involved over the years. It is great to thank them for all that they have done.
We are close to establishing the new trust. As of yesterday, we appointed a chief executive or chief clerk, Major Johnny Longbottom, a Territorial Army officer who has had similar roles in the Ministry of Defence. He served for six months in Afghanistan and is well qualified and well suited in every way to be the new chief clerk or chief executive—we will decide on the title later. Mr Speaker has provided accommodation in Parliament; funding is on its way; our application to the Charity Commission to become a charitable incorporated organisation is in hand, and I hope that that will be done reasonably swiftly. Most of the necessary practicalities to establish the scheme in its new guise are in hand, and I very much hope that when the House returns in October the first course will be ready to go.
At a meeting last night, there were many applicants wanting to join the scheme. They can do so in any of the three services at a junior or senior level, or they can go to the Royal College of Defence Studies, although that course is full at the moment. We are ready to go as soon as the House returns in October, the first major event being a two-day course at Shrivenham from 11 to 13 November. We should be in a good position to get going swiftly.
Other hon. Members want to take part in the debate, so I will not detain the Chamber unduly, but it is worth reiterating that the scheme has done great work. During the post-war period, plenty of Members were ex-military and there was a strong military ethos in Parliament, but 25 years ago, Sir Neil Thorne correctly identified that that ethos had disappeared and that knowledge of the armed forces had declined significantly. He put that right by establishing the scheme, and the fact that we now have such a good understanding of the armed forces and defence in Parliament is largely due to its introduction.
We hope that we are facing a time when, after Afghanistan, we will have fewer deployments and fewer soldiers, sailors and airmen on operations for many years to come. Again, there is at least a risk that interest in and knowledge of our defence capability will decline in the next 20 years. I believe that the continuing armed forces parliamentary scheme will play an important role in maintaining interest in the armed forces even when we are not engaged in kinetic warfare around the world. We have as huge a role to play in the future as we had in the past.
We must thank Sir Neil for the past 25 years. Thanks to the initiative of the Secretary of State, Mr Speaker and the Lord Speaker, we are establishing the trust as a way forward so that in 25 years when we in this Chamber will, sadly, no longer be here, there will be another debate in this same Chamber saying how well the scheme has worked in the interim 25 years. I am most grateful to Sir Neil and to all who have been involved, and I look forward very much to the great honour of chairing the armed forces parliamentary trust in the years to come.
It is a pleasure, Mr Walker, to serve under your chairmanship. Members of the Panel of Chairs do not often serve under one another’s chairmanship. I was not expecting to be called so early, but I want to echo some of what has already been said, particularly about Sir Neil Thorne, his wife Sheila and the dog—I have forgotten its name, so I must apologise to Sir Neil. They have been a feature of my life for more than the last decade while I have been involved in the armed forces parliamentary scheme.
Becoming a Member of the House of Commons is a bizarre experience because it involves setting up a small business and accommodating the magical mystery tour that is the legislative process. We are given the key to a locker and a sack of mail, and told to get on with it. We wonder why we are here, what we are trying to do, and what our responsibilities are. We have obvious responsibilities to our constituents and, on a broader front, to the state as well, which is important. Reference has been made to defence of the realm and that looms large in our thinking, especially for those who, like me, were elected in June 2001 when people said we did not have a real job to do and everything was fine with devolution in Wales, so we could sit back and have a long holiday. However, something happened that September that changed the world and defined it for the immediate future and probably the next 50 years.
Telling people how they can help to resolve the problems, and committing them to armed conflict, has become a big issue that one must participate in. We can step back and decide to find out something about it if we do not understand it and want to understand it better. The one thing that helps with that is the armed forces parliamentary scheme, to which I pay tribute because it has done a lot for people. In my experience, it provides an insight into what people are really being asked to do and who must do the job from day to day.
When one puts on desert boots, finds that they melt and are not fit for purpose, and discusses what should be available, one gets some understanding of the matter. When living in a tent for a few days with the boys and girls, sharing the communal showers and other excitements such as dodging spiders and the real snakes, as well as the two-legged ones, one begins to understand exactly what pressures the armed forces experience as ordinary individuals in one’s own community or another hon. Member’s constituency. They take on a burden and provide a value for their community that people cannot understand until they participate with them and get an idea of what it means to be in dislocated places and to suffer some of their day-to-day experiences. I thank not just Sir Neil and those who have dealt with the scheme at a higher level, but those who have supported it throughout.
I now have friends in the military whom I would never have had before—I have had life experiences with them over the years—and I also know people in the Ministry of Defence and civil servants. All those various people are not immediately seen—and we are a pain to them. We are a burden. When we rock up to these things, we are not exactly helpful, because they have enough to do anyway. However, they put themselves out to accommodate us, so that we can begin to understand some of their experiences. We are educated in the process in the proper sense.
I make no apologies for the fact that the scheme is political, but it is not, in any shape or form, party political. It is said to be non-political, and in that sense it is non-political, but at another level it is highly political, because it gives us a political education and also helps others to understand the political process. Sometimes when we go along to such things we have to sing for our supper. All of a sudden, a major is giving us 200 troops, saying, “Go on, there they are. Tell them why they are here. You have a go, because I have been trying to explain it to them—you have a go.” It is educative in that sense, but people also understand us, because they can quiz us. We are a resource. If we participate, we have to make ourselves available as a resource, because it is not a one-way street. We should be not only drawing from the process but contributing to it, because that is what makes it worth while.
It is educative, and any education is of no value unless it is slightly subversive. The scheme is good, therefore, because we experience people at different levels who say, “They are a pain and now, maybe they know a bit too much. They are going to places, finding out things and coming back with”—what were described earlier as—“pesky, awkward questions.” Some people have a slightly ambivalent view of the scheme, but that is all about the friction that makes for the value of the process. It will be interesting to hear about other people’s experiences. What we find is that the military themselves are only too happy to help. Others, who perhaps do not fully understand the scheme, think that we will be doing something that we will not be. It has been useful to find that people from the Ministry are involved in the scheme, and people from the staff of the House of Commons. It is useful that people who are writing papers about defence can participate. The current Serjeant at Arms was a member of it. The scheme offers things not only to Members of Parliament, and it seems to me that that has been its value during its time.
On this business about sponsorship, and all the rest of it, over this period of time I have also become a member of the Select Committee on Defence, so I bump up against this stuff all the time in different ways. No one has ever asked me for anything in relation to the scheme—ever. That includes people from the Ministry and from any of the sponsors that have been involved. Perhaps they think, “Well, we won’t ask him anyway”, but I have never been approached for anything. All I have seen is them give their support through the proper administration—through Sir Neil and the scheme. I have never experienced anything other than that. Equally, I am pleased that we are making all that more transparent and more obvious, and that more people and more sponsors are getting involved. There is a huge benefit to them, both in our ability to understand and in their ability to get the advantage of having an educated electorate in the House of Commons, when it comes to making decisions on defence matters in future.
Let me say something about the future. People will want to make all sorts of comments about their individual experiences. Having played rugby, I think of the old saying, “What goes on tour stays on tour.” There are some things that people will want to know about, but I will not tell them, because they are particular experiences. I say that because if we get involved with a body like the military, stuff happens. With such experiences, we have to be accommodating.
We begin to understand things immediately. When I first started on the scheme, I went to the training college and spent a week doing basic training. It was fantastic—very, very interesting. I came away with a little card that all soldiers were given at that time—I was doing it with the Army. The card was about what they were trained to do. It was about their loyalty and their sacrifice, about them putting themselves in a particular position, and therefore about how the Government should support them. I have it in my wallet, but I am not allowed to use visual aids in the Chamber.
When we came to discuss the covenant, it was interesting. We have been discussing it, in my experience, right the way through the scheme, and that discussion has taken on a particular form. Out of such things, we begin to have a better understanding of why we are discussing codifying some things better, politically, than we were doing in the first place.
That discussion is just one experience. There have been other, more exciting experiences, such as dropping into the Borneo jungle and being cooked a snake curry by Gurkhas who tried to sell it as chicken. I could talk about all sorts of little experiences such as that, but what we get out of the scheme is an understanding that it is about people. It is about high politics, but it is also about people. They are what makes it work.
I have been lucky enough that in the past year, I have been at the Royal College of Defence Studies. Sir Neil would probably chide me because I took a bit too long to do the course, but it is very interesting. I now have friends in various militaries across the world. Some are now commanding militaries in countries that are potentially, and actually, in conflict with one another. I now know some of the commanders of the business that is going on. Knowing each other gives a different context to trying to understand how one can incentivise a change. If someone has an idea of how the Chinese think, and they are sitting next to a Chinese general on one side, a Pakistani general on the other, a German and an awkward Norwegian, and having a debate, it becomes very interesting. We are able to have tea with people who normally, in another context, we would never get together.
More generally, I would argue that investment in that defence diplomacy is something we all ought to understand and do more of. The armed forces parliamentary scheme gives us that, sometimes by accident. We participate with the military, and they are in coalitions all the time. They are in the context of the places in which they work. All of a sudden, we can be somewhere or another, and someone announces, “There are some Chilean soldiers”, and we have to deal with them. One thinks, “Chile? What do I know about Chile?” It is an education in that respect, and, again, if someone goes through the scheme in all of its different manifestations, it provides a breadth of experience that could not be bought anywhere else. It is a life experience, but more importantly, it is an education in the ability to understand not only immediate political questions but the context in which they operate.
In future, there will be a debate about whether uniforms should be worn. Perhaps others will raise that issue today. I think it is really important to wear them—I made a point earlier about boots melting. It allows us to begin to understand what other people are doing, and we should not abandon that idea. Sometimes we should mix in, because otherwise, people say, “Which one shall we shoot?” “The one without the uniform on”. That is not terribly helpful, because it means we are not part of the group. People say, “What you on, sir?”, “What are you doing, sir?”, “Who’s he?”, “Is that the armed forces pension scheme, sir?” I say, “I’m on the armed forces parliamentary scheme —what are you on?”—They ask because I am ancient, I suppose. We can then have a debate, because in a sense we are not different; we are just another dimension of them. Therefore, we can discuss things with them in a different way.
We also begin to understand which way is up. It is interesting to watch Members of Parliament learn how to iron—it is like basic training for some of them—how to put a beret on and all the rest of it. That is good entertainment, but it is more than that, because we can understand some of the things that we are giving people, how they work, and what it is all about. It is also about their ethos and what they invest in all that. We can begin to understand why that is important to them.
I finish by saying that we are having a debate about changing the mixture of regulars and reserves. One thing that is interesting to me about the scheme is that we would do 22 days before, but we are now talking about 15 days. A decade ago, people would say, “You are just signing up like the regulars”. The scheme provides another way of beginning to understand better what we are asking people to do—to dislocate themselves from their community for short periods of time. For those who have not done it before, it gives a limited insight into what that might mean and what we might be asking people to do.
The people who enter the scheme must make a commitment, but I would urge any Member of Parliament to join up and do it, because it is not just about defence. It is about the whole context of the political process and the decision-making process. The ability to see the strategic view is what hon. Members will get from the scheme and what will be of value to them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) for securing the debate. When I arrived in this place in 2010, I was delighted to see that the armed forces parliamentary scheme was in place. Why? Just before I was elected, I attended the funeral in Redditch of a brave young soldier who had died in Afghanistan and who was the same age as my son. As I sat in the church with hundreds of others, I realised how little I knew about the armed forces and how they operate. The scheme has given me the opportunity to learn about the Army, meet the troops and travel the country learning about the Army. I have had the opportunity to join the Army at many locations, including Shrivenham, Devon, Windsor, Sandhurst and, indeed, Afghanistan. I have met soldiers at all levels, and one of the highlights was training with the officers on the downs near Sandhurst. I slept in a derelict house and took part in exercises with them. I can tell you, Mr Walker, that there was not much sleep had there.
Obviously, going to Afghanistan was a massive experience and one that I will remember for the rest of my life. Landing in Camp Bastion was an experience in itself. I certainly had no idea about the size of the camp and the scale of the operation. It was fascinating to see what happens there and to meet our troops, including some from Redditch.
Closer to home, 37 Signals has a base in Redditch, which I visited in my early days on the scheme. One of the conditions was that we had to turn up in our uniform. As I got out of the car, the look on the officers’ faces was incredible. Where they thought that I had got the uniform from, I had no idea, as they had never heard of the scheme before. But we quickly moved on and now we are all great friends. Last year, I joined them on their away weekend in Staffordshire, taking part in most of the exercises—I think that I missed the six-mile run. I hope to join them again this year.
The scheme allows Members of Parliament to see at first hand how the armed forces work. I have learned how to shoot guns. I have been in helicopters and armoured trucks. Last year, I learnt how the Army helped out at the Olympics. Those are just a few of my experiences, but I have very much enjoyed being part of the scheme, and I would like to pay tribute to Sir Neil Thorne for giving me that opportunity.
I encourage all my colleagues to consider taking part in the scheme. The knowledge that I have gained has been remarkable. I joined the scheme with no real experience, but now know a lot more. We owe the armed forces a great deal. They work tirelessly on our behalf, and I for one will never forget the experience that I have had and hope to continue having in the future. It is a great scheme. Long may it continue.
It is a pleasure to be able to say a few words about this scheme. First, I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on bringing this matter to the House for consideration. I also congratulate him on the hard work that he has obviously done in relation to the scheme over many years when I was not in the House and on his chairmanship of the new scheme, as we move forward.
I became a Member of Parliament, like the hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), in May 2010, and one of the first things that I was introduced to was the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I remember that there was an event—in the Jubilee Room, I think—and I met Sir Neil, who informed me about the scheme. From the outset, I was keen to hear more, as in the past I had served with the Ulster Defence Regiment for three years and in the Territorial Army Royal Artillery for eleven and a half years as a part-time soldier. I really enjoyed my time in the Army. The scheme gave me the chance to see it from a different perspective—that of a Member of Parliament—and to understand what the soldiers wanted us to do for them. That was always important.
The armed forces parliamentary scheme gave me, along with other Members of Parliament, a chance to join after passing a strict medical, taking part in a physical exercise and having an interview with Sir Neil and his good lady. I was privileged to be able to participate in the scheme. Like other hon. Members, I place on the record my thanks to Sir Neil and Sheila for their courtesy and good manners, for the attention and support that they give everyone on the scheme and, in particular, for the support that they have given to me.
I was able to enrol in the scheme, which facilitated visits to Ministry of Defence locations to meet service personnel and to hear what soldiers wanted and what their views were. It is always good to talk to a soldier. The officers will always give us the picture as they see it—I do not say that as a criticism of course—but the soldiers will always tell us exactly what the position is. We are able to hear from the soldiers what their opinions are, and it is good to hear them, because then we have both sets of opinions and we can mould our thoughts about how to represent soldiers in Parliament on the information that we have.
I had an introduction to the defence academy at Shrivenham, where I was able to see the bigger picture. We had an opportunity to see where the focus of attention would be in the future. Is it oil? Is it water? What are the mineral prospects for the world? We looked at Asia, Africa, the middle east, Alaska, Antarctica—all the big issues. The hope was that we would then be better able to understand the role of the British forces and the pressures that they are under.
I had the chance to go to BATUK in Kenya—the British Army Training Unit Kenya—as well as going to Canada and Cyprus. That was good to do not because we were getting out of the country and going on a visit, but because it gave us an opportunity to see what was happening in Kenya and the new training camp that the British Army was creating and where the focus of attention was in east Africa. There was the chance to see—I had never seen this before—the tank formations and training in Canada and to see in Cyprus the decompression of our soldiers coming back from Afghanistan. All those things give us a bigger flavour of all aspects of life in the armed forces. I had a week with the 1st Mercian at Catterick, and as the hon. Member for Redditch said, we were at Sandhurst.
The interesting thing was that no matter where I went in the world, I always met someone from Northern Ireland who was either fighting a war or cleaning up afterwards. We have a tradition of being a soldiering nation. It was wonderful to meet people from Northern Ireland wherever I went. I met a guy in Kenya—just sitting and having a cup of coffee—who was from Newtownards. On the way to Afghanistan, I met a guy who came from Comber. All these experiences and all the people we met helped to shape our feelings about the armed forces. I then used the information that we had got to ask questions in Parliament.
I had the chance, with the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), to go to Afghanistan. He and I will never forget that. We were there for St Patrick’s day. It was the first dry St Patrick’s day that I had ever experienced in my life—in Afghanistan, there is no alcohol whatever. To see boys from the Irish Guards and Royal Irish Regiment consuming vast amounts of Coca-Cola and mineral water and not what they really wanted was quite an experience.
The visit gave us a chance to see what it was like to be in Afghanistan and how the soldiers were performing and to get feedback from them about things there. Whenever people are in Afghanistan, they are there for six to nine months. We can also ask them how it feels to be away from their families. Therefore, we got a bigger picture of the soldier’s life and the issues in relation to their families back home. We had a chance to visit the army and police training camp at Lashkar Gah, and we were able to ask questions in Westminster about when the police training college would be completed. It was to be funded with $6 million. Again, we were able to ask the Ministry of Defence that question because of our visit to Afghanistan. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire, who introduced the debate, made that point very clearly.
Was the operation just about defeating the Taliban? When I went to Afghanistan, my idea was—I say this quite honestly—“Kill all the Taliban. That’s what we have to do,” but then I realised that it was about more than that. It was not simply about killing the Taliban. It was about persuading them that there was no danger in the allies and what they were doing. It was about winning hearts and minds. My perspective changed on what we should be trying to do.
It was a privilege to meet soldiers, to hear their concerns at first hand and to act on them on returning to Parliament. It was a bonus to be able to see exactly what our troops are going through and to get their perspective on the strategic defence and security review that took place. It was a wonderful experience to hear what the officers and the soldiers—the rank and file—thought of the strategic defence and security review. We could then feed that into the process when we came back to Parliament. That was another opportunity.
The armed forces parliamentary scheme is a tremendous scheme. It is being overtaken now by the armed forces parliamentary trust. It has given me a much better understanding of the role of our service personnel on the battlefield and at home, as they train and prepare for their next tour of duty. It was an opportunity to meet some of the families and see the work that the welfare service does for them. We have SSAFA—the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. It has people strategically placed all around the world. It does tremendous work. I know a wee bit about its work at home, but it was good to see its work on active duty, where our soldiers were training. It is interesting to see the strains on families, and some of the soldiers we met in Canada were able to tell us what they would like changed. Everything we did was an opportunity to learn something and reflect that back to Parliament—I felt that that was my role. It is clear that our troops do their best on the front line, and they must be assured that their country is doing the best job for their families at home.
My hon. Friend mentioned SSAFA personnel and other groups. Does he agree that the AFPS also offers hon. Members the opportunity to mix with and talk to many of those behind the scenes, about whom the general public never or very seldom hear and to come back to Parliament better informed about what they do?
I thank my hon. Friend for that wise and truthful contribution. We met soldiers on many occasions, and I thanked every one I met for what they have done, because soldiers make a tremendous contribution to the whole nation and to MPs. My desire is that the scheme continues through the armed forces parliamentary trust, and the arguments for that have been well made. It is a wonderful chance to meet and greet, but more importantly to understand our troops and their struggles and to reflect on them, as we fight for them at parliamentary level.
The soldiers I met were always appreciative of us as MPs. It is not that we are better than anyone else, but we are Members of Parliament and they want to tell us what they are thinking and they want us to reflect it. They need someone to represent their views, which cannot always be understood merely by reading a report, and that is why, with the transformation of the armed forces parliamentary scheme to the armed forces parliamentary trust, I encourage others to support the scheme and see for themselves what happens outside the doors of this place.
May I say what a pleasure and delight it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker? In a previous life, I served with you when we were both officers of the Battersea Conservative party, so I am aware how much direction I will end up being given should I get out of line.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) for bringing the debate to Westminster Hall and for all his activities and diplomacy in trying to get a result. He has worked incredibly hard. He is a prime candidate for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at some stage. I cannot pass by without also paying tribute to Sir Neil Thorne, whom I have known for about 30 or 35 years. I trained to be a Conservative party agent in Wanstead and Woodford when he was the MP for Ilford, South, so I learnt an enormous amount about him when I was knocking on doors during the Greater London council elections in 1981. He has always shown me an enormous amount of kindness and respect. I am incredibly grateful for that.
The debate is incredibly important and should be seen as a tribute to Sir Neil’s hard work and the effort he has made. The AFPS has certainly helped me, as the MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, to understand better the role the armed services play in our lives and what we do. My constituency is a naval garrison city, with not only the Royal Marines, but the Royal Navy. I am delighted that I have had an opportunity to see how they operate first-hand.
I am also a Navy brat. My father was a lieutenant-commander when he came out of the Navy in the 1950s, having helped get the king and the gold out of Norway in 1940. My grandfather was the first lieutenant of the naval barracks at Devonport in the 1920s and the gunnery officer on HMS Valiant. My uncle commanded the Royal Marine garrison at Stonehouse, before becoming the commandant-general. Although I came from a service family background, I had never served in the armed services myself, so the experience of being a member of the AFPS has been incredibly helpful to ensure that I am better informed.
Tributes should be paid, for the work done to ensure greater transparency in how the AFPS operates, and that does not take away from the great tribute that Sir Neil deserves. He has given not only his time, but a significant amount of money to ensure the scheme’s operation, and that must be commended in a very big way indeed. The whole business of the AFPS is to ensure that we are better informed. We wear the kit and some of the uniform, so that we do not stick out like a sore thumb.
I have had a number of experiences through the scheme. I went to Shrivenham, where I heard the now late Richard Holmes make a speech about where he saw the armed forces and the international scene. I was on HMS Richmond with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), and we had a delightful time coming up from Malta into Menorca. The ship’s company had been off the horn of Africa, dealing with piracy. We had meetings with not only the junior ratings, but the leading ratings, as well as the officers. I learnt how important it is in this day and age, with the way that international conflicts take place, that a lawyer is onboard. One of the serving officers onboard—the chief executive officer—was a lawyer and able to say to her commanding officer, “I think you need to be very careful about how you operate here, because you run the risk of finding yourself involved in something.” The ship’s company were absolutely petrified of being sent back to Somalia and the horn of Africa, because it would have mucked up their leave arrangements. I am told that if there is one thing a commanding officer totally dreads, it is having to say, “Sorry, chaps, we’re not going back on Thursday. You have to go out and do a further week or so.”
I have spoken at length in the House about mental health and our armed services, and ensuring that there is support. It mentioned that in my maiden speech. I serve on the Defence Reform Bill Committee; I am finding it very interesting and hope that I can contribute to it. When I went to the Royal Marines training grounds in Lympstone, I met a Royal Marine on Woodbury common who had served in Afghanistan. He said that when he came back from deployment and had to unwind somewhat, he found it very difficult. He spoke to his wife and she said, “Gosh, don’t talk to me about the day you’ve had. I’ve just had an awful day of answering thousands of e-mails.” He thought that he could not get far by talking about his experiences. He went to talk to his mates, and it was only then that he realised that he could not talk to them either because they did not understand the experience that he had been through. He had to find his Royal Marine colleagues in Aylesbury, which is not exactly the most naval of places, to explain his experiences to them.
The scheme means that we understand not only what motivates people to work in our armed forces and do that brave job, but what the families go through. We need to ensure that we give those families 110% support, which is why I welcome the Government’s community covenant initiative. We go abroad when take part in the AFPS. I went to Afghanistan with the hon. Member for Redditch (Karen Lumley), and one thing that I felt was slightly missing was that we did not have one conversation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the politics of that part of Afghanistan. I encourage my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, when he eventually takes over the AFPS, to promote greater understanding about political situations and what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing. At the end of the day, the things that we ask our armed services to do are merely tools in our foreign diplomacy. When diplomacy goes wrong and a state goes out of control, we expect our armed forces to go in; but in the end, there has to be a political and diplomatic solution. We can most certainly develop that and ensure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is much more involved.
Thank you very much, Mr Walker, for allowing me to witter on for a bit. I very much hope that equally good and constructive comments are made during the rest of the debate.
I appreciate that, Mr Walker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing the debate, and I endorse the comments made by previous speakers.
I would just like to put on record my involvement with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I have participated in it twice, in 1999 and 2008-09, spending 25 and 31 days respectively with the Army. In addition to a series of high-level briefings with senior Ministry of Defence officials and leading members of Her Majesty’s armed forces, I also took part in an exercise with the armoured division in Poland, during which Sir Neil Thorne joined the scheme participants, and in a NATO exercise in the snow and under canvas in Germany. I have also camped with Gurkhas in a remote area of Kenya, visited peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and troops at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, yomped over the Brecon Beacons in Wales, and taken part in a night-time exercise on Salisbury plain.
The participants in 1999 were the “famous five”: me, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) and former Members of Parliament, Christopher Fraser, David Drew and Lorna Fitzsimons. In November 1999, I tabled early-day motion 82, which was signed by 44 Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. The motion read:
“That this House salutes the 10th Anniversary of the establishment of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme; notes that a total of 90 honourable Members of both Houses have participated in the AFPS enabling them to speak with greater authority on matters relating to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces; appreciates the support given by the Armed Forces and various sponsors; and congratulates Sir Neil Thorne for his initiative in starting the scheme and for his continued involvement with it.”
As we have heard, more than 260 Members of both Houses have now taken part in the scheme. Today, after 25 years, we are witnessing a new chapter in the scheme set up by Sir Neil, who rightly goes into the record books not only as the founder of the scheme but as the life president of the trust that takes over from it. As an aside, I want to say that Sir Neil also established the police service parliamentary scheme.
I am conscious of your comments, Mr Walker, but I feel that it would be appropriate to draw attention to an article that appeared last April in Defence Focus magazine, which quotes Sir Neil as saying:
“When I entered the House there were very few Members of Parliament with direct military experience and there are even fewer today, which was having a serious effect on the quality of our debates on defence issues.”
One of the problems is that very few of us have knowledge of what it is like being in the armed forces. Sir Neil went on to tell Defence Focus:
“I know from when I was a member of the House of Commons Defence Committee that the military tend to treat you as if you are at least a two-star officer”.
The magazine graphically describes how,
“from the outset, the idea behind the scheme was to give politicians from all the main parties a chance to get access at an appropriate level. Which means getting MPs into a uniform sweating alongside soldiers, sailors or airmen.”
The scheme has Ministry of Defence backing, which is vital because the MOD provides the attachments. I want to place on record my appreciation of the liaison officers and all the people at the MOD who make the scheme possible for Members of Parliament.
Sir Neil also told Defence Focus:
“For a period after the Second World War, and with national service lasting into the early 60s, it used to be that Parliament was full of people who knew military business first hand. But it isn’t like that now, and meanwhile the world is a tricky place, so AFPS has to be a good investment for national parliamentary knowledge and decision-making”—
a statement about the scheme that I endorse. Sir Neil perceived another equally important role, which continues, for his initiative, as reported in Defence Focus:
“I always say to the MPs on the scheme, ‘look, the Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals always have avenues they can follow to make their points—it’s the soldiers, sailors and airmen who haven’t got a line to the Secretary of State, that are relying on you to speak up for them’.”
Thanks to Sir Neil, the armed forces parliamentary scheme and the past 25 years, when we politicians speak we hopefully know a bit more of what we are talking about than would otherwise be the case. I look forward to the new chapter with the trust.
Sir Bob, that was a very short speech. We now have 14 minutes left, and I would be grateful if Ms Stuart shared them with the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—seven minutes each. She does not have to, but I would be grateful if she did.
Given that the office of the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) is on the same corridor as mine, I think it would be wise for me to share the time with him, in the interest of long-term relationships.
It was an honour to be asked to be a trustee of the new scheme, and I am happy to serve on the trust, together with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray). There have been many tributes to Sir Neil Thorne today, and as I was sitting here I thought that as a former MP he will know that we all merely leave footprints on the sand of life and the waves wash them off. With some people, however, it takes longer before the prints are erased, and with Sir Neil I think it will take a pretty long time before what he has achieved so far, and what he will continue to achieve as life president of the scheme, is erased, and he should be proud of that. I do not think that the British are very good at saying, “I think I’ve done well,” but if anyone is allowed to say it, Sir Neil is.
The scheme is significant, but I want to make another point that has not come up so far. My first contact with the forces was a difficult one. I was the Health Minister who closed down the military hospitals, and I was not terribly popular at the time. One of the arguments used was, “You just don’t understand the forces,” which was valid, but the reason for the closures was that the royal colleges were saying that it was no longer possible to carry out the medical training in the way it needed to be done, and the NHS needed to make a contribution. Some 14 years on, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine is in my constituency, and we are in the reverse position of the NHS having to learn from the medical services provided there. That interaction is important.
I then served on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for eight years, and on the Select Committee on Defence, but visits as part of the scheme have a very different flavour from the ones we do for Select Committee or ministerial work—the relationships are different. They key thing about the scheme—I was with the Navy—is that it affords the enormous and rare luxury of suddenly being able to spend four or five days thinking about only one subject. It also provides contact with people from the captain to the cooks on board, who really say what they think, and even though they are not our voters we feel that we had better listen to them and take note. It is the nature of that exchange that is so important.
I want to make brief reference to sponsorship and transparency. In the modern world, such a scheme must be absolutely transparent. Just like my fellow member of the Defence Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard), I do not think anyone has ever tried to say, “This is what we think you should be doing. This is a kind of sponsorship”—that might, of course, be just be a reflection of how insignificant we really are. This is a terrible admission: up until the point of the discussions on the scheme I had no idea that it was not just the Ministry of Defence that was picking the bill up. I had absolutely no idea that sponsorship was involved. I think that that was one of those rare occasions when ignorance is a sign of success.
It was right and proper to put the scheme on this new footing, and I am grateful to the Minister for helping to set that up. As a trustee, I will have much more involvement, so I ought to leave most of the time left to my fellow MP, the hon. Member for New Forest East.
I thank Mr Speaker and the Lord Speaker, as well as the parliamentary authorities, for realising that the scheme is one like any other, and for accommodating and facilitating it: the scheme is an extension of parliamentary activity in a different framework. The knowledge gained is fundamental. We should remember that Parliament came about because of the defence of the realm and how taxes were raised for it. We have forgotten that in many ways, but we should be brought back to remembering our primary function.
We should not just see the forces when they come back as injured soldiers—a real danger is that there is a public relationship with our armed forces only when they become victims—but be proud of what they do, understanding what they do and what a difficult job they have juggling politicians and the real world. The scheme facilitates, and I firmly believe will continue to facilitate, that learning.
Mr Walker, as a master of parliamentary procedure, you will know that when participating in a debate, one is not supposed to refer to the presence of anyone outside the confines of the Chamber. However, I am sure that you will allow me to say what a pleasure it is to know that Sir Neil and Sheila Thorne are present today to hear all the wonderful tributes to them and, as I am sure they would be the first to acknowledge, to hear the tributes that must be made to the civilian and uniformed staff of the Ministry of Defence over 25 years for their huge efforts in arranging the visits from the armed forces’ side.
It is a real honour to make the last speech by a Back Bencher in a debate about a scheme that has been an unalloyed and phenomenal success for a quarter of a century. I am delighted that this is one of those debates in which one can honestly feel that one agrees with every sentiment expressed so far.
The scheme has many things to recommend it, and I will pick up one or two of them in the time available. Both the Labour members of the Defence Committee, the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr Havard) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), referred to the sense of involvement in and participation with the armed forces, and to the difference between visits to the armed forces wearing their civilian suits as Committee members and wearing whatever variation of military uniform they have been privileged to wear on their scheme visits. I know that lawyers have been taking a close look at that, but I assure hon. Members that if we simply revert to being civilians visiting the military, something very precious will be lost from the scheme. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am delighted that colleagues are endorsing that with various signals, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) will do so explicitly.
May I take the opportunity absolutely to reassure my hon. Friend that we most certainly will not return to civilian dress during those visits? There is a debate about exactly what we wear, when and how we wear it and the legalities, but he is absolutely right to say that appearing on visits in some form of dress appropriate to the occasion is definitely what the future will hold.
I could not have expected or desired a more reassuring comment.
I now look for a second reassuring comment. I will not get it immediately, but I am looking to my old Front-Bench colleague of many years’ standing on the former shadow defence team—he is now, thank goodness, the Minister—to address what one might call the issue of trust. The reason why the scheme has worked so well is that people have been given privileged access to members of the armed forces at every level. There has been, as it were, an unwritten understanding that that privilege would not be abused. When one considers the very large numbers of colleagues of all parties who have been through the scheme, it is remarkable that there have been hardly any cases—in the low single figures—of raised eyebrows about someone going on the scheme and immediately tabling a raft of hostile questions on the Floor of the House.
That excellent outcome is very different from what might have been predicted at the start of the process. As something of an amateur military historian, I look forward to the day when I can go to the National Archives at Kew and look for the file of correspondence that must exist relating to the period in which Sir Neil originally approached the Ministry of Defence to propose that MPs have direct informal access to all ranks of the armed forces.
Exactly. That is precisely how people who have engaged in the scheme have understood their responsibilities, with very few exceptions. When one considers that the final stage of the scheme is membership of the Royal College of Defence Studies, that is quite remarkable. It may not be common knowledge, but those of us who are fortunate enough to be parliamentary members of the RCDS are taken on as full members and are considered to remain members for life. The essence of the RCDS course is meeting people, learning from them and establishing formal and informal contacts that will stand one in good stead in relation to one’s understanding of defence developments at home and abroad.
To inject a slightly quizzical note into my speech, that is why I was a little concerned recently to read an article about the eminent military historian Sir Max Hastings being refused the sort of informal contact that for many years he and many others have been allowed with senior serving personnel in the MOD network. That runs counter to the spirit of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, but I hope that it is simply a case of over-zealous application of some rule against leaking things to the media.
Certainly, if we reach a situation in which people like Sir Max Hastings—eminent historians and public commentators—cannot secure the degree of access that they used to have, or indeed if a similar bar is put on hon. Members, all I can say is that Ministers should take a deep breath, look at what has happened with the armed forces parliamentary scheme and realise that a tunnel vision approach to access by civilians, whether they are reporters or Members of Parliament, to the military is counter-productive.
The armed forces parliamentary scheme is a boon to hon. Members with little knowledge of defence, as it is to hon. Members when, as sometimes happens, their political party goes through a phase of anti-militarism. There was a period—thank goodness, long in the past—when the Labour party shifted in a unilateralist direction, and I am sure that it was very valuable to those courageous members of the Labour party who did not go in that direction to be able to recharge their intellectual batteries by having access to such a scheme. It is important that Members of Parliament who want to support the armed forces have the intellectual ammunition, on a non-partisan basis, to speak with authority about them.
I conclude by pointing out that the scale of the scheme when it started was for two Members of Parliament to visit each of the three armed forces, with two more visiting the Royal Marines, which is of course a subset—some would say, a superset—of the Royal Navy.
Indeed, which was the reason for my quick interjection of the word “superset”.
The scheme then moved to having five Members per service, and it now has very large numbers. We measure the effectiveness of a scheme or organisation by the demand for it. There is a huge demand for this scheme, and we are very grateful that the supply will continue to meet the increased demand.
I thank you, Mr Walker, for calling me to respond to this important debate on behalf of the Opposition Front-Bench team. I hope that colleagues and the wider audience will excuse me croaking through my contribution this morning. I am afraid that the ladies present in the Chamber will really not know what it is to suffer man flu.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) on securing the debate and on his appointment as chair of the armed forces parliamentary trust, which is a new scheme. We are talking about the closing of one chapter and the opening of a new one. The first chapter lasted some 25 years and involved in excess of 250 participants, which is no mean feat. I hope that the second one will last as long, if not longer.
I, like others, wish to congratulate Sir Neil Thorne and his good lady, Sheila, on all the work they have done, with the support and able assistance of Ministry of Defence staff. They should be recognised not just for their work, but for the fact that Sir Neil made a significant personal financial contribution to the scheme. Many people would have walked away if they found that they had to dig their hand into their own pocket. He was determined to make the scheme work. The chink in the armour, as he saw it, was that people entered the House with very little knowledge on a whole host of things, but on defence in particular.
We have heard the experiences of others in the Chamber this morning, and mine were similar. I do not come from a military background. My father had done national service, and that was the sum total of my experience. How could I genuinely engage in defence debates, or even begin to understand those serving our country? It has been made abundantly clear today, and on other occasions, that the defence of the realm is greatly important to the future of this nation. How could I really begin to engage in what is undoubtedly one of the most important issues of the House?
When I first bumped into Sir Neil, he said, “So, will you be joining?” I did, much to the regret, I suspect, of the Royal Marines 42 Commando unit, which was stuck with me for a period of time. I entered at a time when we were in the throes of going into the conflict in Iraq in 2002 and 2003 and when there was a reconfiguration of the scheme. I must admit that I enjoyed the scheme. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire talked about fun—I think people must have a different interpretation of fun. In my last session, which took place during the night in February, I was on a rigid inflatable boat on Plymouth sound. The rain was horizontal. I was losing the will to live, but still had three days in front of me. It was an experience I will never forget.
Only last weekend, I took part in a charity abseil for Macmillan Cancer Support—it was the fourth such occasion. I had already learned what little expertise I had in abseiling through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, when we abseiled in a quarry in Devon. For those who have abseiled, they will be aware that when they are at the top coming down, they have a brake-man. When I was about to step over the edge, I looked back and a Glaswegian corporal said, “What is wrong now?” I said, “My brake-man is a Conservative Member of Parliament.” His reply was, “Don’t you worry, wee man. If anything happens to you, he’s going nowhere.”
Seriously now, we are talking about understanding—or at least beginning to understand—what people go through when they serve our country. The scheme offers a genuine opportunity to mix with all ranks. It helps us to understand what it means when people are doing a tour of duty and what they are missing, because they are away from their family. That understanding is vital to people such as myself and many others who enter the House. We are not like the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), who comes from a garrison town. He lives, eats, sleeps and breathes the military aspect of life in his constituency. Far too many of us do not have such experience, so the scheme has afforded us a real opportunity. This morning, the hon. Member for North Wiltshire threw out an invitation to the new scheme to the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell). I think I am safe in saying that there will be a big rush to join that queue and share the experience.
It is a sign of the times that we have had to change the scheme. It is about accountability and openness, which is what the wider world expects. There are far too many people out there looking in and saying, “What is this scheme about?” I share the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) who, like me, initially had no idea how the system was funded. As I have said, I have never at any point been approached by anyone who has sponsored the scheme to say what it was they were looking for. Young guys serving in the Royal Marines have, justifiably and rightly, put me right about one or two things. The scheme was clear-cut and open, but, regrettably, it had to change because of the time in which we live.
I am delighted that the new scheme will have a comparable number of participants on an annual basis. There will be that mix of single-day and multi-day sessions. I missed out on a five-day session between Gibraltar and Cyprus. I will say nothing more, other than that I was somewhat relieved that I did not manage to make the session—I could not afford the time. There was an incident that caused colleagues who did take part to laugh deeply on their return. I actually picked it up on the news in the evening and realised how lucky I was not to have been there.
We need to recognise, as Sir Neil did, that what is required here in Parliament is a good and robust scheme to educate people. Colleagues have shared their experiences this morning, and they look on the scheme as something they would like to recommend to others. I only hope that the next 25 years, or however long the new trust will last, prove every bit as successful.
It is a great pleasure, Mr Walker, to serve under your serene and enlightened chairmanship. As I am in the mood, let me express some further sentiments—they are heartfelt—about the contribution to the scheme made by Sir Neil Thorne. Twenty-five years ago, we lived in a very different sort of world. We still had in this place a large number of Members who had served in the second world war or had pretty contemporary experience of national service. Sir Neil rightly identified that that would not be the case forever, and that is where we are today.
Sir Neil designed a scheme, 25 years ago, that would ensure that Members of the House and others understood a little bit about service in the armed forces and how defence works. That is important because, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said, although we get involved with a whole raft of things here, the most important thing that we do in Parliament—as it has always been—is connected with the armed forces. That is absolutely central to what Parliament is all about, and it is just as well that we have among us some understanding of defence and of how those who populate defence conduct their business. That is what the armed forces parliamentary scheme has been all about.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) first on securing the debate; secondly, on his hard work up to this point in securing the scheme’s future; and, thirdly and most importantly, on his election as chairman of the armed forces parliamentary trust. I fear that he is something of a rarity in Parliament today in having a really detailed understanding of the armed forces, and I can think of no better person to take the scheme forward to its next stage.
The scheme has interfaced with well in excess of 200 parliamentarians during the past 25 years—people who are then much better placed to contribute meaningfully to debate in this place. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made an interesting point about trust and openness. I repeat that the world was different 25 years ago. Today we are much more open and transparent in how we approach issues, and if there was any difficulty at all 25 years ago in exposing parliamentarians to what sailors, soldiers and airmen got up to, that is far less the case today. One of the hidden benefits of the scheme is that it allows that level of transparency, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the number of instances of abuse of trust on the scheme has been very small over time.
Following the extraordinary vignettes that we have heard, which were terribly colourful, I fear that my contribution to this debate will be rather more prosaic. Nevertheless, it is important to put on the record how we have come to this point. Having accepted the excellence of the scheme—I reiterate that it is excellent—we must understand that we are in a different place today from 25 years ago. Public expectations of bodies that interface with parliamentarians are different from what they were in the 1980s. It is interesting—is it not?—that we should be discussing lobbying and transparency in this fortnight. It is appropriate that we should be making real inroads into the next stages of this scheme during this short return to Parliament in September, because it is lobbying and transparency that would worry people—if not the public, then certainly the press—in relation to the scheme.
I am mindful of the involvement of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) in attempting to review the position of all-party groups, and of the recommendations that he has made. Although the scheme is not an all-party group, it is nevertheless an organisation that involves parliamentarians and commercial sponsors. Potentially, therefore, if the Ministry of Defence and Parliament had not taken the gardening action that I think has been appropriate, the scheme might have been open to criticism, however ill-founded. All of us who have lived through the past five years or so in this place know full well that if we do not take timely action, events will overtake us. What we have done has been absolutely necessary.
There are a number of people in Westminster Hall today who have been intimately involved with, or at least had cognisance of, what has been going on in respect of the scheme since November 2010. That was when the previous Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), and the previous Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey), together with Mr Speaker, decided that the scheme needed to be moved on to the point that we have been discussing today. Without detaining the gathering here today unduly, perhaps I can say that it has been a long, complex and protracted experience, with a surprising level of complexity involved. As convenor of the process during the past 12 months or so, I am deeply grateful to all those who have been involved in it and contributed to it. It has involved some people of great seniority who are well respected in this place and beyond, all of whom have brought their collective wisdom to the piece and contributed to what we have today.
I think that it is true to say that there is one thing worse than being asked questions as a Defence Minister, and that is being asked questions that are ill-informed. Having taken part in defence debates since 2001, both in opposition and in government, I am always aware of the massive contribution made by the armed forces parliamentary scheme in ensuring that the debates we have in this place are properly informed. Those who have taken part in the scheme carry a deep and intrinsic sense that they know what they are talking about. This morning, a number of hon. Members have talked about the ethos of the scheme and about what really matters to them, which is trying to get under the skin of those who populate defence in order to try to understand what makes them tick.
Although I have never been a member of the scheme, from my personal observation of it I know that it really cuts both ways. First, it is extremely useful for the men and women who serve in our armed forces to know that Members of Parliament are not a race apart and do not—at least in the main—have horns growing from their head. When one gets past the inevitable question or joke about one’s expenses, including quips such as, “You’ll be filling out your expenses form, won’t you?”—isn’t that amusing?—one finds that the degree of empathy that Members of Parliament have with the men and women of the armed forces with whom they are billeted is of a high order.
I think that all of us have spoken to constituents and others who have experienced parliamentarians on the scheme and who have by and large come away from the experience impressed with the interaction. That is reassuring. I am talking about extraordinary valuable citizens in the armed forces—they are citizens like no others. We owe it to them to assure them that parliamentarians who have a huge influence on their lives and careers have their interests at heart, and certainly understand what makes them tick.
I am sure that the scheme will be hugely popular. I am given a lot of assurance in making that assertion by the fact that 35 parliamentarians have enlisted for what we might call the interim scheme, which is currently operational. It is in no way a substitute for the previous scheme or indeed the scheme that will succeed it, but at least it allows Members of Parliament to have some sort of continuity of interaction with the armed forces. I am delighted that in this interregnum we have been able to facilitate a programme of visits to military establishments, so that we can continue that programme now that the trust—under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire—is able to take up the reins.
In closing, I reiterate my thanks to Sir Neil Thorne, who has done the House, and our discourse and our debate within it, a huge service over a protracted period of time. I have no doubt that the scheme—now under its new guise as a charity, which had to be established to give the public the assurances that they rightly expect of organisations of this sort—will be a massive success under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire. We can look forward to the next 25 years with a great deal of confidence as the scheme, which is now a trust, goes from strength to strength.