HC Deb 11 April 2002 vol 383 cc170-253

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pearson.]

Mr. Speaker

Before we begin the debate on armed forces personnel, I draw the House's attention to the following documents, which are relevant: Second report from the Defence Committee, Session 2000–01, The Strategic Defence Review: Policy for People: Government response thereto; Fourth special report from the Defence Committee, Session 2000–01, HC 462; Minutes of Evidence taken by the Defence Committee on 6 and 13 March 2002, on Ministry of Defence reviews of armed forces pensions and compensation arrangements, HC 666. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

1.28 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

Today's debate on armed forces personnel matters provides an opportunity for me to pay tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother on behalf of the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. The magnificent part that so many members of the armed forces—from all three services—played in last Friday's ceremonial procession to Her Majesty's lying-in-state and in her funeral on Tuesday provided the most eloquent tribute possible.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother had long-standing and close links with the armed forces. She was an inspiration to many during the first world war, when she helped to tend the wounded who were being cared for at Glamis castle. With His Majesty King George VI, she was an inspiration to many more, both civilians and those serving in the United Kingdom, as well as those fighting overseas, during the dark days of the second world war.

Her Majesty was the Commandant-in-Chief for women in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The men and women who have served aboard HMS Ark Royal have taken considerable pride in the fact that she was the ship's sponsor and presided at the launch of all three aircraft carriers that bore that name, including at the rededication ceremony in November last year.

Her Majesty was the Colonel-in-Chief of eight regiments in the Regular Army, Royal Honorary Colonel of three units in the Territorial Army, and Colonel-in-Chief of five Army units from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Perhaps the most affectionate of her relationships with Army units was with the Irish Guards, who had the privilege of providing the bearer party on both Friday and Tuesday. Her Majesty was also Commandant-in-Chief of the RAF central flying school and Honorary Air Commodore of 600 (City of London) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force. I know that service men and women throughout the armed forces, and their Commonwealth counterparts, will mourn her passing.

I want specifically to mention that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Anglian Regiment. The 1st Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment is currently serving in Kabul as part of the international security assistance force, and held its own memorial service on Tuesday as a mark of respect.

Tuesday was a sad day for the Royal Anglians for another reason. Tragically, one of their young soldiers was killed after an accident while he was out on patrol in Kabul. I know that the whole House will join me in extending their condolences to the soldier's family. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

Today's debate is the first opportunity that the House has had since the events of 11 September to consider and discuss issues affecting those who serve in the armed forces. Before I deal with specific issues, I would like to bring right hon. and hon. Members up to date on the most recent developments concerning operations in Afghanistan. A number of Members of this House have recently visited British troops deployed there, and have seen the excellent work that they are doing.

I shall begin with the international security assistance force. The United Kingdom agreed to lead ISAF at its inception for a limited period. We took on that responsibility because our forces had the knowledge, experience and ability to organise and establish a multinational expeditionary deployment. They have done just that, with genuine distinction. ISAF has been a significant success, and has provided considerable support to the Afghan Interim Administration as they have taken the first steps in rebuilding their country. We can be proud of the contribution that the United Kingdom's armed forces have made.

Now we must look to ISAF's future. We remain committed to its success. In all probability, the United Nations Security Council resolution authorising the force will be extended, so that ISAF can remain in place beyond June. We support that entirely, as there is still work for it to do.

Although British troops will continue to play a part in ISAF, it will not remain under our leadership. Following his meeting with Hamid Karzai on 4 April, Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit made it clear that the Turkish Government intend to take over as lead nation. I know that the House will welcome that good news.

We have still to agree the exact date on which we will transfer leadership. It is now unlikely that we will be able to hand over to Turkey at the end of April, as we had originally hoped. We may well remain as lead nation until June, probably until after the interim Loya Jirga, although we anticipate that, before then, Turkey will continue to build up the already considerable number of troops that it has deployed.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

What financial arrangements are being made with the Turkish Government to enable them to undertake this task? What contribution are the United Kingdom Government making?

Mr. Hoon

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that at this stage, before all the arrangements have been finalised, it would not be appropriate for me to go into any detail. Appropriate financial support will be made available. The agreement has not yet been finalised, and I do not want to anticipate those practical arrangements, but if the hon. Gentleman asks me that question again in due course, I shall be able to provide him with a more comprehensive answer.

I make no apology for the fact that the United Kingdom may remain as lead nation until June, rather than the end of April. It is far more important that ISAF continues to do its vital work than that we stick absolutely to the letter of our original aim and end our period as lead nation at the end of this month.

Turkey expressed interest in taking on this responsibility from the very start. We have always been candid in our discussions with the Turkish authorities, and have set out very clearly the complexities involved in leading ISAF. We very much welcome the statement by Prime Minister Ecevit.

We have always made it clear that the size of the British contingent serving with ISAF would reduce over time, particularly once it had been established. Our contribution has now reduced in size. We currently have about 1,500 personnel serving with ISAF, rather than the 1,800 who were out there at the start. We now expect those numbers to reduce still further, as Turkey takes over as lead nation. I should emphasise that our commitment to ISAF will continue, and that a significant number of British troops will remain in Kabul under Turkish command.

ISAF is only one strand of the United Kingdom's contribution to operations in Afghanistan. We are also working with our allies, as we have from the very start, in continuing operations to defeat al-Qaeda terrorists and their Taliban supporters. Those operations have been remarkably successful, but we need to remain vigilant and committed to completing the task. That is why we have decided to deploy 45 Commando Group and the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade to Afghanistan to take part in operations against the remnants of the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban.

Overall, the deployment is going well. Five hundred members of the force have now arrived in Bagram. Although it will be the end of April before all the members of 45 Commando Group will be in Afghanistan, they will soon be ready to conduct operations against remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus)

When the Secretary of State made his statement about the deployment of 45 Commando, he was not able to tell us what the remnants of al-Qaeda consisted of. I realise that he cannot be too specific, but has he received any further intelligence about the numbers that 45 Commando and other troops will face in Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon

I went into as much detail as I considered appropriate about the nature of the operations that would be carried out, and about what we expected would be found. Part of the purpose of the operations, however, is to seek out and find those elements. Obviously it is vital to me to have confidence, as I do, in the number and skill of the commandos who will be engaged in the task; but I cannot be precise, and it would not be appropriate for me to be so even if we had the information. This is about ensuring that we have the right quality of people—which we have—to perform a difficult and demanding task.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

In a parliamentary answer given to me yesterday by the Ministry, it was suggested that the remnants of the al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan amounted to several thousand people who would have to be hunted down in one way or another. Will the Secretary of State explain where that figure came from? Was it based on intelligence from forces still in Afghanistan, or on intelligence from forces going back and forth across the Pakistan border?

Mr. Hoon

It was, inevitably, an estimate based on information from a wide variety of sources, including forces already on the ground. But, as I said on the last occasion, Members must appreciate that we are not talking about a thousand-strong group waiting for offensive operations; these are smaller groups scattered across Afghanistan, but particularly in the higher and more remote areas. That too makes it more difficult to be absolutely precise about the numbers.

Mr. Hancock


Mr. Hoon

May I make some progress?

The deployment of 45 Commando Group has not been without difficulties. Deploying troops to Afghanistan exclusively by air is not easy, as I suspect Members who have visited Afghanistan can testify and as I can testify from my own experience. Nor is Afghanistan an easy place in which to operate. We had originally planned to accommodate the Royal Marines in former Soviet barracks at Bagram airfield, but following further consultations with the Afghan authorities we have concluded that those barracks are not suitable. We have had to build a new tented camp, which has taken time because the welfare of our troops is crucial.

Members on both sides of the House have strongly supported the Government's action in the campaign against international terrorism. They have applauded the steps we have taken to destroy the al-Qaeda network, remove the Taliban regime from power and reintegrate Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community, ensuring that it will never again become a safe haven for terrorism. We remain committed to completing those tasks.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Can the Secretary of State assure the House that we are giving our service personnel in Afghanistan the best possible accommodation and facilities? He will know, as I do from my experience of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, that the facilities and accommodation provided for our service personnel in Bosnia were the worst that I had ever seen. Will he assure me that if we put our personnel in the line of fire—where they may risk their lives—for any length of time, they will be given the quality of accommodation that they deserve?

Mr. Hoon

As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, in the conduct of this kind of expeditionary warfare there is necessarily a trade-off between the best possible accommodation—which of course we would all want to be provided—and the speed of deployment, and ensuring that people are capable of carrying out such operations. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not expect new barracks to be constructed in a place such as Kabul. He understands the needs of expeditionary operations but, within those, it remains important that people have proper accommodation suitable for the tasks that they have to carry out. I assure him that we have constant regard to that; but that is not to say that I do not strongly believe that there are areas where we need to improve the expeditionary accommodation available.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

We are delighted that the Secretary of State is going to deploy the best possible accommodation for our troops who will be in Afghanistan for some time. When does he intend to deploy mobile bath units, laundry units and bakeries, all of which are easily transportable on Hercules aircraft?

Mr. Hoon

Again, the same type of balancing exercise has to be undertaken. Different countries make different contributions to the capabilities of ISAF, but it is most important that appropriate facilities are available across that force.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Before my right hon. Friend leaves the subject of Afghanistan, he will recollect that some of us expressed misgivings that two strands were involved. One was a peacekeeping role and the other was an operational, offensive role to counter al-Qaeda. Our qualms were based on the fact that the two roles may have been somewhat incompatible. In retrospect, were our misgivings and our qualms ill founded? Has the problem been solved, or is there still incompatibility between those two roles?

Mr. Hoon

I had no reservations so it is a little difficult for me to decide whether I have resolved those of my hon. Friend. I have certainly sought to do so, in that I have explained to the House on more than one occasion how the command and control structure of the different forces works. Indeed, it is right to say that we constantly check to ensure that there is no overlap, nor the possibility of the confusion about which my hon. Friend was concerned. That is a constant part of our effort.

Mr. Hancock

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way to me again.

Will he explain the details of the rules of engagement and how 45 Commando will operate under an American commander? Do the rules of engagement give those forces the right to cross into Pakistan if they are in pursuit of Taliban or al-Qaeda rebels?

Mr. Hoon

We went into that matter on the last occasion that we discussed this subject so I do not propose repeating what I said then. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that our forces have robust rules of engagement that allow them to do their job. It has never been the practice of any Government, when discussing such matters, to go into detail about the nature of those rules of engagement.

Even without the continuing operations in Afghanistan, this has been a particularly busy year for the armed forces and, indeed, for the civil servants who work so closely with them. Service personnel are engaged in operations over Iraq, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Sierra Leone and throughout the world. Operations in Afghanistan have meant that some people have, perhaps, overlooked the remarkably successful deployment of about 2,000 British troops to Macedonia last summer, to collect weapons from Albanian fighters in support of the framework agreement that continues to provide the basis for Macedonia's moves towards greater stability.

In view of the 20th anniversary this year of the Falklands conflict, I should also mention those members of the armed forces who are deployed in the islands. I recently visited the Falklands again and was able to see for myself the excellent work that British forces continue to carry out there.

Closer to home, the armed forces have continued their work in Northern Ireland in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and, more recently, the Police Service of Northern Ireland. They also played a key role in helping to control the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

Our service men and women are obviously busy. About 28 per cent. of the Army are currently committed to operations. That is a high proportion, although not as high as the 44 per cent. committed to operations at the peak of the Kosovo campaign. In addition, 11 per cent. of the Royal Navy and 10 per cent. of the Royal Air Force are deployed on operations.

The armed forces are very busy, but they are not operating beyond what they can bear, although we recognise that a number of units—particularly specialists—and those who serve in them face specific strains. I would like to say something about what we are doing to tackle those issues, but I emphasise that the amount of time people spend on operations and the amount of time they have to recover and spend with their families are key concerns. We are determined to achieve and maintain a balance of commitments. We aim to commit our troops to operations for no longer than is absolutely necessary. We will continue to withdraw them at the earliest opportunity and to press our allies and partners to take on their share of the responsibility.

Our efforts are largely successful. As I have said, the proportion of the Army that is currently committed to operations is well down from the peak of activity in Kosovo. Relevant guidelines for the Royal Navy are largely being maintained. Only 2.3 per cent. of trained RAF personnel spent more than 140 days away from their parent unit last year.

Our reserve forces have an important part to play. They have made a significant contribution to meeting our current operational commitments, reaffirming the emphasis that we have placed on integrating them more closely with our Regular forces and making them still more relevant to current operations. At any one time, some 10 per cent. of our forces in the Balkans are reservists. Reservists have also been called out to support operations in Sierra Leone and the United Nations observer mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the reason why so many reservists have been required is the shortfall in the Regular forces? Will he inform the House what the current shortfall is in the Army?

Mr. Hoon

The use of reservists is not a result of the overall shortfall to which I have referred. It is a result of pressure on key specialisations and has involved, largely, the replacement of particular specialists. I know from my visits to the Balkans that the reservists who at any one time make up 10 per cent. of our forces there are often people with particular skills in the civilian world who have been able to make those available to the armed forces. They have done so not least because of the significant contribution that the armed forces are making to the rebuilding of countries in that region. We tend to have manning difficulties in those particular specialist areas, and I am not at all complacent about the importance of ensuring that we have the appropriate manning balance and of making sure that the pressures that we put on those specialists are relieved as much as we can manage.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Is it not a fact that the Territorial Army is at present about 1,300 below the strength anticipated at the time of the strategic defence review? Would the Secretary of State care to consider that one way of keeping the reserve forces up to strength would be to revisit what was done in 1999, when the reserve decoration and the territorial decoration were extended to all ranks, but nobody was allowed to put letters after their name any more? Would it not be a tremendous boost to the reserve forces and an incentive for people to renew their commitments if those people who get the volunteer reserve medals were able to put the appropriate letters after their names?

Mr. Hoon

I will certainly look at that practical suggestion, but I will refer later to questions of recruitment and retention. I will set out some of the efforts that the Ministry of Defence is making to ensure that we have the right numbers of people coming in and remaining in the armed forces for as long as we need them.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

The Secretary of State has repeated the mantra that we so often hear about the principal requirement for reservists lying in specialists. Will he confirm that in every single year since the Government took office, by far the largest category of reservists used has been infantry?

Mr. Hoon

They tend to be infantry with particular skills, and it is important to recognise that. That is wholly consistent with what the Government set out at the time of the SDR, so that we have the kind of people available to us to do particular jobs. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware from his own experience, being a member of the armed forces these days is an increasingly specialised role and the levels of skill and training that are required are increasing from day to day. That is something that every Government will have to face up to in the future.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

May I say quickly that being an infantry man is something of a skill in its own right? Can the Secretary of State give us some idea of the Government's thinking in response to the new chapter of the SDR? They began a consultation exercise on a possible new role for the reserve forces in responding to the events of 11 September. Is there any initial conclusion as a result of that consultation exercise?

Mr. Hoon

I shall address that point in due course, but I am grateful for the contribution that right hon. and hon. Members have made to the discussion document that we published.

Let me return to the use we have made of the specialist skills of our reservists, particularly in the continuing operations against international terrorism. The compulsory call-out of intelligence staff from the Territorial Army and movement operators from the Royal Auxiliary Air Force has been vital in helping us to prosecute the campaign against the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban.

In addition, more than 1,700 members of the reserve forces are currently serving in full-time reserve service. This means that they have voluntarily entered commitments to serve full-time for periods ranging from a few months to three to four years.

Recent operations have proved beyond doubt that the 1998 strategic defence review and our further work on the changing strategic context have put the United Kingdom in a strong position to respond to the appalling events of 11 September. As the House is aware, however, we are looking at what more we might need to do in the light of those appalling attacks on the United States.

We are pressing ahead with our work on what has been termed a new chapter to the strategic defence review. In ensuring that we have the right defence concepts, forces, and capabilities, we are placing particular emphasis on the impact that any proposed changes might have on members of the armed forces and their families. I consider it very important that we do not make unreasonable demands on our service personnel. The strategic defence review put people at the heart of our policy. That is where they will remain.

Our emerging thinking on the new chapter was set out in the public discussion document that the House discussed during the defence policy debate on 14 February. There has been a positive and constructive response to the paper. By last month's deadline we had received more than 300 responses from hon. Members, local authorities, academics, and members of the public.

The responses cover a wide range of issues, but a number of key themes run through them. There has been strong support for the strategic defence review and the work on the new chapter. There has also been strong support for many of the emerging conclusions of our work, including the armed forces' focus on operating abroad; the recognition of the importance of rapid effect and high readiness; the armed forces' role in preventing terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom and the contribution that the Territorial Army could make to home defence; the importance of cross-Government co-ordination; and the role that international organisations such as the United Nations, NATO and the European Union have to play in combating international terrorism.

We are taking account of the views, ideas, arid opinions that have been expressed as we take this work forward. Although the formal deadline for responses has passed, this should not be the end of the public debate. These issues will face us for months and years to come, so we continue to welcome views and ideas.

Our intention is to publish conclusions from our work in the late spring or early summer, but I can assure the House that we have already taken the necessary steps to adjust the posture of the armed forces in response to the changing situation. We will continue to implement further urgent measures as and when required, in advance of the publication of our conclusions.

May I emphasise one fundamental aspect of this work? Our people—the service men and women on whom we make such demands—are our most valuable and important resource. We are giving careful consideration to the impact that any possible changes in the light of the events of 11 September may have on them and their families.

The fact that the armed forces are so busy serves as a reminder that the recruitment and retention of people is our most important task. We need to find people with the intelligence, courage, and commitment necessary to undertake tasks that are always demanding and often hazardous, right across the world, often with little or no warning. We need to train and motivate them to do their jobs, to provide them with support and guidance, especially at the times of greatest stress and trauma, and to support their families who remain at home.

I will not pretend that this burden of effort is always easy for the armed forces or the Ministry of Defence to hear. Our forces are, as we have acknowledged, currently undermanned. We are making considerable efforts to achieve what we call the manning balance. Achieving this balance is about recruiting and retaining the right people but getting and keeping them is not straightforward.

The current employment context is difficult. The size of the critical age group of those between 16 and 24 years declined in the past decade. The economy is relatively strong and many more are electing to stay on in higher education. It is, therefore, a tough job recruiting and holding on to the best people.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

Can the Secretary of State account for the extraordinary success of certain regiments in the Army that find no difficulty with recruiting? In fact, they often allow themselves to be overmanned or enabled to be overmanned, yet the recruiting group does not seem to take account of the particular styles of operation that these regiments follow.

Mr. Hoon

I have been concerned about the need to encourage much greater flexibility in the way we recruit. The hon. Gentleman is clearly aware that there are issues in relation to the allocation of recruits to particular areas of the armed forces. I have taken an interest in that, but I would welcome his thoughts and suggestions, based on his experience, on how best to resolve those questions, not least because of particular problems in certain specialist areas.

Civilian employers speak highly of the quality of those who have served in the armed forces, and particularly of their dependability and adaptability. When service men and women have particular skills and experience—such as pilots, signallers, logisticians, engineers and others—they are doubly attractive to civilian employers. We face a huge demand for the best young people and we need some 25,000 new recruits every year. Clearly, we face competition for them from other employers. Attracting people to the armed forces can therefore be an uphill task.

Mr. Brazier

Following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), will the Secretary of State recognise that while almost every major civilian organisation is trying to decentralise its personnel strategy—a horses for courses approach—the Ministry of Defence is pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach, which is bringing personnel policy in all three services ever more closely together, as criticised by the Select Committee on Defence in the last Parliament, and is making his problem harder?

Mr. Hoon

I shall go on to talk about personnel policy, but I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's description of it. A central part of that policy is to emphasise the diversity of the three services and to respect their considerable different traditions. If the hon. Gentleman thinks about it for a moment, he will realise that the implication of the point made by the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) was that we must look across the board at how we allocate people to different parts of the armed forces.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

Will the Secretary of State tell the House a little about recruitment from overseas? As he knows, the British Army has had an excellent record of recruiting people from overseas, particularly from Commonwealth countries. Will he comment in particular on moves in New Zealand to recruit former members of the Royal New Zealand Air Force?

Mr. Hoon

That continues to be the case, and recruitment from Commonwealth countries continues to be strong and to provide us with not only valuable sorts of recruits but excellent links and contacts with Commonwealth countries. Efforts have been made to recruit New Zealand pilots although it will not greatly surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that their services are in great demand, not only from other air forces around the world but from civilian airlines.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

In a parliamentary answer at the end of last year, the Minister of State informed me that the intention was to move the Regular Commissions Board to Sandhurst to be co-located with the Royal Military Academy. I now understand that the money for that is not available and that the Regular Commissions Board will stay in Westbury. However, the Territorial Commissioning Board., which is currently co-located with the Regular Commissions Board, will be removed to Chilwell. Will the Secretary of State confirm that? What is the rationale for dislocating the Territorial Commissioning Board from the Regular Commissions Board and moving it to Chilwell?

Mr. Hoon

Chilwell is a fine place, which is close to my constituency—[Laughter] It is not that close. I will have to ensure that the premises of the hon. Gentleman's question are accurate before I respond to his conclusions. However, I shall write to him on that in due course.

I have set out the background of recruitment. I want to emphasise that recruitment levels have not fallen recently but have remained remarkably resilient. In the first 10 months of 2001–02, the total intake for the armed forces reached 81 per cent. of the year's recruitment target. Over that period, intake levels across all three services were up on the same period in the previous year. That indicates that the armed forces are on course at least to match if not exceed the previous year's achievement. That is excellent news.

Bob Russell

Will the Secretary of State put some flesh on those bones and give the House some figures on the shortfall and the percentages involved? It is all very well saying that the Government are trying to achieve targets, but I got the impression from a written answer that I received that a sizeable shortfall still exists.

Mr. Hoon

I do not want the hon. Gentleman to be hypnotised by a particular figure for the shortfall. We have made no secret of the fact that the shortfall is of the order of 9,000–10,000 overall, but we have always maintained that the important figures are the ones that show how many people are joining the services, and how many are not staying in as long as we would prefer. A marginal improvement in retention rates would solve the whole problem.

I deal now with the changes that have occurred in society. In 10 years, 15 per cent. of the youngest age group from which we draw our recruits will come from ethnic minorities. That only serves to remind us that the armed forces must reflect the society that they serve. We remain committed to recruiting from all sectors of the community, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.

The annual recruitment rate from the British ethnic minority communities continues to improve. In the three years from April 1998 to April 2001, the percentage of recruits from the ethnic minorities more than doubled. The signs for 2001–02 suggest that this upward trend has continued. The position for female recruitment is similarly positive. In the 12 months to 1 February 2002, 2,658 females entered the armed forces—11.3 per cent. of the total intake.

As I have made clear, however, recruiting is only half of the challenge that we face in reaching the manning balance. Retention is also a matter of the highest priority, not least because it is the key to solving the problems of undermanning. We are trying to get this right, and I want to touch on three areas of work that are under way.

The first is pay. I should like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body for the clear and wide-ranging report that they have produced this year. I am pleased that we were again able to implement the review body's recommendations in full and on time, for the fourth year in succession.

We expect a lot from our service men and women. Fair remuneration is an essential ingredient in maintaining their morale and persuading them to remain in the armed forces. It is reassuring, therefore, that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body welcomed the new pay structure that was introduced last year, and that it was able to report the success of the significant task of transferring personnel to the new pay ranges.

I attach great importance to the work that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body does on behalf of our service men and women. In particular, I welcome its independent status. This gives the review body's views added weight, both inside and outside the Ministry of Defence, and—most important—with service personnel themselves.

Secondly, we recognise the fact that frequent overseas deployments pose significant challenges to our people and their families. Young men and women who are attracted to joining the armed forces by the prospect of adventure and travel often find that less appealing as they grow older, settle down and take on family responsibilities.

We are therefore working hard to try to reduce the stresses and difficulties associated with service life. For example, the service families taskforce was set up in 1999 to act as a central focus for family issues and to liaise with other Government Departments on issues outside the Ministry of Defence's immediate control. Recent advances on issues involving health and education and on clarification on eligibility for allowances, particularly for those serving overseas, have been very well received. Useful progress is being made elsewhere. For the first time, for example, the code of practice on schools admissions now makes specific reference to service children.

We recognise that the number of operations to which UK service personnel are committed has increased significantly in recent years—an inevitable consequence of the challenges and instabilities that we have faced since the end of the cold war. To ensure that we provide the best possible support to service men and women deployed on operations, and to their families back home, we commissioned a review of operational welfare.

That review was completed in December 1999. It took into account the views of hundreds of service personnel across a wide range of operational theatres, and also drew on lessons learned by our allies. The result was the development of a single, comprehensive operational welfare package.

Experience to date indicates that the operational welfare package has been extremely well received, most recently in Afghanistan, where the harsh conditions have been relieved, in part, by the provision of 20 minutes of weekly telephone call time and of electronic "blueys". Both of these help service personnel to stay in touch with their families. British service personnel have also had access to three UK radio and television channels.

Thirdly, we are addressing those areas where we face particular problems in retaining service men and women. A key example is aircrew, where a recent comprehensive review confirmed that we face serious shortages, notably in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

These shortages are largely the result of the pull from the civilian airlines, dissatisfaction with the management of aircrew and their careers, quality of life issues and the effect of early pensions and gratuities. The services are now urgently addressing these issues. We have also introduced targeted financial retention initiatives aimed at service aircrew. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommended that sums of between £30,000 and £50,000 should be paid to retain our most experienced and valued aircrew. Next year, we will introduce new pay arrangements for all professional aviators.

The remuneration and non-remuneration levers that are now being applied are integral parts of a coherent package that is expected to improve aircrew manning levels, although we anticipate that shortfalls will inevitably continue for several years. It is too early to assess the success of these measures, but initial indications are encouraging.

It is also worth noting that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body was impressed by the rigour and comprehensiveness of the aircrew review, and found the remuneration proposals to be a forward-looking and well-targeted approach to addressing the problems that we face.

We will build on the aircrew review and use the same methodology to address manning shortfalls in other areas. A medical manning and retention review and a submariner review are already both

Tony Cunningham (Workington)

My right hon. Friend rightly talks about the value of aircrew. Sometimes we forget the incredible job that our RAF pilots do in the no-fly zones over Iraq. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the pilots who, day in, day out, risk their lives trying to protect the people of Iraq—and especially the Kurds in the north of the country—from the tremendous threat posed by Saddam Hussein?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have had the considerable privilege of visiting both the bases from which our aircrew operate. I have talked to a number of pilots and crew about the hazards that they face and the astonishing skill that they deploy in those operations. I know that the whole House will be grateful to them for the courage that they display and for the job they do in protecting people on the ground in Iraq.

I want to emphasise, however, that we do not rely solely on financial inducements. People are not simply motivated by money, so the recent TOPMAST initiative in the Navy, for example, aims to tackle retention by introducing a more efficient use of manpower and by providing service men and women with more geographic stability and a greater ability to plan their own lives and careers. TOPMAST will also allow better career management, giving "employing units" more involvement in personal development and, where appropriate, in the medical rehabilitation of injured or wounded personnel.

I should also mention the medical quinquennial review, which has just been completed and whose conclusions are being placed in the Library of the House today. The review looked at the functions and organisation of the Ministry of Defence's four medical agencies—the Defence Secondary Care Agency, the Defence Dental Agency, the Defence Medical Training Organisation, and the Medical Supplies Agency—and at other aspects of medical provision.

The review concluded that there must be a clearer focus on the delivery of the two key defence medical outputs—deployable operational medical capability and timely appropriate health care for service personnel. The defence medical services will be realigned and restructured to focus more effectively on those two key outputs. Importantly, we will also establish a stronger partnership between the defence medical services and the national health service. In particular, we will draw on the NHS to strengthen management capabilities throughout the defence medical services.

That is an important area of work. There have been significant improvements in the defence medical services since we announced the new strategy for them in 1998, but there is still a great deal of work to do. The Government are committed to restoring the services' capability and to ensuring that key defence medical outputs are delivered. That will have a significant impact on improving the welfare of our service men and women and their families.

We face a number of challenges in recruiting, retaining and caring for our service men and women. We are working hard to tackle them, but we are not taking these initiatives in isolation. As I have indicated, they fit within the overarching armed forces personnel strategy, which we established two years ago to provide a framework to guide our work across the whole personnel agenda.

The framework encompasses the work that we must do right across the board, from encouraging the young to join up to supporting and remembering former service personnel. Hence the framework's five themes—cultivate, obtain, retain, sustain and remember. It sets out the overall direction that the Department wishes to pursue in achieving its objectives by good management and care of its people. It also aims to maintain the diversity, identity, and ethos of the single services, because the Royal Navy, the Army, and the Royal Air Force must continue to take the leading responsibility in meeting these challenges.

Mr. Hancock

On the key issue of provision for service families, will the Secretary of State assure the House that the service families taskforce, although highly successful, will receive greater resources? Some of the Defence Committee's recommendations have still not been implemented, such as setting transparent targets for education, social health and housing so that families can see what should be achieved. Will the Secretary of State consider introducing greater transparency in the way evaluations for service personnel are carried out and how they interact with TOPMAST? In particular, will he consider the resentment that many service personnel have about Pay 2000 and the fact that the evaluations were not addressed?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman touches on significant issues, some of which I dealt with when I emphasised the importance of families as well as the careers of service men and women. However, I repeat that the work of the taskforce is important and assure the House that we will continue to support its activities. I will give careful consideration to any recommendations made by the Defence Committee that have not been fully or properly implemented.

Mr. Francois

I have a specific point to raise. One thing that infuriates service personnel is that units are often rotated in the summer and by the time they get the address for their new posting it is nigh on impossible to get their children a school place for the start of the school year. That has been a long-running problem for several years. Although the Government say that they will do more to address it, according to anecdotal evidence whatever they have tried is not working. Will they reconsider the problem and try even harder to solve it?

Mr. Hoon

I am well aware of the difficulty and it has exercised my mind for some time. That is why I welcome the changes involving the Department for Education and Skills, and we will continue to pursue that matter. However, there is a wider problem of stability, especially for those in the Army, and we need to find ways to give greater certainty on future postings. The Army is considering that carefully. Although I cannot give full details now, I am keen to see that provision in place in future.

Our people are our most prized asset. They make the difference time after time and in place after place, both at home and across the world. They are engaged in operations that involve considerable risk and significant danger. They work in areas where they may be required to face real danger to protect the principles and rights that we at home perhaps too frequently take for granted. They undertake those missions on our behalf with determination, skill and compassion. We owe it to them to do all we can to ensure that they have the right conditions of service, the right support for their families and the right benefits to get the job done. I do not pretend that that is an easy task or that success has come or will come quickly, but I know that we are on the right road and making good progress.

2.13 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother for her incredible service to the armed forces throughout most of her life. I also pay tribute to the armed forces themselves for the supreme effort and achievement of the ceremonial duties that they undertook and performed with such professionalism throughout the period of mourning and the funeral of Her Majesty. We congratulate them on that without qualification. I am sure that the House will agree that they are a wonderful advertisement not just for the armed forces but for this country and for what it stands.

I also thank the Secretary of State for a lengthy but useful speech and for taking so many interventions, which gave rise to helpful exchanges on the personnel problems faced by the armed forces. Before embarking on my remarks, I emphasise that there is much common ground between the Government and Her Majesty's official Opposition. We should build on that for the benefit of the armed forces rather than picking at the areas of disagreement between us. However, I have a job to perform, so I will have to pursue some matters of disagreement.

I thank the Secretary of State for addressing the situation in Afghanistan. I am grateful for the opportunity that he afforded me last week, when the Minister of State and I accompanied members of the Select Committee on a valuable visit from which we learned a great deal. I congratulate 1 Royal Anglian regiment on the supremely professional performance of its duties in Kabul. We went on patrol with C company on the streets of Kabul and I am distressed to hear of the tragedy that has struck it. I join the Secretary of State, as I am sure the whole House does, in extending the company my condolences.

Morale was high when we were there. The regiment was pleased with its new personal role radios and I am glad that it has the communications that it needs to do the job. It undertook proper patrolling by walking the streets of Kabul. Other armies were less bold in getting out of their armoured personnel carriers to meet the public. We can take pride in what that regiment is achieving in difficult circumstances.

The enthusiasm expressed by the population of Kabul for British forces in particular and the international security assistance force in general was obvious. Children ran after us everywhere we went, wanting to shake our hands. Even though they could not speak English, they kept asking, "How are you?" with great enthusiasm. We were impressed by civil-military projects to build relations between ISAF and the population. It was moving to visit a school where so many children were pleased to be returning to education after years of oppression.

It is difficult to assess the threat levels. By day, patrols took place without hard hats or body armour and were greeted with extreme enthusiasm by the local population. By night, however, things were different and our forces had to undertake difficult operations in the curfew. Underlying that is the extraordinary depth of ethnic tension, not just in Afghanistan as a whole but in the city of Kabul itself.

Kabul politics remains a melting pot, and I pay tribute to General McColl and his command team. They demonstrated in their briefings a supreme grasp of the political sense of direction necessary to build on what has been achieved so far, from the Bonn process to the Loya Jirga in the summer, through to the elections two years after that. General McColl has shown extraordinary initiative. For example, he deployed elements of ISAF to help to relieve the disaster caused by the earthquake. That demonstrated for the first time in decades in Afghanistan how the central Government can matter to outlying parts of the country.

The Bonn process remains fraught with difficulties, however. The Interim Administration are dominated by the Tajiks who were dominant in the Northern Alliance. In particular, the Panshiri three—General Fahim, the Defence Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister, and Mr. Rabanni—are seen as the main power brokers. Senior Pashtuns were largely excluded from the Interim Administration in Bonn, and the provision in the Bonn agreement to exclude General Fahim's soldiers from the streets of Kabul has not been enforced.

There needs to be a realistic approach to the Loya Jirga in the summer, which in turn needs to reflect a balance between the Tajiks, the Pashtuns and other elements of Afghan society. If a political stalemate arises, there is a danger that the Interim Administration could start to be regarded as a puppet Government kept in power by uninvited foreigners. The rocket attacks mounted by remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, or other extremists, demonstrate that there are forces afoot anxious to capitalise on any discontent with the Interim Administration. Future stability depends on a much more broadly based and ethnically spread administration following the Loya Jirga in the summer, and on the development of the Afghans' own national army, the Afghan national guard. While we were in Kabul, the first battalion of the national guard had its passing-out parade. I regret that I was not present, but I understand that it showed the influence that British armed forces can have on people from any part of the world, whatever their background.

There is a need for realism, and I invite the Government to be realistic. The Secretary of State says that he remains committed to the success of ISAF. Realistically, for ISAF to complete its mission it will need to be there for another two years after the Loya Jirga until the elections that will then take place. That will provide time for training the Afghan national guard to take over from IS AF and to provide security for the whole of Afghanistan. The United States is committed to that project, and we need to be realistic about time frames.

I was disappointed that it was not possible for Members of Parliament on the trip to visit 45 Commando Royal Marines. Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for keeping me informed about the development of Operation Jacana, and I reiterate the Opposition's support for that operation. Those in 45 Commando are preparing for what can only be described as extremely hazardous operations, and Her Majesty's Opposition stand alongside the Government in facing those risks.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

In talking about hazardous operations and—nearly—about the Royal Marines, does my hon. Friend intend to deal with a very significant development in recent defence announcements that flies in the face of all known military experience and doctrine since the Falklands: the decision no longer to retain the Sea Harriers? That will ensure that if the fleet goes to sea deployed on major operations, it will have no air cover until the new aeroplane is introduced. Given the dangers in Afghanistan that he described, does he agree that to expose an already tiny British fleet to such astonishing and needless danger is extremely foolish?

Mr. Jenkin

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I had intended to address that at some point in my speech, but I shall do so now. It is an extraordinary decision. It is not, as the Prime Minister claimed yesterday, a result of the Government's strategic defence review—it flies in the face of that. It reflects the Government's difficulties in retaining combat pilots and the Ministry of Defence's difficulties in making ends meet under the current budgetary arrangements, given its existing commitments. It means not that British forces chiefs would put British ships in danger, but that we simply could not deploy our carrier forces into a conflict zone unless air support was provided by another power, presumably the United States.

The decision represents a huge reduction in the expeditionary capability of Her Majesty's forces, which was originally the backbone of what the SDR was intended to address. I think that on reflection the Government will want to revisit it and to preserve the life of the Sea Harrier force until the joint strike fighter comes into operation and can take over that role, as they originally intended in the SDR.

This matter has tangential relevance to the operations that are being undertaken by 45 Commando Royal Marines, because we are deploying a battle group without our own dedicated air support—although Sea Harriers would not be used in a case such as this. We remain concerned that the fact that we are not deploying with our own dedicated air cover means that we are reliant on air cover provided by the United States, which necessarily cannot provide the same integration of command and control that is required in such operations.

Mr. Soames

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pursuing this extremely important point. Is he aware that the armed forces wanted to deploy Harriers in support of these operations, on the ground that we would be a completely deployed force? The aircraft were ready to go and capable of doing the business, but it was decided not to send them—for no reason other than cost.

Mr. Jenkin

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving that new and extremely relevant information to the House. We have a right to an explanation from the Minister of State when he replies.

Mr. Francois

Before my hon. Friend leaves the issue, there is another point to add. Several years ago, the Sea Harrier force went through an expensive upgrade to give it improved radar and the ability to carry long-range air-to-air missiles. The British taxpayer has invested a great deal of money in upgrading the aircraft to make it more capable, only for it to be taken out of service. There is no logic in that decision.

Mr. Jenkin

We know that the decision was taken on a very short time frame, undoubtedly under pressures of cost. The aircraft will be replaced with a non-marinised aircraft without radar or an air-to-air capability—indeed, a slower aircraft that could not outrun or catch up with attacking aircraft. I understand the Secretary of State's saying that we are concerned only about mounting ground attack operations off our carriers from now on, but the decision severely limits the role and flexibility of our armed forces and it is unacceptable that the Government have made it.

I reiterate that we wish 45 Commando Royal Marines every success. We have every confidence in their ability and commitment. They and their families will be constantly in our thoughts and prayers in the weeks and months ahead.

Before I leave Afghanistan entirely, this debate is about personnel issues, and I ask the Minister of State to deal with the following points. Both ISAF and Operation Jacana are likely to extend beyond their present operational horizons, and it is fair to ask what plans the Government have made to provide for that extension. We welcome Turkey's commitment to take over the leadership of ISAF, but, as the Secretary of State said, the British commitment will remain significant. There is a need for a realistic tour plot for the roulement of 45 Commando Royal Marines, and perhaps for the continued maintenance in theatre of a battalion to support the continuing activities of ISAF. Why leave it all to the last minute? That has a detrimental effect on retention, as I shall explain later.

Another issue that was raised during the exchanges with the Secretary of State relates to the facilities that our armed forces enjoy while they are in theatre. I was distressed to learn from several people in Kabul that the British forces there are lightheartedly nicknamed "The Flintstones" by their counterparts from other national forces. That is not a comment on our forces' professional ability to do their job, but on what are regarded as the stone age facilities that they live out of compared with those available to other forces. I fully agree with the Secretary of State that there is a balance to be struck and that the speed and lightness with which we can deploy is a key part of our capability. However, it is ultimately a matter of force planning and of how long we are likely to be in theatre. Clearly, other national forces are planning and providing for being in theatre for very much longer. Huge amounts of the Royal Engineers' time and money are used in making do with hand-to-mouth facilities instead of setting up more permanent and efficient washing and toilet facilities. Indeed, such a false economy ultimately affects the personal hygiene and cleanliness of our soldiers. I do not think that British soldiers are going soft, but it is right to report that this welfare issue was raised with us on our visit. We should also raise it in the House.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

I apologise for not being present at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech. However, his comments about ISAF gave me the impression that he envisaged that ISAF might have to continue its presence in Afghanistan for up to two years so that it will be able to train a local army. Does he envisage that the United Kingdom will continue to make a contribution for a period of up to two years?

Mr. Jenkin

I am merely asking the questions, because such issues naturally came to our attention during our visit. It is for the Government to explain what they envisage. At the moment, their proposals are unspecific and they are reluctant to plan for a commitment to ISAF considerably greater than that which they initially indicated they were letting us in for. Such issues need to be addressed to enable the Government to plan for their own purposes. If they do not know what is involved in the commitments, that adds to the problem of overstretch generally in the armed forces and to all the other problems that I am about to discuss. It is not for me to dictate to the Government how long we should stay in Afghanistan, but it is fair enough to point out that the deployment is turning out to be a very much longer-term commitment than the one that they originally indicated. However, I do not wish to dwell excessively on that point.

Four years ago, the Government said that tackling overstretch—I use that word because they used it—would be one of the key elements of the strategic defence review. In June 1997, the then Secretary of State for Defence promised: The problem of overstretch will be seriously addressed".—[Official Report, 16 June 1997; Vol. 296, c. 5.] Announcing the strategic defence review in July 1998, he said: Unlike other recent reviews, this review is designed to put people first."—[Official Report, 8 July 1998; Vol. 315, c. 1075.] The Secretary of State alluded to that point earlier.

The Government said that one of the most important elements of SDR was its "Policy for People". In the documents supporting SDR, they said: Addressing the personnel problems that affect the Armed Forces will take time, trust and money. Trust needs to be earned and will only arise from the delivery of tangible improvements in overstretch and undermanning.

In the SDR, the Government set out their policy and views on the problem of overstretch. They said: We need to solve the problems of undermanning and additional overstretch which come from over-commitment. Undermanning—that is when units are not up to planned strengths—is one of the causes of overstretch. Individuals with undermanned units have to do more and, particularly for operations, individual reinforcements have to be brought in from other units. Unsurprisingly the additional pressures from consistent overstretch contribute to higher exit rates thus adding to manning difficulties". I could not agree more. The SDR added: We need to break this vicious circle. To do so we must match the commitments we undertake to our planned resources". Four years after the SDR, it is clear that the Government have not stuck to their declared policy.

It is also clear that the Government have failed so far in their bid to cure the undermanning problem. As at 1 February 2002, there was a shortfall of 7,477 personnel against the currently assessed in-year requirement for UK trained army personnel. Figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency show the decline in UK regular forces, including both trained and untrained personnel. Between April 1997 and February 2002, the number of trained officers fell by 804 while the number of trained other ranks fell by 10,800.

The immediate impact is clear. A Tornado air defence squadron was disbanded this year because of lack of pilots, and the RAF said that the mothballing was caused by "pilot shortages". It should have 1,484 pilots, but it is 131 short of that figure. We also know that the units being sent to Northern Ireland are not at full strength and that Royal Navy warships put to sea regularly without their full complement.

Recruiting is fairly strong, and I pay tribute to the Ministry of Defence for getting quite near to its target. Its performance report tells us that the forces achieved 90 per cent. of the overall recruitment target in 2000–01, against 96 per cent. for 1999–2000. The report adds that recruitment shortfalls were experienced in all three services.

The real problem, however, is retention. In Defence questions on 11 February, the Minister responsible for the armed forces said at column 15 that the trend for retention was "upwards". Yet across all three services in 2000–01, more personnel left than joined the armed forces, and more people left than joined in each of the preceding three years.

Under the SDR, the Army was supposed to increase in size by 3,300 men. In 1998, the whole Army strength was 109,800. In 2001, it was 109,500 but now we hear that the Government have reduced their SDR target for the Army. A document leaked to The Daily Telegraph last month shows that the target of a 108,500-strong Army set by the Government in 1998 has been reduced by 1,500. Can the Government confirm whether that is correct? If it is true, it is a very sorry state of affairs.

Mr. Francois

That is two battalions.

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. Friend says that that is equivalent to two battalions and, in effect, that means short changing every battalion in the British Army because the Government, rightly, cannot face the prospect of axing whole battalions.

During the general election campaign, I recall that the Labour party attacked the Conservatives' commitment to make full manning a priority, saying that that would cost £1.3 billion. That claim was later denied by the Secretary of State for Defence, and perhaps we can now see why. It is difficult for the Government to meet their manning targets.

We need to ask why the forces are suffering such terrible retention problems. It is clear that one of the main factors is overcommitment. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body noted in its 2002 report that tile level of armed forces commitments remained "high". It pointed out that in November 2001, 31 per cent. of the armed forces were committed to operations. At the height of the Kosovo operation, the figure was 89 per cent. of Land Command. In autumn 2000, 34 per cent. of the naval services front-line manpower strength was engaged directly in operations, and the Secretary of State has pointed out that today, 28 per cent. of the Army is committed to operations. That compares with the planning assumption in the SDR of 20 per cent.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

In the unlikely event that the hon. Gentleman found himself in government tomorrow, which of those commitments would his Government cut back on?

Mr. Jenkin

Labour Members are programmed to ask that question, and I am happy to fantasise about being Secretary of State tomorrow. However, I have better things to do. To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day".

The Secretary of State should watch out. The truth is that no Government would be in a position to axe arbitrarily existing commitments. The question is the rate at which commitments are taken on, and we are periodically sceptical about the enthusiasm with which the Prime Minister spreads our forces around the globe on peacekeeping activities when the Ministry of Defence is not funded for such a high level of operations.

Mr. Jones


Mr. Jenkin

I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once.

Mr. Keetch

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jenkin

I will.

Mr. Keetch

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If he cannot tell the House what commitments the Conservative party would axe in the unlikely event of its coming to power, will he tell us the Opposition's policy on the defence budget? Are they committed to the defence budget remaining at its current level, to increasing it or to increasing it at above the rate of inflation? Will he explain their policy on that?

Mr. Jenkin

The hon. Gentleman is so utterly predictable—I debated with myself whether it would be worth giving way to him. We do not anticipate becoming the Government next week or next month, and it is the Government's declared policy, which I quoted from their SDR, that they would match their capabilities and their commitments. They are failing to do so. The hon. Gentleman may not be part of the official Opposition—I am, and I am entitled to point that out.

On 10 February 2002, the Secretary of State for Defence admitted: We are operating at the limits of our capabilities and it is important that it is recognised that there is a limit to what we can achieve. We're certainly stretched. That indicates how stretched the elastic is in his Department. It comes as no consolation to know that he made that statement before the deployment of 1,700 Royal Marines to Afghanistan.

In its report, "Policy for People", the Select Committee on Defence noted that the continuous attitude surveys, which assess satisfaction with service life, showed that separation from family and its effects on relationships and the inability to plan one's life consistently scored high as reasons for leaving the services in surveys of leavers. The key point about retention is the need to restore the quality of life of our service men.

During the Committee's inquiry, the Army Families Federation said: The expeditionary nature of current deployment has significantly altered the way of life for Army families: separation has increased dramatically. The Army must establish a reasonable expectation for time families spend together, and fulfil the expectation".

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will clarify something for me. If the Defence Committee suggests in a forthcoming report that the defence budget should be increased to 3 per cent. of gross domestic product, would he allow his defence spokesman, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is also a member of the Select Committee, to sign that report?

Mr. Jenkin

I would draw the relevant paragraph to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Chancellor.

Most recently, the commander of the British marines arriving in Afghanistan warned of the strain that their heavy schedule is placing on his men's families. The commanding officer of 45 Commando said that there were consequences to the constant demands on his forces' time and hoped that, when the operation was complete, his men might be granted some quality time. On 4 April, he told the Financial Times: A year ago we came back from Kosovo and reformed to a new organisation of battle, early July we did a UK-based exercise, then we went to Oman. From mid-November to mid-December we did mountain training, then short notice embarkation, and then Afghanistan. He added: The last time we had time to catch breath was a long time ago. We can do the job, but families and friends are the ones who bear the brunt. That officer's words demonstrate graphically how overcommitment can lead to people leaving the forces.

Obviously, with 10,000 fewer personnel than we left the Secretary of State in 1997, the pressure on those remaining in the services increases. At the same time as the number of commitments has been increasing, the budget has been reduced by around £1 billion a year in real terms. Those cuts have a real impact on morale. The Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Peter Squire, has said: I recognise the sense of frustration in having to make do and mend with inadequate resources, particularly at home bases. We support people well on operations, but, frequently when they get back, they find there are not enough spares…frustration worries people and puts the question in their minds of how long to give the Air Force before moving on to a second career. The Minister must be in no doubt of the impact that those continued cuts are having on the forces. There has been widespread dismay, particularly at the withdrawal of the Sea Harriers, as has been mentioned.

In any personnel policy, training has a central and important part to play. Training is what suffers most as a result of overcommitment. I noted with alarm a recent written answer that revealed that in the past 24 months, 84 exercises have been cancelled, many because of commitments to operations or because of financial restrictions. Five were cancelled directly because of a lack of funding and 36 were cancelled because of operational commitments. It has even emerged that the Secretary of State for Defence wanted to cancel Britain's biggest post-cold war exercise—Saif Sareea 2, recently completed in Oman—to save £93 million, but was overruled by the Prime Minister on the advice of military chiefs.

I have not forgotten that two years ago the Royal Marines annual arctic warfare course was cancelled through lack of funding. Fortunately, it was reinstated in 2000–01, because the skills learned and honed by the Marines in those exercises directly relate to their duties in Afghanistan.

Mr. Dalyell

Week after week, some of us listen to the assertions from the Leader of the Opposition that he is enthusiastic for military action against Iraq. Who will take that action in the circumstances?

Mr. Jenkin

I do not think that we are enthusiastic for military action against Iraq, but unlike the hon. Gentleman, we do not think that we should rule out options against Iraq, as that would be contrary to the Government's foreign policy and contrary to the interests of the free world.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

The hon. Gentleman has said that he is in favour of joint exercises. Is he in favour of Britain continuing the joint exercises that have taken place in the United States with the Israeli air force and the Americans?

Mr. Jenkin

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman address that question to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I personally think that Israel is not a rogue state in the same category as Iraq, and it is a mistake to try to pretend that it is a case of six of one and a half a dozen of the other.

Skill fade inevitably occurs when units are on operations, particularly peacekeeping operations, because they cannot maintain their training for their assigned roles back home. They cannot train on tanks or artillery if they are peacekeeping. That shows how overcommitment can directly degrade fighting capability.

The Secretary of State addressed many of the questions that he was asked about the Territorial Army. With the Government now seemingly scaling back their plans for the size of the Army, we must not forget that they have also cut the Territorial Army by 18,000 men. That move never made any sense, especially as the TA provides a valuable avenue of recruitment for the Army and, in supporting the regulars, can relieve some of the effects of overstretch.

I was somewhat heartened to hear that the Secretary of State said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph that, in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on America, he was glad that the TA had not been fully cut from its previous strength of 56,000 to the 41,200 set by the defence review. Although I was pleased at his apparent conversion, I am afraid to tell him that the TA is, in fact, well below its SDR target. Perhaps he can tell us today whether he has plans to increase the TA's establishment. If not, can he at least clarify his position?

Another important factor in retention is the standard of service accommodation. Following the sale of married quarters by the MOD to Annington Homes in 1996, the Conservatives gave a commitment to service families that their quarters would be upgraded to grade 1 condition by autumn 2003. Some £470 million of the £1.6 billion proceeds of the sale was allocated for that purpose. However, pressure on the defence budget has forced the MOD to delay the upgrade programme by two years, until 2005.

Bob Russell

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the rushed sale by the outgoing Conservative Government, which raised £1.7 billion, represented good value for money? Does he think that, out of that £1.7 billion, only £100 million was sufficient to upgrade the housing stock?

Mr. Jenkin

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is a shame that the Government did not honour the commitment that we made before we left office, and that they have scaled back the commitment to the development of the defence housing stock. The Army Families Federation has said that soldiers are driven to leave the service by intolerable living conditions, so I would be grateful if the Government could report to the House on the progress being made in upgrading service housing.

The Pay 2000 initiative has worthy roots but unfortunately, it is also proving a source of resentment. Strange discrepancies have been thrown up. For example, a farrier in the Veterinary Corps is paid less than a farrier in the Royal Armoured Corps. An explosive ordnance disposal specialist—someone who carries out highly dangerous operations—can be paid less than a chef. I would be grateful if the Minister could pay close attention to those potential problems, as resentment about such cases could become a "pull factor" for many personnel.

There are many other matters that I could raise, such as pensions and defence medical services, but I conclude by saying that I think that the Government agree that people must be at the forefront of their defence policy.

On a positive note, they have implemented a number of good measures to improve service conditions and welfare. I welcome those. In particular, I welcome the guaranteed period of post-operational tour leave to enable service men and women to spend some quality time with their families following an operational deployment. However, I wonder how much that is being respected. Also welcome are improvements to welfare packages on deployment, and financial retention inducements, for fast jet pilots in particular.

All too often, however, despite the Government's warm words, people in the forces feel that they are being given a raw deal. It is not just the official Opposition who say that; service personnel say it themselves. All too often, I hear that morale is lower than it has ever been. That is why retention is suffering, and why our forces are in the vicious circle of undermanning.

I call on Ministers to pay careful attention to the problems that I have outlined, and, more importantly, to continue their best efforts to do something about them. We wait with bated breath for the Budget, following the Prime Minister's remarks in the House yesterday. However, the words that ring in our ears are those of the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, who said that the strategic defence review was underfunded from the start.

2.52 pm
Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

I shall make a few brief remarks. The subject of military housing has been raised, and although I may be wrong—I do not think I am—I recollect that when the properties were initially sold, the then Secretary of State for Defence was challenged by his then shadow about whether the Government would guarantee the present level of expenditure on maintaining houses. The Secretary of State would not say. If we were to spread the £100 million or so over seven years, providing about £16 million a year, the expenditure on maintenance would be reduced, and that is exactly what the Government of the day did. The previous level of expenditure was not guaranteed. The Government who sold the houses—at a pretty low price, and gaining a pretty small benefit—talked about a figure of £100 million, which was meaningless.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) asked about the figures, and asked why we were still short of however many thousand people. The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) mentioned the figure of 7,000, and that may be accurate; I do not know. The shortfall, in troops at least, has been about 5,000 or 6,000 since the mid-1990s—perhaps even earlier.

No one would disagree that there is a clear correlation between a strong economy and difficulty in recruiting troops. That has been true not only in the post-war era but throughout Britain's history. When there are jobs around it is difficult to recruit, and it is easier to recruit when there is a weak economy.

We need 25,000 people for the services every year. We do have shortfalls, and because of the immense recruitment requirement, a drop of a few per cent. is reflected in very large numbers, which is why—

Mr. Francois

The hon. Gentleman is contradicting those on his Front Bench. They are arguing that recruitment is quite healthy, and on one level they may be right. Recruitment itself is not the problem. The problem is retention—not bringing people into the forces but keeping them there.

Mr. Joyce

I would, of course, hesitate to disagree with my Front-Bench colleagues. Recruitment is extremely successful, and I shall say more about that later, but I also agree with the point about retention. There is a slight shortfall in recruitment, but more than 90 per cent. of the requirement is achieved, and that should be a cause for modest celebration. It is pretty good, given the strength of the economy.

I was reflecting on what the Conservative Government's strategy to improve recruitment had been, and then I suddenly realised. Recruitment is hard if we have a strong economy, so perhaps it was the plan of successive Conservative Chancellors to mess the economy up completely, so as to make it easier for the military to recruit. I suddenly realised that there was a cunning plan—but it was unsuccessful.

Recruitment levels at present are something to be quite proud of, and there have been some successful initiatives, but there is an ongoing trickiness, and it may continue for some time to come. None the less, we should be pleased that we are achieving more than 90 per cent. of our target.

I have raised the issue of ethnic minorities before, and I had the privilege of working briefly at the Commission for Racial Equality, so I know that it thought that the Army's efforts over the last five years had been quite impressive. A doubling of the number of people from ethnic minorities coming through the doors in the last three years is a pretty good result.

I suspect that the new census will reflect the fact that there are far more people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the recruitment zone now, and that will continue. The question is: why is it so difficult to raise those figures even higher? There has to be some responsibility on the other side of the equation now: the wider society, such as schools and so forth, should stress to members of the ethnic minorities the benefits of joining the Army. Ethnic minority communities themselves have to consider more seriously career options in the military and the armed services as a whole.

When I talk to people from ethnic minority backgrounds I sense that they sometimes make the mistake of bracketing the armed services with the police. That is wrong. Whatever reasons there may be for the perceptions about joining the police among people from ethnic minority backgrounds—some of those perceptions may be right, some may be wrong—the armed services are different. The time has come for other bodies—not the Ministry of Defence, but other agencies, schools and ethnic minority leaders themselves—to start to make that distinction and encourage people to join the services.

Until the early to mid-1990s, several different parts of the Army divisions ran 14-week potential officer courses. Most of those were cut—possibly for good reasons, possibly not—in the early to mid-1990s by the previous Government. There was probably a cost-benefit analysis.

To a certain extent, those courses at least represented some kind of positive action. Some people were quite talented and capable of being good officers, but may have been missing in one or two respects, so they were given an extra course, after which they could go to the Regular Commissions Board, and by then many of them had been brought up to standard.

In the Army today, at the Adjutant-General's Corps centre at Worthy Down in Winchester, there are two courses that have such an effect. One is the pre-RMAS course and the other is the potential officer development course. Both are excellent, and they are probably the last courses that are vaguely akin to positive action. The main difference is that, unlike what happens with positive discrimination—which would, of course, be unlawful—people have to be brought up to the required standard and are then tested with their peers. If they do not come up to the standard then, they are not accepted.

It seems to me that there might be scope for some linkage of those courses with the under-representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds. I wonder whether, in a course such as the pre-RMAS course, there would be scope for encouraging more such people. The Minister might like to say something about that when he sums up.

My final point has been brought to my attention by a couple of my constituents, ex-service personnel, who have come to me over the past year. Other Members with more experience than I may have come across the subject more often. Some areas have fewer council houses than others. Mine has a large number. In some parts of the country council houses are disappearing altogether. In Glasgow they will all go; in Birmingham they will not. For the moment, at any rate, there are 22,000 in the council area that I serve.

Historically, when people left the services they were given extra points that enabled them to be pretty well guaranteed a council house. That does not seem to happen now. It is no longer the case with my council, and I am not sure whether it is in other parts of the country. That is one modest idea that the Ministry of Defence could pursue. We could raise awareness among councils. Ultimately, it is a policy issue for the councils themselves, but in terms of resettlement, it is an idea that we could helpfully press. I am only mentioning it briefly, but the Minister may want to comment on it in his summing up.

2.59 pm
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I associate myself with the Secretary of State's remarks concerning Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and her association with the armed forces, and with his commendation of all the members of the armed forces who played such an important role in the funeral on Tuesday. I watched it from the House, as I am sure many hon. Members did, and it was a remarkable ceremonial. Our forces performed their duty with great honour and dignity. They were a credit to the armed forces and this country, and indeed to the monarchy.

I thank the Secretary of State for the conversations that I have had with him over the past few days concerning Turkey and the deployment of 45 Commando in Operation Jacana. We welcome the news that Turkey is taking over. We understand the reasons for the slippage. We believe that it is better that the international security assistance force and Operation Jacana should be seen through to the end. It is important that the gains that have been made so far are secured.

Although I totally understand the need not in any way to give details of the rules of engagement, I hope that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will assure the House when summing up that arrangements between our forces and the Pakistani forces for areas on both sides of the border will end as much as possible its crossing by al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels.

I enjoyed the speech of the Conservative defence spokesman, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin); it was very good. I was especially interested in his apparent lack of enthusiasm, compared with that of the leader of his party, on any action in Iraq. I read a pamphlet written by the Leader of the Opposition, "A Race Against Time", which states: a regime change is highly desirable and should be accomplished swiftly…There should be no doubt: Saddam must go".

Mr. Jenkin

Of course there is no difference between me and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I agree with him that a regime change in Iraq is desirable—and the swifter the better. We support the Prime Minister; does the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Keetch

I am very glad that there is no difference between the hon. Gentleman and the leader of his party. The Liberal Democrats have made our position absolutely clear. If there is to be any action against Iraq, it must he taken by the international community under proper United Nations authority—[Interruption.] Conservative Members should curtail their excitement over the validity of my speech. If there is real and definable evidence, of course we would not rule anything out, but we certainly do not have the apparent enthusiasm of some to commit our forces around the world willy-nilly.

I am glad to have this opportunity to debate armed forces personnel. Many facets of Britain's defence policy require debate in this Chamber, but it is surely of paramount importance that we discuss the men and women who put their lives on the line in the defence of this nation. Members of the armed forces are the greatest resource that we possess, not just for the defence of our nation but for the protection of the ideals that we hold so dear. As has been said by Members of all parties, we must look after them properly. I suggest that the care that we take in looking after our armed forces personnel is at the very heart of the problems that we are debating: overstretch, recruitment and retention.

I for one welcome the recruitment initiatives that the Government have already taken. If they help to bring the manning levels in the services back up to those required, they are to be supported. I fear, however, that it is simply not possible to solve the problems of undermanning with a few recruitment agency initiatives. Our armed forces require better conditions and a greater understanding of their modern needs and those of their families. We must remember that even a significant increase in the rate of recruitment to the armed forces cannot replace the years of experience that are lost every time a long-serving member leaves.

On 1 January this year, the shortfall in trained strength stood at 6,059 in the Army, 2,189 in the Royal Navy and 1,149 in the Royal Air Force. However, it is in the specialist areas which the Secretary of State mentioned that the problem is greatest. For example, critical shortages in the defence medical services have been well publicised. There is an 81 per cent. shortfall in deployable accredited surgeons and an 80 per cent. shortfall in deployable accredited anaesthetists. There are also dramatic shortages of nurses in the armed forces. There is a 95 per cent. shortfall in burns and plastics nurses and a 75 per cent. shortfall in accident and emergency nurses, and there are only about half the number of nurses required for general nursing duties.

It is of course the case, as the Secretary of State and the Minister of State would argue, that many of those shortages had already occurred by the time they came to power. The cuts made by the previous Conservative Administration certainly left a legacy, but I can reveal today as a result of responses to questions that I have asked that there is a tremendous gap in our reserve medical services as well.

Our reserve medical reserves are widely used to plug the gaps in the regular defence medical services. The regular Army has only three field hospitals, but such is the shortfall of trained staff that currently only one and a half field hospitals could be deployed using regular forces. To staff the three that would be required, reservists and ex-service personnel with what is known as recall liability would need to be added.

The Territorial Army is supposed to be able to provide 11 field hospitals to support the regular Army. The defence medical services strategy for the future, which was proudly launched in 1998, said: A significant SDR announcement was that an extra 2,000 TA personnel would be assigned to the Army Medical Service. I ask the Minister of State: where are those 2,000 extra personnel?

TA Army medical service manning is even more appalling than regular manning: 201 field hospital, for example, is 34 per cent. undermanned. It has a 90 per cent. shortfall in medical consultants. It has no radiology or pathology consultants, and no neurosurgical nurses either. 202 field hospital is 53 per cent. undermanned, with no anaesthetics consultants, no radiographers and no burns nurses.

Such figures make depressing reading. Current reservist manning would limit the Army to approximately only two of the 11 TA field hospitals that it is supposed to deploy. So—from a strategic defence review target of 14 deployable field hospitals, we could muster only five at a push. It is no wonder that the Army now relies on the medical services of our allies when we deploy overseas. It may not be long before these shortfalls mean that we have to say no to certain missions because we cannot provide the medical support that our troops require.

I invite the Minister to comment on the primary casualty receiving ships that were promised in the SDR. The DMS strategy for the future promised that two new ships with a capacity of 220 beds each would be available by 2005 and that they would be purchased under the private finance initiative. However, we are now told that the Chief of the Defence Staff has been advised that the in-service date for one of the ships has slipped from 2005 to 2007, and that the need for the second ship is being assessed in line with further operational analysis I should like the Minister to comment on when that will be announced, when the slippage will occur and when it will be reviewed. Can we be convinced that "operational analysis" is not simply Treasury-speak for financial analysis?

I welcome the quinquennial review of the medical services, but it is unfortunate that we should again have to remind the Secretary of State, Ministers and other hon. Members of the serious shortages in the defence medical services. However, it is not in that specialist element alone that there are shortages. We also have figures for REME—the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

The figures reveal, for example, that vehicle electricians—those men and women charged with the repair and modification of electrical components on most Army vehicles—are 34 per cent. undermanned. Mechanics are 23 per cent. under strength, and even armourers, who are responsible for inspecting many pieces of weaponry, are 21 per cent. under strength. Such shortages have a direct impact on our frontline capability.

All those figures are unacceptable, and everything possible must be done to remedy them, as I am sure everyone in this Chamber would agree. Such specific shortfalls when combined with overall shortfalls in manning will have a direct impact on the lives of ordinary members of the armed forces. They can mean that some soldiers will be used too much, and others even sometimes used too little, so the optimal interval between tours can slip dramatically.

The SDR suggested that our forces should have at least a 24-month interval between tours. But for the parachute regiment in 2000–01, that interval was only 18 months. In order to retain members of the armed forces we must ensure that undermanning does not have a negative impact on their lives and those of their families. I have commented before on the danger of developing two-tier armed forces—those units that are used a lot, such as the green berets and the red berets, and others that are not.

Unlike the Conservative party, which may not have been preparing its policies, the Liberal Democrats have recently published a strategic defence review.

[Interruption.] That may produce some hilarity among Conservative Members, but I was pleased that the Secretary of State was able to thank me for the comments and to tell me that much of what we had come up with was Government thinking. It is incumbent on those parties that seek to be in government to have their own policies, not just to gripe at the Government of the day.

What was interesting about our proposals was that not only did we consider the kit required by our armed forces, but we spent a great deal of time considering conflict prevention, weapons control and peacekeeping, and policies related to our armed forces personnel. It is important that Oppositions should be ready to criticise the Government where necessary and to come up with proposals of their own.

We understand that factors affecting recruitment and retention are complicated. As the Secretary of State said, with unemployment low, the services must compete for recruits as never before. Careers outside the armed forces can be attractive to service personnel. In order to make service in the armed forces attractive to potential recruits, quality of life, security of employment, pay, pensions, housing and family issues are vital.

Other influences include the perceived status of service people within the larger community, recognition of service training and qualifications in civilian life, and opportunities for lifelong learning during service. Equipment that might be inadequate to the task and leave our personnel vulnerable, or which is late, will have a debilitating effect on morale and retention.

New proposals on service pensions have been put forward. At a time of morale and retention difficulty, any changes to the current arrangements will need to be handled with great care. Liberal Democrats would not support any measure which was perceived as worsening the pension arrangements for service personnel.

In our response to the new chapter, we have offered the Government a number of proposals to improve conditions for the armed forces. There should be a review of the pay formula used by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, and pay should recognise that service life is more dangerous and less stable and can restrict opportunities for partners to work, so we have suggested that the use of bonus systems should be investigated.

To improve on the learning forces initiative that is beginning to pay benefits, we have suggested that an upgraded individual learning account would give service personnel an entitlement to retraining and, when they leave, much greater opportunities for further and higher education.

Providing high quality unaccompanied and family quarters is also important and we would abolish the march in, march out arrangements for the handover of married quarters and replace them with new contract arrangements to prepare housing for new occupants.

Mr. Gray

Opposition Members have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman's proposals, although they are not exactly rocket science. Has he costed them? Will he tell us precisely how much they will cost the nation and will it be taken out of the penny on income tax which, at least until recently, was the Liberal Democrats' only taxation policy?

Mr. Keetch

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman thinks that the proposals are not rocket science. Indeed they are not, but at least we are putting forward proposals, unlike the official Opposition who seem to have nothing to say besides criticising the Government. If Conservative Front-Bench Members will just contain their enthusiasm for my words a little longer, I shall come to the defence budget in due course.

Liberal Democrats would also review moving and relocation allowances to ensure that the total costs to service personnel are adequately covered. The armed forces should, as far as possible, reflect the society that they serve, as the Secretary of State said. Armed forces personnel may be called upon to risk their lives in the service of their country. We accept that the services must have standards, for example of discipline, that differ from society at large in order to meet the special demands of the military. But no one should be subject to unfair discrimination in relation to pay, discipline, accommodation, other benefits and promotion opportunities.

Despite some small improvements, ethnic minorities still make up only 1.7 per cent. of the armed forces. It is clear that a career in the armed forces does not appeal to the youth of the ethnic minorities in Britain. High-profile initiatives to root out racism in the armed forces are welcome, but Liberal Democrats suggest that outreach and recruitment programmes run by the MOD in the ethnic minority communities should include a drive for cadet membership among young people.

The MOD continues to review the role of service women in the armed forces. Despite significant progress in the number of women serving and in widening the range of jobs open to women, some front-line positions remain closed. Liberal Democrats believe that no post should be closed to male or female personnel provided that they can meet the physical and mental requirements of the task.

Ensuring high standards of welfare for the families of service personnel is central to securing high levels of retention. The reason for departure most cited in the continuous attitude survey for service leavers is the effect on family life. It is therefore imperative for the efficient running of our armed forces that social, educational and recreational facilities for service men and women and their families be actively supported.

We offer our support to the service families taskforce and what it has done so far. We should like to see a service families officer on every base and we should like to see that implemented soon, but we support the Government in what they have done.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned pensions and I should be interested to know whether Liberal Democrat policy is to maintain cost neutrality, as appears to be the Government's policy—or have they not established a position on that yet?

Mr. Keetch

The short answer is yes, we would support cost neutrality.

Yesterday we heard of the proposed action by Kenyan tribesmen in relation to unexploded ordnance left by British forces. The Secretary of State is concerned that yesterday I referred in the media to the role of civil servants. I was wrong to criticise civil servants directly. Civil servants cannot reply and I apologise to them, but I have to say that the suggestion yesterday that a deal might be struck by MOD lawyers is just another round of litigation.

The MOD was taken to the European Court of Human Rights before it would give compensation to gay men and lesbian women who have been wrongly dismissed. The MOD was forced to pay £60 million in compensation to service women obliged to leave the forces on the grounds of pregnancy. We have also heard of the cases relating to equal pension rights for Gurkhas, soldiers who caught malaria in Sierra Leone and the tax on service pensions blunder.

Ministers must realise that there is a difference between being prudent and sensible with resources and being seen by some as an uncaring regime, never assuming responsibility and never saying that one is wrong. It is no wonder that there are acute problems with undermanning in the armed forces when in some cases the public image of the MOD is of an intransigent and unbending organisation that never admits its mistakes. I hope that the Secretary of State will look at the way in which his Department deals with compensation actions, particularly in relation to taking care of our service men and women and their families.

Some of the changes to personnel policy that I have outlined could be made easily while others would require greater expense. With the results of the comprehensive spending review looming, I must add that the Liberal Democrats are committed to maintaining our defence capabilities, even if that means a real increase in defence spending. Improving standards for our armed forces and resolving the crises of overstretch and undermanning are important aspects of maintaining that capability.

It is important to say that a career in the armed forces remains an incredibly attractive and deeply worthwhile option for our young men and women. I am sure that no hon. Member would wish to discourage anyone from pursuing that career, but it is important that any flaws in personnel policy and any possible solutions should be discussed in the House.

In a debate on armed forces personnel, it is right to conclude by saying once again that our armed forces perform an incredibly difficult job with remarkable skill and courage. However, if we are to maintain our capability and the extraordinarily high regard in which our armed forces are held throughout the world, we must ensure that their unflinching commitment to us is matched by our unflinching commitment to them.

3.20 pm
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

I shall focus my remarks on one issue in my constituency: the effect on the personnel at the Clyde submarine base of the decision of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to privatise the warship support modernisation programme. I am hugely disappointed about the implications for Faslane, not least because the decision was taken without a rational basis. The MOD issued a general statement to the effect that there was overcapacity in the four yards, but no effort has been made to define that overcapacity in Faslane. The MOD said that savings of £250 million to £300 million were required, but again, no further insight into how those savings were to be made was put on the agenda.

What has been on the agenda since 1997 is privatisation. The issue has a long history; indeed, after the Government came to office in June 1997, the privatisation of catering services in Faslane was announced. The initiative was known as HMS Neptune.

Along with the trade unions and the work force, I petitioned the then Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, now my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. We realised that savings had to be made, but we asked him and the MOD why they could not be made in-house. The unions and I made proposals at a meeting with him at the MOD. As a result, he overturned the decision proposed by MOD officials and made HMS Neptune in-house. Consequently, we have had target savings every year since.

The trade unions undertook the same exercise this time round, but it was rejected. The experience has been bitter for the work force and for me, especially with regard to the successful prosecution of HMS Neptune and my efforts to ensure that the MOD allowed itself sufficient time to examine the benchmark proposals made by the trade unions in Faslane. I have met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State a number of times to discuss the matter, but to date, I have received no detailed explanation of why the Government are taking this way forward, other than the notion of the £250 million saving. The work force, the trade unions and [accept that continuation of the status quo is not an option. The problem is the manner in which the decision was made and the way in which it was handled.

I am not one of those who say that the Government are arrogant—a notion that has been put abroad. We are not arrogant, but arrogance can certainly be detected in the way in which the MOD has gone about its business in this case. Let me explain. On the weekend of Saturday 23 March, the media trailed the story that there would be 1,000 job losses in Faslane. They did so in Scotland in particular, but also throughout the UK. The story ran the whole weekend, but there was no MOD response and no explanation was given, so it grew legs. No contact was made with the Members of Parliament who had a vital constituency interest. All that was said by the media and across the wires at the weekend was that a statement would be made on Monday.

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

Does my hon. Friend accept that a statement was to be made on the basis of a parliamentary question? The fact that a breach of confidence occurred somewhere in our discussions is not a matter for the Ministry of Defence. If I or any of my colleagues had proceeded to take on the debate before the House had been advised, we would have been criticised as having inspired the leak. I must make it clear to my hon. Friend—I hope that he accepts the sincerity of my remarks—that the decision was taken not to enter the debate over the weekend or to engage with individual Members of Parliament because we were giving due respect to the House of Commons.

Mr. McFall

I accept my right hon. Friend's integrity, having worked with him in a ministerial capacity. However, I do not accept his explanation. The MPs should have been consulted, if for no other reason than to knock down the supposition that 1,000 jobs were at stake. Furthermore, it was disrespectful to make no statement in the House. The loss of 1,000 jobs in the UK is a big issue, especially on a project that has been running for two or three years, and on which MPs, trade unions, the work force and others have been negotiating with the MOD. I see what happened as a mark of disrespect and a discourtesy to the House.

The letter of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, which was produced at 3.30 pm on the day in question, gave rise to further fears, as it was so thin that people could not find the details. It stated: Both the company and naval base management are reviewing levels of employment across all levels of naval base as arrangements bed in. The letter refers merely to "all levels", giving no indicative number or indeed any idea that a number would be set. Neither is any idea given of the phasing of the privatisation or possible job losses—a matter that has a long history.

What happened was a discourtesy to the House and the MPs with vital constituency interests, and also to the work force, whose fears were heightened. I feel that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did not play fair, and I have written to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explaining my position and asking him to seriously consider the matter. Relationships between Departments and MPs need to be much better. At the Faslane base, there was a huge sense of betrayal, as a result of which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows, industrial action was proposed.

People are incensed about the treatment of this loyal and committed work force, who have existed in the area for 40 years. It is shameful that workers are being kept in the dark on the plans to transfer staff contracts to Babcock Naval Services. I suggest that Ministers must address the issue swiftly and clearly. With ministerial approval, for which I thank my right hon. Friend, I am meeting all the trade unions in Faslane on Monday morning. I will meet the naval representatives and, I hope, Mr. John Howie, managing director of Babcock Naval Services.

The meeting is being held not only to assuage the fears of the work force, but to ensure that there is a comprehensive list of questions that must be addressed by the MOD and Babcock Naval Services, and which I want to convey to my right hon. Friend next week. My colleague Jackie Baillie has raised the matter in the Scottish Parliament and has a commitment from the First Minister on retraining and keeping the skills in our area as much as possible. West Dumbarton and Argyll has been an area of comparatively high unemployment over the years, so we can ill afford to lose jobs. We must do everything we can to ensure that there is no employment haemorrhage.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister had a meeting yesterday with the industrial and non-industrial trade union representatives. From what I am told, I believe that the meeting was very helpful, although there is a long way to go. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the trade unions are stepping up their campaign against privatisation and for workers' rights, and laying out a triple challenge to the MOD. First, they ask that the Select Committee on Defence and the Public Accounts Committee scrutinise the proposals. The trade unions have not been informed why their proposal was not acceptable or successful. In the name of decency, that explanation should be undertaken.

The second challenge is to establish proper consultation, so that the trade unions and the work force can challenge the detail of the MOD's plans, rather than simply going along with the MOD's current debriefing proposals. A few months ago, a global savings figure of £250 million was mentioned, but according to a written answer from the Minister of State, that figure is now £300 million. To people who, unlike us, are not privy to detailed information, that seems like a shot in the dark.

The third challenge is that, if privatisation is to go ahead, there must be guarantees for the future of the work force. I am delighted to note that John Coles, chief executive of the Warship Support Agency, will be called before the Defence Committee on 23 April. However, Ministers owe it to workers at the bases to give them the opportunity to participate in the process, and to answer questions, so that fears can be assuaged.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

I share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend, as the Plymouth community also feels that it has not been given full consideration. I appreciate that the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Defence will be looking at the issue, but does my hon. Friend agree that putting all our eggs in one basket is dangerous, particularly if the initiative results in men transferring to—in the case of Plymouth—Devonport Management Ltd.? We may live to rue the day when that happens.

Mr. McFall

Exactly—we need to adopt a very sensitive approach to the issue. In the 1980s, I pointed out that Faslane was a highly sensitive base, and that we need the utmost assurances on security. The work force have been loyal and committed, and no-strike agreements have been established, which ensure that working practices are implemented 365 days a year. Such details must be taken into account, and I suggest that Ministers visit the bases. The Secretary of State has been invited to Portsmouth and Plymouth, and I should be happy to accompany the Minister of State on a visit to Faslane.

A letter to the Faslane work force from John Howie, chief executive of Babcock Naval Services—stating that there will be no significant change in the next year—has to some extent allayed their concerns. If change were to take place almost immediately, it would have a destabilising influence, but why was such information not made available in past few weeks, so that people could understand what lay ahead?

The trade unions have rightly asked for guarantees from the MOD in five areas: pay, conditions, pensions, redundancy entitlements and—importantly—non-compulsory redundancies. The work force should not be sold short, and relationships need to be restored. That is why, with the Minister's permission, I am holding a meeting at the base on Monday morning. Future relationships should be characterised by empathy with workers' interests and concerns; by communication, so that they know about everything that is going to happen as soon as possible; and—last but not least—by gratitude for the work that they have undertaken in the past 40 years in this highly sensitive area.

The need for change is recognised, but we must undertake it in a spirit of co-operation. That is the least that the Government can do to show gratitude to the work force and to the region for 40 years of dedicated service to the naval industry.

3.34 pm
Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

It is entirely fitting that this week, perhaps more than any other, we should debate the role, interests and future of our service men and women. In the past seven days we have seen again how their professionalism and organisation have in many ways put the "great" back into Britain. My only regret is that they do not run the railways.

Of course, those same people have by now returned to their daily duties—to the front line in the United Kingdom and abroad. That front line is now stretched to its limit. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) pointed out, the ranks have declined by nearly 11,000, and since 1997 the number of trained officers has fallen by almost 800. According to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, the Army alone is short of nearly 500 officers and almost 6,000 soldiers. With operational commitments continuing at high levels, that shortfall inevitably puts additional pressure on those who remain. Indeed, as the Secretary of State pointed out at the beginning of the debate, nearly a third of all service personnel are engaged in operational commitments. That figure cannot be sustained in perpetuity.

Other Members have chosen to examine the immediate problem of shortages and the challenge of retaining serving personnel. For my own part, I should like to focus on two other aspects: the quality of life for service personnel, particularly those in single living accommodation, and recruitment and retention for the next generation of service men and women.

Service personnel's quality of life is an essential issue that, in some ways, is as important as pay and pensions. It is important to the Ministry of Defence, because a quality of life that is perceived as good is a vital factor in retaining personnel. However, the quality of service life is even more important to the individual. No one minds working on a difficult, perhaps even dangerous, task, as long as they are looked after properly. The accommodation does not have to be the Savoy; it just has to be somewhere that can be made into one's home. As the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, among many others, has pointed out, service personnel have considerable and continuing concerns about the state of their living quarters, particularly single living accommodation.

The Armed Forces Pay Review Body raised those concerns in 1996, and has continued to do so for each of the past five years. However, its report of this year goes somewhat further, and I shall quote briefly from it: Service personnel continue to stress the damage to quality of life and retention caused by poor accommodation. For Senior NCOs and more experienced personnel, in particular, poor accommodation standards give rise to a strong sense of not being valued by their Service. We found considerable scepticism about the pace of change and a general feeling that much is promised but little delivered…Commanding Officers…were frustrated by the constraints on funding which limited their ability to deliver necessary improvements.

As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I can reinforce that message. One example is Faslane, to which the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) has referred, albeit in a different context. I had the pleasure of visiting Faslane recently and talking to service personnel. Both its service and civilian personnel deserve our congratulations and commendations. It is not an easy site to work on. It is fairly compact, and maintaining high standards is difficult. According to service personnel, to describe much of that accommodation as draughty would be an understatement. In many cases, you can put your fingers in the gap between the window frames and the walls. The heating is inadequate, and you may get hot water today—or not. That is how bad the service is. It is not simply Faslane and other UK bases that are affected; I understand that particular problems exist in Germany.

I am aware that the Government have announced a £1 billion programme, but why will no new beds be provided until 2004, and why will the programme take a further full eight years to complete? When I talk to service personnel, whether through the armed forces parliamentary scheme or more generally, they raise a series of points, and I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of them. Why will there be such a delay between the announcement and actual improvements on the ground that service men and women can see? Does the Minister share their concern that some of that money is being sidetracked into other budgets?

Will the Minister guarantee that essential repairs and maintenance are not being held back in anticipation of the longer-term refurbishment package? That. I think, is known as the sticking-plaster approach. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that any delays are kept to the barest minimum?

Some claim that much delay resides in the Ministry's use of the Government's favourite scheme, best value, to assess the programme, yet the problem with the best value assessment is, of course, that it specifically considers the building element of the budget and excludes other costs such as retention, bonuses and additional special allowances. In that sense, best value fails, because it does not provide a genuine assessment of the total value for money delivered for taxpayers, although it does impose a series of delays that sap the morale of our front-line personnel.

On recruiting future generations to our armed forces, I shall raise a series of questions about the medium and longer terms. Young people no longer expect to have a single job or career. Instead, they look for variety and expect to have a range of experiences throughout their working lives. Some may say that that has always been the case, and it has in the case of the more ambitious, but it is becoming the norm across the range of experience.

Commanding officers tell me that personnel already routinely come to them seeking to leave after perhaps four or five years, not necessarily because of a bad experience or because they do not feel comfortable in service life, but because people of their generation wish to move on. A leading professional firm that I know in the commercial world cannot get younger people to commit themselves to a partnership, because the term required is too long for them, so the problem is not peculiar to the services; however, it represents particular difficulties for them, especially in a tight labour market.

Those changing aspirations, as well as the need to recruit both the numbers needed and the best and the brightest, demand a shift in service thinking and, in particular, their approach to the packages on offer. I recognise that changing those packages could be especially costly to the services, given the fitness required and the training provided compared with that for civilian jobs.

I know that the Ministry is considering those issues, but I say to the Minister that there is a pressing need for a review of the type and character of short-term contracts, not simply in specialisations, in relation to which I believe one is under way, but in general. Indeed, the Government may need to consider whether we shall have to offer future generations significantly greater contractual and financial flexibility than existing recruitment policies allow. In the medium term, there may have to be not simply incremental change, but a potentially radical shift in direction.

In making that shift, one option may be sabbaticals or unpaid leave. I am aware of a number of public bodies that are finding that the most popular unpaid benefit among those aged up to about 35 is being able to take six or 12 months out of work. People will work long hours and they will work hard, but they now want the flexibility to use their time constructively. It could be argued that, in some ways, given their broader resources, the services are ideally suited to responding to such a demand.

The services may also need to respond to such increased labour fluidity by overhauling pension arrangements. The pension review, which is in hand, has been carefully scrutinised by the Defence Committee, so I do not intend to revisit the arguments, although we need at the very least to create genuine transparency on the contributions made and the benefits on offer.

I suspect that, for the next generation, we shall also have to consider the portability of pensions. Conventional thinking has involved the use of an immediate pension point as a retention tool—usually the age of 40—yet those of the younger generation increasingly have no intention of being in the same job at 40. They will be long gone by then. To put the point briefly, that generation's attitude to careers may make pensions completely redundant as a retention tool. I suggest to the Minister that, in fashioning our pensions policies for the next 10 years or so, we must look forward, not at the present or the past. We must not focus solely on past or current service men and women, and we need to think ahead.

We are fortunate in the calibre and commitment of our armed forces personnel. For those currently in the services, although the Government have recognised the problem of poor accommodation, I say to the Minister that we need action, not announcements. He must surely recognise the benefits for morale and for his retention efforts of being able to show tangible improvements. If he makes improvements and speeds the processes up, there will be real potential to make gains. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman responds to that point.

In reviewing manning policy, we must have a clear understanding of future generations' aspirations and needs. That means being prepared to test whether existing personnel tools will retain those future generations. We must also consider whether the services can get ahead of labour market trends and use their wider social and environmental resources to increase the attractiveness of military life. I believe that that can be done; I hope that the Government have the vision and will to deliver.

3.46 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Through the Minister of State for Defence, I apologise to the Secretary of State for missing the first 20 minutes of his speech. I am not good at punctuality.

My constituency of Walsall, South is built on hundreds upon hundreds of undiscovered mine shafts. Two were discovered recently, and I had to deal with that. There are so many undiscovered shafts that I flippantly suggested that I might tip off the United States air force that bin Laden is hiding in one, so that it would find all the holes.

That is not as fanciful as it sounds, because the Taliban appear to be recruiting far more successfully than the Army in some parts of the country. My idea did not reach fruition, however, as I thought that the consequence of tipping off the US air force would be that I might be referred to as the Member of Parliament for what was formerly Walsall, South. A good idea came to nothing.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) said. However, although I am not being critical, I would take his words more seriously if he did not submit to what I call the Opposition's "year zero" approach—the problems began in June 1997. Almost all the problems that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) described began years and years ago. I am not defending the Government—I spend much of my time doing quite the opposite, although constructively—and I enjoyed his speech, because he used against my Government exactly the same arguments that I used against his between 1979 and 1997.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) was a member of the Defence Committee at that time, and most of those present are either members or former members of the Committee or people who wish that they were members of it. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is a member of the Defence Committee and an Opposition Front Bencher, but I digress. I shall apply to the Leader of the Opposition—the latest example of regime change, which we have heard a lot about—to ask that the Defence Committee receive some of his Short money. He has an enormous reservoir of talent in the Committee to assist the hon. Member for Aldershot in his current role.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. George

I shall be delighted to let my colleague on the Defence Committee intervene.

Mr. Howarth

I am most grateful to the Committee Chairman for giving way. Of course, the Committee is a source of very important information, as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) also made clear to me the other day when he said, on hearing that I was to stay on the Committee, that that was absolutely excellent. While I find it an important source of information, I assure the Committee Chairman that I have other extremely valuable sources of information.

Mr. George

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife was also a spokesman and a member of the Defence Committee until he found that the work load became so enormous—he was responsible for defence and foreign affairs—that he jacked it in. I suggest that the hon. Member for Aldershot looks at the attendance list for that year, which shows that the strain is considerable. The difference is that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife represents the Liberal Democrats, who are not yet the official Opposition.

Let me turn to the hon. Member for somewhere near the SAS headquarters—that is an internal debate for the hon. Member for Hereford. I was delighted that the hon. Gentleman referred to a document of which I was hitherto unaware, namely a mini SDR produced by his mini party. I must confess that I was forced to stifle my mirth when I realised that it was grossly unfair—the official Opposition appear to be negative; it is not their job, we heard today, to present positive policies.

We would like very much to invite someone along to give evidence to the Defence Committee. I hope that the author will come along, and no doubt the hon. Member for Hereford will come along with him.

Mr. Keetch

If that is a serious invitation, my noble Friend Lord Roper, who chaired the committee along with Air Chief Marshal Sir Tim Garden—they are the main architects of it—would be more than happy to come to the Defence Committee. It is important that parties throughout the House should come before Select Committees and give their views. I should be more than happy to do so on behalf of my party, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will extend his invitation to the Conservative party.

Mr. George

The Conservative party already attends the Defence Committee, so it would be superfluous to invite another Conservative Member to appear before us. I merely have to turn to my right and the Conservative party is there. However, I shall approach my colleagues on the Committee because it is important that, in due course, the Liberal Democrat party should respond to questions. I promise the hon. Gentleman that, if my colleagues agree, we shall arrange that invitation.

I wish to make a small remark to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton and other colleagues interested in the Warship Support Agency. The Defence Committee visited Faslane, Coalport and Rosyth. We met trade union officials there and in London, and we are aware of the arguments. The Defence Committee has arranged three sittings to consider the matter. The chief executive of the Warship Support Agency and the Chief of Defence Procurement will attend our first sitting on 25 April; the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Equipment Capability) will attend our second sitting on 1 May; and the Minister for Defence Procurement will attend our third sitting on 8 May. That provides us with ample opportunity to explore the reasons for the decision. As the Committee has a strong maritime component, it would be profoundly unwise to take sides. Both the private and public sectors are equally well represented, but at least it is within our remit to explore the rationale for the decision and to see whether it was the correct one to make.

I should have said that I was sorry that the hon. Member for Hereford, excluding the SAS headquarters, could not be with us on our trip to Afghanistan because of the parlous state of his party's finances. A seat was available for him and I hope that the next time that we travel away, so long as, as was said in a newspaper, it is within striking distance of easyJet or Buzz, he will be prepared to join us. Perhaps he should have done what the spokesman for the Opposition did: while the Defence Committee, I am embarrassed to say, travelled club class, the Opposition spokesman slummed it behind and paid a fare that cost infinitely less than ours. We shared accommodation that was not of the finest quality and I apologise to him for drowning out the sound of the generator with my snoring. Perhaps that was the real reason why the hon. Member for Hereford did not come, rather than the bogus reason—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman must now address his remarks to the armed forces personnel.

Mr. George

I am sorry. Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that talking about a future Defence Minister—although perhaps not in the case of the hon. Member for Hereford—would fall within the remit of armed forces personnel, but I willingly refer to a more serious side of my presentation.

The Defence Committee produced an excellent report—the Second Report for the 2000–01 Session, entitled "The Strategic Defence Review: Policy for People"—in which we spent a great deal of time considering the issues that we are discussing this afternoon. We said: The United Kingdom's Armed Forces are acknowledged to be amongst the best"— we should have said the best"— in the world. It may be a truism to say that their quality depends vitally on the volunteers who constitute this country's Armed Forces, but it is a truism which is worth repeating.

We are able to say regularly how good our armed forces are—and they truly are. When one sees them in operation and on ceremonial occasions, as we did a few days ago, their magnificence and competence is unrivalled. However, this is not a toy army. We could put members of Group 4 or Securicor in nice uniforms and teach them how to march, and they could march effectively, but the men and women we saw a few days ago can not only take part in ceremonies; they are the same men and women who, a few days hence, could be called upon to do something very different. Their skills are interchangeable—from ceremonial duties to serious war fighting.

A number of hon. Members and the Minister of State saw our armed forces in Afghanistan functioning as supporters of schools, providing ambulances and medical facilities for the people of Kabul, where there are few or none of those facilities, and acting as policemen. They were amazing advertisements for British society and for the British military. Having been on patrol and ridden on the side of a vehicle, I know what it must be like—although as a supporter of Walsall football club I shall never experience it—to be on a bus going through a town after winning a cup final. Such was the incredible popularity of our armed forces, and long may that remain.

In drawing up our excellent report, we had the benefit of meeting service men and women. As a result of my close relationship with the Staffordshire regiment, I went along with two of my colleagues to solicit their complaints. That would normally be a superfluous activity, as soldiers from the black country do not need to be invited to complain; they do so quite naturally. Even in the presence of their officers they were prepared to explain what they thought needed to be done. Housing was one of the issues because many of the houses that the soldiers occupy are owned by the Nomura corporation of Tokyo, Japan, masquerading under the name of Annington Homes, which was sold by the previous Government.

Our report looked at preparing the ground—cadets and voluntary reserve forces. We also considered recruitment—getting the right people and retaining them—the need to look after people and their families, and post-service provision. I urge hon. Members who have not read the report to do so, because it provides the agenda that the Defence Committee is pursuing. High on our agenda is the welfare of the men and women in the armed forces and civil servants in the Ministry of Defence.

The skills of our armed forces personnel have not come from on high, written on tablets of stone. They are not necessarily innate—people are not born to be warriors. Their skills are attained as a result of nurturing, investment and training, which costs money. I listen to Opposition Members calling for an increase in defence expenditure, and I reiterate what I have said many times. Those skills will progressively atrophy without a substantial transfer of resources from the Treasury to the Ministry of Defence over the next three months, six months, 12 months, two years, three years, four years or five years. All of us know that, because we are reasonably knowledgeable on defence matters. Ministers know that, and I hope even the Treasury will come to learn it.

If the Prime Minister wants our armed forces to be deployed in the Falklands, in Sierra Leone, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Cyprus, in Afghanistan and in many other places, he will have to instruct his Treasury team to provide them with the resources that they desperately need, otherwise they will not be able to perform the tasks as efficiently and competently as they have done, are doing and may do for a little while to come, but not for very much longer.

I am proud to have seen our forces in Afghanistan—I see them almost everywhere they are deployed. As the hon. Member for North Essex said, we saw the Royal Anglian Regiment, and we want to express our sadness about the as yet undetermined circumstances in which a young soldier from that regiment died.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

My party and everyone in the House have the greatest sympathy for the man who lost his life and for his family. The speech of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) was excellent, and I hope that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who has an important position in the House, will address the point that it is important that individuals are encouraged to have military experience. Those that have such experience understand and are sympathetic to the military ethos.

Mr. George

I agree entirely. Perhaps it was from a response to one of the thousands of questions put by my colleague on the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), that I learned that 45 per cent. a people who fly in the Royal Air Force emanate from the various flying organisations people can join during their youth. May I digress slightly? No, I will not do so, as I have just looked at Madam Deputy Speaker.

Yesterday, in the Defence Committee sitting on requirements post-11 September, we asked witnesses whether they felt any resentment that the armed forces were wandering around towns and countryside doing what may have been construed as non-military tasks. In a crisis, would people object to the military performing tasks such as those performed by the armed police of the City of London operating within the ring of steel after the bombings in the City a few years ago? People had no hostility to that, because the days when a uniform—a red coat—sent shivers of anxiety and terror down people's backs have long since gone. The military are rightly held in the highest esteem. It is important that we sustain that positive assessment.

It is no surprise to us to see United Kingdom forces involved in humanitarian and civil projects. When the Defence Committee went to Kosovo after the conflict in 1999, we saw the British troops there involved in the crucial work of distributing roofing kits and other vital supplies to Kosovars, especially in remote regions that the non-governmental organisations could not reach. That enabled the people to endure a difficult winter. That is not a peripheral role. If such missions are to achieve the aim of bringing peace and stability in areas of conflict, the local population need to see the benefits to and improvements in their daily lives quickly so that the momentum and motivation for peace is maintained.

In Afghanistan we visited a school. Not all of us wanted to go there, but that was the option presented to us. As it turned out, it was a wonderful experience. As the Minister knows, I would have preferred to go elsewhere, but perversely I am glad that I went to that school. It was not a school that Mr. Nigel de Gruchy would have liked to see. Some 3,000 children were enrolled, and four or five rooms had been constructed from shattered buildings—they had been shattered not by the Taliban but in the civil war that preceded the Taliban's unfortunate rise to power.

Much of the money for the school was provided by the Department for International Development and it was helped by British troops, wonderful Finnish troops, and a local business man and builder. There were many girls at the school, whereas before females would not have been seen within hundreds of yards of it. Teachers were not wearing the burka. That is an example of the improvements now being made in Afghanistan. It is important that our armed forces are able to play a critical role not just in hearts and minds campaigns, but in showing people that the presence of British, Finnish and German forces in places such as Afghanistan can be to their benefit.

We are justly proud of the ability of the British armed forces to deploy quickly and lightly, as they did in Afghanistan. That capability is almost unique among our allies, so it most frequently falls to the UK to undertake such deployment as part of multinational operations. The willingness of our forces to live out of kit bags and to dig trenches for latrines does not mean that we should expect them to live in primitive conditions for months on end, especially when our allies then deploy with equipment and facilities that our troops view with considerable envy. I recall from Defence Committee visits to Kosovo the problems in moving our forces out of tents and into more weatherproof and suitable accommodation. We must ask whether we are properly equipping our forces for the expeditionary deployments that they are now undertaking as a matter of routine.

We do brilliantly to get our people in quickly, but how we develop our set-up over the ensuing few months needs more attention. Multinational operations have many benefits, but they give our forces the opportunity to compare their kit with that of their counterparts from other countries, and that comparison is not always in our favour.

I shall not spend any time on the deployments of the Royal Marines, who are in a dangerous part of the world. As always, they will discharge their responsibilities with incredible competence and bravery. The Defence Committee is concerned about operational tempo. All the UK personnel whom we met in Kabul told us that they were delighted to be involved in the mission, and regarded it as an extremely valuable experience. What is more difficult for them and their families, especially the engineers and the logistic units, is that this latest deployment follows on from deployments to deal with the foot and mouth crisis this time last year and the weapons-gathering mission in Macedonia last summer. It was important to them that, when they return to the UK, they are given sufficient down-time to spent with their families and to undertake necessary training before they are asked to go on another deployment.

That message is not new, but the more missions we take on around the world, the more difficult it becomes to allow our troops time to take leave and to train. We must ensure that we do not ask them to do too much. Their positive attitude to the harsh conditions that they endured when they arrived in Kabul, and the success they have achieved so far in very difficult circumstances, should impress everyone; but we should not jeopardise that commitment and success by imposing too many demands on them.

Because we still have forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, and because our leadership of ISAF in Afghanistan now seems likely to last beyond the period originally envisaged—or, at any rate, we are likely to be there beyond that period—great care must be taken to ensure that our forces are not stretched too far.

Let me say something about defence medical services and the "year zero" phenomenon. Certainly much remains to be done to improve medical services. I recently wrote an article entitled "Stretcher-case or walking wounded? An assessment of the state of the Defence Medical Services". It was a critical article. Moreover, in 1996 the Defence Committee—which had spent some time examining Defence Costs Study 15—said that the state of our defence medical services had dropped to such a level that we doubted they would ever recover. When those services are being criticised, it is fair to point out that the crisis has not suddenly crept up on us, but has been a long time coming.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

The right hon. Gentleman seems keen to suggest that the Opposition are viewing the debate from a "year zero". Will he confirm that the critical report on a Conservative Government was carried by all members of the Committee, including Conservatives? Does that not suggest that we entirely accept that mistakes have been made?

Mr. George

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I just hope that his willingness to criticise his own party sustains his time on the Front Bench—or, preferably, that his forthrightness will not be tolerated by his colleagues, that they will kick him out, and that he will then devote all the time he has to spend on defence to the Defence Committee. We would welcome his full return with, literally, open arms.

As I have spent nearly all my career in the House of Commons criticising the Labour party in relation to defence, it is a sheer delight for me to be able to endorse almost entirely things that it is doing. [Interruption.] I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for being provoked by the Minister of State into specifying other things that have prompted some dissent. Examples are the reserve forces, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency—although that problem seems to have been remedied—and the defence budget.

Let me say what I think most people here will say. There may be one or two exceptions, but I think the overwhelming majority will agree that we cannot sustain the current level of activity with a budget that is around 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product. One option is to reduce commitments, to cut procurement, and to do what the strategic defence review said would be done—match commitments and resources. Another option is to continue to limp on from one problem to another—I will not say "from one crisis to another"—leading a hand-to-mouth existence, and praying that the Treasury will splatter some additional goodies.

The third option is what I hope will happen. I hope the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will say that the military is one of the most effective and revered institutions in British society today. That status, however, can only remain if the Treasury dips its hand into its bag, brings out some money and gives it to the Ministry of Defence, allowing soldiers to obtain the kit they require and the accommodation in which they deserve to live. Such action would end the present haemorrhaging of personnel.

It is wonderful that we are now employing pilots from New Zealand. I said to the New Zealand high commissioner, in a politically incorrect way, "Thank you very much for allowing us to take your pilots. Is there not some truth in the suggestion that you have pilots and no air force, while we have an air force and no pilots?". That may have been taking the case a little too far, but there was enough in what I said to demonstrate the seriousness of the situation. If we cannot obtain our forces from Walsall, Stafford and Wolverhampton, it may be necessary to turn to countries that have historically provided troops for us in times of war and now, hopefully, in times of peace.

I cannot understand why, given that over the years we have seen an inevitable decline in the number of applicants to the armed forces, we have persistently made cuts in a group of people who must be, if not the best soldiers in the world, among the very best. I refer to the Gurkhas. Perhaps if they were a foot taller the Army would want to recruit more of them. One suspects that the enthusiasm for Fijians and Tongans relates more to their singing ability and ability on the rugby field than to anything else—although I welcome them to the Staffordshire regiment. In any event, if we cannot find the troops we need, is there not still time for us to look to the Gurkhas again? Could they not enhance our capabilities, at least in the short term?

4.16 pm
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh)

It is a privilege to follow the Chairman of the Defence Committee in a defence debate. He may find that I do not agree with everything he said, but he will find that I happen to agree with some of it.

Let me associate myself with the tributes paid by Front Benchers to the role of our armed forces in commemorating Her Majesty the Queen Mother. They did it superbly. I also pay tribute to the ex-military staff of the Palace of Westminster for all that they did to enable so many members of the public to convey their respects in person.

I served in the Territorial Army for some seven years. As an ex-Royal Anglian, I offer my condolences to the family of a young soldier from that regiment who recently lost his life in Afghanistan. I suspect that the whole House supports me in that.

I wish to raise two specific issues relating to defence personnel. The first is the use of personnel by the Territorial Army; the second concerns overstretch in the regular forces, particularly the Regular Army.

The Government's strategic defence review reoriented Britain's armed forces towards an essentially expeditionary strategy. Commenting on the military situation in the aftermath of the cold war and on the rationale behind the SDR, the then Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson—now Lord Robertson—said: If the war is no longer going to come to us, then we may have to go to the war". However, the events of 11 September showed graphically that the war could still come to us or our allies, perhaps in ways we had least expected. In the light of those events, the recent new chapter of the SDR asked for suggestions on, inter alia, how the reserve forces might be able to contribute to the new scenario following the attack on the twin towers.

I believe that TA personnel could play an important role in defending the country against terrorist attack. That does not just mean manpower for the static guarding of sites. I do not think that the TA would want to be solely assigned to that, and I see that the Minister agrees. In fact, it goes much wider.

Let us envisage for a moment the rather unpalatable scenario of a concerted asymmetric attack on the United Kingdom, in which a considerable number of civilians were killed or injured by attacks on public buildings and transport networks through the use of chemical and/or biological weapons. In the event of such an attack, and the media hysteria that would inevitably result, there would be a pressing need for large numbers of trained troops to give protection and reassurance to the civilian population to allow some semblance of normality to continue. The Regular Army is too small to provide such protection on its own; besides, it will always be partially deployed overseas—for reasons that have already been thoroughly discussed this afternoon.

Mr. Swayne

Does my hon. Friend recall the Brave Defender exercises that took place once every two years during the late 1980s and which rehearsed with both Regular and Territorial Army forces the very scenario that he described?

Mr. Francois

I certainly do remember that. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I also recall that the Territorial Army performed admirably in those exercises.

In the type of scenario that I outlined—unpalatable though it may be to think about—a revamped and retrained Territorial Army could help to fill the gap as regards the lack of manpower. It could provide units specifically trained to deal with homeland security and to give first aid to chemical and biological casualties.

I urge Ministers actively to consider the possibility of bringing back several of the infantry battalions that were culled during the SDR and optimising them for such tasks. In addition, given the inherent flexibility of military units, other elements of the TA, such as those with basic nuclear, biological and chemical training, could also have utility, without detracting from their other specialist roles—for example, as engineers or signallers.

To put things bluntly, if a concerted attack was launched on the civilian population of the United Kingdom, we should need many more trained troops than we have at present. At one fifth to one eighth of the cost of a Regular soldier, TA personnel offer a cost-effective way of providing those extra troops. I hope that that point will not be lost even on the hard-nosed men of Her Majesty's Treasury.

I look forward with interest to the outcome of the consultation on the new chapter of the SDR. In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State intimated that we might see the conclusion of that process in the early summer. I hope that it will include a proposal to give an enhanced role to an enlarged Territorial Army.

Patrick Mercer

Has my hon. Friend given any thought to the resurrection of the Home Service Force?

Mr. Francois

My hon. Friend has touched on that point on other occasions, including during a debate in Westminster Hall. The Home Service Force, which mainly existed in the 1980s, was used primarily for the defence of important key targets. The two forces are not incompatible.

I also want to consider the wider subject of overstretch, as its effect on retention is serious. As I noted in an intervention, I accept that the Ministry of Defence has made strenuous efforts on recruitment, and that even during a buoyant economy, its measures have met with some success. However, the real problem is not recruitment but retention. The critical numbers are the net inflow and outflow of armed forces personnel—in other words, the relationship between recruitment and retention. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) pointed out from the Dispatch Box, the figures show clearly that there is a continuing net outflow of trained personnel from all three services.

In fact, the situation is even worse than the bare figures suggest, because those who are leaving are experienced—especially officers and NCOs—but they are being replaced by raw recruits. Even with all the enthusiasm in the world, a raw recruit cannot make up for the 15 years or so of experience, accumulated at great public expense, which is lost when a senior NCO leaves the Army. Indeed, if the Defence Analytical Services Agency could calculate the net outflow figures in terms of years of military experience, there would be an even starker picture than that revealed by the bare numbers.

Why are experienced personnel leaving in such numbers? One important factor is obviously tour intervals, particularly in specialist units that are in high demand. For young, single people the forces provide a wonderful life, but once soldiers take on family commitments things become much more complicated. The days are long gone when partners—many of whom now have careers in their own right—blithely followed the flag.

A simple summary of the "why people leave" syndrome would be as follows. A junior NCO in the Army, perhaps married and with small children, is posted abroad for six months without his wife and family on a so-called "unaccompanied tour". His wife is left without her husband for half a year and misses him badly.

A few months after his return his unit is posted to a new location and his family are expected to follow him. His wife has to give up the part-time job that she has obtained locally. She may have difficulty in finding another one and that creates money worries for the family. They also find that the quarters that they have been allocated are in need of repair. While they are trying to sort that out with the not always highly efficient Defence Housing Executive, they face the challenge of getting their eldest child into a local school that is already heavily subscribed by parents who already live in the area—as indeed are the dentists and GP services with whom they also try to register.

In the midst of all those problems, the NCO is given a warning order that he is again being posted abroad on another unaccompanied tour. While he is away he spends a good part of his limited telephone allowance listening to the legitimate concerns of his wife and, incidentally, being told that her mother was right all along when she told her not to marry a soldier in the first place.

The next time that the NCO is posted away at short notice, he returns to find that his wife has had enough: she has already mentally left the Army and will brook no further argument. She presents him with a stark choice: "It's the Army or me and the kids." If he chooses the Army, we retain him—but society has another broken family to deal with. If he chooses his family—for wholly admirable reasons—he is lost to the Army.

I have used the Army as an example, but the problem is similar in the other services. The armed forces personify the meaning of "no-strike agreement". Ultimately, they face a stark choice: they can put up with all that I have described or vote with their feet and leave. Crucially, experienced personnel increasingly choose option B.

What is the answer? One solution would be radically to reduce commitments, to allow for much greater stability and fewer tours—especially unaccompanied tours at relatively short notice. However, if that is currently impossible for foreign policy reasons—it would appear that, at least for the present, the Government are arguing that case—the alternative is to take measures that meaningfully improve the quality of life for service personnel and their families so that, even given all the pressures, they will not want to leave the Army. That means taking action such as increasing the time during which soldiers who are abroad can communicate with their families at home. I take the point about the 20 minutes of phone calls and electronic blueys—I accept that Ministers are trying, but they need to do much more about that.

We must accelerate improvements to the housing stock and we must markedly improve the repairs service. Sometimes, partners are most upset by the niggling things. When they have spent three months trying to get a window mended or a shower fixed and have been on the phone about it to their husbands abroad, it is no wonder that they believe their Government and their Ministry of Defence do not really care about them.

We need to improve the warning time for moves on the tour plot, so that families can plan properly. The Secretary of State made some reference to that in his remarks and it is only fair that we welcome it. There must also be special arrangements to improve access to schooling when soldiers relocate to avoid the chicken and egg dilemma that they cannot get a school place until they have a new address, but by the time they have an address all the places in decent schools have gone. We need to pay more attention to practical, nitty-gritty, everyday detail, but we must also spend money—a lot of it—on retention-related measures so that people will not continue to leave for the sake of their families. If the Government wish to pursue an activist foreign policy, they must provide the resources to do that. That includes providing resources for looking after the people whom they expect to do the fighting and, in extremis, the dying for them. If they carry on like this, within a few years, Ministers will face the prospect of issuing orders to deploy Regular units that are so hollowed out that they have effectively ceased to exist.

If we really care for our service men—we have all said this afternoon that we do—we must somehow find the resources to underpin our words and give them practical effect. When we are wrestling with these issues, I would humbly remind the House that it is the first duty of the Government, above all others, to ensure the defence of the realm. Our history shows repeatedly, ad nauseam, that we forget that vital lesson at our peril.

4.30 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The purpose of this contribution is to raise one subject and one subject only, which is this: what on earth are we now getting into in Afghanistan? It does not matter at all that some of us thought we should not have gone in in the first place, and that the way to deal with the situation was by intelligence and, frankly, by bribery. That is the past, and we are in a here and now situation.

We have a choice this spring or summer. Either we bring it to an end, or we reconcile ourselves to something that may be unpalatable and uncomfortable; a long-term commitment in Afghanistan, certainly for my lifetime and probably for the lifetime of the youngest among us. There is an awkward fact—the Taliban have not gone away. Members of the Taliban, I am informed, are sitting sipping tea in the tea houses of Peshawar across the Pakistan border. I am not sure that there is even a border, which I gather is very elastic and permeable. People go to and fro and there is not much supervision of the border.

In those circumstances, it may be that they are just biding their time, as they always did. If I had a personal interest to declare, it would be that the bones of some of my relatives are somewhere to be found in Afghanistan as a result of what happened in the century before last and at the turn of the last century. The whole history of the British among these people is a pretty sad one. The truth is that the Pashtun adore fighting. It is what they are about, and what they live for. The idea that they have gone away is, I fear, fanciful.

Jim Knight (South Dorset)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Father of House for giving way to me, and I intervene on him with great respect. I was one of the party that went to Kabul. Does he accept that the presence of our armed forces in Kabul as part of the ISAF mission has had a positive effect on the local population? On the streets, we were told that they were rejoicing because they had peace and security in their city for the first time for decades. Markets were opening and women were walking about without their burkas on. These are positive developments of civil society.

Mr. Dalyell

There is no substitute in this House or elsewhere for first-hand information and I certainly respect that view. In a sense, I hope that my hon. Friend is right and that somehow it has solved a situation. But is that true outside Kabul? I have not been to Afghanistan, but I have been to Iran, its neighbour. That gives me a perspective. One wonders how long the commitment will last, and I would like an assessment from Ministers with regard to what my hon. Friend and I have said.

On 20 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said that the action that the international community has taken has been remarkably successful. As I said on Monday, Afghanistan is now a very different country. The decision to deploy considerable military force against the terrorists and their supporters has been vindicated. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network have been dealt a heavy blow. They have been dealt a heavy blow maybe, but the leaders have not been found. My right hon. Friend continued: The Taliban regime, whose support was so vital for al-Qaeda is no more. That was on 20 March. On 11 April, are we quite so sure that the Taliban regime is no more? There must be comment on the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) and, indeed, on the qualms of some of the rest of us.

Harry Cohen

The nation-building in Afghanistan has to be done, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that it is a costly, difficult and lengthy process. Does he agree that it would be foolhardy for this country to try to do that nation-building in two countries simultaneously: Afghanistan and, for example, Iraq?

Mr. Dalyell

This is one (if those cases on which I could not agree more: it would be folly, as my hon. Friend and I think, to embark on commitments against Iraq.

I wish to refer to the whole nature of the British involvement. Again on 20 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) asked: Given the fact that when Russia had its troops in Afghanistan, it got a bloody nose and got bogged down, particularly in the mountains, what is the difference now between the two conflicts? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State replied: That is one of the things that I did discuss this morning with the Russian Foreign Minister. [Interruption.] I am amazed that the Opposition find that remarkable. Surely it is vital that we should discuss the situation in Afghanistan…the difference is the way in which the Soviet Union tried to deal with Afghanistan—largely by occupying ground, which obviously made it vulnerable to attack, whereas the whole purpose of the operation we are discussing today is to ensure that in swift search-and-strike operations, we remove any threat".—[Official Report, 20 March 2002; Vol. 382, c. 333–36.] What I wonder is: can we remove any threat without occupying ground?

I undertook, as is my wont, to be short. My question to be answered in the winding-up speech is this: what is the Government's thinking on the timing of the Afghan operation? Do they think, as I do, that there is an either/or situation? When we give way to the Turks, do we make it clear that Britain does not follow the Turks, and that perhaps someone else—or no one else—does? Or do we face up to what may be the horrendous obligation of being in Afghanistan for the lifetime of the youngest among us? That is a question that at least must be addressed, as it is vital in terms of our commitments on service personnel and the future of the deployment of personnel, which is what the debate is about.

4.39 pm
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)

It is a great pleasure to follow the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). I declare an interest as, since 1981, I have been a member of the defence medical services, first as a regular member of the Royal Navy and now as a member of the Royal Naval Reserve.

In March, the Secretary of State announced that 45 Commando would be deployed to Afghanistan—about 1,700 people. At about that time also the Czechs announced that they were deploying a field hospital to that theatre of operations. It is poignant to note that we can provide only four field hospitals out of a requirement of 14. Our men and women are willing and able to put themselves in the line of fire but in return they expect us to ensure that, if the worst comes to the worst, there is the wherewithal to ensure that they are treated adequately. Given the present state of the defence medical services, I fear that we cannot give them that commitment.

Sierra Leone demonstrated that we are not only falling short in offering field hospitals, but woefully inadequate at ensuring that people are fit and able to be deployed in the first place. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that on this occasion our troops are fit in all respects.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

Although I am not replying to the debate, the defence medical services are my responsibility. There were mistakes made when the regiment deployed to Sierra Leone, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they have been taken on board. Nowadays nobody is deployed who has not had their vaccination and health status properly checked.

Dr. Murrison

I thank the Minister for that reassurance.

Indifference to military medicine in the near east has caused Governments real problems in the past and I fear that the Government might be heading for problems in this theatre. It is now 60 years since McIndoe pioneered his important surgery on Spitfire pilots and it is salutary to remind the House that the defence medical services has three burns specialists against a requirement of 11. Particularly in this theatre of operations, we should remember that we do not have dedicated chemical warfare medical specialists. Fortunately the Czechs do—indeed they are renowned for that area of expertise—and that may be one reason why they are deploying to Afghanistan. They are very welcome indeed.

A Ministry of Defence source recently said: If any of Our Boys die because the medical help they needed wasn't available, it will be like someone in Whitehall helping an al-Qaeda sniper pull the trigger. That is emotive and graphic, but the buck stops with the Government and although we have heard some facetious remarks about 1997 and year zero, the Government cannot shelter from their responsibility in this respect. They are responsible for ensuring that the defence medical services and the field hospitals on the ground are up to the task of protecting our service men in a particularly dangerous theatre of operations.

On 10 February, on the BBC's "On the Record", the Secretary of State said: We are operating at the limits of our capability. Those strong words gave us some insight into what is actually happening in terms of overstretch. Since then, troops have been deployed to the middle east in the largest numbers since the Gulf war. Taking the Secretary of State's comments to their logical conclusion, he is saying that we are overstretched. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on that in his reply. Words mean what they say. In February, we were operating at the limits of our capability. Where are we now?

This week the Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Army Medical Corps was laid to rest. The Queen Mother took a special interest in defence medicine and it is fitting that we should discuss it here today as part of this important debate on defence personnel.

No doubt we will hear that recruitment into the defence medical services has improved. It has improved slightly, but the difficulty lies with the retention of staff and in that respect, we have real problems. The Royal Army Medical Corps needs 882 officers. At the moment it has 661. If we drill down further, the picture becomes much worse because the problem lies predominantly in the middle ranks, among those who have recently completed their specialist training. It is particularly acute among surgical support teams. For example, there are only 26 anaesthetists—whom we colloquially call gas men—in the defence medical services, when there should be 120. There are 16 general surgeons against a requirement of 44; there are just 10 orthopaedic surgeons against a requirement of 28. The Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps is short of 270 nurses. Florence Nightingale in her alma mater just across the river would have a sense of déjà vu, bless her, particularly when we consider our troops in the near east.

There is some good news, however. The Royal Army Veterinary Corps is very nearly up to strength. I am told that it is short of just two vets. No doubt veterinary manpower will be improved even further given the Government's current assault on the countryside and country pursuits. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Recruitment to the defence medical services is improving, but people are leaving in droves. That suggests that a military career for medics is attractive—people want to join—but at some point they become disillusioned. They become so disillusioned that they are prepared to enter that other cauldron of discontent—the national health service. At a time when service in the NHS also has its problems, people view it as a more attractive option than the defence medical services. That is something of an indictment.

I am a reasonable man and I am certainly not about to pretend that the problems started in 1997. They started well before then. I joined the defence medical services in 1981—more than two decades ago—so I have seen good and bad. The strategic defence review and the implementation of the Lawrence report have made matters a lot worse.

The centrepiece of new Labour's thinking on medical provision for the armed forces is the creation of the Centre for Defence Medicine. I have no objection to the CDM—I thought that it was called Fort Blockhouse in Gosport—but its reinvention in Selly Oak was truly inspirational, even for this Government. It is unloved, it is definitely unmilitary and it is in truth the unsung millennium dome of the west midlands. The forces have been sold a pup. They thought that they were getting something to be proud of; they did not expect to be shunted into an obscure corner of a peripheral hospital. Service men joined the DMS to be part of the action. They want to exist in close approximation to the teeth elements of the armed forces. Those front-line units are concentrated in Hampshire and Wiltshire, not Selly Oak.

Mr. Keetch

I have visited constituents who have received excellent care at Selly Oak. Although the hon. Gentleman may have a view about the closure of Gosport, I hope that he will not conclude his remarks without paying tribute to the nurses and doctors who work at Selly Oak, from whom my constituents received excellent attention.

Dr. Murrison

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that I was criticising the siting of the Centre for Defence Medicine in Selly Oak, not condemning Birmingham hospitals or anything to do with the national health service.

Over the years, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) has been a champion of the Royal Hospital Haslar and rightly so. I had the pleasure and honour of working there when it was the Royal Naval Hospital Haslar. Post DCS15—defence cost study 15—this was promised as the core hospital of the DMS. It is about to shut at a time when France is opening its 15th military hospital. One of us has got it wrong; I wonder which.

The demise of the Royal Hospital Haslar stems from the no longer fashionable view of the medical royal colleges that small hospitals do not have a future because they cannot sustain postgraduate training. I am afraid that that was always an example of the tail wagging the dog. What we expect of our medical establishment is to titrate medical training to address the needs of patients. Clearly, that is not what was happening on this occasion. We now seem to be having a more mature debate of that view of hospital provision. I welcome, for example, the Government's recent stance on the creation of units to cope with cold surgery, particularly orthopaedics, in smaller hospitals and dedicated hospitals. It is perhaps important to remember that orthopaedics is an area in which the DMS has traditionally specialised and excelled, not surprisingly given the youthfulness of its client base.

We hear a great deal about joined-up Government, but, since 1997, this Government have missed a wonderful opportunity by failing to join up Fort Blockhouse, Haslar and Southampton university hospitals. It would have been much better had those three amalgamated, as we must have an amalgamation between the national health service and the defence medical services. It made no sense to break up that very obvious synergy. A great deal of the lack of morale and lack of service ethos in the DMS, which has contributed to a large extent to the reduction in numbers, can be attributed directly to that.

I conclude by issuing a cri de coeur. I think that there is cross-party support for the action in Afghanistan. I seek the Minister's assurance, however, that a full assessment has been made of the casualties that we are likely to take during the operation. That is important, because the country needs to be prepared for what might be in store. I am sure that the Government will have made a full and accurate assessment of the likely casualties, both from hostile fire, and, regrettably, from friendly fire. That is also important from a practical standpoint—that of the provision of medical services to support the casualties that, sadly, we are likely to take. When the Minister winds up, will he comment on whether he can provide us with the reassurance that the defence medical services and the field hospitals deployed in Afghanistan can support the operation on which we are embarked?

4.53 pm
Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I want to make a brief contribution on the MOD's recent decision to put many public servants into the private sector at naval dockyards, and to support the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall). I apologise because, owing to prior commitments, I cannot be present for the winding-up speeches, but I hope that I obtain a response from the Minister then.

My main interest is in the decision that naval dockyard work on the Clyde, including work on nuclear submarines, should be done in a partnership between the Royal Navy and Babcock's. That has implications not just for the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton but for mine, because a substantial number of the workers live there. I am largely concerned about how the decision was announced and especially by the letter that was sent to some hon. Members about it. I was surprised that there was no statement in the House, although I concede that there were troublesome announcements to be made about Consignia and Railtrack on the same day. A statement should have been made because the decision constitutes a significant change of armed forces policy in that a significant number of people who will be responsible for our nuclear submarines at Faslane are going into the private sector.

Failing a statement, it would have been helpful if local Members had received a briefing on the implications of the decision. We could have asked questions that arose from the decision and obtained answers for our constituents. We did not receive such a briefing. There should have been a publication to show that the many concerns about this significant area of policy had been addressed. Instead, like my hon. Friend, I received a letter letting me know the Government's decision. It is interesting that, independently, we reacted in the same way—we felt let down. I did not find the letter as helpful as I would have wished. As the Minister said, the news had been well trailed in Scotland by the trade unions, which made the letter easier to understand as I had had the translation of the letter in advance, but it was not a clear letter.

The letter was not a serious attempt to explain and justify a major change of policy. Its most unsatisfying aspect is that it does not answer the question that we most wanted to be answered. The figures that in the newspapers about job losses varied widely: 500, 750 or 1,000 and so on. The basic information that we would have liked was how many jobs would be lost and when. I shall quote all that the letter says, on what is a major change of policy, about the Clyde. It states: For the Clyde this means that about 1,750 Naval Base civilian posts will transfer to Babcock Naval Services Ltd a newly formed, wholly owned subsidiary of BRDL with around 500 RN staff on secondment. Both the Company and Naval Base management will be reviewing levels of employment across all areas of the Naval Base as these arrangements bed in. That was all the information that we received to cope with the protests that there would be in Scotland, on the Clyde, from constituents. That was what we were equipped with. We did not even have the basic information about how many jobs would be lost—the MOD refuses to say. We have already been told, however, that the whole project for all the yards will save the MOD £300 million. We have also already been told that Babcock's will consist totally of staff—not plant or equipment—and brings nothing to the party. How on earth can Babcock's put in a bill without costing for staff? If the Ministry knows the extent of the savings, it must know what staff savings would be made, so it must know, with some accuracy, how many jobs will be lost. However, it is unwilling to tell local Members and the work force what the figure is. We would understand if the figures that the Ministry gave covered a range.

Babcock's and the Government have agreed not to say how many jobs are involved. What on earth was the business case built on? How could the Government make this statement, which appeared in the letter that I received? They said: these changes will ensure a continuation of the current level of support to the Fleet, maintaining operational capability and with no compromise on safety and security at the Naval Bases. How could that statement have been made in honestly if staffing levels had not been considered and approved?

The lack of openness has led to distrust. Mr. Howie, Babcock's chief executive, made a strange statement to the company's work force when he said: I am certain that the message portrayed by the press of 500 redundancies will have caused a great deal of concern about the immediate future. However, the concern was caused not by the press but by the unwillingness of Babcock's and the Ministry to be open and honest. It seems that the jobs will be transferred to Babcock's, and that many will then be lost, but that the Government will avoid the responsibility. That has not worked as a tactic, and there is great bitterness.

Mr. McFall

In this case, perception is reality, and the trade unions believe that the Secretary of State told them in February that the transfer of jobs to Babcock's had nothing to do with the Government. They therefore feel cast adrift. There is an urgent need for close communication between the Secretary of State and hon. Members so that rumours are not allowed to gather.

Tony Worthington

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for identifying exactly what has been wrong with the approach. However, many other issues involved in this development have received no public debate, and no written explanation of what is going on has been offered. I have enormous respect for my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, and I believe that he will be able to win back the respect that has been lost, but a serious document that explains matters in full must be produced.

What will be the relationship between Babcock's and the 500 Navy personnel who will be working for the company? What will be the command and control structure? It is obvious that it will be in Babcock's interest for a greater share of the work to be done by Navy personnel, and I bet that the company will not want the number of Navy personnel to be cut.

Can we accept the assurance from the Ministry that there will be no compromise in security when private-sector personnel are involved? The very short letter sent to me does not deal with that, but the public have the right to be shown that the Government have thought about such matters.

It is claimed that improved repair techniques will lead to savings, but the claim appears to be based on the fact that Babcock's will improve the skills of the existing work force. The gains from those skills will accrue to Babcock's, but such figures probably will not appear in the in-house bid.

In conclusion, I want to express my sadness at the way in which this matter has been handled. It is unfair to the work force, and especially to the local MP, that the letter sent out in respect of a major policy change should be only seven lines long. As far as we know, that change will cause major job losses in the area. I hope that that can be put right.

5.3 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington). During the recent visit by the Select Committee on Defence to the naval bases and shipyards in Scotland, we all learned a great deal. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

I want to underline what was said by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who demanded extra spending on defence commitments. Sadly, he is no longer in the Chamber. Were he here, I would have to raise my voice, as my hearing was damaged as a result of sharing a tent with the right hon. Gentleman for one night in Afghanistan. I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman can be aware that he drowned out the noise of the generator, as he was asleep—no one else in the party was, though.

I wish that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South were here, as I want to take issue with him about his "year zero" comments. We all know that certain problems go with defence. I make no pretence of defending the Conservative party's record on that. We clearly got things wrong. However, we now stand on the brink of a grave national emergency, if we are not already in one. The matters that we are discussing are far too important for us to concern ourselves with the trivialities of inter-party point scoring.

The trip to Afghanistan was seminal for all of us who went on it. It was extremely informative. I want to use the example of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment, which calls itself the Vikings, to illuminate one or two points. There is no doubt that the Royal Anglians and other infantry battalions are disturbed and destabilised by the length of the commitment to Afghanistan. I was due to lunch tomorrow with an infantry commanding officer, but his adjutant phoned today to say, "Frightfully sorry, but he's too busy to lunch with you because he's lobbying to get his battalion to Afghanistan." We should be beyond that: commanding officers should not have to lobby to know what the arms plot is.

The Royal Welch Fusiliers are dying to go to Afghanistan and think that they are. The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Anglians thinks that it is going to replace the 1st Battalion. No one knows what is happening. Is it not time we came clean? To echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), we need to know exactly how long the commitment will last, what it will involve and the number of troops necessary to sustain it. Ministers should make a clear statement on the implications for the arms plot. It is only by creating stability in the arms plot that we will help to stem the haemorrhage of trained personnel, especially from the infantry regiments.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex explained, it was interesting to note that when we went on patrol with soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment we were surrounded not just by the khaki berets of the Royal Anglians, but by the plum-coloured berets of the King's Royal Hussars—cavalry men who were forming part of an infantry patrol. The 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment is well recruited in a difficult part of the country for infantry recruiting. Fortunately, my constituency lies in Nottinghamshire, on the edge of Royal Anglian country. It is interesting to see how those two battalions approach the problem of recruitment. Despite the fact that the 1st Battalion is only marginally under strength, it has had difficulties deploying to Afghanistan and finding the manpower that it needs.

The commanding officer—strangely enough, quite well known to me—pointed out that he had to leave almost 40 men behind in Pirbright because they were sick. They could not be deployed on operations not because of temporary illness, but because of chronic difficulties for which medical discharges could not be procured. The soldiers were capable of sedentary duties, but there are not many sedentary duties to perform in an infantry regiment. So the regiment called on soldiers from its battle group—men of the King's Royal Hussars—to help them with the problem.

The commanding officer also pointed out a fascinating fact, which relates to an issue raised by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). The battalion spent two years serving in Londonderry, which made it less than enthusiastic for other tasks. The deployment was gruelling, not very exciting and numbers had fallen. Yet as soon as the news spread through the battalion that it was to deploy to Afghanistan, and 1 Royal Anglian realised that it was going to be allowed to do a task that had been reserved for the units of 16 Air Assault Brigade and that the two-tier Army was being put on the back burner, a dozen men withdrew their notice to sign off, became good, loyal and motivated soldiers again, and were slavering for operations. It was clear to the officer that part of the retention problem, at least as far as he was concerned, turned on the tasks that the battalion was being given. The men understood two years in Londonderry, but—by golly—they preferred a good, exciting tour in Afghanistan.

The commanding officer made another interesting point: "One of the reasons why I'm short of manpower is that I've had to leave 20 men behind to recruit." It would have been naive of me to ask, "Why on earth are you doing that?" The answer is that the recruiting group cannot or will not do the job.

I was fascinated to hear the Secretary of State refer to new and imaginative means of recruiting. I welcome that, and I am sure that several measures have already been used successfully. He invited Conservative Members to suggest other measures; I shall not disappoint him.

The men who are recruiting are not recruiters—they are snipers, machine-gunners, non-commissioned officers and mortar men. All those men are back in East Anglia, Lincolnshire and the south using their salaries to recruit—in other words, abusing their salaries. The Army describes that as the black economy. Those men should be on operations helping out and ensuring that men from the King's Royal Hussars do not need to plug the gaps in 1st Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment.

I have asked the Ministry of Defence to provide me with the estimated cost of recruiting a humble private soldier for the infantry; apparently it is unavailable. One can conduct an interesting analysis by looking at the cost of running the recruiting group and putting on top of that the costs of all the salaries that should be used in the field being misemployed in recruiting back in England. The humble hewer of wood and carrier of water—the man who shoulders the pike in the British infantry—is probably one of the most expensive public servants to be used to recruit in the whole gamut of public service.

After visiting the Royal Anglian Regiment, we went on to the joint Army and Royal Air Force nuclear, biological and chemical warfare regiment in Kabul—the first experimental unit of RAF aircrew and Army soldiers to be formed for a highly specialist task. Without going into too much detail, much of the evidence that they have discovered in Kabul and its surroundings is fascinating. Their task is difficult, and the commanding officer of 1st Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, which provides the Army elements of the regiment, is having grave difficulty keeping his recruiting up to snuff. He has had to go to what the Army describes as a recruiting witch doctor—in civilian life, he would be described as a consultant. Several people in the Army are not employed in recruiting but have remarkably successful records as recruiters in their own right.

Next month, 1st Battalion. Royal Tank Regiment will deploy to Liverpool with one of those witch doctors at the helm. He is a major who should be teaching tactics at the all-arms tactics wing, but is out helping the Royal Armoured Corps to recruit—completely under its own auspices, with no assistance from the recruiting group, and with men yet again misemployed in the black economy trying to make up the numbers that should already be provided by the normal recruiting chain.

Recruiting is very much the Army's main effort. Operations must clearly take priority, but after that every unit has to be topped up with the correct number of men and women. In the past, the Army has declared that to be "main effort"—a technical term meaning that every resource, expertise and ability is dedicated to the task in hand. Why, then, do the Army, Navy and Air Force rely on retired officers and time-expired non-commissioned officers to try to recruit their young men and women? I ask the Minister to answer that question, if he can, in summing up.

Why should young people necessarily be appealed to by retired officers—men in their mid-50s or early 60s? Are they the right people to do the job? Should not the young, sparky staff officers grade 2—young majors and the equivalent who pass out of staff college—be given that crucial task? I ask the Minister at least to think about that.

Without damning the MOD's recruiting group too much, I also pay tribute to the breadth of thinking that has gone on in recruiting soldiers, sailors and, to a lesser extent, airmen from the Commonwealth. I recently visited the Army Training Regiment at Lichfield and it was fascinating to see the mixture of nationalities in the ranks of the platoons that were passing out. It is a good idea and it has worked well. Why has it taken so long to be implemented?

I should like to join many other hon. Members in paying tribute to the Queen Mother, but I should like to iterate the point that three of her brothers served in the Black Watch and one of them was killed at Loos in 1915. That regiment was particularly dear to Her Majesty, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) is not here because he had the privilege of serving in that regiment earlier in his military career.

The 42nd is one of our oldest and finest regiments, raised in the 1740s. The Times carried an article last week saying that, with the sad demise of the Queen Mother, that regiment, which could not be properly recruited, was bound to go, as someone said earlier, as the result of being hollowed out to the point where it does not exist. I suggest that there is no difficulty in recruiting. Certain regiments have no difficulty in taking imaginative and lateral approaches to recruiting and bringing themselves well above establishment. It would not only be a disgrace if the Black Watch were allowed to perish, but a dishonour to the Queen Mother.

5.16 pm
Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

May I tell the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) that, as the Black Watch is my local regiment, I will certainly pledge myself to supporting the continuation of its tremendous role and history in the defence of this country?

May I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to our armed forces? They are simply the best, whether acting as a superb funeral cortege for the Queen Mother; acting in a war fighting capacity, as they are currently doing in Operation Jacana in Afghanistan; or operating in a peacekeeping role in what are often tense, complex and unstable environments.

May I also join the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) in expressing my deep sympathy to the family of the young soldier from the Royal Anglian Regiment who tragically died this week? It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the other armed services personnel who have died or suffered severe injury in the service of their country, especially as we remember this year the 20th anniversary of the Falklands war.

The House's responsibility to our armed forces personnel and their families has to be deep and far reaching. We must seek to provide them with the training, equipment and support that they need. The MOD's overarching personnel strategy states that the ultimate aim of the policy regarding service personnel is to generate and maintain modern, joint, battle winning forces, by placing Service personnel and their families at the centre of our plans, investing in them and giving them confidence in their future.

I welcome the fact that, under this Government, defence has received the first real-terms, year-on-year increase in investment since the end of the cold war, but I will be blunt and join others in saying that I do not think that the increase is enough and I hope to see more. Although real progress has been made in purchasing new and better equipment and in improving conditions, more needs to be done. One of the benefits of being a member of the Select Committee on Defence, and having been through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, is that it has given me and others the opportunity to listen to what all ranks of our armed forces are saying, and to come back and convey that to Ministers.

I want to raise a few concerns, especially in connection with equipment and support. First I shall pick up the points made by the Secretary of State, by my hon. Friends and by other hon. Members about the importance of decent sanitation and washing facilities, including showers and hot water, and sleeping accommodation, especially for our peacekeeping forces.

I recognise the fact that, in Pristina for instance, there was uncertainty about how long our forces would be present, and hence about whether it was justifiable to invest in more permanent facilities for them. I hope that the lessons from those operations have been learned and that our forces serving in Operation Fingal in Kabul will quickly be given mobile facilities—decent washing, sanitation and other facilities—although we hope that they will be there for only a short time.

The second issue that I want to mention is the importance of giving all ranks the opportunity to tell us what they think they need, and to comment on their current equipment and its future design. Like other members of the Defence Committee, I was somewhat taken aback when we visited the US Marines base in Quantico and found that the Marines designed their own rifles. I am not saying that we should encourage our own Marines to do that, but it was clear that the comments of Marines using the equipment on the battlefield were fed directly back to those who were manufacturing the weapons, and the weapons were adapted to suit the Marines' requirements and needs.

We have all heard time and time again about the frustration of people who say, "We've been saying this for years. When will things be improved?", and about other problems, especially the delay in obtaining spare parts and other essential equipment. When the Defence Committee recently visited the Defence Procurement Agency, I was pleased to be assured that all ranks do get the chance to have their say, but I hope that that will be built upon further and extended.

We all recognise the impact on morale of poor and inadequate equipment. One of the main lessons of Operation Saif Sareea 2 was that some equipment was still failing in spite of the fact that problems with it had been identified some years earlier in the Gulf conflict—problems with the SA80 rifle and with the Challenger tank, to mention just two.

It is right and proper to pay tribute in the debate to the support staff and civilian personnel who manufacture and provide equipment, and act as support staff in our bases and dockyards. I think that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members would be surprised if I did not use this opportunity to praise the skills and professionalism of the Rosyth dockyard work force, who have taken on major changes and challenges over the past few years, but still deliver on cost and on time. They have recently been highly praised for the work that they have carried out for the Royal Navy—on the refit of HMS Ark Royal, for instance.

I am aware that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall just make one or two further points about families. What the hon. Member for Rayleigh said about the reality of life for Army families was valuable.

As we all know, it is very important for all of us to ensure that we go out there to hear what the public are saying. I decided to begin this week in a healthy way by going to a local swimming baths, where I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation between two Army wives. One was telling the other of how she had had no heating or hot water over the weekend, had rung the emergency number and not got an answer, and had rung the main line and was told to ring the emergency number. When she said that she had already done so, she was given another number, which she discovered was a private residential number. It was clear that that was not her first experience of being passed from pillar to post. As she said to her friend before—unfortunately—I had to wander off elsewhere, "They need a site meeting to change four light bulbs." I thought that that was a rather good comment.

The benefits of good family support are so important, particularly to retention and maintaining morale. What will that woman's husband think if he rings from Afghanistan to find that his wife and family have not had hot water and heating over the weekend? Although I certainly welcome the achievements so far of the service families taskforce, I hope that it will be allowed to continue and that all families will be aware of its presence and work.

Obviously, many other issues have been raised, but many of them have already been eloquently spoken about, so it would not be right for me to take up the time of other hon. Members who still want to speak. Clearly, we shall all keep a close watch on the defence medical services. I join the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) in praising the defence medical staff at Selly Oak, who cared so deeply in recent months for the son of one of my constituents.

We need to consider further what security we provide for our forces and their families, particularly post-11 September. We could do with a debate just on veterans issues, especially addressing further subjects such as pensions and compensation. We could certainly continue our debate on recruitment and retention, and related problems and issues that have been highlighted.

We need to do more to promote the role of cadet forces, which I particularly praise, in recruiting young people. We should encourage their presence in schools far more. At presentations by the Army cadet force that I have attended, I have met young people who reckon that the cadet forces took them away from a life of petty crime towards which they were heading, which would have led to more serious offences. I particularly want to mention my local sea cadet air training corps and of course the Dunfermline Territorial Army base.

I end as I began by saying that our forces are simply the best and that our job in this House is to ensure that they have what they need to stay the best and to continue to be held in very high regard in all parts of the world.

5.29 pm
Bob Russell (Colchester)

I should like to concentrate my remarks on the retention and recruitment of armed forces personnel. The Minister will know that, according to a written answer on 1 February, the shortfall in personnel was 7,477—a 6 per cent. shortfall. If 25,000 people are joining the Army every year, a similar number must be leaving it each year. That means that over the Government's lifetime the number of people who have left the Army is roughly the same as those who are in it, so there is a massive turnover. Recruitment appears to be working, but we need to concentrate on the retention of personnel. I concur with the comments that have just been made about the Army cadets, and I would include the territorial and reserve forces: they are a potential source of recruitment.

Tours of duty and overstretch are critical factors in retention. Interestingly, as we have heard, the prospect of real action in Afghanistan made people enthusiastic about overseas tours, so it is largely a question of the duties that the soldiers are being called upon to perform.

Can the Minister confirm that while some support is given to employers who allow members of their work force to join the territorial and reserve forces, more needs to be done to encourage that?

As a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I was advised that many would-be recruits had to be sent away to acquire sufficient fitness to train to be soldiers. Would the Minister care to discuss that with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills? Clearly, school sports and physical education programmes are producing young people who are less fit than their parents and grandparents were. That needs to be considered.

Will the Minister and his advisers consider my Adjournment debate of 25 October 1999 relating to education for military personnel? An organisation known as the National Association of State Schools for Service Children has produced evidence showing that more needs to be done to support the education of children of service personnel. The phrase used to describe the problem is "the turbulence factor." The number of schools that such children go to affects their education. That is all part and parcel of the need to improve retention.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) gave us a graphic example of how the domestic scene affects family life in the Army. Representing a garrison town, I receive many letters, phone calls and visits to my advice bureau from Army families, but I only see the tip of the iceberg. I pay tribute to the welfare services provided by the Army. They have never been better. In particular, I praise the garrison commander in Colchester, Colonel Julian Lacey, and others engaged in welfare work. The importance of their work was particularly brought home to me when the troops went to Kosovo, Bosnia and, more recently, Afghanistan. The Army provides a marvellous welfare net but that on its own is not sufficient given the current tours of duty and the overstretch that results.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) referred to the housing problems experienced by two Army wives in another part of the country. We need to consider recommendation 48 of the fourth special report of the Select Committee on Defence published on 2 May 2001, almost 12 months ago. It states: A high standard of accommodation should be available to all Service families who want it. Achieving the upgrade of the estate in a reasonable time span is essential. This is one area where more money would have immediate and beneficial effects for Service personnel and their families and, in consequence, massive potential benefits for the Services in terms of morale and retention. The Treasury took a huge amount of money from the sale of the married quarters estate in 1996—nearly £1.7 billion. It let the MoD keep only £100 million, a sum clearly inadequate for the promised upgrading of the married quarters. We recommend that more of the proceeds of the sale should go back to the…Defence Housing Executive specifically for the upgrade of the Service Families Accommodation. I invite the Minister to tell us what has been done in the past year and what further action will be taken.

As part of the feel-good factor, we need to concentrate on better welfare, housing and education for the Army family; other hon. Members have spoken eloquently about other issues, but I am concentrating purely on retention. Some good will could be shown at minimal cost, not least in relation to some of the old soldiers. In my capacity as parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion, I should like to make a suggestion to the Minister about the 2,200 members of the retired officer corps, who, although they are not official members of Her Majesty's armed forces, are still in service—indeed, many of them are required to wear uniform at work. Without exception, they do jobs that would otherwise be occupied by serving personnel, but they are being told that they cannot have the Queen's jubilee medal. The request for the medal is a small one and could be granted. I invite the Minister to use his connections with those who make decisions on such matters to ensure that those 2,200 members of the retired officer corps will have the medal. It would cost nothing, but the good will that would be generated would be worth having. My second such suggestion concerns the old soldiers who were in the Suez canal zone in 1951–54. Why on earth cannot those national service men from all those years ago have a medal to commemorate their service for King and then Queen and country?

Finally, I should like to mention the new garrison at Colchester for 16 Air Assault Brigade. In raising the issue, I want to associate myself with the remarks made earlier about the home regiment for Essex, the Royal Anglians. Can the Minister inform me, the House and my constituents exactly where we are with the new proposals for the Colchester garrison? I feel that firm decisions should have been made by now, but for some reason, there appears to be a logjam. Clearly, it is in the interests of the wider military family in Colchester that that new garrison be built. In terms of retention, the accommodation has to be the best that can be provided. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to say exactly where we are—if he cannot do so, perhaps he can write—and when we can look for progress on the Colchester garrison.

5.38 pm
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton)

Many of the 41,000 armed forces personnel in the south-west are, of course, based in Plymouth, and many of them are based in Plymouth, Sutton. The Devonport naval base is the largest such base in western Europe and the base port for the Royal Navy's biggest vessel, which is currently on deployment in the middle east: the helicopter landing ship HMS Ocean. It is also the base for 14 type 22 and type 23 frigates, seven Trafalgar class submarines and six hydrographic survey ships. The base employs about 2,500 people, with whom many families are associated, just as many families in the area are associated with the Royal Marines, who have a big presence in the south-west generally and especially in Plymouth, where the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade, the Stonehouse barracks, and the 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery is situated. The latter is based at the historic citadel and provides gunnery support to the Royal Marines. On the outskirts of Plymouth is situated a base for 42 Commando at Bickleigh.

Royal Marine units from the south-west have recently seen service in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone and are being deployed to Afghanistan as we speak. Some 110 personnel from 29 Commando and 200 personnel from 3 Commando, which is based in Plymouth, are on a rolling programme of deployment this week. Some may be travelling or arriving and familiarising themselves with the terrain and continuing their exercise and training as we speak.

The armed forces personnel strategy, which emerged from the strategic defence review, recognised that military operations are physically and mentally demanding, extremely unpredictable and—of course—inherently dangerous. In the end, they depend for success on teamwork, which comes from first-class training, good leadership and mutual trust. In recent weeks, as deployments were made in Afghanistan, and during Exercise Saif Sareea, the Evening Herald—our local evening paper—gave detailed, balanced and interesting coverage of the actions on our behalf of armed forces based in Plymouth. We ask a lot of them, especially when preparing for, or in the aftermath of, operations.

Many hon. Members have given graphic descriptions of exactly what is involved for those who are deployed, and for the families that they leave behind. The demands do not stop at the front line. Other hon. Members have also referred to families, and I want to concentrate the bulk of my remarks on that issue. During his opening speech, the Secretary of State said that personnel welfare, particularly in relation to families, is a key concern for his Department. Well-motivated and well-cared-for personnel are absolutely crucial to the strength of the armed forces, and how we look after their families matters greatly.

In that regard, communication is exceedingly important. The Department has acted positively by identifying in the strategic defence review a role for the new service families taskforce. It has also brought together and given voice to family associations such as the Association of Royal Naval and Royal Marines Families. Others have already mentioned the Army Families Federation and Airwaves, the RAF family association.

It is not easy to reconcile the demands of the front line with those of the family, but it is possible. Officers based in Plymouth who are members of the Association of Royal Naval and Royal Marines Families are working hard to ensure that it is an independent voice that represents families' interests and concerns in an open, observable and accountable way. The service families taskforce, established under "Policy for People", has provided a focus for that voice. It enables my hon. Friends to engage in dialogue with their ministerial colleagues, and it forms the basis for progress already made on some of the issues that I want to raise. Those issues, which were identified in the taskforce survey, relate to health and education, and arise from the high levels of mobility that service life often requires. They include school admissions, access to dentists and doctors, registration with general practitioners, and hospital waiting lists and appointments. The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) is nodding—he is obviously familiar with them.

I pay tribute to the work of the strategic defence review, which has enabled Ministers to help service families. However, I want to discuss some issues that constitute work in progress, as it were, such as schools admissions. Discussions have led to new statutory guidance on schools' admissions policy, which recognises the needs of service personnel's children and has enhanced nursery school provision. However, it is still not easy for service families to access their local community school.

Often, the transition for families moving from Scotland to Plymouth is made a great deal easier if they become part of the community school in the area in which they are to live. I know that the welfare associations will raise aspects of the appeals procedure with Ministers through the services taskforce families forum, which is to meet in the near future. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister listens carefully to what they have to say, as they have practical and positive proposals to make with respect to appeals.

Bullying is another example in which parental interest in a school may have particular dimensions for service families, and some schools in Plymouth have positive programmes for tackling it. An incident was reported during the Kosovo deployment: the children of a service man were bullied in the playground and old that their father was a murderer. We all know what role service personnel from my community in Plymouth and elsewhere played in Kosovo—it was very far from that—and the House will understand the importance that parents attach to the ability to select a school that they are confident has an adequate policy on bullying. Those issues, and the health issues, which I know are being progressed through the taskforce, are the challenges that the services always face.

I want to deal with welfare for families while service personnel are in theatre. The provision of 20 minutes of phone calls has been greatly welcomed and well received, but it of course depends on lines being available. Often, the practical experience is that those in a queue of service personnel waiting to phone their families are conscious of wanting to let the next person have their turn. Although significant progress has been made, I hope that we keep that provision under review and build on it. We should also consider how e-communications facilitate contact between families and service personnel on deployment.

I want to say a word about warrants. The family issues differ between the Army and the Navy, where deployments may be particularly long and distant. Warrants are available for the next of kin, but it may be helpful, for example, for a young woman who is having perhaps her second or third child and whose partner is on a lengthy deployment to have the support of her parents or a sibling. Such a woman could get on a train and go to her family, but that is not easy with two or three young children. Indeed, although it may be financially difficult, it may be a great deal easier in practical terms for the grandparents or a sibling to go to her.

I hope that consideration is given to extending the warrant scheme. Given the number of people in such circumstances, the cost would not be huge and such an extension would go a long way to help people in service communities to feel that the Government continue to understand and value their role in service life.

Service families frequently take up with me the great need to make relevant information available as quickly as possible. Ministers make great efforts to ensure that that is done, and family briefings direct from the MOD in case of deployment are important, but I am not sure that they run as smoothly as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently implied in answer to my intervention on his statement to the House.

Ministers understand the importance of making information available, but some armchair generals and commentators go in for hype and melodrama. There has been column inch after column inch of speculation. As I said in my intervention, service families can deal with facts, but not with the gossip to which such speculation gives rise in their communities. Hon. Members who share an interest in defence, either through serving on the Defence Committee or because they represent a defence community, know the importance of being measured and restrained, and considerate of the families' circumstances.

I hope that hon. Members will be interested to hear that on 4 April, just a few days ago, the Royal Naval and Royal Marine Families Association launched what I think is the first interactive website, on www.rnrmfa.com.

Mr. Ingram

indicated assent.

Linda Gilroy

My right hon. Friend has heard of it. The site not only gives information on access to services that service families might need and to the latest information, but it has password-protected access so that families can share information and gain support from each other. I gather from talking to those involved just this morning that the site is already serving a useful purpose in bringing people together. When I visited my local Royal Navy community centre last November and talked with a large number of service women, I was surprised to learn that they were sometimes a little slower to receive direct information than we are given to understand.

The website represents an innovative self-help resource, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will look carefully at the resourcing of welfare services, especially the support groups that surround naval community centres, as they will have a critical role to play for some of my constituents in the weeks ahead.

There are many other issues that I could raise. I have already intervened on the subject of the warship maintenance and modernisation initiative. I share the concern expressed by other hon. Members who represent constituencies that are affected by the initiative and I am deeply disappointed that it has not been possible to progress with the trade union proposal.

I greatly welcome the fact that we are able to keep the Millbay Territorial Army centre. It is a beautiful modern centre that brings many young students studying at Plymouth university into the territorial armed services. I look forward to continuing to visit the centre and to maintaining my relationship with it.

I cannot let this occasion pass without mentioning the opening of Trident dock No. 154 in Plymouth, which took place recently in the presence of the Duke of Edinburgh. Obviously, that has huge implications for service families and support workers in Plymouth, and Plymouth is very proud of it.

I make no apology for using my time in this debate to emphasise the value and importance of our service families and to reflect their appreciation of the work that is being carried out through the service families taskforce. I encourage my right hon. Friends to continue to build on the relationship that is being developed through the taskforce and to listen carefully to its views.

5.53 pm
Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

Unfortunately, I had to leave the debate after the opening speeches by Front-Bench Members to attend the Board of Management of the House, so I hope that colleagues will forgive me for not hearing all the speeches. Those that I heard were illuminating.

I am glad to be in the Chamber with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), because several thousand years ago he and I served together in the Territorial Army battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Time has been kinder to him than it has to me, but we have happy memories. The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers now has more Members of Parliament than any other regiment, which is encouraging.

I shall be brief because other colleagues wish to contribute to the debate, but I wish to focus on the Territorial Army and the fact that its strength has gone down from 56,200 to just over 39,000. That fall of 16,300 since the Government came to office is a great shame, and also a great mistake.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) refer to the value of the cadets in the community. I echo that view, because that is another aspect of the Territorial Army. Its military role should be defined: that is what people join for, and what they enjoy. However, the House should not underestimate the contribution that the TA makes to the community. When we witness civic parades and the rest, we should appreciate the value that our voluntary armed forces bring to their communities. The hon. Lady made the point that the Territorial Army takes its cadet forces from among those who may not have had the best start in life or the best chances. It gives them an opportunity to experience personal self-discipline, not the unthinking discipline that many without military experience expect. That is of huge value to our society.

In their opening remarks, the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) dwelt on the issue of recruitment and retention, which is unquestionably a problem in the Regular Army. The demands on limited resources are too great, and the line is too taut. That is having an effect on training, morale and retention.

There is a great belief in the House of Commons and, I suspect, even in Downing street that every time there is a crisis we should send for the special forces. People do not always realise where the special forces' training ground is: it is in the regiments of the line. If we continually depress the opportunity of people to serve in their geographically based regiments, heaven alone knows where we will get our special forces from in the next 20 years. I am sure that the Defence Committee will give that matter consideration at some stage.

I want to pay particular tribute to the often unsung but much valued work of the service charities in keeping up the morale of our service men and their families at difficult times. One of the areas that we sadly did not address when my party was in government—and the present Government are certainly not doing so now—is the poor home acquisition, especially of those who serve in the Army. It is much better for those in the Royal Navy, and even better for personnel in the Royal Air Force. Home ownership in the Army is extremely poor. Assistance, explanations and encouragement are not what they need to be to help that vital family aspect.

This and all other debates that we have on armed forces personnel rightly enable Members to pay tribute to their local areas. In the royal funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, we witnessed the standards that people believe have disappeared in this country. Perhaps they have disappeared in certain areas of life, but without doubt they have not disappeared from our armed forces. That sense of personal discipline, loyalty and efficiency above all is much valued.

On a personal note, whenever I have contact with the private offices of the Secretary of State or any of his departmental Ministers, the response is always quick, helpful and efficient. If every Department of State operated in the same way, our governance would be well served. I hope that those who do not wear a uniform but who help the armed forces realise that they are appreciated as well.

Many hon. Members want to contribute, so I shall just put on record my concern about the human rights campaign against children serving in the armed forces. We must not let that affect the work of the cadet forces, which provide the seedcorn for future generations, especially the adult instructors, and make a huge contribution to our society. It has been encouraging that support for them in the debate has come from both sides of the House, and they will need that support in the coming year or two.

5.58 pm
Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

I want to raise two issues that have an impact on our armed forces operating abroad: cluster bombs and the treatment of prisoners of war.

We are having this debate when British troops are involved in operations in many places overseas, from Kosovo to Afghanistan. British troops are among the best in the world. Although they may not be perfect, the country is rightly proud of what they are capable of and achieve when deployed. In all situations, the safety of British troops should be paramount. It is easy to focus on this issue at the moment, as soldiers are dispatched overseas, but we need to think about the risk to our forces earlier in the process.

In Kosovo and Afghanistan, deployments were preceded by major military air activities that included the dropping of many types of weapons, including cluster bombs. The dropping of those weapons took place when it was possible, if not probable, that British ground forces would later be deployed in the areas under attack. One of the greatest hazards facing British soldiers in Kosovo and Afghanistan is the unexploded remnants of war that result from cluster bomblets that have failed to detonate. That was acknowledged by the Secretary of State for Defence in the House on 1 November. What he said can be found at columns 1024 and 1025 of the Official Report, but I shall paraphrase. He said that soldiers could well die in the aftermath of the dropping of cluster bombs, and that that was just a factor in the balance of the war effort.

During the same debate, the Secretary of State for International Development said None of the cluster bombs dropped over Afghanistan contained delayed action minelets or land mines."—[0fficial Report, 1 November 2001; Vol. 373, c. 1099.] That is acknowledged. We know that what is done is not deliberate. Nevertheless, a high percentage of bomblets do not explode as a matter of course, and there is the same delayed action. On 23 March, The Guardian quoted the Secretary of State for International Development, saying The UN mine action service estimates that 1,152 cluster bombs were dropped by the US…and there were 'up to 14,000 unexploded bomblets as a result'. The true figure could not be confirmed until more clearance work was done and the US had provided more information about where cluster bombs were dropped". I ask the Minister now whether the United States has provided that information.

Patrick Mercer

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Harry Cohen

No. I do not have enough time.

In an article in this month's issue of CAAT News, the Campaign Against Arms Trade magazine, Richard Lloyd of Landmine Action writes In Afghanistan, the US Air Force told mine clearance NGOs that they dropped more than 244,000 cluster bomblets. At least 10 per cent., he says, are thought to be left on the ground, live and extremely dangerous. That clearly poses a risk to our United Kingdom soldiers in the region.

I shall curtail my comments about cluster bombs. Let me just say that there is a campaign, led by Landmine Action and reported in CAAT News, for the establishment of a new international law placing responsibility for the clearance of all explosive weapons, including cluster bombs, on those who have used them. The campaign also demands a moratorium on the use, manufacture, sale and export of cluster bombs until the introduction of a new international law on their use and clearance. I strongly support that campaign.

Jim Knight


Harry Cohen

I will give way to my hon. Friend, as he may not be able to make a speech today.

Jim Knight

May I say something by way of reassurance? When I was in Kabul last week, I spoke to Lieutenant-Colonel Alistair Sheppard, commanding officer of 36 Engineers Regiment, and raised this specific issue. His troops had cleared 200,000 unexploded ordnance, land mines and the like. When I asked how much of that was cluster-bomb material, I was told that it was a negligible amount in the overall context. I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but he should see the situation within that overall framework.

Harry Cohen

I note my hon. Friend's experience, but there are clearly severe risks to soldiers and, certainly, to civilians from unexploded ordnance and cluster bombs. I repeat that I support the campaign that I mentioned.

Patrick Mercer


Harry Cohen

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman very briefly.

Patrick Mercer

No munition that is fired, be it mortar round, artillery round, aircraft bomb or cluster bomb, has a 100 per cent. detonation rate. The hon. Gentleman will know that during peacetime training UK forces, certainly, are not allowed to skirmish, walk or otherwise move over ground on which artillery ammunition has fallen, for that very reason. But if it is suggested that cluster bombs should not be used to protect our own troops, surely the next step is to suggest that our troops should be deprived of artillery or mortar bombardments. That takes the whole argument to an absurd level.

Harry Cohen

The hon. Gentleman is coming from the wrong direction. The effect of the bomblets in cluster bombs is the same as that of land mines. There is a clear record of enormous damage to civilians, and to British soldiers. That was acknowledged by the Secretary of State on 1 November.

We will continue the important debate on cluster bombs in due course, but I now want to say something about prisoners of war. Thankfully no British soldiers have been taken prisoner by any of the factions involved in the war in Afghanistan, but if there were any British prisoners we would want to ensure that they were treated with due care and respect. That is one of the key reasons why I believe it is important for rules relating to prisoners of war taken by British troops to be published. One of the protections that we can provide for our troops is transparency in the rules that we apply to our prisoners.

I accept that certain details should not be made public, such as contingency plans as regards the location of holding centres, but some features should he made clear. Through parliamentary questions, I have been able to establish that there are no standard guidelines for coalition partners; and that the UK guidelines comply with the 1977 additional protocols to the 1949 Geneva conventions—the second additional protocol applies the conventions to military actions that are not taking place between states, although I am not sure that the United States accepts that. I also established that the guidelines were not updated after the uprising at Qala-i-Jhangi fort, near Mazare-Sharif, where all the prisoners were killed.

The "Manual of Military Law" gives a large amount of detail. The manual is a public document about the treatment of prisoners of war. Presumably, the guidance for Afghanistan complies with the manual, but I ask the Minister to state that clearly. It seems strange—indeed, alarming—that the guidance is kept secret. Even stranger is the refusal, under exemption 1(a) of the code of practice on access to public information, of my request that the guidance be placed in the Library.

In a letter to me of 7 March, the Secretary of State wrote: I am not prepared to disclose operational details of this sort. I was not asking for details. How can guidance be operational? It is a matter of principle. The letter continued: As for the dates on which the guidance was issued, this would reveal operational details which we still regard as classified.

I do not believe that can still be the case. What has the Ministry of Defence got to hide? Were the guidelines issued too late? Were they issued but ignored by the armed forces; or did everything go smoothly? There are doubts. Everyone was killed at Qala-i-Jhangi fort. Was that in line with UK guidance? UK soldiers took part in crushing that uprising. I realise that a United States soldier was killed by the US pro-Taliban man, but all the prisoners were killed—they were not given the opportunity to surrender. There are clearly issues of appropriateness and proportionality.

Perhaps we have merely fallen in with the more barbaric US treatment of prisoners. We need answers. At least the main guidance for the UK treatment of prisoners should be published. This new secrecy has, in effect, wiped out hard-won humanitarian rules for dealing with prisoners of war, painstakingly built up during the second half of the last century.

That is a serious matter for our troops. For example, the UK and the US have taken military action that was not declared as war. The US has recently diminished the importance of the Geneva conventions and the rules—if any exist—for dealing with prisoners are kept secret. If a prisoner is insolent or sullen, can he be shot?

What would we say if Saddam Hussein used that precedent in any future war in Iraq? That is why the matter is so important for our troops. Let us deal with the problem seriously and openly, and publish the general principles and guidelines for coping with prisoners of war.

6.9 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), who pointed out that he was somewhat older than me when we joined the Fusiliers. However, the name of that regiment has changed four times since 1967. It is now the Tyne Tees Regiment—that sounds like a margarine spread—and is an amalgamation of three regiments. Therein lies the problem.

We have heard an enormous amount about the future of the military. We have a two-tier military. Until the SDR, there was a two-year training cycle; our armed forces were either preparing to go into action or they were in action. There is now a three-year training cycle: a training year; a year building up to deployment; and a deployment year. The problem is that that does not work.

Up to 28 per cent. of the military are now totally committed. I was horrified to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) that the Royal Anglian Regiment is having to take people from other regiments to keep up the numbers, and it is a well-recruited regiment. The 3rd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in the Gulf—hon. Members may remember the friendly fire incident—was made up of five different regiments to get the numbers to a level at which they were operationally effective. That was 10 years ago.

Our problem is that the military is not being given the time and the training to do the job that it is so willing to do. As a result, it is losing people. We cannot expect personnel to go from one operation to another. They physically cannot do it, especially in this day and age.

I joined the Territorial Army in 1980, at the very start of the big exercises that took place every two years. My first one was Crusader, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) was an infantry officer, like me. In those days, we had a defensive role. We knew that we were going to the River Wiese to hold the bridge and when the friendly forces had crossed, we blew the bridge up and disappeared back to Dunkirk. Now, there is no role for the TA. In the old days we fought as formed units; one fought as a Fusilier or an Anglian. Now the role is either home defence, or as part of a battlefield replacement programme, not as members of formed units.

Why should a recruit join the TA? What is his incentive? He comes out of basic training and does his "boot camp"—an American term—and then what? What hope does he have? What does he have to look forward to? There is not the equipment, the mandate or the money. I was talking to a TA unit and was told that it had been to Gibraltar. I remember going to Germany and America to do the job that we were supposed to do, which was to hold or defend areas. We trained with the army with which we were most likely to work. We understood the job that they were trying to do, and vice versa.

One of the biggest problems for the TA is getting equipment that works. The SA80 apparently has had more than 100 modifications since it first came into service. I believe that it now works; my hon. Friend the Member for Newark can tell me if I am wrong. The Army needs decent equipment. If it does not have it, the Army will not function. I was watching the Marines getting out of their aircraft in Afghanistan, and one could see that they were still using the old equipment, such as webbing and Bergens. Why are they not being upgraded for a potential action situation? Interestingly, the Anglians seemed to have updated equipment.

Yesterday we had a debate about ordnance. At present we are looking to move the production of our ordnance elsewhere. Our personnel want ordnance that works and on which they can rely. If we do not have continuity of supply in this country, we will not be in a position to support our own troops. In the long term, we must encourage the people whom we want to come in.

The turnover of the TA is 33 per cent., much of which is due to people disappearing after basic training. They have nothing to look forward to. If the Minister wants to continue to use these people, he should give them the chance to do the job that they set out to do. A Royal Marine from Minehead in my constituency stated that he signed up to do a job, and knew that the Marines would take casualties. However, they did not mind because that is what they set out to do. Any soldier feels that. I remember sitting on the Wiese, wondering how long we would last. Our life expectancy in those days was 24 hours if the Russians came over to say hello. That is not good. The situation is now a lot better, yet we still have problems with retention, and they are getting worse. As that is the case, surely incentives must be considered.

The Territorial Army has a system of bonuses—bounties—which one works up to throughout training. Could it not be extended? If we want to keep personnel such as the thrusting captains, majors, sergeant-majors and sergeants whom my hon. Friend the Member for Newark mentioned, as we need them for the future, we must give them some sort of golden handcuff. It happens in industry, so why can it not apply to military life too?

Another problem is maintaining cadet numbers. Cadet trainers are not paid, so what is their incentive to do the job? At present there are 60 sea cadets in Bridgwater, but their numbers fluctuate greatly because when a good trainer goes, he cannot be replaced. Where can a replacement be found? Service personnel are no longer able to do the job. Eventually, people are recruited from the British Legion. There is no doubt that their ideas about training are well out of date.

I do not agree that cadets can supply the needs of the military. Hopefully, they will go on to join the Territorial Army or the regulars. However, an enormous amount of good is done by getting youngsters into something that gives them a structured life. Military personnel realise that, as it is the reason why many people join the military in the first place.

We are debating the retention of military personnel. Unless we give them incentives, we will not manage that. The training cycle is too tight and the military cannot cope with it because the commitments are too high. If the Minister can give military personnel some assurance that they will have a home life and a family life in a training cycle that works, long-term retention will become much easier.

6.16 pm
Jim Knight (South Dorset)

I shall be brief as I am keen to hear the winding-up speech of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), my comrade on the Defence Committee. I want to pay tribute to our armed forces personnel, particularly as I saw them in Kabul last week.

In previous defence debates I have made clear my view, which is that of the Defence Committee as articulated by its Chairman, that more resources need to be put into defence and that there is strain, particularly in terms of logistics and support group work. I would have reinforced that in my speech had there been more time, but I did not want to skip over the tribute that I want to pay to the work of our aimed forces in Kabul.

I was hugely impressed by the leadership of the international security assistance force by General McColl and his staff. He paid tribute to the unique role of PJHQ—permanent joint headquarters—in providing capability for rapid deployment. General McColl is performing a tremendous role in pulling together the multinational force of 19 countries. I was particularly impressed by his ability in the delicate task of negotiating with and maintaining a good relationship with the various disparate elements within Afghanistan civil society and with the Interim Administration. His intelligence work must also be praised. Therefore, I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say that Turkey may not be taking over until after the Loya Jirga. Those relationships are so very delicate that perhaps there is strength in General McColl remaining in charge of sustaining them as matters become increasingly difficult leading up to the important meeting in the summer.

I would say in passing to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that there is a strong difference between what is going on now in Kabul and the Russian occupation. We are there in support of the Interim Administration; we are not an occupying force. The civilian population understand that, and certainly our armed forces are clear about their role.

Our ability to deploy rapidly was exceptionally impressive, particularly in regard to the airport. When our troops did the recce in December they found the damage caused by eight 2,000 lb bombs dropped by the United States Air Force, including five huge craters on the runway. Within six days of their arrival there on 11 January, the airport had been opened and supplies were coming in for both military and civilian support. The first plane to arrive was on a humanitarian flight.

It is very important that the public get the message that our armed forces in Kabul are performing an extraordinary humanitarian mission. We saw Royal Engineers working on schools, on sanitation, on roads and on mine clearance, as I mentioned earlier. We saw the Brigade support group bringing in supplies with only 200 out of the 1,500 British deployment; the Germans, for example, have 80 per cent. support for only 20 per cent. active troops. Our armed forces are doing a tremendous job. The professionalism and experience of the Royal Anglians was also superb. The Royal Engineers raised funds themselves to carry out some of that humanitarian work—for example, $1,000 for a playground to be renovated in one village as part of the facilities being provided.

I am sorry that I have not been able to say more, but I am keen to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for Aldershot. In conclusion, I echo what has been said about support for the armed forces and about making sure that they have a good home life. They are superb and internationally respected. They need more resources, which I would love to see being provided in the Budget next week. In particular, I ask Ministers to pay attention to the quality of life of the armed forces, both at home and on deployment overseas.

6.21 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

This has been an extremely good debate. There have been some very thoughtful and knowledgeable contributions, including that of the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) who along with my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) have brought to the House their recent experiences in Afghanistan. As the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said, this debate often appears to be peopled by those who are on the Defence Committee, were on the Defence Committee or want to be on the Defence Committee. That is probably very true. Although we may not be large in number, the quality of today's debate has been good.

I join right hon. and hon. Members who have paid tribute to all those who are currently serving with Her Majesty's forces at home and overseas, especially those who are in active deployment in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Sierra Leone. We should also remember especially, as the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) did at the outset of the debate, those Royal Air Force pilots who, as we speak, are policing the no-fly zone in Iraq, and who do so day in, day out, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and who put their lives at risk in so doing.

The House has paid its customary and heartfelt tribute to the professionalism of our armed forces. They are trained for war fighting, and we must remember that, as we speak, not only do members of the RAF police the no-fly zone but members of the Royal Marines have been called on to undertake very difficult operations in Afghanistan alongside other members of our forces. It is a tribute to our armed forces that the United States has sought their support in these difficult operations in Afghanistan.

As other contributors to this afternoon's debate have said, we have also been privileged in the past week to see the other side of our armed forces, as they have shown such extraordinary professionalism, maintained such high standards and shown such extraordinary precision in the way they have performed their duties in respect of the lying in state and the funeral of the late Queen Mother. It was a moment to be savoured by everyone. The precision on display gave me an enormous sense of pride. The whole nation has been reminded, in this somewhat sombre hour, of just how good our armed forces are—both in the hills of Afghanistan and when showing such extraordinary dignity and professionalism here in London. They have sent out to the rest of the world the message that we are the best, and that no one does it like the British.

It is no accident that those twin facets of our armed forces should have been portrayed in such an excellent fashion. The training to which they are subject has created the quality armed forces that this country has. We have the best training, and we must ensure that that remains the case.

However, we must also remember the families of those elements of our armed forces that are serving at present. Times have been difficult for them since 11 September. I am sure that our hearts go out to all the armed forces families around the country, and especially in the garrison towns. Those families have to contend with being separated from loved ones whose jobs mean that they might be putting their lives at risk in the service of the rest of us.

We must remember too that only a small proportion of the British population is at war in Afghanistan. The rest of the population is getting on with ordinary business, and that is another reason for paying special attention to the families involved. We must ensure that they get the support that they need.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) made an extremely good speech. He painted a vivid picture of the reality of life in the armed forces today. It is fine for the squaddie going out and visiting different parts of the world as a young man: he has no responsibility, is well trained and is doing what he wants to do. However, it is different for people who have acquired the responsibilities of wife and family. My hon. Friend painted a clear picture of the tensions that can arise in such families.

We must ensure that a lesser burden is placed on the senior NCOs, upon whom so much responsibility rests. They are highly trained, but they must be able to continue to command the support of their families. Without that support, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh said, such people will be forced to decide between Army and family. That is not a choice with which we should present them. We should ensure that they can maintain both family and career. To do that, we need more people to take on the jobs. What has happened is that we have taken on more jobs and commitments, yet we have fewer people to perform those jobs and meet those commitments.

As has been noted already, training is suffering as a result of the constraints being placed on our armed forces. Our troops do not get the training they need because they are spending too much time on operational duties. Ultimately, that will impact on the quality of the operational service they can provide. That is another reason why we must ensure that we have enough soldiers and service personnel to undertake the tasks being placed upon them.

Opposition Members support the Government's desire to deploy our armed forces in Britain's interests overseas, but we are not uncritical. It is our duty to pose questions, and many hon. Members of all parties have done just that in this debate. I can tell the right hon. Member for Walsall, South that we do not take the year-zero approach and assume that everything was completely correct before 1997, and that everything has gone wrong since.

However, it is no good the Government saying that everything is the fault of the Conservative Government. This Government have been in office for five years. They have had the opportunity to put matters right, and they have set out their proposals in the strategic defence review. They must be held to account for the state of our armed forces, and they must balance that state against the commitments that they wish those forces to undertake.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) made some good points about the defence medical services. I have visited the Centre for Defence Medicine in Selly Oak, Birmingham and agree that it is in the wrong place. It is a military unit in a goldfish bowl. It is isolated and a fish out of water. Its staff were not allowed to wear their uniforms in public in the immediate aftermath of 11 September. The unit is 45 minutes away from the nearest defence establishment. I must tell the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) that I cast no aspersions on the service that it provides, which is first class; all I am saying is that it is in the wrong place and the Government need to act urgently to rebuild the defence medical services. It does not encourage the troops that we send into action to know that they have to rely on contingents of foreign field hospitals to receive the best treatment.

Dr. Moonie


Mr. Howarth

None of us is saying that the quality of the medical services provided elsewhere is substandard, but our service men must think that something is wrong if the Government cannot provide the medical services that they need when they are sent into battle. That problem has to be addressed.

Accommodation was mentioned by a number of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) and the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). I accept that the Government recognise that much work needs to be done on accommodation, especially single-living accommodation. The Minister knows about the shocking state of accommodation in Aldershot and elsewhere. In addition, The Mirror, which does not support the Conservative party, said that the Paras were put into substandard accommodation when they returned from Afghanistan. One of their senior NCOs said: It hardly makes you feel your service is valued by the powers that be if this is all you get for putting your life on the line.

No one expects results overnight, but the Government have to ensure that there is a programme of refurbishment of accommodation so that it is up to a standard that our service men and women are entitled to expect. Indeed, the Select Committee report said that the last thing servicemen need when deployed on operations is to be worrying about the standards of accommodation back home". The Government should take that assertion to heart and do something about it, as they should with so many of the Committee's deliberations. I hope that the Minister will say what will happen on that score.

Pensions remain a subject of debate. It is a concern that there is no resolution to the proposals that the Government introduced some time ago. When they launched the pensions review in 1998, the Minister then responsible, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), said: We need to ensure that the Armed Forces Scheme is in line with the best modern practice". It is now more than 12 months since the Government's proposals were published. Although consultation is welcome, it is time for them to deal with the serious concerns expressed by some highly reputable organisations, such as the Royal British Legion and the Forces Pensions Society. As the society said, the current scheme has already fallen behind modern, good or even standard practice.

The Minister of State told the Select Committee last month that the cost neutrality aspect was not an original driver". Now, however, we are told that improvements have to be found within the existing budget and there will be no recourse to new money. It is unacceptable for the Government to continue to claim that they want to improve the pensions of our armed forces to bring them up to the best in the commercial world while failing to deliver because they say that cost neutrality is now a baseline consideration. A comparison of various costs of benefits per year of service as a percentage of pensionable salary shows that the armed forces are not an exceptional burden, at 15 per cent. Comparable figures are 22 per cent. for the police and 16 per cent. for the civil service. I ask the Minister to take the one-off opportunity of this first serious review in 30 years to ensure that pensions are tackled properly and that if more money is needed to ensure that pension arrangements are in line with best practice in the commercial world, that money will be found and there will be no penny-pinching.

The important role of the cadet forces was mentioned by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway). I think that all hon. Members will welcome their remarks. The cadet forces make a huge contribution not only to our local communities but to giving young people the military ethos and, as the hon. Lady said, to keeping them off the streets where they might be led astray. Forty-five per cent. of the Royal Air Force's air crew recruits of all ranks come from the air cadets.

Last week I was with the Royal Engineers at Gibraltar barracks, where I met people from the university officer training corps, which is represented in 19 universities. They were having a fantastic time and were hugely committed, and large numbers of young people in our universities are joining them. When Ministers make financial decisions, I hope that they will not be tempted to think that the cadets are an easy option that can be knocked off to save a few bob, because the long-term cost will be hugely disproportionate.

We heard about the Territorial Army, which is 1,300 below strength. The Government are increasingly having recourse to our reservists, and the Secretary of State himself acknowledged that fortunately his plans to cut the Territorial Army were insufficiently far advanced to have done all the damage that might otherwise have been done. My hon. Friends the Members for Rayleigh and for Newark were right to say that we must consider the role of our reserve forces as we decide how best to tackle the defence of the United Kingdom homeland against the threat of international terrorism. They have a role to play, albeit that none of us wants them to spend all their time being recruited to go and sit by some key installation, because that is not their function. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) said, the TA should again provide formed units.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) mentioned the case of retired officers, and I support his comments 100 per cent. It is unfortunate that the Government did not include them among those who are to receive the golden jubilee medal, because they make a large contribution to the running of establishments around the country. They work extremely hard, but are paid less than a corporal. I shall give the Minister some examples of what they do. One is a nuclear propulsion naval liaison officer with Rolls-Royce in Derby; another is a staff officer to the Chief of the General Staff; another is a housing commandant at Aldergrove. The Commander-in-Chief, Land. General Sir Mike Jackson, has said that his command would come to a halt without those people. It is time for the Government to review their decision and include them among those who are to receive the medal.

I have one or two other queries for the Minister. For example, we need information from the Government on what they intend to do about women on the front line. We also need information about the Government's intentions for courts martial given the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. If they had followed our advice and ensured that Britain had a derogation from the European convention on human rights for our defence services, we would not have had this problem in the first place. The Government should have listened to us.

The Government are keen to call upon our armed forces to defend Britain's interests and those of our allies around the world. We support them in their endeavours. The Government are fortunate that they can take pride in the commitment and professionalism of our forces, but the clear message from both sides of the House is that the current levels of commitment cannot be maintained given the resources being provided. Under this Government, defence spending has fallen consistently as a percentage of GDP—from 3 per cent. in 1995–96 to 2.5 per cent. last year. It is expected to fall further to 2.3 per cent. next year.

The obvious strain of that shrinking budget is clear for all to see. Too much reliance on the dedication of our existing personnel cannot be allowed to continue. If we are to maintain the effectiveness of the forces in whom we take so much pride, we must will the means to provide them with the best available equipment and ensure that they and their families can enjoy a quality of life commensurate with the commitment that they give to our country.

6.41 pm
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

This has been an informed and wide-ranging debate, as others have said. I am genuinely grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. In the time available, I will do my best to respond to many of the detailed points raised. If it is not possible to deal with them all, I shall respond in writing.

I contend that the Government are working hard for all our people in the armed forces. Given what we as a nation ask of our armed forces, especially when they have to be deployed into unexpected and often dangerous situations, that is only right. As we speak, more than 28,000 men and women in our armed forces are deployed around the world. As has been recognised, it is the quality of our people—both service and civilian personnel—that is the single most important element of our defence capability.

Although this debate is about the armed forces, it would be remiss of me not to mention in passing their civilian counterparts in the Ministry of Defence. Increasingly, they are called on to support the armed forces very close to the front line in, for example, 'the Gulf, Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Oman and Afghanistan. The Government recognise their vital contribution to the defence effort. They do a first-class job.

My hon. Friends the Members for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire), for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) mentioned warship support modernisation. I hear what they say and, in my intervention, I tried to explain the way in which we have dealt with the matter. We made a commitment to make a statement to the House through the normal process of a parliamentary question—we could obviously have used other means—and I did not want to breach that commitment. If I had entered into the debate over the weekend, I would have done so before informing the House of our decision. I believe in all sincerity that that would have been the wrong approach and that it would have been wrong to indicate in depth our arguments to individual Members of Parliament—even to my hon. Friends—and to ask them to take those arguments on for me. I believe that I acted with honesty and integrity.

I fully understand the depth of feeling that accompanied our announcement to proceed with the partnering arrangements. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West that it is not a privatisation; it is a partnering arrangement. The non-industrial staff on the Clyde will take a day of industrial action tomorrow and that reflects the unease that some of the work force undoubtedly feel. However, our decision, which was announced in the House on 21 March, was the right one to take at this time in our defence interests. That does not mean that I or my ministerial colleagues value any less the outstanding work that has been done over the years at the dockyards.

All the options offer significant benefits compared with the current costs of undertaking warship repairs and maintenance, but the company proposals offer the best overall value for the defence pound. A projected saving of £300 million over five years will make a considerable contribution to the better delivery of front-line services.

My hon. Friends will take the view that the status quo was not an option in that determination. If the status quo is not an option and hon. Members are concerned about a contraction in posts and jobs as a consequence, they should tell us how many job losses they would be prepared to accept. The reality is that, although we are talking about some 750 jobs being lost over five years at three yards, the situation will be well managed by the companies involved. It will become a matter between the unions and those companies.

I had a very productive meeting with the trade unions yesterday. They set out their main concerns—the five points mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall)—and we have made some progress on them. We are sensitive to the issue, but we also have to make progress in delivering the best services at the yards.

Mr. McFall

I thank the Minister for his efforts with the unions yesterday, but there is a still a big job to do in assuaging concerns, so will he and perhaps the Secretary of State and others ensure that they will visit the yards? In particular, will the Minister visit Faslane with me, so that we achieve that co-operative effort and ensure that best practice, which has been maintained at that yard, will continue?

Mr. Ingram

I can tell the House that Portsmouth council has asked to meet me, along with local Members of Parliament and, I suspect, trade union representatives. I have agreed to that meeting. If the unions requested a meeting at the facility, I would not refuse it. If my hon. Friend's local authority made a similar request, I would not refuse it. However, I do not want to impose myself into that debate if those involved do not wish me to be there.

Linda Gilroy

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), will meet Plymouth city council a week tomorrow to discuss a number of issues related to the dockyard, including the one that the Minister mentions. Would the Minister agree to meet representatives of the council if that is their wish?

Mr. Ingram

Yes, because I believe that we have a strong and sustainable case and it is right to deal with it in that way. However, at the end of the day, the relationship is with the trade unions in one sense and, more importantly, with the employees in those dockyards.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said that the way in which we are dealing with nuclear refit represents a new departure. Contractors already deal with nuclear refit, so there is no new departure. There is already a mixed economy in those dockyards and what we are doing represents a step change in that approach.

Mr. Gray

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram

No. I have spoken at length about that issue.

Mr. Gray


Mr. Ingram

Very well.

Mr. Gray

Will the Minister reconsider the privatisation of the defence fire service?

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman should await the outcome of the study into providing those services and let me consider all the options that are put to me at that time. If he has any answers to deal with what is undoubtedly a range of inefficiencies in the delivery of those services, I shall be interested to hear them. We are trying to address the issue by examining the options, so that we can maximise the return on the defence pound and the money saved can then go into the front line.

I visited Sierra Leone a few weeks ago. I was able to visit and speak to our men and women in Afghanistan last week. My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) and the hon. Members for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and, of course, for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) accompanied me on that visit and, as they said, it was very worth while.

Mr. Jenkin

Some of it was.

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman is not complimentary about the visit, but that is a matter for him. I was greatly impressed by what I saw during those visits.

In Sierra Leone there are about 360 personnel, providing highly valued military training and assistance to the Sierra Leone armed forces and ministry of defence. On the ground in Afghanistan, in the separate roles of security assistance in Kabul and combat against terrorist groups, by the end of this month, there will be a total of about 3,000 service personnel.

Those men and women are working tirelessly to ensure that our promises to root out evil and bring hope and stability to the battered populations in Afghanistan are delivered on. Our supporting maritime deployment consists of nearly 1,900 personnel on 12 vessels. Everyone to whom I talked was highly motivated, dedicated and committed to what has been asked of them. I accept that that is recognised throughout the House.

The Government recognise the unique position that our armed forces occupy in our society. We ask our men and women to make an open-ended commitment that imposes limitations on their individual freedoms, and requires self-sacrifice not only from them but from their families.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South talked about expeditionary campaigns, and how we deliver the infrastructure for them. We procured an improved tented camp as an urgent operational requirement during the Kosovo campaign. That provides much, but not all, of what is needed to support deployed forces. It is available for use by ISAF and the other elements deployed in Afghanistan.

That is undoubtedly an improvement on the pre-Kosovo equipment but it does not provide everything that we need in a form as easily deployable as we would like. We are therefore also working quickly to procure a much improved expeditionary campaign infrastructure, which will provide a fully integrated stand-alone capability, with power generation, ablution facilities, sewage treatment, and laundry and catering facilities for more than 5,000 troops. That capability will come into service during 2003–04, and it will be among the best in the world. We shall feed the lessons that we are learning in ISAF, and those that we learned through Saif Sareea 2 and Kosovo, including best practice from other countries, into the project.

The question of the food available to our forces has been raised. The food available to our forces deployed in Afghanistan is the envy of the other forces deployed alongside them. [Interruption.] Those who accompanied me on the visit may not agree, but that is what those who consume the food say—and it shows the great success of our new arrangements for contracting for food and delivering it to the front line. We should never minimise that part of the logistic chain. Good quality food and regular hot meals are important for people in very difficult circumstances.

The professionalism, loyalty and courage, both moral and physical, given so freely by the men and women of our armed forces create an obligation that has to be met. Ensuring that we continue to deliver on the strategic defence review's "A Policy for People" is one way in which we can begin to meet that obligation.

Before I deal with some of the personnel issues that have been raised, I should comment on what the hon. Member for North Essex said, and the debate that took place between him and his hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), about the joint Harrier force, and our decision to concentrate the development of that force on the Harrier GR7. That decision has already been explained by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—and of course, we upgraded to GR9 standard.

The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex suggested that our decision had frustrated a desire to deploy those aircraft in support of operations in Afghanistan. I wholly refute the suggestion that our forces in Afghanistan sought the deployment of Sea Harriers, or that that was at any stage a feature of our military planning. There was no operational need for UK air defence aircraft. As was made clear when we announced our investment strategy, the planned withdrawal of the Sea Harrier will not begin until 2004.

Mr. Soames

I was not talking about the deployment of Sea Harriers to Afghanistan. I was talking about the GR7. I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman clarified the point.

Mr. Ingram

If I have got it wrong, I apologise. The issue is the defence of the fleet, and the hon. Gentleman was referring to that in terms of Afghanistan.

Mr. Soames

The point that I was making was that, from the date on which the Sea Harrier is withdrawn from service, the fleet when deployed anywhere will not have its own integral air defence. That is wholly unacceptable and renders the Royal Navy a coastal force and no longer a blue-water force.

Mr. Ingram

That might be unacceptable to the hon. Gentleman, but it was of course part of the planned development concerning the expeditionary force—[Interruption.] Many issues have been raised in the debate, but I am sorry that I have touched on that one—not because I got it wrong, but because the hon. Gentleman has said that there would thereafter be no air defence of the fleet.

The new fleet—the type 45 destroyers and all the defensive aids and suites that go with them—will form a very sophisticated layer of defence. That is part of the planning assumption. We have of course been planning for strike capability—developing the expeditionary force so that we can destroy the threat on the ground rather than having the layer of defence dependent on equipment that will be phased out. If I have misinterpreted some of the hon. Gentleman's language, I apologise, but he and others are wrong in their allegations.

Mr. Francois

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ingram

No, I am going to try to move on as I have only three minutes left.

There are five main pillars to our personnel delivery strategy: to cultivate, obtain, retain, sustain and remember. Many of the issues that right hon. and hon. Members have raised relate to all those elements. Cultivation is about creating a climate in the country in which the armed forces are still seen as relevant, necessary and desirable—an essential feature of what we are doing. Hon. Members have mentioned the role of the cadet forces in that respect, which is of course just one element to it. Many other initiatives are taken. The other pillar relating to overall policy is the obtaining of the resource that we need. The recruitment of individuals of the right calibre poses huge challenges for the armed forces.

Retention is undoubtedly a very big issue. The reality is that no single policy can address it. In raising the issue, some hon. Members have said, "Here's an example; now implement it." I hope that all hon. Members who have participated in the debate will accept that no one policy can address the issue. We need to understand what motivates or discourages individuals. That changes according to each individual's circumstances, so our approach must and does embrace a balanced and layered mix of measures, some addressing broad issues such as pay, pensions, training, families' accommodation and diversity, and other addressing issues of concern to particular high-value groups such as aircrew, engineers and medical personnel.

I have not even begun to touch on many of the issues raised in the debate. All hon. Members whose issues I have not addressed will of course be written to.

Personnel are thoroughly at the heart of this Government's endeavours on defence. The armed forces' overarching personnel strategy will play a pivotal role in maintaining that aim. It is both focused and comprehensive. This Government recognise that the character of conflict will continue to present a physical and moral challenge to service personnel, and that problems remain, but hon. Members of all parties should not think that we do not accept that more is required or that we have not implemented policies and strategies that address those problems—

It being Seven o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without question put.