– in the House of Commons at 2:13 pm on 1st July 1999.
[Relevant documents: First Report from the Defence Committee of Session 1998–99, on the Strategic Defence Review: Territorial Army Restructuring (HC 70), and the Government's Response thereto (HC 417). Sixth Report from the Social Security Committee of Session 1998–99, War Pensions Agency Business Plan 1999–2000 (HC 377).]
I am very pleased to open this debate about people in defence. At Defence questions last week, I did not have the opportunity to welcome the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) to the Opposition Front Bench. I take this opportunity to do so. I hope that he has an enjoyable time as an Opposition spokesman and that he enjoys longevity in opposition, so that he can be completely fulfilled in his role.
I am sure that the House will agree that the men and women of our armed forces, and those who support them, are a tremendous national asset. The people who make up our armed forces make an enormous contribution to Britain's place in the world. I want this afternoon to pay tribute to the dedication, professionalism and commitment of all who serve in our armed forces. We have long known about those qualities. In the past 14 weeks in the Balkans, our forces have demonstrated them to people not only in this country but worldwide. I have every confidence that our forces will continue to display those qualities in any task that we set them in future.
We all know the danger that is involved in the tasks that our forces are currently carrying out in the Balkans. I know that the whole House will want to join me in sending condolences to the loved ones of Lieutenant Evans and Sergeant Balaram, the two Gurkhas who were killed—helping others—in the tragic accident in Kosovo last week.
When we announced the results of our strategic defence review last year, we stated our belief that, as a leading member of the international community and a trading nation, we have a responsibility to be involved on the world stage. That is why we continue to have worldwide interests, worldwide responsibilities and worldwide influence. The British people want our diplomatic and military activities on the world stage to pursue not only what is in our direct interest but what is right. Those are the objectives of this Government.
Recently, of course, the focus has been on Kosovo. The air campaign there was an outstanding success for the alliance as a whole and for the UK. Credit is due to all those involved, but particularly to the RAF pilots who put their lives at risk day and night in the cause of humanity and who flew some 10 per cent. of the total strike sorties flown by NATO. The focus has now turned to operations on the ground in Kosovo. We have some 8,500 troops in Kosovo, with a further 2,200 in Macedonia. The speed at which they were deployed will stand as a lasting tribute to the efficiency and professionalism of all those involved. The fact that our armed forces were the first into Kosovo in significant numbers demonstrates that, if there is a job to be done, they will not shy away from doing it.
The Minister has just commented on the remarkable achievement of our forces in moving so quickly into Kosovo. Will he therefore tell the House why he is breaking up Fifth Airborne Brigade—the only brigade headquarters capable of mounting an operation at seven days' notice—and merging it with a lower-readiness formation?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the changes that we are making aim to modernise our armed forces and to put them in a position where they can deploy in a ready and usable manner. That is why that change has been made. We have had exchanges on the details of that change on many occasions in Committee and in the House.
Our troops in Kosovo are involved in a variety of tasks, but the dangers have not deterred the colleagues of Lieutenant Evans and Sergeant Balaram in any way. Indeed, for many, it has made them even more determined, and I have no doubt that their tasks will be carried out with the same level of commitment and the skill that their Air Force colleagues demonstrated. Our troops are helping, in very difficult conditions, to create an environment where all people, whatever their ethnic background, can live together in safety and peace. That is a task for which the abilities of the UK's armed forces are second to none.
Our forces are engaged in many other places across the globe. At the last count, there were almost 30 separate deployments of British forces. More than 63,000 men and women are undertaking tasks in locations ranging from Latvia to South Africa, and from Sierra Leone to Singapore.
Examples of those tasks include the five military personnel in Romania who are helping the country to draw up its new defence strategy and run training courses, and the eight-person military advisory training team in Sierra Leone. I can announce today that we are sending two military liaison officers to the United Nations mission in East Timor. They will form part of the continued deployment of civilian police officers and military personnel who are being sent to East Timor to assist the ballot on the future of the island in August that is being organised by the UN. Such deployments show the breadth and width of the tasks that are carried out by our armed forces in their numerous postings all over the world.
Having read out the list of countries, does the Minister accept that the British Army is suffering severe overstretch?
I am coming to the issue of overstretch a little more quickly than the hon. Gentleman might have expected.
I accept that overstretch is a major problem facing the armed forces. They recognise that it cannot be solved overnight, as I hope does the House. Ultimately, overstretch can be addressed only by a long-term strategy. That strategy must address the level of our commitments and the way in which we meet them.
As always, we are assessing our level of commitment. I cannot predict political events in the Balkans any more than anyone else. I do not know for how long we will have a commitment in the Balkans, but we will be there for as long as is necessary to complete the task. I anticipate, however, that others will be making a telling contribution. NATO is reviewing the level of troops in Bosnia. We clearly want to reduce our force levels when appropriate; we of course review those levels very regularly.
I am pleased that the Minister has referred to Lieutenant Evans, whom he may know was a constituent of mine. The Minister may also know that I referred last week in business questions to the very sad circumstances of Lieutenant Evans's death, and secured a commitment from the Leader of the House that the Minister would in this debate address my serious concerns about the security and safety of personnel, and about the procedures being put in hand to ensure that everything possible is done to protect military personnel and civilians.
I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify for the hon. Gentleman that the safety of all our troops has been paramount in all our calculations over the past 14 weeks, and will continue to be so. All practical steps possible to secure maximum safety will be taken.
Before responding to the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter), the Minister talked about the uncertainties over the withdrawal from Kosovo. Is he aware that, in Question Time last week, the Defence Secretary said that he expected "a significant reduction" in troop numbers "after about six months"? That seems to be inconsistent with what the Minister has just said. On what assumptions did the Secretary of State make such a statement?
I hope that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman—and, indeed, anybody else who might be listening to this debate—that the Defence Secretary said that he would hope to be able to reduce our numbers. Many discussions are taking place with our NATO partners—and with some countries outside NATO on how they might make a contribution. Several have said that they want to make a contribution. As they are able to move their troops to the front line, we will be allowed to pull back some of ours for roulement and recuperation. That is what the Secretary of State said, and that is what I believe will happen.
I cannot resist the pleasure of giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
Is the Minister aware that his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) on the back of his comments on overstretch will be studied very carefully? The Secretary of State indicated a six-month deadline—he is talking about looking to remove troops from the commitment—yet, just now, the Minister said that he did not know how long the commitment would last. The issue of overstretch, particularly pressure on troop numbers in Bosnia, is hugely affected by such decisions. I want the Minister to be clear: what are the criteria that will enable the Secretary of State to order the withdrawal of troops from Kosovo other than that already alluded to?
The hon. Gentleman has failed to draw a distinction. I do not know how long there will be a need for military involvement in the Balkans. I cannot predict that any better than anyone else. We have said that we will make the necessary provision, together with others, to meet our responsibilities on the commitment. In doing so, there is the question of how and what resources will be brought to bear.
Discussions with NATO partners are taking place, and it is known publicly that many non-NATO countries want to make a contribution. As such countries make a greater contribution, it will allow us to reduce the level of troops. Initially, we would be replacing troops already in the region with others who are ready to move into the theatre. I believe that, and I am confident that, other nations will be prepared to carry more of a responsibility than has been so up to now. We must all welcome that as a clear sign of the democratic world acknowledging that they must share responsibilities for such a task.
We are due to send extra troops to Bosnia next spring, but would not it be reasonable to divert those experienced forces to Kosovo as other nations take over our role in Bosnia?
One of the reasons why we want six deployable brigades under the strategic defence review is that it will enable us better to meet such commitments. There are questions of commitment generally in Kosovo and of who will meet the commitment in Bosnia. Both issues will affect the number of troops that are required in total in both Kosovo and Bosnia. The supply of those troops is a separate question. As I said in reply to the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), other NATO nations and others are increasingly prepared to contribute to such a commitment
The Minister knows that at the heart of our ability to sustain commitments is the retention of troops. Crucial to that is the attitude of their families. In the Balkans, there has been a significant increase in unaccompanied tour commitment. We do not have endless resources, but if we are to undertake more commitments, for what level of tour interval on unaccompanied tours is the Government planning?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. Many people who serve in the armed forces will be asking that question. The answer is that we are gearing ourselves to meet the commitments that we set out in the strategic defence review. We hope that several initiatives on recruitment will increase the number of our troops—I shall announce some of them this afternoon—and other measures on retention should help us to meet commitments.
What is the level?
It was stated in the strategic defence review.
I want to move from the issue of commitment to the one of provision of resources.
I want to make an announcement about the Military Provost Guard Service. I can announce today that we are addressing one of the ways in which our armed forces can get more people to the front line. Currently, 1,400 soldiers in the Army—the equivalent of two and a half infantry battalions—are undertaking guarding duties in the United Kingdom. Those duties are not generally relished by many of our young soldiers; they find them tedious and they want to be in the field with their units, putting into practice the skills that they have learned.
On 23 June, I announced that, following a two-year pilot scheme, I had decided, subject to consultation, to expand the Military Provost Guard Service to a strength of 600, replacing MOD police in carrying out armed guarding duties at 27 Army establishments throughout the country.
Military Provost Guard Service personnel are soldiers on local service engagements—that is to say that they are generally limited to serving within their travel-to-work area. However, in other respects, they are subject to the same service regulations and discipline as full engagement regular soldiers. They are part of the Army.
I now intend to develop the provost guard scheme further. We are already in the process of recruiting an additional 200 provost guards to replace soldiers who have completed their initial training but are required to undertake guarding duties at training establishments. That will release personnel for the front line.
Building on the success of the pilot scheme, I intend to expand the Military Provost Guard Service to replace the 1,400-odd full engagement regular soldiers currently employed on static guarding duties in the United Kingdom. The objective is to free up those soldiers from other tasks. The speed with which we are able to do so will depend on our success in recruiting this new kind of soldier. However, I am optimistic about our ability to do so.
This is an important initiative. I am determined that we should make maximum use of this new kind of soldier. It will help us to improve the quality of life for our regular soldiers. Those numbers represent about one sixth of the current shortfall of soldiers in the Army.
As we expect the provost guard scheme to appeal to a different sector of the work force from the rest of the Army, we shall be widening the pool from which we can recruit. We believe that those most likely to be attracted to the provost guards will be ex-regulars—those who enjoy the Army way of life but, now a little older, have had enough of overseas postings and are looking for greater stability and the opportunity to put down roots in one place.
I want to turn—
I give way to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock).
I welcome the Minister's statement, and I am sure that most reasonable and sensible people would suggest that it is a step in the right direction. He mentioned the MOD police. I should be grateful if, before he leaves the subject, he would expose to the House what plans he has for the future of the MOD police and say how he envisages their future role.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who asks a question from a sedentary position, that I have had lengthy consultations with the federation on these matters. I want the MOD police to have a successful future and I am confident that they will have such a future carrying out the tasks for which they were intended.
I shall now discuss recruitment.
I think that I have given way very generously. I am sure that hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench will want to catch—
The Minister must give way to an Opposition spokesman.
I am sure that hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench will want to catch my attention later in my contribution, but I want to make some progress.
Our recruitment efforts have been increasingly satisfactory in the past 12 months. In the last financial year, recruitment figures were up 11 per cent. for the armed forces as a whole, in comparison with the previous year. That means that we recruited 26,000 people instead of 23,500. The Royal Navy's recruitment was up 4 per cent., the Army's up 10 per cent. and the RAF's up 20 per cent.
Our recruitment of women showed a steady improvement, increasing 3 per cent. between 1997–98 and 1998–99. Twenty per cent. of all officer recruits are now women. I believe that it compares very favourably with any other major organisation in the country, be it private or public sector, to have 20 per cent. of female middle management recruits.
In the black and Asian communities, recruitment doubled from 1 to 2 per cent. of recruits between 1997–98 and 1998–99, and we have made a good start towards achieving our target of 5 per cent. by the year 2002.
Those figures reinforce the Government's view that suitability and ability are not governed by colour, gender or social background.
It is never easy to know what motivates people to join the armed forces. I believe that it is a first-choice career, and obviously there are now more young people who believe that it is a challenging career. Young people recognise that they can learn essential skills, which put them in a position to pursue a civilian career later in life.
The armed forces have always strongly recruited on educational advancement. Black people in America have for many years improved their skills and made a more telling contribution to the American way of life by joining the armed forces. Their motto was,
A way out and a way up".
I believe that, in Britain today, people from all backgrounds can improve their education by committing themselves to serving the nation in our forces. They can join up and get on. It will make them not only better-qualified soldiers but better-qualified citizens. Our learning forces initiative is designed to achieve that. We have committed £10 million extra to that initiative in the current financial year.
As the House will be aware, today, the Territorial Army changes formally to the new organisation that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence announced on 17 November 1998. The new structure takes effect today and should be fully effective by April 2000. I am glad to say that the transition has been highly successful thus far.
I shall now discuss retention, which is crucial if we are not only to stabilise the overall figures in the armed forces, but to increase them to the levels that we believe are necessary and were stated in the strategic defence review. Obviously, if more people are recruited and retained and there is less overstretch, those who serve are more fulfilled and more contented, and therefore more likely to stay.
However, we are not there yet. We must take many more measures to make staying in the services more attractive. I believe that financial incentive is an important factor in retention.
I have previously raised in the Chamber the issue of conditions—especially those of Gurkha troops. We owe the Gurkhas a debt of honour that we can never repay. I am sure that the Minister will concede that, and I am sure that he will concede that, if Gurkha pensions were reviewed, it would go some way to help a country that is poor but very proud. Do the Government propose to review the pensions payable to Gurkha soldiers?
I shall come to that issue in a little while, but first I want to deal with the question of financial incentive.
The pay settlement, which was not phased this year, was welcomed as a contribution to retention. I am considering whether different lengths of engagement for ranks in the Army would encourage retention and what might be the appropriate incentives to persuade people to sign up for longer.
We have recommended financial incentives for signallers to stay in the Army, and those recommendations have been put to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. We have introduced incentive schemes to persuade pilots to remain in post longer, which involves paying for their training for civilian licences.
Our pay settlement for doctors and dentists in the three services, at 4.5 per cent., is 1 per cent. above changes that were made in national health service rates, and is designed to help retain those essential staff.
I shall now deal with the question asked by the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett). We very much appreciate and hugely value the contribution that is made by Gurkha soldiers to the tasks of the British Army. The death of Sergeant Balaram in Kosovo has raised the question of the provision of death-in-service payments and the pension arrangements for British Gurkhas.
I am examining the pensions and gratuities paid to British Gurkhas, which are regularly reviewed within the context of the tripartite agreement between Nepal, India and the United Kingdom. The agreement has proved to be flexible over the years. It provides the basis for Gurkha pensions. This is an important issue in general terms given the principles on which our armed forces are based and in the retention of our Gurkha soldiers, who we hugely value.
Is the Minister able to confirm that the Department of Social Security and the War Pensions Agency will be involved? The real scandals are in the treatment of Gurkha personnel from the wartime era, some of whom receive almost nothing. Some of those people have medals. They come under the War Pensions Agency, not the Ministry of Defence.
I have been involved in assessing the background of Gurkha pensions over a long period. I have announced a new examination today, which will come on top of the assessment that has already taken place. It will involve all parties within government that have a contribution to make. I have not yet decided who will be on the committee, which I shall chair. I shall be making a decision on that very shortly once representations have been made.
I cannot take interventions for ever, but I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful that there will be a review of pensions once Gurkhas have finished their service. Will the Minister review their status within the United Kingdom if, on retirement following service in the Army, they choose to remain here and take up other employment that involves working for the Government, rather than exposing them to the indignity of returning to Nepal to fight an endless struggle to get readmitted to the United Kingdom?
I have said what I shall examine and I will not say any more than that. Members could put many hypothetical situations to me. It would not be fair for me to try to answer them without notice before I have examined all the various implications of these issues. I am not discounting anything as being unimportant. I want thoroughly to consider these matters once I have received appropriate advice.
I want to move on because I know that many right hon. and hon. Members want to speak in the debate.
Education is also important for retention. It enhances skills and I believe that, in future, it will be more and more valued by our armed forces. Young soldiers recognise that, when they leave service life and join civilian life, they must have skills. In addition to their military skills, I know that they recognise the importance of skills such as computer literacy and information technology. I was extremely impressed when I visited Albemarle barracks in Northumberland recently. I saw soldiers, who were primarily involved in dealing with Phoenix, sitting before computer terminals, clearly delighted to be learning computer techniques and improving their computer literacy skills. They believe that those skills are important for their time in the services and that they will hold them in good stead in the future. That is an excellent example.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) talked about families, about which I want to say one or two things. One of the disincentives to retention is often a sense of separation from family life. I put a high priority on measures to bring families closer to their loved ones who serve. We have increased the allowance for free telephone calls for personnel deployed abroad to 10 minutes a week. We have also introduced flexibility to permit any of the allowance unused in one week to be carried forward to the next.
I believe that families and friends should be able to communicate easily with their loved ones in the armed forces and, earlier this week, I announced a new service to enable them to do so using the internet. Those in the forces will know what I mean by the Bluey, which has been modernised and speeded up. After I made my announcement on Monday, I can tell the House that the system has been heavily used this week, especially between families in this country and those whom they love who are serving in the Balkans.
I want to see an improvement in telephone services worldwide for our troops. Many right hon. and hon. Members who have visited troops on any location will know that in many instances telephone facilities are not as good as they should be. That is inadequate and I intend to do something about it. I am conducting a review of the provision. I believe that our troops should have access to all the best and latest technology. Improvements have been made in Macedonia and we are extending them to Kosovo.
I am grateful to the Minister for very generously giving way to me for the first time.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House why our service men and women in Bosnia have run out of telephone cards, which means that they cannot communicate with their loved ones in this country? It is good news that the length of time that they can call home is to be increased, but that will not work if there are not more telephones. The queues are getting longer, which means added frustration. What will the hon. Gentleman do about that?
This evening, we will dispatch telephone cards to Bosnia from wherever we need to get them. The hon. Gentleman has my assurance on that.
I move on to the welfare of families. It is not enough to keep in touch with families; their welfare must be considered as well. I know that commanding officers—I meet many of them every day of the week—place a high priority on their responsibilities to look after the welfare of our service families. They know, as the House should know, that a soldier who knows that his family is being well looked after is a focused soldier, and we want our soldiers to be focused.
I am sorry to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, and I am grateful to him for giving way.
I urge the hon. Gentleman to examine carefully the disparities in the way in which family policy is run. For example, in my judgment, the Royal Navy has always looked after the families of its personnel more effectively than the Army has done. The Royal Air Force has an entirely different system. The standard throughout the Army varies very much from regiment to regiment and from corps to corps. Will the hon. Gentleman consider instigating a form of benchmark of best practice in each of the three services and examine how best we can bring all the services together, so that what he and everyone else want to do—to provide a first-class service for families—can be put in place?
Building on some of the radical reforms that were previously made in the office, I regularly meet the family associations from the different services. They have raised with me the point that has been made by the hon. Gentleman and benchmarked certain issues for me, indicating where they think improvements have been made and how they could be extended. I take on board what the hon. Gentleman says.
I chair a task force that deals with issues such as education and health. I am pleased to say that we have had a number of meetings at officials' level and a meeting at ministerial level. Considerable progress is being made in improving the facilities for service families in education and health and in other areas. In consultation with the families, they agree that we should deal with those issues first and then move on to others that are important for them.
For example, when a service family moves from one location to another, how do they ensure that their children have access to a school of their choice? The Department for Education and Employment has taken that on board and modified the regulations accordingly. If a service family moves from one location to another and they are in a waiting list for a hospital facility, how will they be treated?
Those are two of the initial issues with which we are dealing. There are many more that I deal with that I believe are of the highest priority.
I have been pleased to be able to report to the House that we are doing everything that we possibly can for the people who serve this nation in our armed forces, and that we want to do more. The defence of any nation must be a priority for any democratic society. We value our freedoms and we must defend them, and our armed forces do so for us. We should all be indebted to them for their efforts on our behalf. That is why we must ensure that they have the right equipment and the right people to enable them to do the job. If we are to recruit those people, we must make service life attractive to soldiers and the other service men and women who serve, and attractive also to their families and the armed forces' community. That is the Government's objective, and it should be the objective of the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his words of welcome at Question Time last week, and I thank the Minister for the Armed Forces for his words of welcome today, although I would rather be known as the spokesman than the spokesperson.
Having joined the Royal Navy at the age of 16, serving for nine years at the height of the cold war, witnessing at first hand the withdrawal east of Suez, and then serving for 10 years in the Naval Reserve, I feel that life has come full circle as I find myself participating in this most important debate today.
The debate is about the men and women who serve in our armed forces. It addresses the central issue of their numbers, their welfare and their qualities. The Defence Committee's eighth report stated:
The quality of its people is perhaps the defining characteristic of the UK's armed forces.
In recent months, world events have shown yet again that our armed forces are of the finest quality. In Kosovo, the Gulf, Northern Ireland and all around the world, British soldiers, sailors and airmen serve the country with great bravery and professionalism. In Operation Allied Force, as part of the NATO alliance, our airmen carried out hundreds of hazardous missions against a well armed and capable foe.
Following President Milosevic's withdrawal, British troops led the NATO spearhead into Kosovo. No one doubts the great dangers and difficulties that they face, but they face those dangers as the best trained and most professional soldiers in the world. The dangers facing our troops were underlined only last week when, as the Minister said, two British soldiers—Lieutenant Gareth Evans and Sergeant Balam Ram Rai—lost their lives helping to make safe unexploded munitions near a primary school in the village of Orlate. We join the Minister and pay tribute to them. Our thoughts are with their families.
There are many operational demands on our service men. Although Kosovo currently makes the news, no one should forget the contribution that our forces are making in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and the Gulf. Only last week, our Tornadoes struck three communications sites and two radar sites in southern Iraq, in response to aggressive Iraqi action.
We should not forget the impact of separation on the families at home. The point was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). That burden is intensified when their husbands and wives are on active service, when danger is ever present.
Operations are the most fulfilling part of a service man's career. That is what they joined up for; they spend their time in the service training for such eventualities. However, continued commitment to operations can cause havoc for service men with families and the effect can be problematic. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) will deal with welfare issues when he winds up this evening.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I am sorry to interrupt an excellent opening. We have heard about telephone cards and about all the ways in which we try to meet the problems of separation. However, there will be no recruitment and people will not join the armed forces in significant numbers unless their families know where they stand. I am deeply concerned that the Minister did not answer my question. I realise that it is difficult for him to say exactly what will happen, but for what tour interval for unaccompanied tours are the Government planning? If the Government cannot answer that question, what on earth are members of the armed forces or people considering joining supposed to think?
Perhaps the Minister for the Armed Forces wishes to respond to that intervention.
As the Minister has not responded, may I remind him that the Chief of the Defence Staff reported to the Defence Committee that the tour interval for infantry units is down to 15 months, and for individual infantry men it is much worse, perhaps 12 or 13 months—half the length projected in the White Paper and unsustainable in the long run.
It is a pretty tale when the Opposition must supply such information in an important debate. I recognise the important point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater. The matter is of great concern to the families. As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury will deal with welfare matters in his winding-up speech.
That Government said that one of the most important elements of the strategic defence review was their policy for people. The supporting essay states:
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"—
this is the important point—
the delivery of tangible improvements in overstretch and undermanning.
We share that view.
Overstretch was well described in the SDR as a "vicious circle"—the armed forces have fewer men, so those men are deployed more often; they spend longer periods away from their families, so they become more inclined to leave, which leaves the armed forces with fewer men, and so on.
The SDR continued:
We must break this vicious circle. To do so we must match the commitments we undertake to our planned resources".
We share that view too, but we question in this debate whether resources are matching the growing commitments.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the strategic defence review examined the armed forces as the Conservative Government had left them?
Obviously, the SDR examined the armed forces that we left, but Labour tabled a motion in the last defence debate before the last election opposing the defence estimates and stating that it
notes that the shortfall in the strength of the British Army numbers 4,000 personnel; is concerned that the resulting overstretch is undermining the morale and operational effectiveness of the armed forces.
As I shall shortly demonstrate, that seems to have been a golden era compared with the present position.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and apologise for interrupting him. I endorse the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). Of course telephone cards are important, and of course welfare issues are important, but what makes our troops so exceptionally brilliant and effective is the fact that they are highly trained and have superb confidence in their equipment and in their ability to undertake their task. What is so dangerous about the tour interval is that it means that the training is severely curtailed, thereby affecting the service men's confidence in their ability to do the job.
My hon. Friend is right. As the training cycle tightens, it affects the quality of training and the opportunities for training.
We agreed with the statement in the SDR that commitments should match planned resources, but we question whether resources are matching growing commitments. Are the assumptions in the SDR already out of date? The Government recognise that overstretch remains a major problem, as the Minister confirmed today. Nevertheless, even before major deployments took place in the Balkans, MOD figures revealed that more than 36 per cent. of Army personnel are currently committed to operations, with a further 22.5 per cent. warned to deploy for operations. Of Land Command personnel, 55 per cent. are committed to operations, with a further 34 per cent. warned to deploy for operations.
As my hon. Friend says, it is virtually impossible.
Ministers tell us that recruitment is up by 18 per cent. this year. They point to a number of initiatives that have been undertaken as part of the SDR, which we welcome. However, the problem of overstretch remains and is getting worse. Only last week, the Secretary of State admitted that the Army is losing soldiers faster than it is recruiting them. The soldiers that it is losing are the trained, skilled ones, who are being replaced by raw recruits.
The review undertook to increase the Army's strength by 3,300 men, but it did not expect full manning to be achieved before 2004. That is five years away. In October 1997, the Army was 4,500 under strength. Today, it is more than 6,000 under strength.
The Chief of the Defence Staff told the Defence Committee inquiry last year that increasing the size of the Army by 3,300 would be a demanding challenge. Will the Minister confirm that if the Army is 6,000 below strength and its complement is being expanded by 3,300, he has to recruit 9,300 more men and women to get it up to full strength, and he has to do so when numbers are falling, on the Secretary of State's admission, outflow is more than 15 per cent., and the United Kingdom labour market is tightening? That is a huge challenge, particularly as most of the increase will be in signals, engineers and logistics troops, of which we are desperately short. We accept the Government's good intentions, but we shall judge their achievements by the number of people recruited.
Those manpower shortages give rise to our concerns over the nation's ability to meet the commitments made. The Chief of the Defence Staff expressed similar views to the Defence Committee only last week. Let us take a brief look at the armed forces' current major commitments. The deployment in Kosovo is moving towards 13,000 men. We have 4,000 men deployed in Bosnia, and I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm in his winding-up speech reports that that number is about to be reduced. We have 15,000 men deployed in Northern Ireland and a garrison of 23,000 men in Germany. We have a garrison of 3,000 men in Cyprus and the Falklands garrison numbers 1,000 men. With 89 per cent. of Land Command, which is the deployable Army, deployed or warned to deploy, we do not have a lot of room for manoeuvre to confront contingencies that may emerge.
Obviously, the future for Kosovo is unclear, but everything points to the deployment being long term; it would probably be better measured in years rather than months. In an article in the Daily Mail last month, General de la Billière, who knows a thing or two about these matters, said:
It is a military rule of thumb that for every soldier seeing active service on the ground, you need one undergoing training and one unwinding in some less demanding environment.
In other words, to fulfil our planned commitment to Kosovo, we will need up to 30,000 troops. And if things go wrong—as they have a historic habit of doing in the Balkans—we may need to increase that number suddenly and sharply.
He then reviewed the commitments that I have set out and continued:
In my judgment, these figures demonstrate that our armed forces are already dangerously and unacceptably overstretched.
Using the de la Billière formula, the overstretch can be measured as more than 20,000 at present.
At Defence questions last week, the Secretary of State said that he hoped to reduce our troop numbers in Bosnia and in Kosovo and that he expected a "significant reduction" after about "six months". I made that point in my intervention. The Chief of the Defence Staff also said last week that half our troops in Kosovo could be home by the autumn. The Minister's remarks have left the situation rather unclear. We want to know the criteria by which those assumptions are being made. That is an important point and it affects the overstretch situation.
Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman a little if my reply to his intervention was not clear. If one counts the beginning of June as the start date of the troop deployment, after about six months other nations will have had time to begin to assess what contribution they can make—they are doing that now—as well as when they can make it and how they can bring it to bear in Kosovo. At that stage, we would be able to bring back some of our troops and reduce our numbers to allow some to rest and some to train. That is what I said. It is exactly in line with what the Chief of the Defence Staff said and what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. There is no difference at all between us.
I am grateful to the Minister for that. However, he has twice said that troops will "begin" to come back; that does not imply that they are coming back. Perhaps Ministers can confirm that we have received assurances from other nations that they will make up the shortfall.
No sooner do we receive indications that the overstretch pressures are being relieved than the Foreign Secretary—with the Secretary of State's agreement, I assume—commits 8,000 British troops to be put on permanent standby for peacekeeping operations all over the world.
Ministers must recognise that there are many "what if" scenarios on the horizon. What if the situation in Northern Ireland deteriorates and more troops are needed to ensure order? Developments today may enable the Minister to respond to that point later this evening. What if Saddam again threatens his neighbours? What if Milosevic foments disorder in Montenegro? Those are obvious scenarios, but in this uncertain world, and especially over the five-year time scale for achieving full manning of the Army, who knows what eventualities will emerge? We must be prepared for them.
There are two further factors to take into account. First, at St. Malo, the Prime Minister committed us to a European Union defence capability "within or outside NATO". Will the Minister please tell us the implications of that announcement in the context of our commitments and our ability to fulfil them? Secondly, in respect of what has become commonly known as the Blair-Clinton doctrine, the Prime Minister let it be known in a recent article in Newsweek that no dictator engaging in ethnic cleansing or repression would be tolerated. Fine words; that appears to be a global commitment to stamp out unacceptable practices. That huge commitment brings into question the Government's ability to deliver on the rhetoric.
The Government's response to questions about overcommitment and overstretch is that the SDR provides for flexibility. The Secretary of State said that the SDR
was designed so that our forces will be able…to deal flexibly with the sort of problems that we face in Kosovo today."—[Official Report, 10 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 8.]
However, it cannot in any way be argued that the Government's decision to cut the Territorial Army by 18,000 will create flexibility. As yet, TA troops have not been deployed in any great numbers in Kosovo, but no one could doubt the value of the role that they have played recently in Bosnia and in the Gulf.
As of 15 June, 393 members of the TA were serving in the Balkans. Of those, 355 were deployed in Bosnia, making up 10 per cent. of our troops in that country. The TA is much more than a recreational opportunity for civilians who want a taste of military life; it is a vital source of new recruits. It helps to train volunteer and professional recruits, provides support and back-up for the Regular Army and helps to create a link between the armed forces and local communities.
Can my hon. Friend tell the House whether the Government are the first to have simultaneously reduced and mobilised the TA?
I would have to read the reference books, but I strongly suspect that my hon. Friend is right. He has made an important point. One of the TA's vital functions is providing support to the Regular Army and it is cost-effective, absorbing only £350 million per annum, which is approximately 3 per cent. of the defence budget. The Army, which is 6,000 below strength and suffering from a turnover of 15,000 personnel a year, can ill afford to lose such a source of recruits.
The Kosovo crisis has exposed the difficulties caused by the current manpower shortage. There have been reports of regiments having to borrow men from other units to get up to strength. The effects of Government policy have already been felt by the Parachute Regiment, whose 1st Battalion was reported as having to borrow troops from 3 Para because reserves were not available. As a result, 3 Para is not up to battalion strength. The TA's Parachute Regiment, whose soldiers would usually make up any shortfall in regular paras, can no longer do so because of the cuts under the SDR.
Notwithstanding the cuts in the TA, as the Minister said, retention of our regulars is causing serious problems. Overstretch is inextricably linked with retention difficulties. Only last week the Secretary of State told us that
retention figures continue to give us cause for concern".—[Official Report, 21 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 751.]
He also told the Select Committee last week that men were still leaving the Army faster than they were joining.
The problem is exacerbated by the increase in recent years of premature voluntary releases. Pilot retention in the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm—
I know that my hon. Friend is dealing with pilots, but does he think that officer retention in the Army is a problem? My sources in the Army—I am rather out of date, but I still know people there—say that young officers, in particular, are not staying. In five or 10 years' time, there will be a dearth of commanding officers and of the high-quality people whom we are used to seeing in command of regiments and higher.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I can be corrected if I am wrong, but I believe that premature releases among officers in the Army have doubled in recent years, compared with a 10 per cent. increase in other ranks.
I was dealing with pilot retention in the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm. The Government say that the RAF should be on target to meet its full manning level by 2000. I hope that the Minister can confirm tonight that that is the case. The retention of pilots is a real problem. It costs the taxpayer some £3 million to train each one, so it is of no surprise that they are of value to commercial airlines, which themselves face a shortage of pilots. However, it is fair to say that our need is greater than theirs, and I congratulate the Government on introducing a link-up scheme and on the £10,000 incentive to which the Minister referred in his speech.
Clearly, overstretch is at the core of the armed forces personnel problems. The Defence Committee said that there are two possible solutions to overstretch and undermanning: the first is to increase recruitment and retention and the second is to decrease commitments. The Government say that they are succeeding with recruiting, but they are clearly not matching capabilities to commitments.
In their response, Ministers will no doubt mention the overstretch that existed under the previous Government, but they must accept that they have now been in power for two years and that the SDR has cut the defence budget by £1 billion and slashed the TA by 18,000. They must accept that there is growing concern about the mismatch between commitment and budget. They must not shirk that issue, but must come up with concrete answers about how they intend to deal with the problem.
In April last year, the Government said that tackling overstretch would be one of the key elements of the SDR. In June 1997, the Secretary of State promised that the problem of overstretch would be seriously addressed. Now is the time for their deeds to match their words.
There is one other issue on which answers are urgently needed from the Government. In the last parliamentary Session, the Government introduced the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates into domestic law the rights and liberties in the European convention on human rights. It is expected to come into force in early 2000. Have the Government fully taken into account its impact on the armed forces?
The Act guarantees a range of political rights and freedoms of the individual against interference by the state. Once it comes into force and the convention becomes part of national law, the rights and liberties that it guarantees will provide litigants with a range of positive entitlements to assert in the course of a dispute with any public body. Once incorporation has taken place, the encroachment of the European convention on the armed forces will be immense. For example, article 3 provides that
No one should be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
What impact will that have on reports of bullying in the services? Article 6 provides that
everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing within a reasonable time by an independent and impartial tribunal established by law.
That article, taken in conjunction with article 14, raises serious questions about the future of the court martial system. Do the Government have a view on that?
In my judgment, article 8 will cause the most problems. It provides that
Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
That article inevitably questions the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. There is a complete ban, which is non-discretionary and proscribes both homosexual orientation and homosexual conduct. The ban could constitute a breach of the applicant's rights under articles 8, 10 and 14 of the European convention on human rights.
Four members of the armed forces who have lost their service careers because of that policy have already referred their grievance to the European Court of Human Rights. We do not know what that court's reaction is likely to be, but once the Human Rights Act becomes effective next year, the outcome of a complaint to the UK courts is predictable.
When considering an early application, Lord Justice Simon Brown said:
I for my part strongly suspect that so far as this country's international obligations are concerned, the days of this policy"—
Sir Thomas Bingham, Master of the Rolls, said that
to dismiss a person from his or her employment on the grounds of a private sexual preference, and to interrogate him or her about private sexual behaviour, would not appear to me to show respect for that person's private and family life".
Those last words are exactly those contained in the convention.
No, I shall not give way.
Because the European convention was not incorporated in UK law at the time, those views expressed by the judges did not prevail. Will the Minister confirm, however, that following the introduction of the Human Rights Act, it is highly likely that the ban on homosexuals will be declared unlawful? How do the Government intend to respond to that? This is a most important issue and the forces must be ready for it.
May I offer some information to the hon. Gentleman? It does not relates specifically to the question of homosexuality, but we are currently examining to what extent the services discipline Acts need to be modified in the light of the incorporation of the convention under the Human Rights Act. We hope shortly to announce our proposals.
I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention, although I should have thought that the Government would think about those matters before introducing an Act, rather than afterwards.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way towards the end of his speech. As he implied, the Ministry of Defence has completely dropped the ball on this matter. Whereas the Department for Education and Employment got it right by acquiring specific exemptions for schools during the passage of the Bill, the Ministry of Defence acquired no exemptions for the armed forces. That just shows how far behind the kerb it is.
My hon. Friend makes the point very well.
No, I shall not give way again. I wish to bring my speech to a close and I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman once.
We live in challenging times. As we reach the close of this millennium, we have witnessed a century in which our armed forces have been at the centre of our lives and the nation's security. Our grandparents fought in the great war, when the huge loss of life brought home all the horrors and destruction of modern warfare. Our parents fought in the second world war, which brought the same violence and destruction to our very doorsteps. In the second half of this century, we have been fully involved in conflicts in Borneo, Suez, the Falklands, the Gulf and now the Balkans. The world remains an uncertain place.
Tensions in the middle east will, God willing, be replaced by peace, but new tensions arise all the time. The situation can change at short notice. In this troubled world, the defence of the nation and our interests are paramount so that young people can grow up, live healthy lives and expand the knowledge of the generations. That vision is utterly dependent on our armed forces. At its core are the young men and women who, without hesitation, risk their lives to protect those who live on this planet. We have every right to be proud of Britain's place in the world as a result of their efforts. We pay tribute to them.
When these debates begin, I always promise myself that I shall not be controversial, then I listen to Opposition Members and my resolve dissipates immediately. I cannot believe what I have heard. I have been on the Select Committee on Defence for many years, and have used the same arguments about overstretch against the Conservative Government as the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) has just used. We wrote report after report, on "Options for Change", for the Army, for the Navy, for the Air Force and for the Reserves. When we had done that, we went back to "Options for Change" for the Army—there was a sense of déjà vu.
The Government inherited many of the current problems. The Defence Committee argued strongly against the Conservative Government's cut in the number of infantry battalions from 55 to 29—which they should not have done—and the gross overstretch. We had nights out of bed. It got out of hand. Ministers blithely said time and again, "No, we've got it right. You're exaggerating. The world is a much safer place." Conservative Members should go to the doctor to get a cure for the amnesia that seems to afflict everyone who moves from the Government Benches to the Opposition Benches. They should recognise that they got it wrong: they saw the world as a wonderful place in which we could afford to cut our defence expenditure from 5.1 per cent. to 2.6 per cent.
The "Options for Change" process began when the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) was Secretary of State. When the Gulf war began, I thought that the Conservative Government would be forced to stop the defence cuts. "Options for Change" had been put in a drawer, and when the war was over the drawer was opened as though nothing had happened, and the cuts continued.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The Defence Committee's most recent report shows the problems of overstretch down the years. He is a fair-minded man, and he knows perfectly well that when "Options for Change" was originally written, the only real problem of unaccompanied tours was Northern Ireland. The Government are involved in what is, in effect, a second Northern Ireland in terms of the commitment of unaccompanied forces in a hostile area. I have supported them in that, but the hon. Gentleman surely recognises that the problem is now infinitely greater than it was before.
I welcome that intervention. The right hon. Gentleman was a very able Secretary of State, and he is also fair-minded. He realises that the problems that have beset Government after Government are not unique. Governments get it wrong. When my party was in opposition, I did not always share its view; and since it came into office, the level of defence expenditure has, frankly, fallen too low. If the Prime Minister wants this country to punch above its weight, it will have to be with more than 2.3 per cent. of gross domestic product. I have not remotely changed my views. I criticised the previous Government three or four years ago, and I have not suddenly changed my views just because my party is in office.
We must have adequate defence, and we must be aware of the fact that wars happen when we least expect them. In the old days one could whistle and guys joined up, whereas that no longer happens. The days are gone when aircraft carriers can be built fairly quickly—in about 15 years. Aircraft cannot be made swiftly: it takes 20 years. We must anticipate that the worst will happen. It is too late to start whingeing about a change in the situation when we are unable to change our response to that situation. We have a common approach, but the fair-mindedness which the right hon. Member for Bridgwater advocated should be spread around.
At one time, the hon. Gentleman and I served on the Defence Committee together, and my signature is also on the report on defence expenditure. He has been absent from some debates lately, and we have missed him. He bangs on about this issue, and says that he disagrees with what the previous Government did. Does it make sense that he should support a Government who are making matters worse?
I have yet to reach the conclusion that matters are worse: they have a long way to fall before they replicate the decline under the previous Government. I am not a mathematician, but I estimate that, if this Government had continued the downward path of defence expenditure, we would be minus about £5 billion a year within five years.
No, I shall not give way for the moment—perhaps later. I want to get on with my speech.
I welcome the new format of the defence debates. It is far more rational to have a debate on functional issues, rather than the nonsense of debates on single-service issues. It is a great shame, given that our armed forces have fought a war so recently, that only 25 right hon. and hon. Members can stir themselves to attend the debate. It is important for the House to scrutinise and to influence matters.
Last Friday was an important event in parliamentary history: it was the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Select Committee system, which enabled the House to monitor, scrutinise, reinforce civilian control and sometimes have a degree of influence. Twenty years after that new Select Committee system was established, I hope that the Modernisation, Procedure and Liaison Committees will say that it is time to give Select Committees some power so that they can discharge their obligations more effectively.
I am pleased that many Defence Committee reports have been mentioned. The strength of the Committee is that we give hell to everyone. It is not our responsibility to cheer. There have been few occasions on which cheering has been necessary. I hope that the Select Committees are given some teeth.
I want to talk about what the Defence Committee has been doing and will be doing. Manpower is pivotal. The Defence Committee report on the strategic defence review is not a ritualistic eulogy. It states:
The quality of its people is perhaps the defining characteristic of the UK's Armed Forces. The morale, quality, training and ethos of those people are fundamental to the UK's ability to undertake its military tasks, and the success of the proposals set out in the SDR in maintaining or enhancing these elements will be one of the most fundamental criteria by which it will be judged.
That is important. We often forget that the image of the British soldier was not always the image that that soldier maintains today. The collective image of the armed forces is infinitely greater in public esteem than our own profession. They are at one end of the scale and we are, perhaps deservedly, at the other.
The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) was a sort of journalist when he worked for Jane's.
It took a long time to build the reputation and competence of our armed forces, and it has cost a lot of money to sustain that reputation, which could be undermined. It is important that the Defence Committee, the House of Commons and the Ministry of Defence—I am sure its commitment is as great as ours—and the country remain deeply grateful to the armed forces for their competence, professionalism, dedication, and willingness to endure danger, even to the point of putting their own lives at risk.
The Defence Committee took a great interest in meeting soldiers and their wives, taking beatings around the head that qualified us for battle honours. What we were told by the Army wives whom we met in the officers' mess was often of greater significance than session after session listening to platitudes from Ministers and senior civil servants. On one occasion, we were discussing lessons to be learned from the Falklands. On the table in front of us was a set of Army boots. I thought that it was commendable of the Defence Committee to be prepared to consider how we, as a nation, have failed to procure a satisfactory set of Army boots over the years. As far as I am aware, we have yet to produce a satisfactory set.
The Select Committee has always concerned itself with medical issues—with compensation, and with the need for Government to be reminded about such matters. It is not a sense of duty that prompts me to pay tribute, on behalf of the Committee and other hon. Members who are present, to our forces in Kosovo, Bosnia, the Gulf and Northern Ireland. At the end of the year, we shall visit the garrison in the Falkland islands.
The professionalism of our armed forces is legendary, and deservedly so. We hear that their numbers are to be reduced to give way to others, and the presence of others will be welcome; but we must remember—although it is difficult to say this to those "others"—that there must always be enough serious professional soldiers in Bosnia and Kosovo. Although their contributions are necessary in a military and political context, and although we need their mine clearance work and ambulance units, the ability to overawe is the essential prerequisite for a peaceful environment in which all the forces of NATO and other parts of the world will be working.
In its excellent report on the strategic defence review, the Select Committee made a number of commitments, and gave a number of undertakings relevant to personnel matters. It said that it would monitor whether readiness targets were manageable for individual service personnel and formations, and coherent across the three services. That is particularly relevant to the current circumstances in Kosovo and Bosnia.
My hon. Friend the Minister is absolutely right: our forces were deployed as swiftly as was humanly and physically possible. I do not think other countries could have achieved such a level of competence. However, I am still to be convinced that all the formations that were not deployed could have been deployed had it been necessary to mount a serious military operation. We are embarking on a protracted inquiry into the lessons of the Kosovo conflict.
The Committee also agreed to monitor progress in the tackling of problems in the defence medical services and to examine the work of the defence secondary care agency. An earlier report on the SDR—the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), performed an excellent service—stated:
the staff shortages in the Defence Medical Services are so serious that it is not clear whether it will ever recover. It is possible that the military ethos of medicine in the regular armed forces has been destroyed".
The endeavour to prevent that fearful apocalyptic assessment from becoming a reality is the responsibility of the Minister of State, who will give evidence to us.
I know that the Government are trying very hard, but, in some respects, the harder they try, the worse the situation becomes. Specialists in Haslar have been leaving. Morale is low; a bad decision to join Haslar might well be compounded by the worse decision to leave. The matter is subject to a continuing inquiry by the Select Committee.
The Committee also said that it would monitor progress towards the establishment of joint initiatives. Many such initiatives have already been launched: for instance, the joint helicopter command, joint force 2000, the joint doctrine centre and the appointment of a chief of defence logistics. The concept of jointery will continue to engage the Committee.
The hon. Gentleman speaks of jointery. He has also referred to the shortage of medical staff in the armed services. Will he bear in mind the need for his research to be co-ordinated with the work of the national health service, in which there is a great shortage of doctors, especially consultants, who are willing to stay on and to accept the extra dimension that their work takes on once they become involved in work in the armed services?
As most hon. Members will know, it was decided to close Army, Royal Navy and RAF hospitals. We now have trust units, and doctors who deal with drug problems on Saturday nights. I am talking about non-service men. That is of some advantage, but when the Committee said that the military ethos was being destroyed, we were thinking of the fact that many doctors in the services were involved much more in the NHS and the treatment of civilians than in the treatment of soldiers.
When I asked whether injured soldiers who arrived in accident and emergency units benefited from any special facilities, I was told that they must take their place along with the rest. I am not entirely happy about that. It is wonderful for the NHS to have a supply of additional doctors, and it is wonderful for Gosport to have a special facility; but, ultimately, the Select Committee and the Ministry of Defence are concerned about medical facilities and services for the armed forces. There is still much more work to be done and much more money to be spent before some of the near-catastrophes of the last decade or so can be dealt with.
The Committee's report asks for future statements on the defence estimates. As I recall, the last was made in 1996. We want future statements to feature clear statistical analysis of actual training times and operational deployments under the Army's new "readiness cycle" structure, to identify the causes of significant deviations and shortfalls, and to set out MOD proposals to remedy them.
We have said that we will monitor progress to deal with Army manpower shortages, a task that will clearly keep us engrossed for some time. We have also said that we will monitor ethnic minorities, and the number of women in the forces. I recall the indifference—if not hostility—that greeted the Committee's reports on ethnic monitoring as long ago as 1986-87: some regiments, and the MOD, were opposed even to the simple task of monitoring numbers. In the mid-1980s, the MOD was unwilling even to identify ethnic minorities in terms of cap badges. It took adverse reports, a good deal of effort on the part of Ministers and the intervention of the Commission for Racial Equality in humiliating a particular unit for serious endeavours to be undertaken to bring about a degree of equality in personnel, and to protect members of ethnic minorities who sought to join the armed forces.
We have said that we will continue to look at pay restructuring, and I hope that many of our undertakings will be set out in the forthcoming defence White Paper. I am sorry, as we all are, that it was not published in May, but that is understandable. We look forward to its publication in the autumn.
Paragraph 377 of our report states:
The challenge of recruiting and retaining service personnel of the quality, and in the quantity, that our Armed Forces need to deliver on their missions is one of the most critical and intractable challenges that the SDR faces. The whole package outlined in the Review will stand or fall depending on whether the MoD meets the challenges. The SDR outlines many welcome initiatives to improve recruitment and retention. Currently, though, these remain paper exercises. It will be difficult to assess objectively the impact of the various measures; we have been told that both qualitative and quantitative assessments will be made and we expect these to be made available to Parliament. For the moment, however, we feel that there is a great element of untested optimism that these measures will produce the improvements to recruitment and retention promised.
We ended optimistically by saying:
It is our sincere wish that they will not founder on the rocks of reality, and we welcome the obvious commitment of Ministers to pursue these initiatives zealously. They must also be backed with the necessary resources.
The question of overstretch, like that of welfare facilities, is very important.
On compensation, soldiering is a dangerous career. Those who want a quiet life should enter careers where there is less risk to life. We protect our armed forces as far as we can. It was refreshing, almost exhilarating, to hear the tributes to the two soldiers who died. In the conflict in the Caribbean during the Napoleonic wars, there were 100,000 casualties in a useless diversion to protect our sugar supplies. I doubt whether many there were many speeches expressing abhorrence at such loss, but I caution those hon. Members—I doubt whether many are in the Chamber now—who think that we will escape large casualties in future. In a sense it was not a case of escape this time, because we were careful not to put our soldiers' lives at too much risk, but cosseting and protecting soldiers to such an extent that they go nowhere near danger will make it impossible for the Government to achieve their military and security objectives; that applies even more to the United States.
One story concerned me. I apologise that I did not raise it earlier with the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), which I should have done. He apparently said that the row over £27 million in damages for injured soldiers was "extraordinary" and an illustration of the "compensation culture" affecting the MOD.
One should not necessarily find it extraordinary that money paid in damages has risen from £11.9 million a few years ago to £26.7 million. Perhaps some compensation payments do make the blood of the Daily Mail reader boil. I hope that the information that the hon. Gentleman requested will be provided, but it is wonderful that the MOD appears to be more concerned about making payments.
Again, I recall from the Defence Committee the MOD being unwilling to accept that there was any correlation between attending the atomic tests in the Pacific in the early 1950s and illness. There was slowness in dealing with Gulf war syndrome. There were cases of soldiers on United Nations functions not receiving compensation because they were not in an active war. I hope that the MOD will feel it necessary to act. I am delighted that the Minister has announced that there will be a joint inquiry with the Department of Social Security.
A few years ago, the Defence Committee threatened a pre-emptive strike. I am delighted that the MOD is undertaking its own inquiry, which will, of course, be subject to scrutiny by the Defence Committee and the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill in due course.
What I found extraordinary was that the MOD said that it could not tell me why it had had to pay that money except "at disproportionate cost". I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We reviewed the matter on the Defence Committee. We said that it was important that there should be a review of compensation arrangements in the MOD. Indeed, the Government pledged themselves to that some two years ago. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, like me, hopes that they come to a speedy conclusion on the matter because it is an important part of the human resources package for our armed forces.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I recall one of my constituents, the best shot in the Territorial Army, being on an exercise to raid an Army camp to test its security. To save the MOD some money, he and his colleagues drove in his vehicle. They got dressed, blacked up their faces and achieved their objectives. The soldiers who were on guard were so angry that they chased after them, rammed my constituent's car and destroyed it.
When my constituent wrote to his insurance company, it told him to go and jump in a lake because such a use was not within the terms of his insurance cover. When I wrote to the MOD saying, "Come on. Surely this is your responsibility," it declined. The result was that the best shot in the TA left the organisation. I suspect that, on occasion, the MOD guards public funding too well.
I am sorry that I am going on at greater length than I should. On the Gurkhas, I had no sense of guilt last week when I asked the Secretary of State for Defence ever so politely whether, in the light of the unfortunate death of two Gurkha soldiers, he would look again at the mode of payment and compensation. We all know the arguments, which are advanced loudly: "There is an agreement with India and Nepal; wages are low, but we boost them with incidentals; do not shout too loudly because, if the cost of Gurkhas rises too far, they will be dispensed with; the cost of living in Nepal is so low."
However, it simply does not look right. What the present and previous Governments have done is objectively right, but it simply does not look right. I am delighted that the Minister is reviewing the matter. Perhaps the families of those unfortunate Gurkhas will have the slight consolation—if there can be any consolation from such a disaster—that their deaths might have led to a review and an improved pension arrangement. The idea of £500 one year after death looks obscene.
On the Military Provost Guard Service, I have been interested in—indeed, obsessed by—policing and security in the MOD for a number of years. The Defence Committee asked for assurances that, when the previous Government's inquiry into the service ended, it would be consulted before any decision was taken. The commitment was made not by the present Minister, but his predecessor, who said that the Defence Committee would examine the experiment and produce a report before the implementation of any decision. I hope that the Government fulfil that commitment.
I was amused by the fact the soldiers' service will be limited to their travel-to-work areas. I recall the famous Army folk song, uttered in the era of Queen Anne, which perhaps would not apply today. It would probably go, "The Queen commands. We all obey. Over the hills as far as Wolverhampton." Anyone employed in the service in my area will, for 11 months of the year, be limited physically to Warley, Wolverhampton and the southern part of Walsall. It may not be quite the soldiering that one joined for, but the idea is right. Some people may not want to travel, or to indulge in the life and the nights out of bed that a normal soldier, sailor or air man is obliged to undertake. The scheme for the Military Provost Guard Service to relieve full-time soldiers has to be a step forward.
I enter a caveat. I am not a spokesman for the Defence Police Federation. It is the one police federation that does not need to pay people to speak on its behalf. One thing is certain—MOD policemen will be replaced. I am pleased by what the Minister has said—it will be reinforced in an inquiry that the Defence Committee is about to conduct.
There is a critical mass in the MOD police. The Government say that it is 2,500 to 3,000. I would say that it is nearer 3,000 than 2,500. When we replace MOD police with soldiers or private security, God help us if the numbers go down to such a point that the police force becomes almost impossible to operate.
The Defence Committee is committed to many inquiries involving personnel. We are visiting the Falkland Islands. We hope to receive an invitation to visit Kosovo. We go to Northern Ireland every year. We are engaged in the continuing inquiry into Gulf war syndrome. We are engaged in a study of defence medical services. We are monitoring TA restructuring. We are looking at science and the MOD and, in particular, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. It is a personnel issue. In the Defence Committee's view—I say it in advance of the Committee report—if DERA is privatised, it will be an unmitigated disaster.
I know someone who could not get in the Army because he had asthma. He wanted to work within the public ethos, so he joined DERA; there are many such cases. If that organisation is shunted off into some form of semi-privatised status, it might do untold damage to its morale.
I am not certain whether our American colleagues will be prepared to be as free in sharing information with a privatised company as they have been with an agency of the Ministry of Defence. I therefore hope that my very good friend the Minister for Defence Procurement—a man of great and independent thinking, and of formidable stature—is not being bounced by the Treasury on the issue, and that the Government will not go down that route.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman—my Select Committee Chairman—for giving way on this point. Does he accept—and share my dismay—that one small indication that the decision on that critical, scientific issue may be going in the wrong direction is that the MOD's principal finance officer is chairman of the MOD sub-committee examining it?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has no intention of alleging any financial skulduggery or any impropriety—any more than I did by saying that, if the sale goes ahead and is a management buy-out, Barbados would be the appropriate place for the Committee to conduct its follow-up study of the sale. Management buy-outs, followed by a swift sell-off, usually result in a swift move to places nicer than those in which the Ministry of Defence currently operates.
The Defence Committee will continue to visit our armed forces, and to talk to their wives—and, consequently, to be brutalised.
I hope that our Committee will continue in its consensual manner. We, too, are suffering from great overstretch. The command authorities are pushing their forces intolerably. Similarly, last Session, the Committee had 100 meetings, which must be way beyond the number of sittings held by any other Select Committee. Nevertheless, we are doing our job in protecting the interests of this country and of our wonderful armed forces.
I am an unashamed admirer of Rudyard Kipling, the most politically incorrect of all authors. In a poem on Thomas Atkins, he said:
I certainly join in the final comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), and pay tribute to the Committee's reports. I should add that I am sure that his confidence in the approach to the situation at the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency is not based on any previous acquaintanceship with Lord Gilbert on the Committee.
I have listened to the traditional—but heartfelt—tributes paid to our forces by Front Benchers on both sides of the House. However, those tributes are meaningless unless the people to whom they are paid know that those who made them really have their welfare at heart and are prepared to back up those tributes. The most obvious bit of initial training that any young officer receives is that the welfare of his men is his first responsibility. I certainly sought to employ that philosophy when I was a Minister, and I hope that current Ministers realise that the welfare of our armed forces should be their top priority if they are to achieve effective defence for our country.
I had not intended to speak in this debate—which is part of our new structure for defence debates: one debate on defence personnel, and another on defence equipment—but the issue of armed forces personnel is the greatest single challenge facing Ministers and the Ministry of Defence. I therefore regret the absence from the debate of the Secretary of State. I should not necessarily have insisted that he speak in the debate, but his presence would have been a symbol that he appreciates the serious situation facing him.
The Secretary of State did not create the current situation, but Secretaries of State for Defence have to inherit and resolve other people's problems. I had the responsibility to ensure that our country was able to discharge honourably its undertakings, whatever those might be. Nevertheless, the challenge facing the current Secretary of State is much greater than any we have faced before. I am worried about the situation, which is why I intervened on the hon. Member for Walsall, South.
As the Select Committee said, we can deal with overstretch in one of only two ways: increase recruitment or reduce commitments. The Select Committee's report on the strategic defence review was published almost a year ago, in September 1998. What has happened since then? The Minister was quite frank about what has happened: retention is poor; recruitment is difficult; and commitments have manifestly increased enormously. We now face an acutely worrying situation.
I tell the Minister for the Armed Forces that his speech gave me no reassurance. We know about the type of measures that he described, such as more home telephone cards. Such welfare measures are important—my God, they are—and were probably taken by us for the first time in the Gulf. However, they are only palliatives in trying to deal with the type of problems that we face. I worry acutely about whether the Government are seized of the seriousness of the problem.
I am not given much encouragement—I fear that the Select Committee will not have been either—by the Government's response on overstretch. The Select Committee devoted about 30 paragraphs of its report to the issue, but all it received from the Government in response was seven lines—in paragraph 97—stating:
we do not believe that there is a single standard or correct method of calculating overstretch and associated family separation.
The Government went on to say that they wanted
a greater degree of coherence across the Services…The feasibility of setting up appropriate mechanisms is being examined.
That was the totality of the Government's response to the issue of overstretch.
The hon. Member for Walsall, South knows as much about defence as any hon. Member—although I am not sure whether 20 years on the Defence Committee is an achievement or a punishment—and has a fund of knowledge. I recognise the absolute validity of his comments on overstretch. In my time as Secretary of State for Defence, there were criticisms about overstretch. I went to the Ministry of Defence from the Northern Ireland Office. Northern Ireland was the cause of unaccompanied tours. Although we had plenty of forces in Germany, those tours were accompanied, as were tours in Hong Kong and Cyprus, for example, to which people were happy to go and to take their families.
Northern Ireland injected into our forces a strong element of unaccompanied tours. Although some regiments had accompanied tours, many of them—in places such as Fort George, Londonderry and by the border—were unaccompanied. Therefore, when I went to the Ministry of Defence, I was conscious of the pressure that such tours created in the Army. I spoke with some of our service men serving in Northern Ireland—such as sergeant-majors and others with long Army careers—and asked whether they had been in Northern Ireland before, to which many said that they were on their sixth tour. The fact is that the frequency of those tours was a function of the number both of our forces and of our commitments.
In "Options for Change", I sought to tackle that problem, but the Gulf war put everything on hold. We froze everything and made no further reductions. I saw the challenge that we would have to face and my ambition was to ensure that, having made the sensible changes that were necessary following the end of the cold war and the reduction of our forces in Germany—which was the main consequence of "Options for Change"—we established some predicability about tour intervals so that people would know where they stood and we would not make unreasonable demands on them.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and seek to expand the point he made, which also applies to the Falklands. Is there not a huge contrast in that, during our third major conflict in 20 years, the present Government have chosen not to put change on hold? They are going ahead with the cuts and the break-up of the 5th Airborne Brigade before we know when the conflict in Kosovo will be over and what the garrison situation will be there.
In my opinion, such action is foolish. We did not do that; we froze everything during the period of uncertainty because we could not be sure what our commitments would be and how long they would last. What the Government are doing is incredible. Obviously, the strategic defence review has been partly blown out of the water by events. The Government are not to blame for that as none of the recent major events could have been predicted—the Falklands, the Gulf or the long-term situation in the Balkans.
I watched with great disappointment because my ambition was not realised. As we moved through "Front Line First" and the defence cost studies to what seems to have been a period of continuing and permanent change, I felt deeply that the services were entitled to expect a period of stability. The Select Committee called for that on a number of occasions. I must say that I was deeply depressed by what happened. Political realities being what they were, I knew that we would face a review by the incoming Government. I hoped that they would get on with it and complete it as soon as possible so that the forces would have a measure of stability.
The Government gloried in how extensive the consultations were and how long the process lasted. I do not think that too many people within the services thanked them for that; they were longing for a conclusion and to know where they stood.
Our forces are now facing a quite exceptional additional commitment. As the Chairman of the Select Committee said, if war comes, we have to address it and our forces have to meet new commitments. The strength of the Army—and I worry about whether Ministers really understand this—is the willingness, enthusiasm and sense of responsibility of those who serve in it. When Ministers say, "Can we do it?" they have an instinctive desire to say, "Of course we can. We'll do it somehow, don't you worry. You can rely on us." Our armed forces are enthusiastic, determined not to appear inadequate and proud of what they can achieve. They face up to their responsibilities and they will do anything to meet any immediate challenge or emergency, but the present challenge is sustainability.
What is happening behind the scenes—not as a conspiracy or an undercover plot—affects every home. Every soldier serving in Kosovo is asked by his wife, "How long do you think you will be there? Will you have to go back? Do you think that you will have to go to Northern Ireland if problems continue there?" The frequency of commitment represents a serious challenge. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the predecessor of the Minister for the Armed Forces. I referred to unaccompanied tours and the need for some tour intervals in terms of family welfare; he spoke about the gap between tours providing an opportunity for training. It is no good paying tribute to how wonderfully trained our forces are—because they have had the opportunity for training—if we are so committing them to operational duties and activities that they never have time to pull back, take a break and get some more training.
Our armed forces comprise two types of person. Some young men and women may not be sure about what they want to do or they may want to see something of the world, so they enlist on a short-service basis. They may start on that basis, but then decide that they like the Army and stay on. Others wish to make the Army their career. They are the skeletal fabric of our armed forces—the majors, the captains, the sergeant-majors and the senior non-commissioned officers. They are the corporals commanding the brick whom the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) knows so well and has seen operating in Northern Ireland and in Bosnia. Those people are the fabric of the organisation into which new recruits come. They provide leadership for the young men and women to whom the main recruitment drive will be directed. However, one sergeant serving his seventh tour of Northern Ireland told me, "I'm in trouble at home. The wife won't put up with it any more, so I'm getting out." That is the challenge.
I do not know whether Ministers accept this, but they have taken on another Northern Ireland. When I became Secretary of State for Defence, Northern Ireland was effectively the only place for unaccompanied tours. At that time, about 10,000 troops were sent on unaccompanied tours in Northern Ireland. Some of the other troops there were accompanied. Now, the number of troops on unaccompanied tours has been doubled. There must be at least 10,000 troops on active service in the Balkans. The position is unsustainable.
If I sound somewhat emotional, it is because I care deeply about our armed forces. One of two things will happen. Our armed forces will get thinner and thinner, and it will become a vicious circle. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) among others, including the Select Committee, said, retention will gradually decline so that our forces will no longer have the key people that they need. Then, when the regiments change over, the outgoing regiment will have to borrow from the regiment that has just returned. Some people will do that for a short time, but eventually they will say, "I'm sorry, but I can't do it again. It is either my family or my job and I have to put my family first." As a result, our forces could rapidly crumble away.
I accept that the new situation in the Balkans demands a high standard of soldiering. We have paid tribute to our armed forces, and many television journalists who have recently come back from Kosovo pay the most glowing tributes to the way in which our armed forces conducted themselves. That is because they are highly trained and experienced. If that training starts to fall away and our forces do not cope quite so well, they will start suffering casualties as mistakes are made. The vicious circle will expand, there will be problems with retention and people will lose confidence in those with whom they are serving.
That is the challenge for the Government. The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right to say that meeting that challenge will cost more money. There is no doubt about that. We have taken on extra commitments so we shall have to revisit the defence budget. It is not enough for the Prime Minister to say, "We will play our role in the world". It is quite clear that he will now have to fund that commitment.
An exceptional effort will be needed on recruitment and retention, well beyond what the Minister has announced. The messages being given to us resemble those of a normal armed forces debate, but something exceptional is required. The Minister has been unable to answer questions about tour intervals or about how long we will be in Kosovo, and with how many troops.
The Minister has a duty to protect the integrity and capability of our armed forces by insuring against the worst. It is his urgent responsibility to take on the challenges that I have outlined. My sole purpose in speaking is to try to make the Government understand that the Select Committee's report is right. A major challenge lies ahead of the Government, and they must show our armed forces that they are prepared to address it.
It is easy for Members of Parliament to sound like Mr. Grace of "Are You Being Served?", who comes down from the board room to the shop floor to tell the workers, "You are all doing very well", but has no idea what is going on. However, the Members present in the Chamber clearly care about our armed forces.
I should like to share the experiences that I had when I accompanied the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces to Italy and Macedonia at the height of the bombing expeditions. Seeing people in action has left a lasting impression on me. We visited many bases in Italy, then went on to NATO headquarters in Macedonia. Before the British troops arrived, the headquarters building was a shoe factory that had been empty for five years. It was in a disgraceful state—filthy and uninhabitable—but within six weeks, it was clean and orderly, and three hot meals were being served each day. The improvement was admirable, and I send my best wishes to everyone we met.
In addition to seeing bases, we went to the front line in Kosovo, and a general told me that the Prime Minister could not possibly be taken there because it was far too dangerous. I thanked him for sharing that heartening information. We visited camps in which our armed forces were working diligently to provide clean water. The visit was an experience that I shall never forget. I saw professionals getting on with the job that they had been highly trained to do. We train them not only to fight, but to be able to deal easily with the locals, humanely and with understanding. They related well to what was happening in Kosovo, and they are doing much good.
On the ground, our troops were fully occupied, but it was different for those serving on HMS Invincible, where I was lucky enough to spend a night. The sailors said that their lives were like "Groundhog Day". It was symbolically important to place HMS Invincible in the area, and the ship was intercepted in order to be sent there specifically. The crew was pleased to be there, but the sailors felt that they wanted to take part more meaningfully, which was impossible as they were there to be used only if needed.
The major complaint of the sailors was lack of information. I was pleased by the Minister's announcement about ensuring that we upgrade technology to let armed forces personnel contact friends and family more easily. One young officer told me that he received all his information from his wife during his weekly 10-minute free call. It is sad to think that someone so close to what was happening should find out about it from back home.
We must modernise our armed forces' equipment. On-line newspapers are essential, and information available to HMS Invincible was later taken by helicopter to HMS Newcastle. Satellite television is also critical. The Army had access to satellite television, but it was not available to those who served on HMS Newcastle. E-mail is a crucial means of contact; indeed, many Members of Parliament use it. One computer terminal is not enough—the armed forces need more, dedicated to allowing our personnel to pass messages home.
I am pleased to hear that 70 per cent. of armed forces posts are now open to women. However, unless we modernise, accommodation will not be available for women on ships. Modernisation is not appropriate for HMS Newcastle. The ship is an old lady, and it is not worth making the change, so consequently it has to be an all-male ship. I welcome the changes on HMS Invincible that will allow 110 women to play a part in engineering and in other areas. We must continue that process.
We must also modernise by allowing people to participate in debate. The armed forces are ready for a proper debate on whether homosexuals should be able to serve. The forces are grown-up people, fully able to consider that question. It would distress me if a decision was forced on the House of Commons. It would be better if an inclusive way forward could be found, so that the armed forces could say that life had moved on in many areas and change was acceptable. They could then debate areas in which there would be no problem, and those in which there would be difficulties. We should discuss the matter with our armed forces personnel. I do not want a human rights decision to be imposed on the Government. I sincerely hope that we will take the step ourselves.
I saw our professional forces working together—Army, Navy and Royal Air Force—but it was tremendously uplifting to see them work well with forces from other countries. We should be extremely proud of them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) has alluded to the investigation made by the Select Committee on Defence into defence medical services. As a former nurse, I have taken tremendous interest in that, and I know the difficulties.
The Government have tackled the problems of overstretch. Many methods can be used to encourage people into the armed forces. We cannot rely on just one means. Encouragement cannot rely only on pay. We should be proud that the numbers entering and leaving the forces are almost in balance. In fact, the number entering is increasing, and we should congratulate the Government on that. I very much welcome the increase of 2,000 in establishment for the defence medical services. We must encourage people to volunteer for the reserve forces for the defence medical service.
My word of caution results from my experience of recruitment campaigns in the NHS. We face enormous difficulties because of the enormous difficulties that the NHS faces. I only hope that the discussions between top-level NHS personnel and armed forces personnel are going well. We must encourage our trusts to get nurses and doctors to think carefully about joining the armed forces in the medical service.
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is time that the Ministry of Defence took the British Medical Association's military committee and the nursing unions seriously on this subject?
I believe that that is beginning to happen, and that pressure is being brought to bear by the Select Committee on those concerned to get around the table. Those bodies must understand the difficulties in terms of recruitment.
Having spent two years on the Defence Select Committee and having visited our armed forces personnel, I can say that it has been a tremendous experience. It has enriched my life—although I doubt whether I have enriched the lives of the armed forces personnel.
I repeat that it is easy from this cosy Chamber to say that our armed forces are a wonderful bunch, but we have a duty to make sure that they are highly trained, and I think that the Government are tackling that well. We must ensure that they are provided with the best equipment, and smart procurement is beginning to do that job. We must ensure that they have a modern outlook, particularly in terms of encouraging those from different backgrounds and women into the armed forces.
We must ensure that our armed forces are commanded by people of stature and principle, as that is important to keep the confidence of the armed forces. Those armed forces must know that they have the whole-hearted support of the House.
I welcome the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) to his Front-Bench post and I wish him well for the future.
I wish to address one of the points made by the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt). She referred to communications from ships or shore to the UK. That is all very well, but we must make sure that e-mail is a two-way thing, and that kit for families in the UK is provided at a time and a place that are convenient for them. I represent many service families, and I have learned of the great difficulties that they face and the distress that is caused when telephones are out of action or delays occur, and when people have to wait many hours for their turn to use the telephone. It is no good extending capability if that is done in only one direction. If the Ministry of Defence is serious about that issue, it must address the situation here as well as abroad.
Like many others, I welcome the change in the style of defence debates, which is long overdue. The old single-service debates had long passed their useful purpose. A general debate covering procurement, the general role of our armed forces and personnel matters is a more serious attempt to get to grips with the problems.
The debate is opportune, as it follows yesterday's publication of the National Audit Office's report on major projects. If I were serving in the armed forces today, I would be concerned that a £3.5 billion overspend is identified in the report at the same time as we are seriously undermanned and overstretched. I hope that we can address some of those problems.
I was somewhat heartened when the front page of last night's edition of The Portsmouth News—representing the home of the Royal Navy—carried a story by the paper's defence correspondent, Adrian Wills, who was able to get a quote from the Defence Secretary on overspend. The right hon. Gentleman referred to great mistakes, and said:
I find this personally offensive as Defence Secretary, as our troops don't get their equipment on time and they don't get it in an efficient way.
I could not agree more. There is no better way of sapping the morale and confidence of our forces than to tell them that they must do more with less, and that the promise of new equipment is many years late.
Of the 25 projects identified in the report, eight will miss their in-service date by more than five years. What on earth do Ministers believe that will do to the morale in the services? The average delay for any project assessed was three and a half years, and only two of the 25 will meet their in-service targets. We have heard that those 25 projects have overrun, and overspent to a cost of more than £3 million. I would be interested to know by how much the next 50 projects in the procurement budget have overrun, and how much they have cost. Those costs are important.
It is all about what resources are available—whether it is to keep pilots in the RAF, or to keep ships at sea with a full crew deployed for less time. It must be disheartening and frustrating for sailors in the Portsmouth area to read that the crewing costs for HMS Intrepid—which has been tied up in the docks since 1991—have been in excess of £12 million.
Fully trained and well-qualified sailors have been on HMS Intrepid for that period. At the same time, we have sent 46 ships to sea in the last year undermanned. Where is the logic in that? HMS Intrepid has been in reserve since 1991, and probably will be there until she is finally scrapped around 2004. What on earth do Ministers believe that that expenditure and that waste have done to service morale on board undermanned ships in the Adriatic and the Gulf?
Was it right to have sent HMS Invincible to sea on her last deployment, even though she was delayed coming home? No effort was made to bring the crew size of HMS Invincible up to its recommended complement during that deployment. At no time did HMS Invincible have her full complement on board. Those issues are real, and difficult for crews to understand and for commanders to manage—but they do it.
As hon. Members have rightly recognised, this House and our nation owe a debt of gratitude to those men and women who serve in our armed forces. From time to time, they question the decision-making processes in the House and the Ministry of Defence. They do so openly and—as the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) suggested—in a rather pushy and forceful way, which left the hon. Gentleman in no doubt of the sincerity of their concerns about the issues.
Recently, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the Minister of State and I went to visit our airmen who had been flying missions to and from Former Yugoslavia, including Serbia and Kosovo. It was with great pleasure—and with a great deal of pride for all three of us—that we met those men and women who have dedicated their lives to the service of this country. Many are very young, and they have served their country with great distinction on three occasions in times of war. We met one squadron which had flown more than 900 missions. However, on leaving Bari, they expected not to return to the United Kingdom or to Germany, but to be sent to the Gulf—another deployment on the back of their current one. They told us of the strain, not only on the pilots who had flown 900 missions, but on the several hundred men and women who put the planes in the air, kept the pilots briefed, and kept them fed and safe on the ground. The enormous strain on those units was apparent to all. People did not spare our embarrassment by confronting us with their strong concerns.
The RAF is not unique; the experience is the same for the Royal Navy.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's every word. At one point, the small number of pilots, who had carried out more than 900 bombing missions, realised that their night-flying and low-flying skills had slipped from lack of use, so they returned to the UK in the middle of the conflict to get their training up to standard. Does he agree that that was a particular mark of the professionalism of those RAF people? I bet that not another air force in the world would do that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I support his remarks. We were all gobsmacked when the young wing-commander in charge told us that seven members of his squadron had returned to the UK to bring their night-flying skills up to date. That was a measure of the commitment not only of those young men but of the RAF, because it ensured that there were people with the competence to carry out those missions. However, one might seriously question whether their training was sufficient in the first place, because, although those young pilots had been deployed in a battle scenario, they had to return to the UK to ensure their continued competence to fly those missions.
During the past two years, 19 ships of the Royal Navy were deployed for more than six months; it had not originally been planned to deploy any of them for that length of time. However, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs continues to widen our commitments and to take on more pressured jobs that pose more problems for the Royal Navy. It is neither right nor fair that significant shortfalls in personnel are still a major problem. The Navy alone is short of 1,600 personnel; in the Army, the figure is 4,700, and in the RAF, it is 1,800. Those figures were given in parliamentary answers as recently as early June. Ships at sea—HMS Gloucester, HMS Exeter, HMS Birmingham, HMS Illustrious and HMS Sheffield—have significant shortfalls in particular warfare branches. Those branches are vital both in wartime and, more important for the crews, in maintaining the defensive capabilities of the ships.
As other hon. Members have pointed out, we continue to have a problem of pilots leaving. The Navy is short of about 12 pilots and seven squadrons are undermanned. We are aware of the saga of the plight of RAF pilots, who constantly decide to leave the service early, and of the Government's approach to that problem.
I was heartened by the Minister of State's response to those pilots, some of whom were weeks away from having to make a decision whether to leave the RAF. All of them thoroughly enjoyed their life as pilots; they were grateful that the nation had invested £3 million in training them. However, many of them had already decided to leave, and were in their final two years of service. They told the Minister, the hon. Member for Salisbury and me of some of the problems that they faced at the age of 32 or 33. They had joined the service as unmarried young men, and enjoyed their life, their training and the experience of developing new skills. As they grew older, they had married and started families. At that point, they faced decisions about their long-term future.
One of them calculated that, if he left the RAF when he was 39—having given 20 years of service—he would leave with a £55,000 cash pay-out, plus a fairly substantial pension. He suggested that he might stay in the service if part of that £55,000 could be paid at times when it was most needed—for example, when the family were looking for their first permanent home, or wanted to pay for the children's education, or for the other things needed by a young family. He put that point to the Minister, who said that he would find out whether such payments could be included in a retention package for pilots.
An American pilot, who was on attachment with the Harriers, told us, and had no doubt told those pilots, that, as soon as he left the United States, his pay was tax-free. Perhaps that point should be considered when we send people to the front line on active service. We must consider what can be done about the retention package. That matter applies not only to the front-line personnel such as pilots, but to air and ground crews.
Like the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames), I was mightily impressed by the number of women who now hold senior positions and control the effectiveness of squadrons of aircraft. They are responsible for the engineering capabilities of three of the four squadrons we visited. It is a pleasure to see the success that they have made of their careers in the armed forces.
I wholly accept that major breakthroughs have been made in recruitment; I applaud them. It would be silly and selfish if any of us failed to appreciate what Ministers have done in encouraging recruitment to our armed forces. However, the problem is retention. As fast as we recruit personnel, we lose them. We must be more positive and proactive in considering what can be done to retain service men. As the representative of so many service personnel, I am aware that housing and long-term employment are among the biggest problems that they face. They do not want to live in married quarters for ever; they do not want to live for ever in multi-occupation in cities such as Portsmouth, and in the surrounding area. They want better opportunities to buy a permanent base while they are still young enough to put down roots somewhere. We should examine how we can help service men to achieve that goal. We must do much more if we are to keep those people.
We must also address some of the issues that affect the forces and the civilians around them. In past debates, I have spoken of the need to address our obligations to past service men and women—I hope that the Under-Secretary will consider those issues. I want to tackle some of them today. I was disappointed in the most unhelpful—indeed,
apparently unfair—dismissal of the points that I made, and that had been made many times, on behalf of the nuclear test veterans. I quote the Under-Secretary's reply:
The hon. Gentleman said that the case of the nuclear test veterans had not been examined. The case has been extremely well examined. I regret that he does not accept the answers that we, and the best scientific advice, have come up with. The case has been considered by the National Radiological Protection Board, not once but twice. People are entitled to make criticisms, but if they do so from a scientific standpoint, they should do it in proper scientific papers. Those papers should be published in peer reviewed journals so that they can be subjected to the scientific method."—[Official Report, 10 June 1999; Vol. 332, c. 873.]
We are talking about a period from the early 1950s until the beginning of the 1960s, when young men aged 19 were asked to sweep down the decks of ships that had sailed through nuclear bomb clouds. In shorts and khaki shirts, they brushed down those decks. We are talking about men who were asked to pick up debris on islands where nuclear devices had been exploded, and who were not given proper protection or clothing. In the main, they were national service men, who had been in ordinary jobs. Many of them were subjected to horrendous illnesses, and we asked them produce that sort of evidence. We as a nation owe those men and their families a great debt, and we must do all we can to help them. Like many of them, I was hurt by the dismissive way in which the issue was treated the last time.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman cannot accept scientific analysis. Once again, he has come up with emotive arguments, but has not dealt with the fundamental issue, which is that two scientific studies, properly published, have indicated no greater incidence of cancers and other conditions among nuclear test veterans compared with the general population. If there is an argument to be made against those studies, a proper scientific study must be carried out, published and subjected to proper scientific criticism. That is the way in which we make decisions; we do not base our decisions on arguments that do not use objective figures or on emotive statements.
That is a fair challenge, but let me challenge the Minister. These people do not have the resources or the scientific background to do what he says that they should do. They are normal men who, when they did their service for this country, were subjected to duties that no one in this room today would volunteer to carry out, and they and their children have suffered because of that. Lives have been lost.
Is the Minister prepared to state that the Ministry of Defence will fund a study on behalf of the veterans—a final conclusive study? Will he take up the matter with the veterans, make them that offer and give them the opportunity that they need? They do not have the necessary resources to do it themselves—many of the men are now in their late 60s and early 70s, and many have not worked for many years because of illness. Do not, in a cavalier and dismissive way, suggest that someone will finance a £1-million study—that is not a viable suggestion. The Minister uses the same excuse that the Conservative Government used. Let us be more constructive and more helpful to the veterans.
The second issue is that of the Gurkha soldiers, and I am delighted that so many hon. Members have already raised it. My association with the Gurkhas in Hampshire goes back 20 years. I was proud on behalf of the county to present the Gurkhas with the freedom of Hampshire in recognition of their long and devoted service to the nation and the role that they have played in the community of Hampshire, especially in the Church Cookham and Aldershot area.
I welcome the promise of the Minister for the Armed Forces to review the position, but the tripartite agreement between India, Nepal and the United Kingdom is flawed, because there is, in effect, a veto on the part of Nepal and India. We all know that we have done a great injustice to the Gurkhas and their families, who have served this country so well. No one can doubt their commitment—one only has to spend five minutes in the museum in Winchester to learn what those men have done for this country during the past 100 years.
I am sure that we welcomed the commitment made by the Minister this afternoon to carry out some sort of review, but does my hon. Friend accept that we are talking about Sergeant Balaram, who died only two weeks ago and whose family is in grave circumstances? Should we not be insisting that something be done now in respect of that individual case—perhaps a discretionary payment or some other such measure?
Of course we should, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will address that issue when he winds up the debate. Both Gurkha soldiers died in the service of this country; both died to save the lives of others. What a pity it is that the families of both are not entitled to the same compensation to safeguard their future. Both of them gave their lives on behalf of this nation and its ideals, so we should at least extend the courtesy of ensuring that both of them can be treated the same way in death and that the compensation due to the families of both of them is the same. We should not discriminate because the family of one of them happens to live on the side of mountain in Nepal, rather than in the United Kingdom.
The issue is not merely that of pensions, but of the rights of Gurkha soldiers when they cease to serve as soldiers. I have made representations to both the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office on behalf of Gurkha ex-soldiers who have not wanted to return to Nepal, because their chances of obtaining work there are extremely slim. They now work as laundry men on Royal Navy ships, but they are being hounded out of Britain by the immigration service and told that, if they want those jobs, they will in future have to apply from Hong Kong, or they will have to apply in Nepal for citizenship. Do we treat soldiers from other countries who have served in the British Army the same way? I think not.
The Gurkhas have long since proved their devotion and commitment. It is about time that this nation stopped saying how grateful we are to them and how proud we are that they serve in our armed forces, and instead showed them how proud we are by treating them the same as other soldiers. Let us give the Gurkhas the equality that all Members of this House demand from each other.
The next issue is the on-going problem of asbestos-affected service men. I should like to bring the Minister's attention to the case of Mr. Leslie Terry,
of 4 Dale Park house, Portsmouth. Mr. Terry's case is well recorded and well documented and I wrote to the Minister for the Armed Forces about it. His reply was:
In the case of Mr. Terry, as his exposure to asbestos dust and fibre in the Royal Navy was before 15 May 1987, he is prevented by law from receiving compensation from the Ministry of Defence. The legal position is that even if an ex-Serviceman only now discovers he has asbestos related disease, he cannot sue for compensation if exposure was before the repeal of Section 10 of The Crown Proceedings Act 1947. Given that controls over the use of asbestos were introduced in 1970, this is and will be the case for the vast majority of ex-Service claimants. (The time between exposure to asbestos dust and fibre and the first signs of disease is typically between 15 and 40 plus years).
Therefore, the MOD has no jurisdiction or right to help Mr. Terry.
Mr. Terry served in the Royal Navy from the age of 19 until the end of the second world war. Throughout that time, he served on board ships and, because he was a stoker, he was exposed to the delagging of boilers. His life is now threatened by illness, and there is ample proof as to how and why the illness came about. It is not good enough for Ministers to say that, if exposure to asbestos occurred before 1987, this man has no claim. Asbestos does not recognise the artificial barriers that we have erected, and, when he joined the Royal Navy, Mr. Terry did not know that he would have no recourse to compensation.
No reasonable person would suggest that service men should be treated differently from the miners who have recently, and rightly, been given blanket compensation for illnesses related to the mining industry, with no discrimination based on when, how or where the illnesses were contracted. The same should now be given to service men, whether they served in the Royal Navy or the Army, and to civilian workers similarly affected. We need to tackle that issue. As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the hon. Member for Walsall, South said, we need also, with vigour and enthusiasm, to continue to address the issue of the Gulf war veterans.
We must also deal with the latest shameful example of the way in which the Ministry of Defence treats its personnel. I refer to the two crew members who were flying the Chinook helicopter than crashed on the Mull of Kintyre. Those men are dead and buried, but they are also shamed by the report of the latest inquiry, and that is unforgivable. Evidence now suggests that the inquiries were flawed, and the evidence used needs to be re-examined.
I did not, for one minute, accept a word of the Minister's answer to my question about that crash. I cannot believe that nobody in the Ministry of Defence recognises the moral obligation to re-examine that case. What effect do Ministry of Defence personnel think such cases have on the morale of pilots and ground crew? Those two officers—two of the top pilots in the RAF—have had their careers stained. It is bad enough that they were killed in that crash, but it is worse still that the stigma attached to them by the inquiries remains.
In support of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, I draw the attention of the House to the fact that the rules for the allocation of blame in such accidents state that dead flying crew personnel should never be blamed unless there is no doubt whatsoever that they were responsible. As the Chinook crash remains a mystery, there is doubt. The rules are therefore being broken and the men are unjustifiably being blamed.
I could not agree more. It is a shame on this nation that senior officers and Defence Ministers are prepared to allow that disgraceful situation to continue by not permitting another inquiry. I do not know what it would take to make the Minister reconsider that issue. If the report in Computer Weekly is not enough, sheer compassion towards the families of those two service men should be enough to make Ministers say, "Let's give them the benefit of the doubt, re-examine the case and take care of the problem."
If the Minister is so convinced that he is right, will he explain to the House tonight—I am sure that he has been briefed on this—how the Chinook's hydraulic system became contaminated? Your inquiries did not explain that—
Order. The hon. Gentleman must use the correct parliamentary language.
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The Minister will appreciate that the inquiries into the crash did not establish how the contamination occurred, and answers to parliamentary questions have not established how it happened. I am sure that the Minister must have been told how the Chinook's hydraulic system was contaminated and what part that might have played in causing the crash.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has also taken up this cause, on which there is cross-party agreement. All three main parties have considered the matter most carefully, and we understand the sensitive situation faced by Ministers. It is extremely difficult for them, but it cannot be allowed to go away. A fundamental injustice has been done to those two young men and their families. This is not, as the hon. Gentleman knows, simply a matter of arguments about technology and computer software; there is also a question about legal processes in Scotland and in England. The case will continue, and I hope that Ministers will realise that they must consider it in a new light.
I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's support. His colleagues on the Select Committee were very supportive when I tried to persuade the Committee to consider the matter. I shall work with them and hon. Members from both sides of the House to try to get justice for Jonathan Tapper and Rick Cook. We can do nothing for them except restore to them the honour that they deserve. The RAF should want to pay that debt of honour to them. I hope that Ministers will do all that they can to prevail on people in the Ministry of Defence to allow a third inquiry to take place and questions to be answered. People have a legitimate reason for asking those questions and for expecting them to be answered correctly in due course.
I welcomed the remarks of the Minister for the Armed Forces about the role of the Military Provost Guard Service and his recommended changes. As I said in my intervention, those changes are reasonable, sensible and long overdue. We should welcome the redeployment of 1,600 service personnel in a role that will be much more rewarding and fulfilling for them and the nation's defence.
The issue of the military defence police remains to be resolved, and the hon. Member for Walsall, South was right to flag that up again. I know from my involvement with MOD policemen in my area that they will want to comment on their future.
In the past few months, we have had three or four opportunities to discuss defence-related issues. We know that no one could have predicted the dramatic and dreadful consequences of the collapse in the stability of the former Yugoslav republics.
As a nation, we are fully committed to playing our part. We will not be out of Bosnia—with the best will in the world, a sensitive presence will be required—for a decade or more to come. At least a generation will have had to grow up with some semblance of peace before Bosnia is secure. The democratic processes there are not stable; we need to give much more help.
It is obvious to anyone who has even just glimpsed at the situation in Kosovo that the province will be a volatile issue for years to come. Our on-going commitment must a be real and proper one. The style of soldiering will undoubtedly change, but the requirement for a British presence is apparent to all.
We would be foolish if we did not think that that will have a knock-on effect on the defence capabilities of the British armed forces—whether naval personnel providing air support in the Adriatic or men and women on the ground. Such support will go on, but at a price. That price will be continued overstretch. Equipment will continue to be run down and deficits in training will continue to open. To address such problems, we must secure the commitment that the procurement budget will not degenerate into farce.
When the report was published last year, Ministers said that it was not their responsibility and that it was about the failure of the outgoing Tory Government. This year's report is about this Government's performance. It has examined their performance and, my God, it has not been much better—has it?
Something must be done, and in a way that gives the men and women of our armed forces confidence that they will get the kit and equipment that they need, that they will get it on time and that they will not have to pay a price for it by continuing to have to work, undermanned time and again, in pretty dour conditions, often with substandard equipment.
We owe our forces more than that. As the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said, if we are to say, "Thank you", we must do so in a way that they can believe. The best way is to deliver the best equipment at the best price and on time. We must get that right, and get the equipment to them now, when they need it. If not, morale problems in our armed forces will deteriorate. The one thing of which we are all sure—are we not?—is that overstretch is having a dramatic effect not only on families but on the men and women who are at the sharp end of our armed forces. Before long, they will tell us so by leaving the armed forces in increasing numbers, and we will not be able to stop it.
I shall make three points in a brief contribution to this debate.
First, I shall address the role of women in our armed forces, the figures for which are now quite striking. Of all jobs in the Army, 70 per cent. are now open to women—as opposed to less than 50 per cent. a few years ago. Of jobs in the Royal Navy, 75 per cent. are open to women, as are 96 per cent. of jobs in the Royal Air Force.
If we are to inspire the generation of young women in schools such as Tadcaster grammar and Selby high school in my constituency to join the armed forces—those with an aptitude and skills with which they may make a contribution in the next century—we must recognise the role that women have played in our armed forces over many years, particularly during the second world war.
We are one of the few countries that fought in the second world war not to have a memorial to women who fought. In Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand there is such a war memorial, but in Britain all we have is an empty plinth in Trafalgar square. It is time that we filled that space, because it would inspire a generation of our young women to join the armed forces.
It is worth reflecting on the fact that 700,000 women fought in a variety of roles in the second world war. They were air gunners in Britain and pilots of unarmed planes abroad—Amy Johnson was killed flying such a plane. Women were agents behind enemy lines, too. Also, of course, they were members of the Women's Royal Voluntary Service and air raid protection wardens. That must be recognised.
I agree with everything that my hon. Friend says, but I am sure that he did not mean to miss out those who worked in the munitions factories. I must declare an interest: my mother was badly injured in a munitions factory. It is time that the Government set up a memorial to the women whose major contribution enabled us to win the war.
Fairly recently, the Daily Mail pointed out that women who contributed to the war effort probably outnumbered men. We must recognise the roles played by the mothers and grandmas of today's young women if we are to inspire them.
I, like many hon. Members, welcome the commitment that has been made regarding Gurkhas' pensions. The figures are stark. Sergeant Balaram's widow will get an annual pension of £770. A British staff sergeant of equivalent rank would get £15,000. The words of Sergeant Balaram's widow, as reported in the Daily Mirror, struck a chord with me. She said:
I am sure the British army will look after us—maybe.
There must be no "maybes". The only possible—the only really acceptable—outcome of the review would be full pension rights for Gurkhas. The 1947 tripartite agreement between Britain, India and Nepal need not be an obstacle to that. Amendments have been made to that agreement; further amendments can be made.
The issue of pensions for the Gurkhas reminded me of a case that came up in my constituency which, although it involved a very different group of people, shows that, when we talk of the armed forces, we should also think of the terms and conditions of the many people who may not be members of the armed forces but who support them in many different ways.
One of the first letters that I received when I was elected Member of Parliament for Selby was from Mrs. Sheila Steenson, a long-term unit cleaner at Imphal barracks in Fulford in York. She is employed on an agency basis by the Navy Institutes Army and Air Force, and she has the responsible job of cleaning very secure accommodation—the officers and sergeants messes. She gave me a surprising letter from the NAAFI pension fund, saying:
Naafi carries out the cleaning tasks as agent for the Armed Services on repayment by them of all charges. They repay wages, and over the years they have developed a gratuity/terminal benefits system which we apply as agent. Because of this system, the category of Unit Cleaner has never been eligible to join the Naafi pension fund.
A gratuity terminal benefit system seems to me to be more appropriate for a student doing a holiday job in a restaurant than for someone who serves our armed forces for many years.
Very recently, after a long campaign headed by Mrs. Steenson, I was delighted to receive a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), confirming:
The NAAFI Main Board has now reviewed its position and agreed at its meeting on 26 March to invite the Unit Cleaners to join the pension fund".
It may seem a small matter, but there are 270 such employees in the country, and it is important that we concern ourselves with their terms and conditions.
Finally, I shall discuss compensation. I welcome the fact that the Government are soon to produce a consultation paper on the subject. In a recent ministerial reply, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces said that that issue could be more complicated than expected—which is probably true of most political problems. I also note that he promises a paper mid-year. We are pretty nearly in the middle of the year, are we not? It is 1 July. I note what he said in his opening remarks. Such a paper is needed.
We should reflect, as a House, that it is only 10 years since we passed the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, which for the first time allowed members of the armed forces to claim compensation from the Ministry of Defence when they were badly injured, if they could prove negligence. That is often very hard to prove against the mighty Ministry of Defence. Some people have suggested that the onus of proof should be changed and that the Ministry of Defence should have to prove negligence on the part of service men and women who are injured.
The figure of £27 million may seem high, but when the 1987 Act was passed the Government assumed that, at 1987 prices, £15 million would have been paid out after 10 years. The sum is not that much more than was expected, given the nature of inflation. However, it is an area that needs to be considered. Members of the armed forces expect to put their lives on the line, but they expect also due care and attention from the Ministry of Defence and proper compensation when things go wrong.
A feature of the Defence team is that they have tried to reflect in practical ways the deep respect and regard with which the armed forces are held in the Chamber. They have tried to manifest that regard in personnel policies. It is not only a matter of retention, although it is important to keep the ablest of our young men and women in the armed forces once they have joined them and to encourage them to consider it to be a career for life rather than for a few years. In many instances, it is a question of doing the right thing, of implementing natural justice, and of putting right wrongs that should have been put right long ago.
The hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) is right to draw attention to the problems of compensation. I join him in congratulating the Minister for the Armed Forces on his announcement that the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Social Security will be jointly reviewing arrangements for compensating members of the armed forces who suffer illness, injury or death as a result of their work.
No doubt the consultation paper will appear before the House rises for the summer recess. That will bring the number of consultation papers issued by the Government to almost 200. It is all very well to go through the process of consultation, but it tends to delay action. Consult by all means, but if a way could be found of speeding up the process, that would be much appreciated. Following the consultation, it will be the armed forces Bill of 2001 that will introduce a new scheme of compensation. That means that the scheme will not be effective until 2003. That is too long to wait for a change in the existing regime.
The hon. Member for Selby referred also to the importance of women in the defence of the realm, in whatever role. I much endorse what he had to say about that. In Select Committee terms, the last bastion or the last male preserve has been breached with the arrival in the Defence Committee of the hon. Members for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) and for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). I warmly congratulate them on climbing the learning curve with enormous speed.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Crawley on her contribution to the debate. I was with her on the visits to our forces in Macedonia, the Adriatic and Italy. She will recall that our very first meeting was at Vicenza, which was the headquarters for all the air operations which were being undertaken. She will remember what the United States air force general had to say about the air operation. I will not use the typically lurid American terms which he used to describe it, but he certainly indicated to us—my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces was present—that we should have bombed Belgrade far harder and earlier on instead of having targets all around Serbia. He said that really hard strikes on Belgrade on day one would have had a profound effect on Mr. Milosevic and on the Serb people. I think that he was absolutely right. The general also deplored the fact that it took 72 hours to get approval for individual air strikes. That was too long. Many of the hold-ups were apparently in the White House.
Now that the operation is virtually concluded, although it has already been accepted by the House generally that the job of peacekeeping will run for years to come, it is important that there is a full and independent inquiry into the conduct of the war and the diplomatic action that led up to it. We had that after the Falklands war and the Gulf war. I think that such a inquiry should now take place after the war in the Balkans.
I know that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee will be undertaking its own inquiry. The Defence Committee has said that it will undertake one. It may be that the two Select Committees will join forces to take evidence in some instances. An independent inquiry into the conduct of the diplomatic representations and activities, and then the war, is also extremely important. That will run on to the peacekeeping operation as well.
In her excellent speech, the hon. Member for Crawley referred to the difficulty of changing our laws to permit homosexuals to serve in the armed forces. She made the valid point that that will vary from one force to another, and possibly even from one unit to another.
We saw evidence of a similar situation with regard to women when we visited the Royal Navy in the Adriatic sea. On HMS Invincible, with a crew of 1,200, there were many women serving—about 10 per cent. of the crew, I think—with no difficulty at all. It worked superbly. However, on the Newcastle, with a crew of about 200, there were no women on board at all, simply because such a ship does not have the facilities to keep the sexes apart, and all sorts of difficulties could arise. The example of HMS Invincible proves that the rules can be adjusted to take account of the units involved.
I am very sorry, as are other hon. Members, about the poor attendance at this debate. When I entered the House, a debate on any defence matter was a big occasion and the House was always full. That may reflect the composition of the House. In those days, as an ex-soldier, I would never dare to take part in a defence debate, because the House was stuffed full of retired soldiers, sailors and airmen, all covered in medals, and it would be more than I dared do to venture into what I saw as their preserve.
These days, it is important for us to try to preserve a military connection in the House. I hope that selection committees in constituencies, choosing parliamentary candidates from all parties, bear that in mind. We are losing a great deal of expertise, and with the departure of the hereditary peers, we shall lose a wealth of military experience in the other place. That is greatly to be regretted. None the less, I welcome the arrival on our Front Bench of two who should be described as honourable and gallant Gentlemen—a new shadow Secretary of State with experience as an officer in the Scots Guards and an ex-sailor who opened today's debate.
We have heard much praise today for our armed forces. Even as an ex-Grenadier Guardsman, I would pick up the motto of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), who was in the Coldstream Guards. Their motto is "Second to None", and it could well be applied to the British armed forces. They have certainly been put to the test recently in Kosovo and in Bosnia, and they have come through with flying colours. It is all very well to praise them, but we now want action to ensure that they are able to continue their work.
The mission of our armed forces was well set out in the strategic defence review. It was made clear by the Government that the United Kingdom is to be
a force for good in the world".
On several occasions the Prime Minister has spoken of the UK's global commitment to security.
We have enormous worldwide interests—for our size, probably more than any other country. Trade is a higher percentage of our gross domestic product than any other country that I know of. We have enormous investment worldwide—more in the United States than has even Japan or Germany. We still have immense influence around the world. We are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and we belong to all the best clubs—the G8, the Commonwealth and many others.
We still have a number of overseas territories that must be looked after. We have 1,000 service men and women in the Falklands, 3,000 in the sovereign bases in Cyprus and many others deployed elsewhere. There are 33 locations around the world where British service men and women are stationed, some on active service, some not.
If we are to become a world policeman, there is the problem of getting our troops to where they have to perform. The SDR proposed joint rapid reaction forces, which are to be in operation by October 2001. I should like the Minister to tell us whether that date will be met and, if so, what progress the Government have made on delivering the ro-ro ferries and the aircraft support that will be required.
The SDR limited our involvement in overseas military operations to two brigade-sized operations, as we originally had in Bosnia and Kosovo, or one divisional-sized operation, such as the Gulf war. However, our current deployment is about double that because we have 4,000 men in Bosnia and 13,000 in Kosovo. We are already way over that limit, which raises the question of how long those operations will last. When the Defence Committee put that question to the Chief of the Defence Staff, he said that he did not think we could maintain those operations in the Balkans for more than six months. We all know jolly well that they will be much longer term than that.
To meet those commitments, new establishment levels have been set by the Government which are planned to be achieved by 2004, but what are we to do in the meantime? We have heard many contributions on the increasing pressures on our service men and women and their families. What has been said about the problems of unaccompanied tours rings a bell with most of us in respect of our talks with service men, women and families in our constituencies. The number of operational tours has doubled, which should be of real concern to the Government.
On overstretch, I was struck when an hon. Member quoted General de la Billière as saying that our Army is 20,000 men short. That is a sobering figure. The SDR plans for 3,300 more soldiers, many of whom will be specialists, but we are 6,000 soldiers—mainly infantry men—short. I congratulate the Government on what they have said about teaching infantry men skills. Fewer men join the infantry because they will not learn a skill that they can use when they leave the Army. Giving infantry men a skill will attract more recruits.
We are aware that 36 per cent. of Army personnel are committed to operations and a further 22.5 per cent. have been warned that they could be deployed on operations at any time. That shows the degree of overstretch in clear terms. The Minister for the Armed Forces was asked about the Government's target for tour intervals. The previous Government's target, which they had difficulty meeting, was one six-month operational tour every two years. That left plenty of time for retraining and all the other things that had to be done between tours. The figures for current tour intervals are worrying and the Defence Committee will be studying them carefully when it undertakes its inquiry into the Kosovo operation. There is no doubt that there is far less time for retraining. That lowers morale and has an impact on recruitment and retention.
In Kosovo, the hon. Member for Crawley and I were lobbied by a number of forces personnel about pay. It was drawn to our attention that, whereas the pay of an unmarried Army captain who was sent to Kosovo would fall by nearly £5 a day, the Germans were receiving £40 a day extra. Members of the American forces do not pay tax on their pay. Many of the future operations in which British troops take part will be multinational so it is important that the Armed Forces Pay Review Body takes into account the difficulty of soldiers serving alongside soldiers from other nations who are on completely different pay scales for doing the same job. The so-called "X" factor must be revisited and the longer separation service allowance must also be looked at urgently. Will the Minister say something about that when he responds to the debate?
I was horrified to find, when I visited the Irish Guards in Macedonia, that in one platoon there were not one or two but four different cap badges. The Irish Guards were so under strength that their numbers were made up by the Green Howards, the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers. I believe that when the 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment was deployed it was 120 men short and the numbers had to be made up from 3 Para. That is not good enough.
When I visited Haslar hospital the other day, I was reminded of the seriousness of the situation within the defence medical services. I discovered from a recent parliamentary answer on this matter that the figures for medical posts with consultant status compared with those deployable within the defence medical services were staggering. The number of posts for anaesthetists should be 130, but the number deployable is 31; the number of posts for orthopaedic surgeons should be 29, but the number deployable is 13; the number of posts for accident and emergency consultants should be 23, but the number deployable is three; and the number of posts for burns and plastics, which one would think was important in the Army, should be 10, but the number deployable is two.
Although the Government believe that those numbers should be made up from the reservists, the national health service is incapable of doing that; and as the Government have reduced the numbers in the Territorial Army overall by 18,800, it is hardly surprising that it is proving difficult to find reservists to fill any gaps. I accept what the Minister said in his opening remarks about the improvement in recruitment, but although there may be more recruits coming into the armed forces, more are leaving. Since 1997, 12,000 more people have left the armed forces than have joined them. That is extremely serious.
The Army is the most obvious victim of overstretch, but in two years 12,000 people left the Royal Navy and only 8,500 joined. A similar problem exists in the RAF. When civil aviation emerges from its current business trough and there is a greater demand for civil airline pilots, many RAF pilots will push off for higher-paid jobs. That problem will have to be faced.
A big debate is going on about the restructuring of our armed forces in Europe. It started before the NATO summit in Washington and has certainly continued apace since. It concerns the whole question of the development of the common foreign and security policy, the relationship between NATO and Europe, perhaps via the Western European Union, and whether the European security and defence identity should be within or outside NATO. Which is it to be? The Prime Minister at St. Malo seemed to say that it should be both inside and outside, which gives all the wrong signals. Moreover, what he said is different from what the Secretary of State has said, which adds to the confusion.
It is not just me who is confused; our friends in the WEU, with whom I debate these matters in the WEU Assembly, are also confused about the mixed signals being given by the Government. The more cynical among us feel that what the Prime Minister said at St. Malo was meant to act as a smokescreen for the Government's backing down on the single currency and the whole question of economic and monetary union.
It is crazy to start worrying about and debating defence and security institutions in Europe when we should be debating our capability of meeting the commitments that we are making, not only as a single nation but with our allies. America spends $270 billion a year on defence. The Western European Union countries combined—the European members of NATO—spend only $170 billion. When we discuss these matters with our American allies, it is hardly surprising that they complain to us about Europe's failure to meet its proper burden of international security. That has a big knock-on effect on the way in which we perform collectively.
We must seriously consider the shortfalls, and not just in the budget—we have seen with the SDR how the defence budget is planned. There is this ominous £250 million to come in the last year, which we suspect is from the sale of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. As a hard-nosed privatiser, I strongly support what the Chairman of the Defence Committee said about resisting the privatisation of DERA either in part or in whole.
The Government should consider carefully the National Audit Office's report on the delivery of equipment—late and overpriced. A large proportion of our current budget—40 per cent. or so—is spent on procurement. That is an ever-increasing amount. We should also urgently examine the lack of training facilities, especially for the infantry. Since the armour came back from Germany, the infantry have been pushed out of some of their training grounds.
We must build up personnel strengths—both numbers and capability. The Government owe that to our armed forces, who have never failed to meet their obligations and objectives. From the speeches we have heard, I think the House agrees that our armed forces are finding it increasingly difficult to meet those obligations.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, may I point out that quite a number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, and unless contributions are shorter, several of them will be disappointed.
I am grateful for this opportunity to make a short contribution to the debate. I confess that I have no special knowledge or experience of the armed services, but in recent months I have taken part in the parliamentary armed forces scheme with the RAF. My comments are intended to reflect the issues that RAF personnel, at all levels in the structure, raised with me during the time that I spent with them at various stations around the country.
My overwhelming impression was one of admiration and respect for the level of training, professionalism and sense of duty of all those whom I met. It is an interesting time to be involved in the RAF scheme, because the service is experiencing change on a broad front. As its own material says:
In recent times, RAF personnel have been deployed on a broader range of tasks than at any time over the past 50 years.
The RAF suffered a 30 per cent. front-line cut as a result of "Options for Change", and, as we have heard, it is experiencing overstretch, which the service feels was not adequately addressed in the strategic defence review and has been brought into sharp focus during the simultaneous operations in the Gulf and the Balkans.
By April 1997, the RAF had lost 8,000 personnel through redundancy. It is now down to a uniformed, trained strength of about 52,000 supported by a range of civilians and contractors. Much of the contracting and private finance ventures have brought benefits. I was particularly impressed with the new £15 million investment in flight simulators at RAF Valley, which will improve the quality of training and save money on flying hours for pilots who are trying to overcome weaknesses or skills deficits. Officers to whom I have spoken say that contracting has generally produced benefits, and at the moment it also creates well-paid jobs for persons who have recently left the service.
Some stations boast large numbers of contractors, vastly outnumbering the number of service personnel. It can be difficult to raise a team to take part in sporting events, or even a detachment to parade at local civic events. When efforts are made to involve civilian personnel in the sporting and cultural activities that are such an important feature of life on an RAF station, problems relating to insurance or working hours usually develop. There is also resentment among service personnel who have to work alongside contract staff who are paid overtime, and sometimes enjoy better working conditions.
I am particularly impressed by the standard of training. Selection standards are high, training is tough and assessment is rigorous. I understand that 25 per cent. of those who train to become jet pilots fail to complete the course, so punishing and demanding is the schedule. Of course, many of those men and women are not lost to the service; they go on to fly other kinds of aircraft in war zones and on humanitarian missions throughout the world.
I quite fancied the idea of being a jet pilot myself, but after undergoing the augmented motor skills test I had to abandon that fantasy. I managed to score one out of nine, which, they tell me, equals no jet pilot potential. I clearly cannot rely on all the tests!
The training does not come cheap. Personnel and Training Command has a budget of nearly £800 million, but I have the strong impression that the money is wisely spent. I was particularly impressed by the recruit training that I witnessed at RAF Halton: there was a noticeable difference between fresh recruits and others of a similar age after only six weeks of training. However, some recruits to whom I spoke did not seem to have a particular appetite for a long-term service career. That applied both to officers entering training at Cranwell and to those undergoing basic training at Halton, and it underlines a problem to which many hon. Members have referred today.
I do not think that the main difficulty relates to recruitment. As others have pointed out, retention is an increasing problem, which—given the demands that we are making on the service, and the costs of training—we should consider as a matter of urgency.
I was impressed not only by the training of officers and other recruits, but by the quality of other sorts of training. When I visited the department of specialist ground training I witnessed some of the work being undertaken on the advanced system engineering course, which can lead to an MSc accredited by Loughborough university. A high-quality award is now given to aero-engineers who meet the required standards. It makes them very employable when they leave the service.
Men and women to whom I have spoken have made a number of points about retention. On the positive side, I welcome the efforts that have been made to improve communication and contact between service personnel and their families. I welcome the Minister's announcement about the use of the internet. I do not know what we are going to call them—service cyber cafés, or something like that—but we should welcome the notion of speeding up and improving contact between our service men and women and their families.
I welcome some of the changes in catering facilities. That may not seem a crucial point, but young people who are brought up in a climate of choice and consumerism are unlikely to be impressed with the limited choice and service-style meals, no matter how nutritious. Allowing service personnel the same choices over the food that they eat as the average civilian will do nothing to limit their effectiveness, but may help with morale and retention. Contracting out such services delivers substantial savings.
I ask Ministers to pay attention to the concerns that many service personnel are expressing about their security, particularly their pension entitlements and other benefits after a life of service. We need to acknowledge that the Defence Housing Executive needs to make substantial improvements in delivering and refurbishing accommodation, and in improving its customer service performance. I saw some examples of excellent new housing at RAF Cosford, but I have also heard countless horror stories involving people trying to sort out decent housing for their families, and families being needlessly separated because of the housing executive's failings.
I refer to an issue that may be a bit controversial for some hon. Members. A number of non-commissioned officers to whom I have spoken expressed their dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of existing channels in representing their concerns. They are clear that they do not want to unionise the service, and they have no plans to go on strike or to work to rule, but they are interested in having an association or federation that would represent them and ensure that their genuine grievances and concerns were heard.
We are asking those men and women to put their lives on the line. I do not want to risk losing highly trained, competent and dedicated people. I am not convinced that, as we approach the end of the century, it would necessarily diminish our armed services if we were to create opportunities for them to have their views properly listened to and properly represented.
In the late 1950s, boys born in 1941 were told that they would not be called up to do national service. So it was that I never became a service man. However, I did do five years in the combined cadet force, including two "corps camps", as we called them. One was at the age of 14 at Rhyll, where it rained every day until the duck-boards floated away. The other was at the age of 18 at Catterick, where I helped to build a Bailey bridge, which was much more gratifying.
Last year, I went back to cadet camp near Catterick for the first time in almost 40 years as part of my campaign to do my best for cadet forces in my constituency. I have one of the best and most numerous corps in the midlands. Sea, army and air cadets all parade at the Territorial Army centre in Haslucks Green road in Shirley, Solihull.
The army cadets are part of Warwickshire and West Midlands (South) corps, with Colonel Bob Carruthers in charge; he it was who invited me to camp last year. The sea cadets are corps No. 481, Shirley and district, training ship Gamecock, chairman Alan Cupples. The air cadets are 492 (Solihull) squadron, air training corps, chair Ann Pearmain.
Last year, and in the early part of this year—in parliamentary questions, and in the light of uncertainties about economies expected in the Territorial Army under the Government's strategic defence review—I asked Defence Ministers for reassurances about the future of those cadets. The Government's general message was that there would indeed be economies in the TA, but that the cadets would be all right.
I am afraid that that reassurance rang a little hollow in Solihull when the news that we had feared finally broke: the Territorial Army centre in Haslucks Green road was to close. The fact is that that secure site housed transport, classrooms, a miniature range, a secure armoury and an adult presence. In short, it was just the ideal environment for the sea cadets, army cadets and air cadets to parade.
Unless really convincing alternative facilities are to be found, I fear that we shall lose something really valuable in Solihull. I admire the work of cadets and their instructors. I believe that the whole exercise is socially and educationally worthwhile; that it is good for confidence and for what the services call "attitude"; and that it builds team work and provides discipline, loyalty and something of which to be proud. Moreover, those who are responsible for recruitment into the armed services proper will say—in fairness to them, they have always said it—that former cadets are the very best recruits, as they tend not to drop out or seek to leave, because they have a good idea of what they are committing themselves to and seriously want to do it.
I have a word of apology to the Minister for the Armed Forces, the occupant of the Chair and the House, as a constituency commitment might prevent me from staying to the end of the debate to hear the Minister's reply. However, I shall be content if the Minister will write to me, particularly if his letter gives me some good and reassuring news about the excellent cadet forces in my constituency of Solihull.
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me—I was starting to worry whether every hon. Member in the Chamber would be able to speak. I am a bit of an old lag at these debates, and noted that one or two hon. Members said that today's debate is poorly attended. Based on my experience, I think that it is better attended than many previous armed forces debates. On one occasion, when I was the then Opposition spokesman, I spoke for an hour, and subsequently received a letter from our Chief Whip asking why I had talked for so long. I told him that no one was on our Back Benches, so that I had to speak for an hour. That situation does not apply to this debate.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)—who has left the Chamber—was rather unfair to the Secretary of State for Defence by commenting on his absence from the debate. I have made inquiries, and discovered that he is attending the opening of the Scottish Parliament. If one considers the contribution that the Scots have made over the years to our forces, one might expect him to be there. He is also a Scottish Member. I therefore hope that the criticism might be retracted.
Many Opposition Members have spoken today about overstretch. Perhaps we should not go into the history of the overstretch issue, because when I was an Opposition Member I used to speak about it, too. Quite recently, however, current Opposition Members—especially the current Leader of the Opposition—made one demand after another for preparation of a land task force to invade Kosovo. They certainly made no mention of how such a task force would overstretch our forces. Regardless, the Government were right that we did not need a land task force, and we achieved our objectives by bombing. Such a task force would have caused tremendous overstretch.
After demanding more forces for Kosovo only a few months ago, it is not right for Opposition Members now to be carping about overstretch. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) shakes his head, but a land task force would have required many more soldiers.
I should, for the record, make it clear that the Opposition stayed absolutely alongside the Government on the issue. The Government told us that they did not want an invasion force. We said, "All right—you have the information; we don't—we trust you."
I am sorry, but that is not my recollection. I remember the Leader of the Opposition demanding of the Prime Minister that we took a decision by June to send in a task force otherwise the winter would be upon us, so the hon. Gentleman is wrong.
I should like to say a lot of good things about what the Government have done, but I am conscious of time so I shall concentrate on overstretch.
To some extent I am a delegate here today as I have made a commitment to the families of the King's Own Royal Border Regiment to express some of their views and concerns. During Defence questions recently, I asked my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State whether the regiment would be sent to Bosnia for the second consecutive Christmas. Fortunately, my right hon. Friend gave me the right answer. Following that reply, some soldiers' wives contacted me and we arranged a meeting at the Catterick garrison. Many of their concerns have already been mentioned today. They appreciated the fact that my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces had taken the time to see them, but as they are rather sceptical about politicians, they were not too impressed by some of his answers. I am sure that they were no more impressed with mine.
One problem relates to accommodation. I have the general impression that privatising the accommodation has not worked. The senior officers are glad that it was done as it is now no longer their problem, but there is still a great deal of substandard accommodation, some of it in Catterick.
Although the telephone allowance has increased from three minutes to 10 minutes—and that is welcome—there are still problems. After all, how many hon. Members phone home for only 10 minutes a week, and many of us go home at weekends? We have to consider the advances in mobile phones and the fact that they can be used in most parts of Europe. The Minister mentioned the use of the internet and I presume that he was also referring to e-mail, which is another welcome development. The King's Own Royal Border Regiment used it in Macedonia, but it was cut off without any explanation and that created problems for the families.
The worst problem is overstretch. The families wanted me to raise the matter earlier, but when problems arose in Kosovo, they told me that they wanted to be seen to be totally behind their husbands and fathers who were in Macedonia at the time. They are committed to the regiment and we often take their loyalty for granted. However, the regiment has been abroad for much of the past two years. It is in great demand and whenever there is a problem, it seems to be involved. Instead of being sent on one tour in 24 months, they are more likely to be sent on two tours in 18 months. That affects the morale of the troops and their families and increases the work load of those left behind. There is no doubt that when soldiers are sent abroad, those who are left have to double up and their families are also put under pressure.
The statistics for my local regiment are interesting. Between April and December 1998 it recruited 42 soldiers, but lost 48. Although the regiment has a good recruitment record, retention is still poor. The best retention record in the Army is a unit that recruited 127 soldiers and lost 70. In the worst example, 34 were recruited and 74 lost.
Statistics also show the effect of separation on families. From September 1997 to March 1999, the battalion has experienced eight divorces, and 17 more are pending. Reasons given include the general pressure of service life, but in nine cases, current operational deployment has been specifically cited as a cause. Accommodation and education are problems for families, as is health care. Finding national health service dental treatment is difficult for everyone, but it is especially so for service families who are not allowed forces' dentistry.
Anyone who needs hospital treatment and who moves to a new area will go to the bottom of the new waiting list, and I am glad that the Minister will say something further on that. The military hospital at Catterick is being closed. There will be new facilities at Northallerton, but closure is a blow to forces' families. Buses are infrequent, and someone from Catterick who has a family member in hospital at Northallerton will find it hard to see him or her.
Women want careers of their own. There are two types of service family—the traditional forces families who follow the flag, and families in which the woman has a career and in which, to some extent, the husband's job is just a job. The armed forces must adjust to changing society. One simple point could be addressed. If a husband moves, the wife is not allowed jobseeker's allowance if she is deemed to have given up her job voluntarily. That does not seem right, and I hope that the Minister will think about it. We must address social change in a changing world. We have not yet fully accepted the change in women's roles. Change has been accepted within the Army, but not externally, and we must rethink our approach.
I have asked the Opposition about their attitude to homosexuals in the armed forces, but have had no reply. Are they opposed to allowing homosexuals to join the forces? I believe that homosexuals should be allowed to join. The current bar is discriminatory, and we should do away with it as soon as possible. If a vote is called on the matter in the House of Commons, will Conservative Members be allowed a free vote?
Families tell me that the Government must deal with the serious problem of overstretch. We must decide whether we should increase our armed forces. If we do not, and if there is another crisis somewhere in the world, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will have to conclude that, even if we would like to help, we do not have the forces to do so. We cannot continue as we are. The Chief of the Defence Staff cannot continue to say that we can cope in the short term, but that the Army will be overstretched in the medium term. That will affect the morale of the forces, and people will leave them.
I plan to make the shortest speech of the debate, but I have a few points to make, particularly while the Minister is in his place. I welcomed his announcement about the promised Guards service. I did not entirely welcome his next statement—that the Ministry of Defence police has a future. It does not deserve a future. It is unaccountable and out of control, as the Minister will see if he studies the Stankovic case.
For 20 months, the police investigated that case. The man has been cleared, because there is no evidence against him—and still he is under a cloud of suspicion. This is the man who should be alongside his commandant General Jackson in Kosovo—he is the man who is needed. It is the greatest single scandal affecting any serving soldier, sailor or air man in the term of office of this Government, and I wish the Government would address it.
I spend a lot of time with soldiers at Army seminars, regimental dinners and the like. I know that the Ministry of Defence police is held in contempt by the armed services—and nor is the force admired by other police forces. I welcome the forthcoming inquiry by the Defence Committee. I hope that the committee will call the chief constable, Walter Boreham, and Major Stankovic.
I have in past years spent a lot of time beside serving soldiers on unaccompanied tours of duty. I know their fears, I know their hopes and I know the pressures that they are under. I know that it was routine for a battalion in Bosnia at the end of a six-month tour to count among its casualties not only its dead and wounded but the 10 per cent. or more of its marriages.
The MOD does not keep—or, at least, does not announce—the figures for divorces in the armed services. An example was brought to my attention yesterday concerning the Light Dragoons, who bore the greater part of the burden of light reconnaissance in Bosnia and underwent seven tours of duty. There were 85 divorces—in a formation of much less than battalion strength. That is a good index or measure of the crisis facing our armed forces.
Routinely in this House we pay tribute to our service men and women. We do that rightly—it is a compliment that is well deserved. However, the best tribute that we could pay them is to make sure that we treat them properly.
Given the nature of conflicts in the world, the quality of our armed forces is crucial, and probably the most important subject for the military to concentrate on. It is wise to spend a greater proportion of the Ministry of Defence's money on personnel and less money on huge equipment and weapons which, under the previous Government, always seemed to cost far more than was first estimated. It is better to spend money on armed forces personnel than on weapons of mass destruction, which we should not contemplate using in the first place.
I pay tribute to the brave men and women of our armed forces, both full-time and reserves, who join the armed forces never knowing what will be expected of them. In Kosovo, our armed forces' actions in supporting the refugees in camps was remarkable, and something of which we can all be proud.
The Government, in turn, want to support our armed forces and their families. The families of armed forces personnel often pay a large price in terms of disrupted life styles, loss of contact between family members and, in times of conflict, having to endure great anxiety. For that reason, I congratulate the Government on taking steps to make the lives of armed forces personnel easier by giving improved leave arrangements, more contact time, and help with health care and school places, as well as more choice in terms of where people are posted.
One of the issues that caused anger in my constituency was the closure by the previous Government of the RAF Princess Alexandra hospital in Wroughton in south Swindon. It was well used and much admired by military and civilian patients alike. It is still much missed by my constituents. That closure was another example of the bad decisions made by the previous Government, which left a terrible legacy in my constituency.
By contrast, this Government are taking the views of everyone in the country seriously, and they deserve praise for making the armed forces better reflect the composition of the United Kingdom. The percentage of posts open to women has been increased from 47 per cent. to 70 per cent., but I would like it to be increased further. The target of getting 5 per cent. of all new recruits from all ethnic minorities by the year 2002 is admirable.
In relation to the recruitment and deployment of young people in the armed forces, it is of great regret that there are about 300,000 child soldiers throughout the world. Recruits in Uganda are sometimes as young as 13; the UK recruits at 16. That is of concern to the general public, as evidenced by constituents who raise the issue with me, who want an end to the use of child soldiers in armed conflict and in peacekeeping forces. They are supported by UNICEF, Save the Children, Amnesty International and others, including 110 hon. Members who signed an early-day motion that I tabled on the subject. I thank all those hon. Members for their support.
The Ministry of Defence has announced that UK service personnel under the age of 17 will not be deployed, but that means that 17-year-olds are deployed in military actions. In many aspects of our law, someone of 17 is recognised as a child—although I am aware that 17-year-olds would rather be referred to as young people. Whether we describe 17-year-olds as young people or as children, they rightly deserve protection under the Children Acts, because they can be vulnerable. Those aged 17 cannot buy an alcoholic drink in a pub in our country, but they can be deployed in operations and die for our country, even though they cannot vote for the Government who send them on those missions.
This is not an academic argument. Two brave 17-year-olds lost their lives for our country in the Gulf war. In paying tribute to them, I hope that we all agree that that is too much to ask of such young people. At present, UK 17-year-olds are members of the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo; there are 4,500 16 and 17-year-olds in the British Army. If we compare our record with that of our European partners, it is not good. Belgium is the only other country that generally recruits at 16. Neither France nor Germany will deploy young people until they reach the age of 18.
I am pleased that the Ministry of Defence is keeping its deployment policy under review. I strongly urge the Ministry to review the policy soon, with a view to changing it. Not only is the matter important for our own armed forces and for our reputation in the world, it is important when we negotiate with international colleagues to achieve the worldwide elimination of the use of child soldiers and of the worst forms of child labour.
There has been progress in that matter. Only two weeks ago, on 16 June, a new International Labour Organisation convention was adopted unanimously by 174 member states. The convention intends to eliminate the worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency. It provides the first, specific legal recognition that the use of child soldiers is a form of child labour. It states that the age limit for child soldiering should be 18. I urge the Government to ratify the convention as soon as possible. The worst examples are to be found among the 13 and 15-year-olds who are recruited throughout the world, and in the forced and compulsory recruitment of children. We are not involved in any of those activities. However, if we are to play a strong hand in negotiating the achievement of the convention, we need to apply the arrangements in our own armed forces.
One of the reasons given by the Ministry of Defence for recruiting at 16 rather than 18 is that, if potential applicants are not recruited until they are 18, they will take up educational and other opportunities that lead them into other careers. That could be interpreted as, "Let's get them early—before they know any better", but that is not what we want. The Government are rightly committed to making membership of the armed forces a more attractive career. I have every confidence that they will succeed in that aim. That is the appropriate way to recruit people. We should all be concerned that, when people are too young, they may not have the maturity to take such an important decision with due thought and consideration. By ensuring that people are mature enough to make the decision to join the armed forces, we would be sure that we recruited those who are most suited to a military career.
Three facts are relevant to the attitude of the Ministry of Defence in relation to recruitment at 16 and deployment at 17.
First, there is a European Council directive of June 1994 on the protection of young people at work. It provides that young people under the age of 18 should be protected
from any specific risks to their safety…which are a consequence of their lack of experience".
Work that is likely to contain specific risks includes the
manufacture and handling of devices…or other objects containing explosives.
That clearly has an impact on under-18s in our armed forces.
Secondly, last October, the United Nations announced that all peacekeepers in UN missions should be at least 18 years old, and preferably over 21. Again, we should bear that in mind when considering the appropriate age at which we recruit to our armed forces.
Thirdly, let me take the House back to 1914, when no one under the age of 18 could be recruited into the armed forces. Now, 85 years later, there are 1,700 16-year-olds and 2,800 17-year-olds in the British Army. That cannot be described as progress. Instead, in that respect we are providing less protection to the young people of this country.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister and the House for listening to my comments, and I congratulate the Government on the additional support that they are giving to members of the armed forces and their families. I hope that the Minister will work with colleagues throughout Government to stop the deployment and recruitment of child soldiers, both in the United Kingdom and throughout the world.
Time constraints prevent me from pursuing the comments made by the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown), although I must say that I profoundly disagree with them. However, I commend the courageous words of my Select Committee colleague, the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), on the importance of consulting the armed forces before any hard and fast decisions are taken on the issue of homosexuality.
If the words of Ministers in this and other debates are to be believed, our strategic policy is an unparalleled success: Saddam Hussein was punished last year; Ulster is responding to the Prime Minister's statesmanship; and Milosevic's thugs have been driven out of Kosovo by British-led forces—half of whom, we were assured last Wednesday, are likely to be home by Christmas. Meanwhile, our forces are undergoing a healthy modernisation process in the strategic defence review, which is a model much imitated around the world.
It is interesting that not a single speech by a Back Bencher on either side of the House has conformed to that picture. In opposition, the Prime Minister deplored publicly—and rightly, so many Conservative Back Benchers thought—the overstretch in our armed forces. In 1997, at the time of the general election, we had the smallest Regular Army since the Crimean war, and the most thinly spread since 1945, measured in terms of operational commitments. As Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Gentleman promised, in a now notorious newspaper article, that things were going to change. They certainly have.
Since taking power, the Labour Government have launched major operations involving members of all three services in large numbers in the Gulf and in Kosovo, yet they have continued to cut the defence budget substantially. Morale in the armed forces has been further damaged by the Government deciding, immediately on taking office, to phase last year's modest 3.7 per cent. pay rise, in spite of the manning problems at that time. This year, it is difficult to exaggerate the impact on Army morale of the shocking potential exposure to terrorist threat of the families of a group of ex-soldiers, courtesy of Lord Saville's inquiry.
Last week, the Secretary of State admitted that the Army is still shrinking, and we have heard the figures in more detail today. A small upturn in recruitment has been outweighed by the haemorrhage—in the case of the Army, that is the correct word—of talented young men and women, especially men, from the ranks of junior officers and experienced non-commissioned officers. We were told that unaccompanied tour intervals for infantry units are running at 15 months, compared with a target of 24 months; but, because of the need to back fill, overstretch on men is far worse than the paper figures on units, so we are in fact achieving less than half that target. The figures for the Cavalry and the Royal Engineers are even worse.
The strategic defence review planned two trade-offs for the Army. One was the amalgamation of the elite 5th Airborne Brigade with our only other air manoeuvre brigade, 24 Air Mobile. That was to release funds to pay for a sixth armoured brigade. The second trade-off was a halving of the Territorial Army combat units to pay for 3,000 extra regular soldiers.
As a result of the lamentable manning figures and the Kosovo operation, both increases have been postponed indefinitely. The Regular Army's projected date for full manning has slipped again from 2004 to 2005, and no one in the Army to whom I have spoken believes that it will be achieved by that date. We were told last Wednesday that the formation of the new sixth armoured infantry brigade has been deferred by between 15 and 18 months. In practice, without a large upturn in manning and a draw-down from the Balkans, it cannot happen at all. However, the corresponding cuts are happening as we speak.
Members on both sides of the House have commended the extraordinary success of the lightning intervention by 5th Airborne Brigade. No other brigade in the British Army could have achieved that. There are parallels. In the Gulf in 1990, the 81st Airborne Brigade of the US armed forces was in position within a week. The Israeli forces who achieved the extraordinarily successful raid on Entebbe are another example. In each case, the action was nothing to do with parachuting, but concerned an air manoeuvre that could have been carried out only by paratroops and organised only by an airborne headquarters. Yet that elite centre of excellence, which took 10 years to build up, is to be broken up as soon as the brigade headquarters can be replaced in Kosovo.
The other cut is also taking place. Territorial Army units are being broken up in disbandment parades throughout the country, although the 3,000 regulars have disappeared off the radar screen.
I shall briefly consider those issues in more detail. The Under-Secretary has taken the trouble to reply in detail to procurement questions, but each time I have tried to raise with his colleagues either of the armed forces issues to which I have just referred, they have replied with woolly generalisations. First, on the airborne point, 24 Air Mobile Brigade caused embarrassment to this country when it took six or seven months to get to Bosnia in 1992. I do not want to attack any part of the British Army, but nobody believes that 24 Air Mobile's readiness to deploy remotely compares to that of 5th Airborne Brigade.
We are cutting down to one airborne brigade to pay for a sixth armoured brigade. That change takes us in the opposite direction of most other armies, which think that they need more fast and light troops and less heavy metal. Nevertheless, if we are to make that transformation, why not base that brigade around the 5th Airborne Brigade headquarters, which has just proved itself so effective? I should like to know the specific reason for the decision. I am not asking the Minister to respond in this debate, but I would like a proper written answer from him or his colleagues.
The second detailed issue relates to the Territorial Army. Each time I have raised the need to suspend the cuts in the TA, at least while we are unable to recruit extra regular soldiers, I have been given the same reply. As recently as last Wednesday, the Secretary of State said that the reforms—he keeps using that word—in the Territorial Army have made it easier, rather than more difficult, to use territorials. We introduced reforms in 1996 when, with support on both sides of the House, we passed legislation that made it much easier to use territorials. The Defence Secretary has not explained how halving the number of territorials in combat units will make it easier to use them.
Let us consider the infantry. It used to be possible to put for a fortnight a territorial infantry battalion in the place of a regular infantry battalion. I once took part in such a deployment. That could give a regular battalion a break. However, under the new configuration, there is no proper battalion headquarters, so such battalions cannot be used in an emergency to take the place for a short time of a regular battalion.
The lack of such headquarters and the decision to cut most all-arms training for TA units will inevitably mean a decline in the quality of training of officers. In future, officers in those battalions will lack the experience of collective training—experience that has so far stood in good stead the many TA officers who have been through Bosnia. The future TA will not only be much smaller in its combat elements, but in some parts, particularly the infantry, much less usable.
I turn to the commitments that our forces are likely to face. Yes, we should be proud of the fact that British forces led the way into Kosovo—although it was after the humanitarian disaster that our intervention was designed to avert. None the less, Milosevic pulled out with virtually no damage to his armed forces. We have found virtually no knocked-out armoured vehicles, despite all the extravagant claims of NATO, British Ministers and senior officers. Our forces in the Balkans are poised between a Yugoslav army, which is largely intact, and the forces of the KLA, who have already begun to shoot at Serbs, peacekeepers and each other.
The situation looks more and more like that in Palestine—an unhappy one in which my father served and on which, after three years of trying to uphold a League of Nations mandate, a Labour Prime Minister took the courageous view that it was time to pull the plug.
The Gulf has hardly been mentioned in this debate, but Saddam Hussein has not gone away. Just a year ago, the Secretary of State said in answer to one of his hon. Friends that action would cease when Saddam Hussein responded to the United Nations resolutions. He has not, and the inspectors—and with them most of our intelligence on his weapons programmes—have left Iraq. To the Arab world, Saddam Hussein is getting stronger not weaker.
In Northern Ireland, we all wish the Prime Minister and the parties to the negotiations well, but with the release of 200 murderers, the challenge to our armed forces will be greater not smaller if trouble starts. Meanwhile, the Army is shrinking.
It is no good Ministers saying that they are planning to do something about overstretch and to mention some welcome, but very small announcements. Our commitments are already larger than our capability—and the threats have the potential to be larger still. The Army is still shrinking, cuts are still being made; it cannot go on like this.
The novelist and statesman John Buchan referred in his autobiography, which was published shortly after his death in 1940, to his youngest brother Alastair, who fell at the head of his company of Royal Scots Fusiliers on the first morning of the battle of Arras in the first world war. He said of him:
I remember that when I occasionally ran across him during the last stages of the battle of the Somme I thought him the only cheerful thing in a grey world…I wonder if the future historian will realise how much of the strength of the British army was due to the boys of twenty who brought the kindly ardour of youth into the business of war and died before they could lose their freshness.
One of the other young men who died—a little later in his career than young Alastair Buchan—was Flight Lieutenant Samuel Kinkead, who is buried in my constituency. He was killed in 1928 at the age of 31, having previously, in the space of two short years, between the ages of 20 and 22, won the Distinguished Service Cross twice with the Royal Naval Air Service, then the Distinguished Flying Cross twice with the Royal Air Force and finally, fighting the Bolsheviks in 1919 in Russia, the Distinguished Service Order when he and another pilot, in a Sopwith Camel, drove from the field of battle 4,000 Bolshevik cavalry men.
Such stories inspire us. They still inspire people in this cynical day and age—so much so that when the Reverend Gary Philbrick, Mr. Brian Lamb of the Calshot activities centre in my constituency, where Flight Lieutenant Kinkead was based when he was killed trying to break the world air speed record in 1928, Councillor Alan Rice of Hampshire county council and I decided to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Flight Lieutenant Kinkead's death, and we invited the family along and told them not to be disappointed if only 40 or 50 people turned up. We should not have worried. Between 300 and 400 people came along to celebrate and commemorate the life of this hero—a man who had died 70 years before. Even as I tell that story, I feel a bit of a thrill of excitement that such a person could have lived and died in such an outstandingly brave fashion.
Both those two young men died unmarried. But what would have happened to them if they had been more fortunate—if they had lived to complete their military career and had postponed any question of getting married until after the completion of their term of service? Today, that situation confronts many people who fought in the war and who gave great service to this country after the war.
I refer—very briefly, because of lack of time—to a letter published in The Daily Telegraph on 5 April 1999. It was written by a gentleman by the name of I. G. Aubrey-Rees, who wrote:
As a terminally ill recipient of an Armed Forces pension, after serving for 34 years, I believe I am very well cared for by the RAF, but when I die in the next few weeks, my widow and family will not be so fortunate.
That was brought to my attention by Major Tom Spring-Smyth, president of New Forest, East Conservative Association, my local association, who writes that,
since I married after retiring from the army, my pension will die with me and Jennifer"—
will get nothing, yet I was fully paid up".
The Officers Pension Society has been campaigning on the issue of post-retirement marriages for many years. It has got nowhere under Conservative Governments and it is getting nowhere under the Labour Government. Major-General Bonnet, general secretary of the Officers Pension Society, has written to me and explained that post-retirement marriages occur much more frequently in the armed forces because officers are discouraged from marrying before the age of 25. The age used to be 30. They must retire at 55—many are forced to leave earlier—and opportunities for marriage in-service are invariably limited by military service abroad.
On 6 April 1978, it was first accepted that the widow of a service man who married or remarried after retirement should receive a forces family pension, which is the formal title of a service widow's pension. However, that change of the rules was not applied retrospectively to those who had retired before 1978, and who had subsequently married after retirement. The absurdity of the situation is that those whose plight prompted the change in the armed forces pension scheme are the very widows who are now left permanently disadvantaged. Many of them are the widows of men who served a full military career and fought for the nation during the second world war.
The Government—the previous Government as well as the present one—argue against change because they say that alteration in the rules of the armed forces pension scheme would be bound to read across to the whole public service. There will certainly be pressure from other public service groups, but that can easily and legitimately be resisted. The Government recently argued that the armed forces were unique and excluded them, and only them, from the national minimum wage legislation. If the armed forces can be dealt with separately on the minimum wage, they can certainly be dealt with separately on pensions.
For many years, the Officers Pension Society has been seeking a full pension for service widows of post-retirement marriages. In late 1997, the society co-ordinated an application on behalf of 22 representative applicants to the European Court of Human Rights on this issue. The Government believe that that application will fail, while the society hopes that it will succeed. Whichever is right, it is a shame that the widows of officers who served this country gallantly and paid into pension schemes should have to resort to the ECHR to try to secure the recompense, reward and right that they should have in respect of their husbands' service, the pension contributions they made and the sacrifices that they also often had to make by delaying their marriages until after their military careers were completed.
The pity of it is that our debate will not be widely reported in the press or in the media, nor on television. With luck, the BBC will pick up something of it for a little soundbite here and there. As hon. Members on both sides of the House have said, it is a matter of regret that, for an issue that is so important in our national life, there is apparently little interest. It is true, however, that we have filled the time available. Indeed, we could fill it twice over given the level of expertise and commitment of many of those who have spoken in the debate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) for his contribution and for his dedication to his constituency and to the cause of pensions. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) made another notable speech setting out his passionate belief in the difficulties of overstretch. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) made a particularly telling speech and I am grateful to him. I do not entirely agree with some of his remarks and I think that I have rather more sympathy for the Ministry of Defence police than he has. Nevertheless, he made an important contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) made a telling speech on cadets. I agree entirely with him. I served in the cadet force for five years. I rose to the dizzy heights of company sergeant major and had a—
As the Minister says, that is the nasty streak.
I learned a huge amount in that period in terms of self-discipline, becoming a team player and having the good fortune to serve in an Army camp at Celle in Germany. From there, we visited Belsen, which was just up the road. That visit was very early on after the war. That was an incomparable experience for a young man.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) made an important plea for an independent inquiry. This is not meant to be—I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree—in any sense derogatory. It is simply that we need to get to the bottom of how things happened over the past few months in the Balkans.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), as ever, shared his great wisdom with us in demanding a period of stability. We are grateful to him. The contributions from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) were similarly extremely welcome.
The Opposition have supported the Government in pursuit of their overriding duty of defending this country and our national interest. We shall continue to do so. There is consensus on unequivocal support for our military forces and their families as well as for the administrative, scientific and industrial civil servants who support them. This support extends to the private sector contractors who provide goods and services and to the 400,000-plus citizens who work in defence-related industries.
Yesterday, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I shall share a little secret with you—I crept off to the Library at 8 o'clock in the morning to prepare for the debate. I worked there for some hours re-reading the speeches of each of the three Labour Defence spokesmen in the year before the 1997 general election. It was not a Herculean task. It did not take very long, but it yielded many words for eating by present Ministers. It also made me realise just how different Labour's policy is in government from its policy in opposition. Labour Members said one thing and they are doing another. They constantly called for consensus between the parties on the fundamentals of defence policy. If we had agreed with their defence policy in opposition and stuck to it, there would no longer be consensus.
Of course, that has not stopped the Liberal Democrats from drifting around and formally linking themselves with the Government on defence and foreign policy, although, typically, having made a speech or two, they have gone before we have reached the end of the debate.
On 14 October 1996, the then shadow Defence Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said:
I also support the White Paper's arguments in paragraphs 127-28 against the European Union having responsibility for Britain's defence policy. Again in our policy document we state quite clearly—I shall quote it to the House so that there can be no misconceptions—
'Labour does not support the establishment of a European army or proposals to give the European Union a military competence…We believe that efforts to develop a common defence policy should concentrate on strengthening the Western European Union as the European contribution to NATO.'"—[Official Report, 14 October 1996; Vol. 282, c. 491.]
That was during the debate on the defence estimates. We have not had any defence estimates since 1996. The Government have twice postponed publication of new defence estimates. We understand that there has been a little local difficulty, but the House has not had an opportunity to scrutinise defence estimates since 1996.
That does not make it easy to find consensus on the budget. We have a moving target. However, we had the strategic defence review. Parts of it were extremely good. It built on much of the work that we had done, and we welcome that, but it was not strategic, as the Defence Committee pointed out. The foreign policy base lines remain secret to this day, so we cannot have consensus on them. There were gaping holes in the SDR. Home defence was virtually ignored, as the Defence Committee pointed out. There was no serious attempt to address the percentage of national budget spent on defence and security, so we cannot have consensus on that.
As we enter the third year of the Labour Government, they will be held to account for their defence budget. They must find a new soundbite. No one is listening any more as they blame the previous Government for post-cold war contractions in the defence budget and the size of the forces. People remember that, at the time, Labour Members were unilateral nuclear disarmers and Labour activists demanded deeper cuts than the Conservative Government were prepared to make.
That was then; this is now. If the previous Government were criticised by new Labour for defence cuts, why have the Labour Government gone on cutting the budget and increasing the commitments year after year?
In the run-up to the general election in 1997, the present Prime Minister wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph on 3 February. He stated:
My pledge to our armed forces is that we will offer a period of stability.
He condemned Conservative defence cuts. He wrote:
The people who have had to bear the burden of these cuts are our servicemen and women, overstretched and under strength as never before. The strain on our Armed Forces is huge.
It would be dishonest to promise to reverse the cuts in defence spending which the Government has made…We will keep to the spending plans already laid down for the next two years…Our services should not be subject to the same lack of coherent strategy and piling on of new demands".
Two years, and still the Government are cutting and piling on new demands. Only last Friday, the Foreign Secretary said that we would be committing another 8,000 troops on standby for UN operations, on top of those in Kosovo, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, the Falklands, and the RAF in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Italy. Did he spare a thought for the families, or for the retention of our current service men and women, who are prepared to die for their country, but not to sacrifice their family life indefinitely?
What did the pre-election consensus add up to? On 14 October 1996, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence said:
Since taking on the shadow defence portfolio, I have striven to establish consensus, wherever possible, on issues that affect Britain's defence and our security.. The Opposition have done that because we believe that it should be possible, in many spheres, to strike a bipartisan approach on many of the fundamental issues…We in the Labour party are willing to offer a consensual approach on the critical matters that affect the security of our country.
So far, so good. He went on:
Although we seek consensus, we also have the right to be critical of many aspects of the Government's approach such as the absence of strategic planning; the dominance of short-term and ad hoc decision making…Such matters annoy us and make us critical of the Government."—[Official Report, 14 October 1996; Vol. 282, c. 490–493.]
That is fine; I know what he means.
On 24 October, the shadow Defence Secretary went further, saying:
I have tried to argue that there are areas on which there is consensus and areas on which there is potential consensus. There are, however, some things that we believe the Government have got completely and utterly wrong. Their obsession with privatisation really is bizarre…
What is worrying is that the Government's privatisation mania knows no bounds. They really are sell-off mad. The Defence Secretary's dogma has overcome his common sense.
I take his point, but the boot is on the other foot now. The 12,000 people employed by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency know exactly what Labour meant only two and a half years ago, but the DERA dither is no joke.
The consultation paper issued recently is wholly inadequate. It provides no basis for any counter-proposals. We understand that the Secretary of State will now not announce a decision on the future of DERA before the summer recess, as he previously told the House that he would. Instead, he has apparently invited the private sector interests for tea and sympathy at the MOD main building in Whitehall. I should be grateful if the Minister confirmed that that is the current situation.
On 24 October 1996, the shadow Defence Secretary also said:
Although we are prepared to try to reach a consensus with the Government as far as we can, that does not mean that we slavishly accept all the details of Government policy. Far from it. We believe that in many areas the Government's approach is harmful and destabilising to our armed forces and our security."—[Official Report, 24 October 1996; Vol. 284, c. 216–219.]
I could not have put it better myself.
Most important of all are the people who serve in our armed forces—the professional service men and women and the people who follow the flag. There is complete consensus about that, but may I have a grown-up word about overstretch? There always has been, and always will be, overstretch, but official figures rarely give the whole picture for families. Tour intervals are very brief indeed. I was told only last weekend of a family in a specialist branch whose tour interval was only five months.
Consensus is difficult to achieve, but let us be grown up about it. Under this Government, overstretch is different in two ways. If the Secretary of State wants consensus, he will have to recognise that; if he wants to improve retention rates, he will have to do something about it. First, the European security and defence identity, which was agreed by Michael Portillo in 1996 and enshrined in the Petersberg declaration, was based on strengthening the Western European Union's role and common defence of NATO countries as well as
humanitarian and rescue tasks; peacekeeping tasks; tasks of combat forces in crisis management, including peacemaking.
It was not about the new NATO doctrine of international intervention, as announced by the Prime Minister at
Chicago on 22 April, nor was it about overstretched British troops providing, in the words of a Government press release:
Crack UK troops available for UN peacekeeping.
Crack UK peacekeeping troops, able to go anywhere in the world at a moment's notice are to be made available to the United Nations under a new arrangement announced today.
Would it not have been nice if the Government had told the House of Commons about that? Would it not have been nice if there had been one word in that press release about forces families, without whose support the whole thing would be impossible? If the Government are going down that road, we need a new national debate on the percentage of the national budget required to achieve that new international role and we need a reappraisal of the size of the armed forces.
The Blair doctrine is incompatible with the current size of our armed services. That is what new overstretch is all about: we have had smart procurement; now it is time for smart families. The Government are failing to implement family-friendly policies, and the strain on forces' families is building rapidly. The time has now come for the Government to invest in families. I know that that is their express intention in the SDR. We support them and want consensus on this matter, but the ball is in their court.
Before the election, Labour promised the earth to our service men and women and their families. At the top of the list was a commitment in last July's defence review to achieve tour intervals of 24 months. The hard reality is that, for some specialist units, a tour interval that is some 15 months on paper is, in practice, as little as five months.
The Foreign Secretary then made his major defence policy announcement last week, to which I have just referred. That will add dramatically to the problems of overstretch, including further reductions in the tour interval. At the recent Army Families Federation conference in Germany, an attitude survey was carried out among forces families. Wives and families are bearing the brunt of overstretch and finding it difficult to come to terms with the pressures put on all three services. I understand that the Chief of the General Staff's briefing team is to talk to units and their families. That is a welcome development but, ultimately, talking will not be enough.
Naturally, the men and women posted to theatre have good morale—it is what they are trained for. That does not mean to say that real issues associated with overstretch are not having a serious impact among married couples when it comes to retention in the forces. The situation is particularly bad among specialist units, such as the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Signals. Back-filling is leading to substantial fragmentation of units. I have even heard of a family in my constituency who were informed that they were about to be posted to Ireland; the soldier was suddenly sent to Kosovo instead, but the Army insisted that his wife packed up the family house on Salisbury plain and moved to Ireland, because her home had been reassigned to an incoming unit.
This month, in some of the Salisbury plain garrisons, 80 per cent. of the heads of household will be absent on service in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Kosovo or Cyprus. I pay tribute to the men and women of the Army welfare services and to the volunteers of the Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen's Families Association and the Army Families Federation, but they cannot cope indefinitely with the problem. Hugely important decisions regarding education, housing and finance are being taken in the absence of husbands and fathers by wives who endure the double strain of knowing that their husbands are in danger of their lives, while routine domestic issues assume a frightening significance for those left behind.
Our soldiers are seeing terrible things in Kosovo, and last week an Army wife asked me how wives will cope when their men come home. The wives see on television the horrendous sights in Kosovo. The soldiers are professionals and know how to cope; the wives are not—and do not. What arrangements are Ministers putting in place to help the Army welfare services and other units to cope with family traumas in such circumstances?
Now that the initial task of entry into Kosovo is complete, our soldiers will have to settle down to many months, if not years, of alert discipline and tension—and perhaps boredom for long periods. It is therefore essential to support their quality of life. I have been told this week of wives at home in Germany having to send basic kit, including socks and shower bags, to Kosovo because of shortages in supply. I am grateful to the Minister of State for his commitment on telephone cards. Such matters seem trivial to us in this grand debate in the House of Commons, but such detail is immensely important to service men and women in the field.
I am glad to report that Army families have told me that they are generally happy with the Defence Housing Executive. It has been a great success, and I commend the work that it does.
I could go on, but I shall not because I want the Minister to have a fair crack. One message that has come through loud and clear in this debate is that we should be able to agree that there is a problem of overstretch and, above all, that it is time to invest in families.
I am pleased about the broad welcome for the new style of these debates. That has been borne out by the nature of the speeches, as the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) pointed out. Those who spoke have a lot of expertise and experience, and that was apparent again tonight. I fear that I shall be unable to cover all the points that were raised, so we will write to hon. Members on those.
I can think of no better time to hold this debate, as just over a week ago we welcomed the First Air Squadron back from duty over Kosovo. The country is rightly proud of those dedicated professionals. As their squadron leader rightly reminded the media, although they were pleased to be back, his thoughts were with their Army colleagues on the ground. They are doing a difficult job in a professional manner. Those who have expressed concern about our commitment of troops should propose an alternative to the action that we have taken to stop genocide, murder, rape and slaughter in the Balkans.
Once again, our forces have shown why they are world leaders. We must also play our part. We must ensure that our forces have the equipment they need—we debated that subject a couple of weeks ago, and I shall come on to the National Audit Office report in a minute. We should also look after their conditions. As the hon. Member for Salisbury and others have rightly emphasised, that includes the conditions of our forces and their families, because they are the most affected by pressures of overstretch.
We welcome the opportunity to tell the House about the many measures that we are taking to recruit and retain men and women in the armed forces. We also welcome this opportunity once again to pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of the people who serve in and support our armed forces. I am not just paying lip service to our armed forces: my comments are based on our day-to-day experiences of dealing with them and the work that they undertake.
We are working hard to meet our targets to achieve full manning, as my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces said in his opening remarks. The operation in Kosovo will inevitably have an impact on our ability to meet those targets at the moment, particularly for the Army. We remain committed to bringing the services back up to full manning on schedule. We recognise that overstretch is a problem—we have aggressive measures in place to address it, and we are introducing others.
We know that we need to do more to encourage people to join the forces, but we are having considerable success—that should be widely welcomed in the House—and recent figures have shown a further increase. We must convince people to serve for longer. We are considering innovative ways in which to accomplish that. My hon. Friend gave two good examples: the link-up initiative and the introduction of learning credits.
I am pleased that the hon. Members for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) and for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) highlighted the need for pilot retention, and the link-up project is working on that. The problem of pilot retention is faced by all air forces around the world. It is ultimately a matter between the armed forces and the airlines. This welcome initiative is good for the armed forces and for individual pilots. I should like to thank the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South for highlighting the professionalism of the pilots who go back to the United Kingdom to upgrade their training and to ensure that they keep their flying techniques current.
I know from first hand the value that the armed forces, at service and individual level, place on education and training. My hon. Friend talked about his experience with the Royal Artillery in Newcastle. The other week, I spent an enjoyable morning with the RAF at Cosford during this year's adult learners week. Cosford is the RAF's largest training establishment with 2,000 trainees. I was impressed by the learning opportunities provided at the station and by the participants enormously positive attitude towards learning. They often undertook those courses in extremely difficult circumstances, even in theatre.
I also commend many of the educational colleges, which, contrary to practice a few years ago, are now much more flexible in their approach to people who are out on service. That shows positive co-operation and real action, and both sides are to be commended. We believe that most service people want to develop their careers and we plan to give them the means and opportunity to do just that, both for their own advancement and as a valuable tool for the retention of armed forces personnel.
Understandably, a number of hon. Members—including the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier)—spoke of the numbers deployed in theatre in Kosovo, the increasing pressures and the impact on tour intervals. At present, we have some 10,600 ground forces in Kosovo. As has been said, we expect other nations to send more troops over the next few months, and to be able to reduce our own contribution in six months. We are discussing the position with other countries—not just NATO countries—and trying to establish what their contribution will be in respect of a number of roles.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) asked about tour intervals. He rightly said that the SDR assumed average tour intervals of 24 months once all its measures had been implemented. Considerations include the size of the Army and—this was mentioned by the hon. Member for Salisbury—differences in different units, according to their specialisations.
Owing to both the interruption caused by Kosovo and the period that must elapse before the implementation of the SDR, tour intervals will remain shorter than we would wish. We recognise that that is a problem and that we must deal with it. We also recognise that certain conditions of service detract from the quality of life of our service personnel and their families. It would be possible, with a bit of thought, to introduce cost-effective measures to deal with that problem.
My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces and the hon. Member for Salisbury have raised the question of phone cards and phone queues. We have not got those things entirely right, but I think that the best test of an organisation is how quickly that organisation reacts to a problem, and I think that there has been a rapid reaction in regard to telephone services. Nevertheless, we aim to have much better packages of such services when troops are deployed in theatre, and we are working towards that. I am thinking not just of telephones, but of, for instance, television. We need to provide services at a fairly early stage and to provide the necessary equipment—including, of course, receiving equipment.
That does not apply only to the Army, although, because of Kosovo, attention has focused on the Army. We are now installing equipment on our ships to improve reception, with the aim of moving closer to real-time television. Following the end of the cold war, there are longer periods of patrol in the Navy. That means a different life style. Moreover, there are different expectations in the outside world.
Mention has been made of the dramatic changes that have taken place, even in this country, in access to e-mail systems. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) who pointed out that it was not just a case of improving facilities in theatre, or improving equipment; the facilities enabling messages to be transmitted must also be improved. There have been big changes in regard to the availability of e-mail in people's homes, but we, too, can improve facilities and security. That is important because it helps to maintain communication. We have good experience from other services on which to draw, and we are drawing on it.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater described our proposals as a palliative. They may seem small to some, but they are important to those who are working extremely hard in theatre, and who want some recreation and some improvement in contact. We need to look at how we can improve services and—most important—we need to respond rapidly when criticisms are made, and when the position needs to be examined.
Mention has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley, with her experience in the medical service, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) of the Defence Medical Services. In Defence questions only recently, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces announced that we were moving to the next stage, looking at partnerships with academic institutions on the Defence Medical Services. That is enormously important for not only military effectiveness, but morale.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South was, I think, the only Member to draw attention to the important change in relation to the creation of the chief of defence logistics and the Defence Logistics Organisation. That is important in terms of both servicing rapid reaction and achieving value for money. The new chief of defence logistics, General Sir Sam Cowan, and his staff are setting a cracking pace in reforming that organisation, in achieving joint activity and in getting the best out of the different services.
The hon. Members for Portsmouth, South and for Romsey both drew attention to the National Audit Office report. It rightly identifies many of the problems that have arisen in procurement. That is precisely why, under the strategic defence review, we have created the smart procurement initiative and integrated project teams. Some of the projects that are identified in the report are already the subject of improvements and considerable gains, for both us and industry. Therefore, we have already taken those on board. We are already working on the matter. Indeed, that is acknowledged by the National Audit Office.
Those are entirely different issues: the work that we are undertaking on smart procurement and the critical mass at DERA. The hon. Gentleman often makes good points, but he rides his hobby horses almost into the ground. He refuses to acknowledge that, although in many other areas there are significant issues, they are by no means the whole picture. Integrated project teams and smart procurement are already working. We will demonstrate that over coming months.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South made a good point about those who wish to set up homes. He will be aware that in the Royal Navy, for example, an advance loan scheme already exists to assist in that process.
The hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) talked about the cadets. Indeed, we have put additional resources into the cadets, which has been welcomed. We should not only remember that they are excellent youngsters, many of whom go into the services and have good careers, but acknowledge the work of those who act as their officers and trainers.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) raised the question of under-18s in the armed forces. I shall clarify the position. The International Labour Organisation proposes to ban the forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict. United Kingdom recruitment is entirely different from the abusive, forced involvement of children as members of militias or paramilitary forces. We are talking about properly organised, properly supervised, voluntary recruitment into our armed forces, and the excellent future that it gives to many youngsters.
The hon. Member for Portsmouth, South raised a number of other issues, including nuclear test veterans, the Chinook and asbestos. He keeps asking for new inquiries. That is mainly due to the fact that he does not like the answers that the inquiries have already given. Other Members also raised the question of the Chinook. In both of the former cases—asbestos is different and is being reviewed—there has been careful study.
If people have better scientific evidence that negates the basis of those inquiries, they should come forward with it, but both radiological protection studies have stood their ground. We are funding an additional survey on one area—multiple myeloma—because there has been an increase in the problem among both groups: the veterans and the standard group.
The debate has allowed us to—