The armed forces parliamentary scheme is an invaluable opportunity for Members to gain a better understanding of the armed forces, and I certainly commend it to the House. Four Members completed the scheme in 2001, 17 in 2002, 21 in 2003 and 11 in 2004. Twenty-two Members are participating in the scheme's 2005 attachments.
Portsmouth is, of course, the home of the Royal Navy, and I have spoken to serving naval officers and ratings who greatly appreciate the scheme. Their concern is that fewer and fewer MPs have active service experience, and they think that the scheme enables us to understand the lives of servicemen and women and what they have to do. I should like there to be even greater participation: does the Minister think that there are barriers to participation for Members, and how can we overcome them?
Hon. Members often have time problems with participating in the scheme, which is organised and run by the armed forces, with each service organising visits specific to land, sea and air operations or exercises as appropriate. It is a question of colleagues committing themselves to the time needed, and I again commend the scheme to the House and hope that as many Members as possible will take part.
I declare that I am a graduate of the Royal Marines scheme. Does the Minister agree that the greatest benefit of the scheme is that it serves better to inform Members on such issues as the importance of up-to-date, quality kit that is in good condition, particularly when the armed forces are on active service in such places as Iraq? Does he take that message home?
I often say that we sit in this place four days a week making the law on behalf of our country, and that if we do not get out and about to discover the hopes, aspirations and problems that people face, we cannot do that job as thoroughly as we ought to. I agree that learning more about the way in which the armed forces operate and their problems and difficulties, and bringing that information back, is of invaluable help to the Ministry of Defence as it carries out its functions.
As a postgraduate member of the scheme, may I emphasise how important it has been to see our troops in action in Afghanistan and in Bosnia and Kosovo recently? The point made by my hon. Friend Sarah McCarthy-Fry about the need for ring-fencing through an arrangement with the House authorities is an important one. There is a danger that people will not be allowed away at times when there is business in the House. I should like, too, to emphasise that it was good to hear the Scottish troops I met—the Argylls in Bosnia—saying, on the ground, that it was a lot of nonsense to attack the concept of having one Scottish regiment.
If any colleague offers some idea to improve the scheme, we shall obviously listen. We produced a booklet just after the general election, which is available in the Library and which I will happily pass on to colleagues if they have not received copies. We are trying to get as many people to take part as possible, and there is still a waiting list. If people want to join, there is an opportunity to join the scheme. We certainly would not turn away any idea that would help us to benefit Members taking part in the scheme. If we need to have discussions with the House authorities, and if it is appropriate, we shall do so.
As another postgraduate member of the scheme who two weeks ago was yomping around Arbroath with 45 Commando, may I pay testament to the value of the scheme and the hospitality of the commandos? May I express sadness at the reported loss of a royal marine in training in Scotland over the weekend? May I also, as I think we engage in a two-way dialogue, pass on a comment from members of 45 Commando that, for an elite force, they are still under-provided with gymnasium facilities and a swimming pool at Arbroath—a matter that I raised a year ago but happily raise on their behalf yet again?
I share the hon. Gentleman's expression of regret and condolences on the tragedy that he mentioned.
I hope that colleagues who participate in the scheme and who feel that issues must be brought to the attention of Ministers will feel free to do so. I shall make myself available for a debriefing as often as is necessary. If that impacts on something that the department is doing, I have no doubt that the Secretary of State, as an ex-participant in the scheme, will certainly want to know.