Armed Forces Personnel

Part of Bill Presented – in the House of Commons at 4:44 pm on 10th January 2008.

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Photo of John Baron John Baron Opposition Whip (Commons) 4:44 pm, 10th January 2008

Yes it has. Spending on the military has fallen from 2.9 to 2.5 per cent. of our gross domestic product —[Interruption.] I am not wrong. It has fallen by that amount during the past 10 years. That may not sound like a big percentage but it represents £5 billion in today's money, which could put right a lot of what is wrong in the armed forces, certainly when it comes to service accommodation.

That leads me to the point about overstretch. I agree that many terms are used with regard to the concept of overstretch. The bottom line is that the armed forces receive about £5 billion less because of that decrease in spending as a percentage of GDP. That 0.4 per cent. drop in expenditure does not sound a lot, but that money would put right the Army's 4,000 personnel deficit: it does not sound a lot, but it has a big knock-on effect on deployment. When the Chief of the General Staff visited Parliament and made a presentation—if I remember correctly, the Minister was there—he said that the time spent on deployment was normally around 20 per cent. of total time. At the moment, the Army is running at 37 per cent. and, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Arbuthnot pointed out, that over-deployment has been going on since 2002. The Chief of the General Staff made the point that that cannot continue indefinitely and we are reaching breaking point.

Most recent figures show that most Army units now fail to meet the 24-month average interval between tours. That leaves units and individuals separated from their families for far too long, and training and recuperation inevitably suffer.

We must also ensure that we supply our troops with the right equipment. Troops returning from theatre tell of life-threatening shortages of kit, including body armour, satellite phones, oil to prevent guns jamming and electronic equipment to detect roadside bombs—

[ Interruption.] I shall move on.

I should warn the Minister that the public take those failings very seriously. It is no credit to the Government that the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support announced that he was walking away from politics to drive racing cars on the very day that a coroner ruled that a shortage of kit cost Fusilier Gordon Gentle his life. That is not lost on the public.

The Defence Committee has highlighted the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan, and that is especially important in that region, because it has a knock-on effect in the strain put on crews, especially when they have to land in the conditions there at night. It also has an impact on our successes on the ground. One of my concerns about Afghanistan is that many of the victories that we are accomplishing now could become pyrrhic victories if we do not dominate the ground that we have won. It is no good taking towns if we cannot dominate the ground around them, and helicopters have a vital role to play in achieving that. If we eventually cede that ground to the Taliban, the victories will indeed be pyrrhic.

I welcome the rule changes to compensation claims, and I give the Government credit where it is due for those. It is right that service personnel can now claim for each injury. However, I would ask the Minister to address directly why the limit on compensation remains at £285,000, and will the Government and MOD do any work on that? To put the figure into context, Peterborough borough council spends some £285,000 on awarding compensation to those who trip over paving stones, and that is a useful comparison.

Given the litany of failings by the Government, I have to say, as an ex-serviceman, that it is bemusing to hear Ministers say that when they are visiting troops, they do not hear them grumble too much, so perhaps Opposition Members and the media exaggerate some of the concerns. That is the wrong approach. Partly because service personnel are taught not to complain, and partly because of their deference to the chain of command, they do not grumble. It is ludicrous to suggest that because nothing is said, all is well. It shows how out of touch Ministers risk appearing.

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Matthew Somerville
Posted on 14 Jan 2008 11:30 pm (Report this annotation)

The second "interruption" was originally listed in Hansard as Bob Ainsworth saying "Absolute bollocks", and Tony Baldry asking "Is that a parliamentary phrase?". See the BBC news story about this at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7187907.stm