[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2010-12, The Armed Forces Covenant in Action? Part 1: Military Casualties, HC 762, and the Governme nt Response, HC 1855; Eighth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2010-12, The Ministry of Defence Annual Report and Accounts, 2010-11, HC 1635, and the Government Response, HC 85; Second Report from the Defence Committee, The Armed Forces Covenant in Action? Part 2: Accommodation, HC 331, and the Government Response HC 578; and uncorrected oral evidence taken before the Defence Committee on
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of defence personnel.
If I may, I would like to begin, rather oddly, by congratulating my hon. Friend Mr Vara on the previous debate, which was outstanding—despite the fact that it has taken time away from the defence debate. I think that it was a really worthwhile way of starting today’s Back-Bench business.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting us a debate on personnel issues. We discover that there is a disadvantage in having this debate during the week of the autumn statement, because has been relegated to the end of a day after not only the important debate we have just had, but important statements that have to be made following the autumn statement. Because there is less time than there might otherwise have been, I will take as little time as possible in order to allow everyone who wishes to speak to do so.
There will inevitably be subjects I do not cover. I am afraid that I will not cover the important issue of reductions of certain historic and well-recruited regiments, but I hope that, by not speaking about that, I will allow other right hon. and hon. Members to do so, and with greater knowledge than I could possibly show. I shall say little about redundancies or reservists, because the Defence Committee has recently conducted a number of inquiries into those subjects. Yesterday, we took the unusual step of announcing in advance the Committee’s programme for the remainder of this Parliament. It will include inquiries into some of these important matters.
One of the advantages of having the debate today is that it seems to have prompted the Ministry of Defence to produce lots of documents, including its accounts for 2011-12 and the annual report on the covenant. It is always nice to have the MOD’s accounts, even if the auditor qualifies them, as always, by saying that they do not show a true or fair view of the state of the MOD’s finances. It would have been nicer still if we had had the accounts in June or July, when we should have done, but no doubt the accounting officer will be able to give an explanation when he comes before us next week—an event to which I know the whole Defence Committee will be looking forward enormously.
Today’s annual report on the armed forces covenant is welcome. It reflects many of the suggestions made by the Committee in its continuing series of inquiries into the covenant, for example on doubling council tax relief, on the false economy created by the pause in the refurbishment of single living accommodation, on home ownership and on health care, particularly mental health care, for veterans and reservists. Those are not acknowledged as being the Committee’s suggestions, but we know the terms of trade and do not mind that, so long as the MOD from time to time listens to what we say and does something about it.
The relationship between the MOD and the Select Committee needs to contain an element of constructive tension—almost scratchy; never cosy. Sometimes there is more tension than constructiveness, but I tell the Minister that the more open his Department is with the Committee, the more we can help to get his policies right. We shall shortly be producing a report on the Service Complaints Commissioner, who, as usual, gave us most helpful evidence a couple of weeks ago. I hope that the Minister will listen and respond positively to what we will say on Dr Atkins’ extremely valuable role.
The MOD does sometimes help us. Last week it helped the Committee to have an extremely valuable visit to Afghanistan as part of our normal programme of visiting our armed forces wherever they are deployed. Several issues arose, and they are what I want to concentrate on for the remainder of my short remarks.
I will touch first on welfare matters, starting with decompression. At the end of a six-month tour, we consider it essential to ensure that our troops are provided with a period of what is known as decompression. Often that takes place in Cyprus on the way home, when the returning troops, over a few kegs of beer, are reminded that their spouses will have been living their own lives while they were away and will not necessarily understand exactly what they have been through. These are absolutely essential reminders.
However, apparently decompression is not considered essential when our forces return for a two-week break in the middle of a tour. That suggests that we need to rethink the entire concept of the two-week break, not of decompression itself. Is the two-week break necessary or a good thing? For example, when our troops are working alongside the Americans, who, unlike British forces, get travel time taken off their break but get only a two-week rest and relaxation break in a one-year tour, does that create resentments on either side? Is the entire concept of a break destabilising? If, for operational reasons, someone’s break comes very near the beginning or end of their tour, what good does it do? The armed forces and the Ministry of Defence need to begin to think about these things very seriously.
The armed forces sometimes need to make serious and difficult choices between welfare and operational output. I suspect that in 2014 the welfare of our troops in Afghanistan will be pretty minimal, frankly. We will have drawn down and taken away much of their support system, and, as we were told, they will be living out of the backs of their vehicles. The troops and, just as importantly, we need to know that, think about it, and accept it now. This is not about stopping looking after the armed forces who do so much for us; it is about putting it in the context that their primary task is operational, and that when they signed up they also signed up to an element of austerity when necessary.
Another issue that arose was detention. There is a genuine problem over the legal ability to transfer those whom we detain to the Afghan authorities, which were accused in the past of mistreating one of the people we had previously transferred. We visited the detention facility in question, and we were impressed with the new deputy governor, who has a good international track record in observing and enforcing human rights. Nevertheless, we remain concerned that there should be a speedy solution to this problem. We must not run the risk of being forced to hold on to people whom our troops detain, because that might lengthen our involvement in Afghanistan in certain respects far beyond the period for which we would wish to be so involved. Still less must we put our troops at risk of being subject to any legal challenge regarding a failure to obey international law in what they have done. I suggest that in future there should always be an Afghan element in the capture, interrogation and detention of those suspected of insurgency or dealing in narcotics so that in all cases the detention is Afghan, not British, and the problem therefore does not arise. However, such a solution would require complicated discussions between ourselves and the Afghan authorities, and I appreciate that it will not be easy to achieve.
Our role in Afghanistan now is to step back, and that is a very difficult thing for the British armed forces to do. Their natural inclination, as the sort of people they are with the sort of qualities they have, is to step in and help; that is what they are trained to do. However, we are now reaching the stage in Afghanistan where the best help we can give is not to help. One aspect of this is the insider threat, which is sometimes referred to as “green on blue”. One of the soldiers we talked to in Camp Bastion said that it is absolutely galling that the very people we are there to help might turn on us. The risk is not going to go away; all we can do is minimise it. My own view—I do not know about other members of the Defence Committee—is that we are doing our very best to achieve that. If we draw the conclusion that we cannot trust the Afghan security forces, we will be quite wrong. It is a fantastic country with wonderful people who are, let us not forget, being asked to learn in a few years what it took us centuries to learn. It will still be necessary for our troops to help to use the ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—assets that we have and to call in the medical helicopters that are so highly regarded, but it will increasingly be less necessary for them to patrol alongside the Afghan patrols, which are becoming more capable day by day.
We came away from Afghanistan with a strong message. At the end of the summer, an instruction went out to the insurgents that they should fight their way through the winter. Despite that, the insurgency dropped away very suddenly. The insurgents are finding it increasingly hard to raise and retain their money and resources. They are also finding it very difficult to persuade their co-insurgents to fight Afghan soldiers, who are becoming increasingly competent. That competence is likely to increase with the advent of the academy for officer training, to be run along the lines of Sandhurst. We went to visit it. It is currently a building site, true, but the Afghans have begun to identify their first training officers and non-commissioned officers, who are clearly of extremely high quality. They have set themselves some enormously high challenges—for example, to have 150 female officer cadets a year passing through the college. In the long run—this point was most validly made to us by President Karzai—the issue of the equal treatment of women is likely to be resolved not by western influence or by the hectoring of countries such as ours but by education and the visibility of the outside world provided by the internet.
We found that security is no longer the primary issue of concern for most Afghans. There is still fear when people travel from one part of the country to another, but the ability of Afghans to farm in peace, and to get their goods to market on an increasingly secure road network, is being greatly improved. This has been achieved by a combination of the actions of our troops and the actions of the Afghan national security forces—police and army, pleasingly—in doing what our troops are training them to do.
Some say that we should leave Afghanistan now. In one sense, that is what we are doing. If we wanted to leave tomorrow, it would in fact take us about 18 months to do so. We are doing it by leaving in place a working security apparatus that will help to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a threat to this country. By staying involved after the end of combat operations in 2014, we will ensure that there is transition, not abandonment. The strongest message that we received from our personnel in Afghanistan was that we should hold our nerve and stick to the plan, which is a good one.
Here I should acknowledge something: I was wrong. I believed that by setting a date for us to leave Afghanistan we were playing into the hands of the Taliban, who would just wait us out. I told the Prime Minister that if we concentrated on success, we would make it easier for us to leave, whereas if we concentrated on leaving, we would make it harder for us to succeed. It hard for me to say this, but the Prime Minister and my hon. Friend John Stevenson were quite right and I was quite wrong. In practice, the Afghans needed us to step back, and they needed a timetable. Arguably, by setting a date in 2014 the Prime Minister bought more time for the international security assistance force to achieve transition than it would have had if the time scale had been left open ended.
Finally, I would like to pay tribute to our armed forces. They are going through a tough time at the moment, as is the entire country. They know they are not immune from the financial hardship afflicting us all. They are facing redundancies, reductions in the pensions they can expect and a smaller total expenditure on defence.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many service personnel want clarity from the Ministry of Defence on what will happen to arrangements for units in which husbands and wives are based? They, like the right hon. Gentleman, perhaps, and me, were under the impression that we might learn that from a statement from the MOD as soon as next Tuesday. Is he aware of reports suggesting that that announcement will not take place next Tuesday and does he know of any reasons why that might be? If not, perhaps the Minister on the Treasury Bench could clarify whether that is correct.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The Chief of the General Staff was asked a similar question when he appeared before us yesterday. Unsurprisingly, the timing of statements is a matter for the Government. We will have to wait to hear from the Minister whether this has been affected by the changes announced in yesterday’s autumn statement, but he will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s intervention and will no doubt be eager to cover it in his contribution, even if he does not look too eager at present.
As I have said, the Chief of the General Staff appeared before us and he said that this was a worrying and destabilising time for the armed forces. Picking up on the hon. Gentleman’s point, it is certainty that the armed forces want—they just want to know where they stand so that they can plan their lives accordingly.
It is our job as a Parliament to recognise what our armed forces do for us and to thank them for it. I am pleased that the country seems to be well aware of how much we owe our armed forces, and today is our opportunity to acknowledge it and to thank them.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr Arbuthnot. It is also a pleasure to follow Paul Uppal, who spoke in the previous debate and reminded me—this is important—that he probably arrived in the west midlands as a Ugandan Asian at the same time that I arrived there as a German. He now occupies Enoch Powell’s old seat and I have Neville Chamberlain’s old seat. That shows our extraordinary diversity and ability to assimilate and accommodate people from all parts of the world.
The hon. Lady is also holding a piece of paper in her hand.
Yes, I am holding a piece of paper—or several of them—in my hand.
Before the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire beats himself up too much about having been wrong, he should remember that we have not yet withdrawn from Afghanistan. I hope that we will both end up having to say that we have been proved wrong, but we should be anything but complacent about what happens in Afghanistan and about the ease of withdrawal. The closer we get to the withdrawal date and the more we have to ensure the safety of our own troops—we are not entirely clear who provides that security—the more difficult it will get. The situation reminds me of when children leave home: we cannot wait for them to leave home, but the closer the time gets, the more nervous we get about them having to step out.
I want to start by addressing a big issue and then move on to something more specific. I am often accused of having a typical foreigner’s emotional attachment to British institutions, which is probably true of a few people. I have always been extremely proud of a country that has a sense of itself and its role in the world, but the recent strategic defence reviews and what has been happening in other Departments have made me begin to wonder whether we still have that sense of self and of our role in the world.
I would assert that we now have a Ministry of Defence that says that we will provide the amount of troops that we can afford in order to balance the books, rather than starting off by saying, “This is the role we wish to play in the world.” I would have expected a strategic defence review to start by saying, “We have a Navy because we are an island and therefore we need x, y and z,” and, “Our air force is a certain size because we have assessed the risk from the air.” The commitment and engagement that we wish to see outside these islands should determine the size of our Army. I have seen no such clear statement as to what we are about.
I absolutely agree with and entirely endorse what the hon. Lady says about the foreign policy baseline for any strategic defence review, but does she not agree that, if we were to start from that standpoint, it would be almost inevitable that we would end up with a requirement that was vastly greater than the nation could afford?
That may well be the case, but we have to start with where we think we should be and then we can work out where we ought to be. It is not just the MOD that lacks that strategic sense. At one stage, the Department for International Development had a clear statutory duty of poverty reduction, but even that is being reviewed and rethought at the moment—I am not entirely sure where that takes us. Our Foreign Office is also reducing its influence. If we consider how this country projects itself to the rest of the world, we will see that there is a lack of clarity in those lead Departments that ought to provide a collective view.
I asked myself whether this was happening all over the world and looked at comparative figures for GDP spending on NATO. Even if we look back as far as the 1950s, there is a consistent pattern within the European Union. Our country and France contribute well over 2% of GDP commitment, so we clearly have a view on where we should be in terms of spending.
It is sometimes difficult to make comparisons between armed forces numbers, because we ended conscription. The Italian and German figures in particular—they sometimes include police forces—are somewhat misleading, but nevertheless the pattern shows that we are still big significant players. We have no sense, however, of why we want to be the big players. What are we going to do?
I want to leave the Minister with a final example of that muddled, confused thinking. In my experience, it is always when we are not entirely sure what we want to say that we end up constructing sentences that are utterly meaningless. The Defence Committee took evidence yesterday on the Army 2020 review and I was struck by something called, “Figure 1: Force Development Deductions”. I invite the Minister to look at the relevant paragraph. I will not bore the House by reading it. It has about 10 sentences and I am glad that the word “broadband” is in there, because that is about the only word I understood. I drew the attention of our witness, General Sir Peter Wall, to that paragraph and asked him about it, and he confessed his confusion about the precise meaning of that integral part of the report. He promised the Committee that he would consult the Babel fish and provide us with an English translation. I think that demonstrates that the MOD needs to be much clearer, particularly post-Afghanistan, of what we think our forces are for. It is no good just to say, “This is how much money we’ve got,” even though the money is important.
This might again be a sign of my emotional attachment as a foreigner, but I am always struck by the island blindness of this country. This is an island, so how can we compromise some of our surveillance abilities? What will happen to maritime security? It is staggering. That is my general point for the Minister.
My second point is much more grounded at home. Last week, I went to meet Malala Yousafzai’s father—the family are currently in my constituency at the Queen Elizabeth hospital and the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, which do extraordinary work. It was particularly pleasing for me to see that good work, because I was the evil Minister who closed down the military hospitals in places such as Gosport and I remember being denounced in endless Adjournment debates for doing so.
But we closed them not because we wanted to, but because the royal colleges were telling us that the MOD could no longer provide the best medical services. Ten years ago, the NHS looked at the Ministry of Defence and said, “You guys really need to step up to the plate and improve your act.” Now, some of the work within defence medicine is miles ahead of what the NHS is doing in terms of rehabilitation and care. We have unexpected survival rates among soldiers, which one can see in the latest evidence from Afghanistan, that are well beyond what the NHS could do. That is a good development.
To go back to the hon. Lady’s point about numbers, I declare an interest because my mother was Italian. Her point about the carabinieri being included is right. In my experience, the Chief of the General Staff is a very plain-speaking gentleman. If there has been any difficulty with that particular paragraph, I am sure that she will get a very clear reply.
I echo her comments with regard to the role of 3 hospital at Camp Bastion. The stunning statistic from that facility in Helmand is that however severely wounded they are, 98% of the people who go through its doors alive come out alive. That is an incredible statistic and we pay tribute to that hospital.
I also want to draw attention to the creation of the Fisher house on the site of the Queen Elizabeth hospital, which has 18 en-suite rooms. It will be ready next year and will have much better facilities for the families. That is another good development.
I do have concerns about the future. At the moment, our young injured heroes are young injured heroes. In 10 or 20 years’ time, they will be middle-aged, probably overweight like many of us, and will no longer have the image of a hero. Will we still look after them properly then? The military covenant mentions that point.
The paper on the military covenant, which arrived so nicely in time for this debate, refers to the establishment of
“a unified Defence Primary Healthcare Service”.
I urge the Minister to talk to colleagues in the NHS about this matter, because I am in no way convinced that the commissioning structures that are being put in place, now that primary care trusts are no longer doing the commissioning, are sufficient to ensure that the very specialist services that our veterans need are provided not just for the next year, five years or 10 years, but in the long term. It is so much easier for Americans, because registering as a veteran gives them access to free medical health care. We do not have that in this country and it is easy to forget that in years to come, they will still have very special needs.
I read through the report just before the debate and it states that we are planning to create that service, but we need to be more specific. Will it be a specialist commissioning unit? Will there be national commissioning? If so, how will it work throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, given that health is a devolved issue? This is going to be key in the long term to veterans trusting what we provide through the military covenant.
This is a very useful debate. The key thing that I urge the Minister to go away with is that we need to have a much clearer sense of purpose and of what we want our armed forces to do. We must not just look at them when they have been injured or have given their life, as important as that is; I want them to be honoured, celebrated and recognised for the job that they want to do, and that is the job of fighting. We as a country need to have a sense of when we think something is worth fighting for. That needs to be spelt out at some stage or another by the Government.
The defence of the realm and the security of our people is the first and most important duty of any Government. Governments must demonstrate that they value the service and sacrifices of the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Our defence personnel, both on operations and at home, do an awesome job. I know that the House is hugely grateful for everything that they do. I would like to put my personal thanks and appreciation on the record.
We must ensure that our defence personnel have the kit that they need, and that we are clear and candid with them about the changes and challenges that they face. If we do that well, we will create an armed forces and a Ministry of Defence that are militarily effective and sustainable.
The Government have done much of which they can be justly proud in regard to our defence personnel. The historic enshrining in law of the military covenant will change for ever how Governments and our society fulfil their obligations to our forces personnel, veterans and their families. The doubling of the operational allowance was also most welcome.
However, aspects of the 2012 armed forces continuous attitude survey should give us all pause for thought and concern. Satisfaction with pay and pensions is down and our troops feel undervalued. The Government must appreciate that, no matter how resilient our armed forces are, uncertainty over their future is breeding low morale. I would like the Minister to address in his winding-up speech what steps the Department will take to ensure that all defence personnel are informed in a transparent and direct manner of exactly what changes will be affecting them as soon as is practical. Our armed forces are the best of Britain—there is no doubt about that—and they understand that changes need to take place. So let us not insult their intelligence. Let us be as clear and as frank as we can be. They will respect that, whatever the decisions may be.
There are changes that need to be made. When the Government took office, it became abundantly clear that there was no money left. Under the last Government, the MOD was placed in special measures by the Treasury because of its inability to manage its budget. By making the difficult decisions and taking action, this Government have brought the finances back in order and under control.
I am intrigued by that point. The claim of both Dr Fox and the current Defence Secretary is that they were left a £38 billion black hole. They seem to have plugged that within two years, which is remarkable. Clearly, the two of them should be Chancellor. I notice that there is no mention of that in the introduction to today’s annual accounts. We are still waiting for the figures. How can the hon. Gentleman claim that the budget has been balanced when no such evidence has been produced by the Department?
There is no question but that the MOD’s finances were a mess when we took office. The words that I used were that the Government have “brought the finances back in order and under control.”
I praise the Government’s ambition to have a more flexible armed forces on a sustainable footing, but I disagree that a smaller armed forces is needed. Ministers have said repeatedly that no one wants to see reductions in our armed forces, so why are we protecting spending on international development and aid and giving £9.3 billion a year to the EU? I was elected, as were my hon. Friends, on a mandate that called for an increase in the size of the Army.
I am grateful to my hon. and gallant Friend. Does he share my concern that the further reductions or economies in defence spending that were announced yesterday may well end up as yet another reduction in the number of combat personnel in the armed forces?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend and later in my remarks I will say that a time must come when we say, “Enough is enough; no more cuts.”
I raised in a previous debate a point about the EU budget and foreign aid budgets being protected or increasing, and I was pleased when the former Defence Minister, Sir Gerald Howarth, said that there is an alternative
“and it is to reprioritise Government spending…we cannot justify spending ever more taxpayers’ money on overseas aid and cutting our armed forces.”—[Hansard, 18 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 521.]
My constituents and I are concerned that the planned reductions will leave us with the smallest Army since the Napoleonic wars. History shows that we rarely see the next war coming. We do not choose our wars—they choose us. Although our security is still largely protected by the Government’s plans, there must come a point when we draw a line in the sand and say to the Treasury, “No more reductions and no more cuts.”
Defence Equipment and Support is based in my constituency. Many of my constituents work there and some have told me that changes are needed in the way it is structured and operates. Those civilian personnel are vital to the future of our armed forces and carry out crucial tasks. I have visited DE and S and have seen at first hand how important procurement, logistics and back-office operations are to the effectiveness and well-being of our troops in theatre and elsewhere.
I look forward to an announcement on the proposed changes early in the new year so that the uncertainty felt by my constituents—and others who work at DE and S—is addressed. Whatever reforms the Government propose for DE and S, I ask them to seek cross-party support. The future of DE and S will have a long-term effect on the capability of our armed forces. It is in our national interest that the best kit for our troops is delivered at the right time to the right place, and of course we must also deliver the value for money to the taxpayer. Members on both Front Benches have a duty to work together to minimise the uncertainty and anxiety of DE and S personnel now and in the years to come with a reassurance that a future Government will not rip it up and start again.
The Government have said that reserves will be at the heart of an adaptable whole force and I welcome the reserves review and the Future Force 2020 report. If the reserves of the future are to play an integral part in the defence of the realm, they must be fully integrated with regular forces on operations and exercise. I welcome the Government’s commitment to an additional £1.8 billion over the next decade for new equipment and training for reserves, as well as the consultation paper on engaging employers, which is crucial.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that there could be the danger of undue reliance on large employers? Communities such as mine in Salisbury have a large number of smaller micro-employers. They are keen to participate in making reserves available, but there must be appropriate support for small businesses.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The attitude and support of employers is crucial for future reserves, and whether they succeed or fail largely depends on how we support smaller businesses that allow their employees to be deployed on operations and exercises for long periods of time.
I am concerned about the post-deployment and aftercare of mobilised reservists. To serve their country on operations, reservists take a break from normal civilian, family and professional life, in most cases for up to a year. It is much harder for reservists to adjust to post-deployment life than it is for regular forces, because of the added factor of trying to get back to normal day-to-day life without the kind of support that a full-time soldier would receive, surrounded by comrades and the regimental family. A person could be out on the ground in Afghanistan, but a few weeks or months later they go back to their civilian job and are surrounded by people who have no understanding of what they have been through. I hope Ministers recognise that and will ensure that adequate provision is made.
I would like the House to consider the words of Lord Healey, a former Chancellor and Secretary of State for Defence who served as Royal Engineer in the north African campaign, the allied liberation of Sicily and the Italian campaign, and who was the military landing officer for the British assault brigade at Anzio. He said:
“Once we cut defence expenditure to the extent where our security is imperilled, we have no houses, we have no hospitals, we have no schools. We have a heap of cinders.”—[Hansard, 5 March 1969; Vol. 779, c. 551.]
It is an honour to follow Jack Lopresti, who, with his experience, has much to bring to debates such as this, as well as the Chair of the Defence Committee. Ms Stuart and I are members of the German caucus of the House of Commons, and I am pleased to follow her as the next Opposition speaker.
I will concentrate on the forthcoming base review, and I look forward to the Minister’s response to get clarity on why the statement is not being made on Tuesday and on when we can expect it. The base review is directly related to defence personnel because it will concentrate on arrangements for the return of UK forces from Germany and confirm the configuration of basing arrangements—which units go where, which will change their role or close, and which will not return. That is what we expect to hear.
We should put ourselves in the position of servicemen and women and their families, whether they are at a base in the UK, Germany or somewhere else. It is coming up to Christmas and they are expecting some clarity, but unfortunately they will not get it, which is a shame. It would be helpful for the Minister to offer clarity on the time scale.
I want to focus on the impact of the basing review on service personnel and communities not only in the UK, but in Germany. I had the good fortune to be in Lower Saxony two weeks ago—I visited the area around the Bergen-Hohne training area—to meet the local authorities. An announcement on basing will have an impact on those authorities and the service and civilian communities around the training area. Speaking to the mayor of Bad Fallingbostel, Rainer Schmuck, reminded me of the experience we had in Moray recently—as part of the review of RAF bases, the local community had to plan for all kind of eventualities, which is incredibly destabilising. The basing announcement will have a tremendous impact on local authority budgets available in communities such as Bad Fallingbostel.
When the hon. Gentleman was in Germany, did he get any indication of whether the British Government have given two years’ notice of withdrawal, which they must give under the treaty? It is my understanding from a recent conversation that that has not yet been given, which is adding uncertainty about what will happen in Germany.
That is a good question. I met the premier of Lower Saxony, David McAllister, when I was in Germany. Because many of the decisions to be taken on amelioration of basing policy are effectively devolved functions—Ländersache—in Germany, decision makers such as David McAllister will have to work with local communities to help with the transition following any announcement on the basing review. Not one of my interlocutors both at Länder and community level was aware of any fixed timetable beyond what was said in previous statements. I was not told that there has been any clarity on what is likely to happen. I am sure the Minister does not disagree—he will no doubt say that clarity will be given as soon as possible—but I should underline the point that many hon. Members were given the impression that we would hear on Tuesday, but it now appears that we will not.
For communities such as Bad Fallingbostel, the likelihood of the withdrawal of UK forces is significant. The role of the military in that part of the world goes back a long time, to the time of the Hanoverian redcoats. While they were tramping around parts of Scotland in the mid-18th century, they were also beginning to train on the Lüneburg Heath. The area has since become the most significant training area anywhere in Europe. A series of communities around the training area, whether in Bergen, Celle or Bad Fallingbostel itself, are exceptionally defence dependent. The impact of the basing review is significant not only in Lower Saxony; there are large-scale UK military presences in places such as Gütersloh and Paderborn. We should not lose sight of the fact that basing announcements will be relevant not only here, but in friendly nations such as Germany. It is important that people there have as much notice of any changes as we have here, and as quickly as possible.
I have a couple of constituency matters to raise. Right hon. and hon. Members know that I represent one of the most defence-dependent constituencies in the UK—it contains RAF Lossiemouth and Kinloss barracks. I stress to the Minister that I am hearing loud and clear that people want clarity on what will happen. There is uncertainty on the time scale for the transfer of the Typhoons from Leuchars and uncertainty in Leuchars about what will happen at the base. There is uncertainty in Angus about the Condor facility, which has been there for a very long time. If the Minister is not aware of that uncertainty, I strongly advise him to look closely at the trends at bases such as RAF Lossiemouth, where over and above compulsory and voluntary release we are seeing, in some very important trade groups and specialisations, people leaving in droves. That is due largely to uncertainty and, it has to be said, the success of the offshore oil and gas industry, which is offering tremendous opportunities to people starting a career in the civilian world.
It would be useful to remind ourselves of the commitments given on basing, which I imagine will be the starting point for the Ministry of Defence. We do not have to look back very far, because the previous Secretary of State for Defence, Dr Fox, was explicit about the MOD’s plans for Scotland and I would like to remind the House what they are. He made a statement on defence transformation, and I will read the entire paragraph, because it is important:
“Army brigades currently stationed around Catterick and Salisbury will make up three of the five multi-role brigades. The other two MRBs will be based in the east of England, centred on Cottesmore, and in Scotland, centred on Kirknewton, south-west of Edinburgh. The MRB centred in Scotland will require a new training area, and positive discussions are being taken forward with the Scottish Government. Two major units and a formation headquarters will be based at Leuchars, increasing the number of posts there from 1,200 to more than 1,300. Consequently, the Typhoon force due to be built up there will instead be built up at RAF Lossiemouth. Other MRB units will be moved into Glencorse, Caledonia, Albemarle barracks and eventually Arbroath, as we intend over time to bring the bulk of the Royal Marines together in the south-west.”—[Hansard, 18 June 2011; Vol. 531, c. 644-5.]
That was outlined only last year, and there is no ambiguity whatsoever. A month later, he went on to give welcome clarity on numbers. When asked about the number of troops expected to return from Germany to Scotland, he said:
“It is impossible to give an exact number, but I would imagine that between 6,500 and 7,000, or something of that order, of the 20,000 personnel we currently have in Germany will be coming back to the multi-role brigades in Scotland. The precise number and lay-down will be subject to the plans that the Army will bring forward in the months and years ahead, assuming of course that we have the agreement of the local authorities and the Scottish Government.”—[Hansard, 18 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 655.]
The UK Government obviously had the support of the Scottish Government in relation to the training area and any planning that would need to take place. That was a very clear and unambiguous commitment about the number of troops coming back from Germany to Scotland.
All the mood music and noise we hear about the basing review makes me concerned that there will be a rowing back on those commitments only a year after they were made. The context is important and we should not lose sight of it. The former Secretary of State for Defence gave an important number when he told the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs on
“between 2000 and 2010, the total reduction”— in service jobs—
“was 11.6% but the reduction in Scotland was 27.9%. Over the decade 2000 to 2010 there were bigger reductions made in total personnel as a proportion than in other parts of the United Kingdom.”
That is the inheritance with which we have found ourselves, and we have the commitment given by the former Secretary of State that one would try to make good some of the disproportionate cuts visited on defence in Scotland.
I will of course give way to the chairman of the all-party group on the armed forces.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say and I am reluctant to bring a note of party political angst into what has been an extremely well informed and sensible debate so far. However, does he not agree that if his party’s great ambition of an independent Scotland was to happen, the amount of UK troops based in Scotland would be significantly lower?
I am interested that the hon. Gentleman has an insight into the policy of future UK Governments wishing to withdraw troops from different parts of the UK. [Interruption.] Will Government Members let me answer? I have spoken for the majority of my comments about the presence of troops in other countries. It would be entirely possible—in fact, would it not be advantageous?—for Scottish troops to continue to train and operate in the area of England he represents, and I see no reason why troops from the rest of the UK could not continue to operate in Scotland.
Forgive me, but I want to make some progress. I know that other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen wish to speak.
It is helpful, when talking about the level of commitment to the defence footprint in Scotland, to be reminded of the facts. Only four infantry battalions are based in Scotland. The Scottish-recruited infantry is now smaller than the infantry of the Irish Republic. Further to the infantry battalions, we have 39 Engineer Regiment in the newly renamed Kinloss barracks. It is important to note that manning levels there are 41% lower than the previous RAF establishment total and that no regular Army units are based in Scotland in the following and important categories: artillery, armour, signals, logistics, air corps, intelligence and special forces. There are no military training establishments in Scotland, which means no military academy, no engineering schools, no Army training regiments, no infantry training centres and no senior strategic military command.
Even at this late stage, as the Government go through what they planned to announce in the basing review, which is exceptionally important to service personnel, I appeal to them not to go back on their commitments. Only a year ago, promises were made, and they should be kept. On a related note, the covenant has mentioned. I agree that everything should be done to deliver on it. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston pointed out, however, a large number of policy areas relating to the covenant are devolved. I observe that the Minister with responsibility for liaising with devolved Administrations has yet to speak to the Scottish Government since taking office. Having been asked for a meeting by the Scottish Government, he has yet to reply and make it happen.
I would be grateful if the Minister could explain why that might be the case.
I am responsible for my diary, and I met Keith Brown, MSP, who is the transport and veterans Minister in the Scottish Government, some weeks ago. He is an ex-Royal Marine. It is fair to say that we had a constructive meeting. I have met the person in the Scottish Government responsible for the issue I am responsible for in the UK Government, so to try and imply that the UK Government are not in a dialogue with these people is incorrect.
“These people” being the Minister and the Scottish Government. I am pleased that the Minister has met Keith Brown; I am just pointing out that the UK MOD Minister responsible for relations with the devolved Administrations has not followed his lead. Perhaps he might encourage him to do so.
I hope that the Government do not go back on their commitments at this late stage. I do not believe that any sovereign Scottish Government of any mainstream hue would manage defence in the way the UK Government have done, with disproportionate cuts to manpower, spending and basing. It is time to make better defence decisions in Scotland. The Scottish National party has committed to uniform personnel levels of 15,000 in Scotland—4,000 more than the 11,000 the UK currently has based there—but we will only be able to do that after a yes vote in the 2014 independence referendum. I look forward to that greatly.
This has been a fascinating, well balanced and intelligent debate, covering a wide variety of topics. That includes the contribution from Angus Robertson, whom I am delighted to follow. He knows his stuff and has made a useful contribution to the all-party armed forces group over the years. I am grateful to him for that, although the possibility of he and I ever coming to a mutual understanding on what will happen to defence in the unlikely event of Scottish independence is perhaps rather remote. I am grateful to him for his remarks and his help over the years.
I rather regret that the old parliamentary tradition of set-piece defence debates has been abolished—I seem to recall that at one time there were six, and then there were three, I think. My right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, has made representations on this subject to the Procedure Committee, on which I sit. Those debates have been replaced by a bid—in this case to be made by the Defence Committee—to the Backbench Business Committee for time. That means that defence, which ought to be the greatest and heaviest duty of the nation, has to compete with other more topical, interesting or amusing subjects for debating time. That is wrong. The Procedure Committee has considered whether time should be given for set-piece debates of this kind and has undertaken to keep the subject under review. It is always worth making the point that we ought to have set-piece debates during the year on defence, the Intelligence and Security Committee and one or two other equally grave and weighty subjects, which might not be quite as popular as some others.
Today’s debate is about defence personnel. If defence of the realm is our greatest duty, it is right that paying our respects, thanks and homage to the people who make that possible—our armed forces—should be high on our list of priorities as a Parliament. I am therefore glad that in recent years we have had the opportunity to welcome back the two brigades a year that return from Afghanistan, as we did successfully the other day. I am grateful to Mr Speaker, Black Rod, the Serjeant at Arms and others who make those parades possible. They are terribly important in allowing Parliament to remember and be physically shown the people we have sent off to war. They are also terribly important from the brigades’ point of view.
Let me quote from a letter I received this morning from the commander of 12th Mechanized Brigade, who came to Parliament last week:
“The opportunity to celebrate and thank our young soldiers is rarely done in such a special way. Although respect for our soldiers is often talked about, the Parliamentary Parade and reception brought it firmly home to me that those sentiments are both genuine and heartfelt. Understanding this was particularly important for the more junior members on parade, as it is they who often faced the gravest danger and all too often it is our youngest who are forced to make the ultimate sacrifice. When that price is paid we know that they will never be forgotten. That response is often expressed by others as well. Last Monday confirmed that it is truly meant by those we serve.”
Brigadier Chalmers’ letter is of great importance and brings it home to us that it is right and proper to pay our respects to those young soldiers. We should be aware that the things they do—as well as the discomforts they face, quite apart from the dangers—are things that very few people in this Chamber would ever contemplate doing themselves. We should take this opportunity to thank and pay tribute to them for all they do.
I want absolutely to echo from the Dispatch Box what my hon. Friend has just said. I pay tribute to his work as chairman of the all-party armed forces group in helping to organise the homecoming parades. I have seen for myself, on the faces of the troops, how much they appreciate those parades. I endorse the value of these exercises and celebrate the achievements of the men who came back to Parliament. [ Interruption. ]
The Minister was simply overcome by the passion of what he was saying that he forgot one or two of the conventions of the House. I am most grateful to him for his extremely kind remarks.
The all-party armed forces group does a useful job. Many of its officers are in the Chamber today, and I am grateful to them for all the things they do. My hon. Friend Bob Stewart is chairman of the Army section of the all-party group, and my hon. Friend Oliver Colvile is chairman of that part of the group that looks after the Royal Marines.
My hon. Friend mentioned the all-party group, so will he say a few words about the armed forces parliamentary scheme, with which he and I have long been associated, as well as about the magnificent work of Sir Neil Thorne and the amazing effect the scheme has had of creating links between parliamentarians and members of the armed forces?
My hon. Friend not only anticipates what I was about to say but rips the heart out of the central part of the comments that I was about to make. I shall come to that subject in a moment.
The way in which the people of Britain respect our armed forces has changed over the years. It was unanimous after the second world war, as we knew what our armed forces had done for us through those years. At certain times since, there has been a similar increase in respect for them. There have also been periods, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, when people’s knowledge of and respect for our armed forces has been significantly lower.
I pay respect to my own constituents in Royal Wootton Bassett for the way in which they welcomed home the fallen soldiers for five or six years before handing back the duty to Brize Norton in the Prime Minister’s constituency. They spoke for the nation in paying their respects to the armed forces and the way in which they had served. They did so quietly, modestly and sensibly without pomp or ceremony. They simply stood in the high street getting wet and bowing their heads at the appropriate moment. They spoke for the people of Britain and the way in which we respect our armed forces.
A similar transition in attitudes has occurred here in Parliament. After the retired brigadiers and soldiers who had served in the second world war had retired from this place some 20 or 30 years ago, I suspect that our knowledge of and respect for our armed forces declined significantly for a time. That would have been around the late ’60s and early ’70s, when not much was happening of a military nature and most Members of Parliament who had been soldiers, sailors or airmen had retired.
We must not forget the commitment made by our troops in Northern Ireland during the late ’60s, ’70s and’80s. There were a lot of Royal Marines there, and I would like to pay tribute to them. Those events would certainly have kept people interested in what was going on in the military.
My hon. Friend never misses an opportunity to speak up for the Royal Marines, and he is absolutely correct. I was not for one second suggesting that the House was silent on these matters during those years; I merely said that their prominence had declined somewhat at various times over the past 50 years.
Into that relative desert of knowledge, awareness and understanding of our armed forces came the figure of Sir Neil Thorne—this is where my hon. Friend Dr Lewis did me a disservice a moment ago. Realising the shortage of information and awareness in the House, Sir Neil created the armed forces parliamentary scheme 25 years ago this year. Since then, he has run the scheme more or less single-handed. He has help from a variety of people, but he is the driving force behind it. The scheme has gone through all sorts of changes. When I joined it in 1997, it was extremely small, with one MP from each side of the House attached to each of the four services. This year, there are about 70 people involved, including MEPs, Clerks of the House, Members of the House of Lords and others.
The work of the armed forces parliamentary scheme under Sir Neil has significantly increased the level of understanding and awareness of our armed forces and, in particular, of the work done by our boys and girls on the ground. A significant cadre of Members of Parliament now truly understand what happens on the ground. MPs are embedded for up to 22 days a year, perhaps wearing some kind of uniform, and they get intimately involved with activities of our armed forces on a variety of levels. That is central to the excellence of the understanding that the scheme has brought to this place.
In that context, it is probably known around the House that there will be some changes coming to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Sir Neil has indicated that he would like to see changes, and the Secretary of State for Defence and Mr Speaker have joined him in that. The scheme will soon be re-established as a charitable trust under nine trustees, and we very much look forward to its continuation under the slightly new format.
Two things are central. First, it seems to me essential that the armed forces parliamentary scheme should remain as it is, or very much like it is, for 25 or 50 years to come. It would be no good at all if we said right now, “That’s it. It has been great, but let’s say goodbye to it”. We must not do that—the armed forces parliamentary scheme plays a terribly important part in all our parliamentary debates. Secondly, there are all sorts of ways of doing this, but on this 25th anniversary of the scheme’s foundation, it is terribly important that we pay due respect to the fantastic contribution to the defence of realm and to our understanding of it that Sir Neil and his wife have made. He has done a great job; it is right that we should acknowledge it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Sir Neil has not only put in a large amount of his own time and considerable expertise but has invested a large amount of his own money into creating the scheme, and that it is has proved so successful that it has been copied in other countries around the world and has given rise to similar schemes for the police, for example?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: Sir Neil’s personal contribution in respect of time, money and, indeed, the excellent Lady Thorne has been significant. A similar scheme has been established in Australia and, as my right hon. Friend says, there is a similar police scheme in existence—in this Parliament, and who knows where else it might spread.
On an occasion such as today’s when we are talking about defence personnel, it is right to pay our respects to and honour those people who do things that we in the Chamber could not contemplate doing, although one or two of us have done them—my hon. Friend Jack Lopresti, for example, who is not in his place at the moment. He has had the great advantage of having spent six months in Afghanistan, with 36 hours of contact, firing a light gun at the enemy. Very few Members of Parliament have achieved anything of that kind; I think we should pay our respects to my hon. Friend for that.
It is right that we should make use of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, the all-party group for the armed forces and the welcome homes. We should also celebrate the respects paid to the armed forces down the streets of Royal Wootton Bassett—or now in Carterton in Oxfordshire. The people of the United Kingdom and the Members of this House understand what a great contribution our armed forces make to the defence of our realm. It is right that we should convert that understanding into visible signs of it; various organisations do that very well.
I congratulate Mr Arbuthnot on setting the scene so well, providing some focus for many of us. I thank other hon. Members who have also made significant, worthwhile and knowledgeable contributions to the debate, and those who will do the same in a few moments.
I begin by saying that I stand in support of the tremendous sacrifice and work that our defence personnel carry out every day of their lives. As a member of the armed forces parliamentary scheme—there are others dotted around the Chamber—I have been privileged to see a lot of what our soldiers, sailors, airmen and women do around the world, and it makes me even more thankful for the job they do, away from friends and family on the front line or in training or when stationed elsewhere. We do not always know what they daily go through—I know membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme provides some indication of it—in service to Queen and country. We know that because of them there is freedom and democracy not only in this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland but right across the world—and for that we are truly and immensely grateful.
Many of us will have watched films on TV based on the wars in the past—from the American war of independence, the American civil war and on to the Great war—and we all have seen the march of troops head on into the firing line. That is not the way wars are fought today: warfare has evolved, and the British Army has evolved with it, remaining the foremost Army in the world. I believe that this must remain so. We have obligations worldwide in the security of our nation and in playing our part to help those who are oppressed or living in injustice. Those aims must continue to be fulfilled by whatever shape the new Army takes. The British Army and this Government have not been found wanting when it comes to promoting those good objectives—in Iraq, in Afghanistan and elsewhere across the world.
I want to focus on the changes that will follow the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the draw-down from Germany, and to do so from a Northern Ireland perspective. I want to reflect on what the Army expects to look like then, and, more important, on Northern Ireland’s role in the 2020 British Army.
Northern Ireland has a rich military history. Although we are such a small part of the United Kingdom, our incredible level of military service—which is backed up by the figures—demonstrates that we are intrinsic to the make-up of the greatness of that great nation. It is clear from the fact that Northern Ireland contains only 3% of the United Kingdom’s population but provides 20% of the reserve forces on active service that we more than play our part. We have much to offer in Northern Ireland as a major part of the evolution of the armed forces.
The hon. Gentleman’s facts are absolutely correct. I thank him for what he has said. Let me also take the opportunity to thank him for the immense contribution that he has made in his former role as a soldier, both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the world, and in particular for the part that he played, as an officer in his regiment, in the peace that we now have in Northern Ireland. His contribution is not often mentioned, and I wanted to put it on the record.
By tradition, we in Northern Ireland have never had to be conscripted to provide service personnel. We go above and beyond our duty, and that should be acknowledged and respected. Although in many instances the troubles in Northern Ireland highlighted segregation, the Army and the cadets now recruit from all sectors of the community. I want to stress to the Minister the importance of our cadets and reserve forces to community involvement and community-building. The Army works hard in those different parts of the community to show people what a great career can be enjoyed in the forces.
Our cadet force recruitment has been second to none, crossing the religious and political divides. The highest levels of recruitment are from areas that are traditionally less supportive of the military—Strabane, Londonderry, Limavady and Enniskillen. The importance of the cadet forces to our society cannot be sufficiently underlined. Northern Ireland, in my view, has the most rationalised and efficient cadets in the United Kingdom. We develop a higher proportion of our soldiers and sailors on operations than any other region, and we have the most and the best recruitment in the UK.
The main link between the Ministry of Defence and the communities in Northern Ireland is first through the cadets and secondly through the reserves. The success story lies in the fact that people from what are, perhaps, the traditionally less supportive areas are now joining the cadets in rising numbers. The position must be enhanced in the future, and that demands a commitment from the Ministry of Defence: cadets today, reserves and a full-time Army tomorrow.
I believe that there is much scope for Northern Ireland to house and facilitate the training of troops in buildings that are already owned and operated by the British Army. I suggest that Thiepval barracks in Lisburn, which currently houses the 38th Brigade, should be retained and enhanced. The draw-down from Germany will provide an opportunity for that to be done. The garrison at Ballykinler and Palace barracks in Holywood provide accommodation and training facilities that are ready and waiting to be fully utilised—and, of course, we must not forget the facilities at Aldergrove, from which forces have already withdrawn. Again, the draw-down from Germany will provide scope for development.
Those buildings are already intrinsic parts of the community. Officers in the barracks ensure that there is co-operation with young people, and with the community as a whole. It makes a great deal of sense to me—and, I know, to other Northern Ireland Members, who unfortunately are not present today—for facilities that are already available to be part of the 2020 plan for the Army, and I ask the MOD to give that serious consideration. I look forward to the Minister’s response.
It is essential for the plan for the reserve forces to constitute 30% of Army numbers by 2018 to be realised through the use of the many troops that are currently trained and ready to go. Through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I have had the opportunity—along with others, including Bob Stewart—to visit our base in Cyprus, and to note the strategic importance of Cyprus in a very uncertain middle east. We need to be able to call upon fully trained and equipped personnel at any time, and I believe the reserves are a way to achieve that. Although these men and women are not in the Army full-time, they are trained to a very high standard. We must ensure the strength of the reserves does not diminish. We have built up expertise, and it should be utilised as needed. The reserves should form the foundation for the proposed changes, and the Northern Ireland reserve members are an important part of them. Given that, the Ministry of Defence must give commitments on Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and its role in respect of the armed forces.
Everywhere I go in the world, I always come across serving personnel from Northern Ireland with links to my constituency. Fellow members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme have observed that, and they have expressed amazement that there are always such connections. From Afghanistan to Canada, and from Kenya to the Falklands to Cyprus, there is always a Northern Ireland link, which illustrates the commitment of people in Northern Ireland to Queen and country and the principles of freedom and democracy.
The hon. Gentleman talks of a specific Northern Ireland perspective, and he is no doubt aware that recently the service chiefs met representatives of the political parties from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for the first time. His colleague, Ian Paisley, was present as was Mr Llwyd, and the discussions were valuable. Does Jim Shannon agree that they should be continued?
I want to touch upon the importance of the Cyprus base. Cyprus has become a point of interest not only for Russia, but for China, and the strategic importance of Cyprus is underlined yet again by the fact that China wants to make Cyprus the base for its European operations. That is a small part of a bigger story.
Our Cyprus base provides training for soldiers going to Afghanistan and for officers from Sandhurst, and it is essential that it is retained after any shake-up. Mr Arbuthnot mentioned soldiers coming home having a chance to unwind in Cyprus. It is a tremendous base and it has a major role to play in helping soldiers unwind from combat stress before going home.
In these times of economic uncertainty, people are having to look outside the normal comfort zones to find work. There is therefore a rise in Army recruitment everywhere, but especially among nationalists, which speaks volumes about how the younger generation see themselves. When the main town in my constituency, Newtownards, celebrated the homecoming of the Irish Guards, one soldier remarked to me that when they were told that some in Belfast did not want them to parade there, they were bemused as some members of their regiment were Catholics and Belfast was their hometown. I was told that there was no real sense of religion among the troops, and I know that to be the case: those who serve in the British Army are brothers, full stop.
I am pleased that recruitment is up, especially as many young people will find not simply a pay packet but a vocation for life. That feature must be encouraged in any changes in the armed forces. I am all for the armed forces changing, and I ask the Minister to say something about the possibility of using the Northern Ireland bases to facilitate the draw-down from Germany. I am today putting down the mark for Northern Ireland and for her to play a major role in the future of the armed forces in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world. The Ulster Division has lost more than half the men who attacked and, in doing so, has sacrificed itself for the Empire which has treated them none too well. Their devotion, which no doubt has helped the advance elsewhere, deserved the gratitude of the British Empire. It is due to the memory of these brave fellows that their beloved Province shall be fairly treated.”
Can anything different be said of our troops today, and can the response from the MOD be any different?
Thirty years ago tonight, at eight minutes past 11, a massive explosion rocked my house. At the time, I was a major commanding A Company, 1st Battalion, The Cheshire Regiment. I rang the guardroom, because I was the duty field officer, and was told, “We think the Droppin’ Well—the disco has been blown up.” I jumped into my car and was there within a minute. There was blackness where the Droppin’ Well was meant to be—everything else was in light—and there was silence. I took a torch from my car and went into what was left of the building. The first person I met was a soldier who was only 18. He had a huge stomach and he was crying—not crying like a baby, but moaning. He was Private Mark Young, one of my youngest soldiers. I said to him, “You’ll be all right. You’ll live. Just stay there.” He had a broken back, although I did not know it.
I went further on into the building and there I found another soldier, Private Harthern, who said, “Come over here, sir. Through that gap.” I looked through the gap and saw a girl called Tina Collins underneath the concrete. She was the wife of my clerk. She said, “I think Clinton isn’t moving sir.” I said, “Don’t call me sir, it doesn’t matter. You’ve got to stay there, Tina.” I left Private Harthern with her. Lance Corporal Clinton Collins had been promoted by me that day. He and I had played squash until about 8 o’clock that night. I had taken him home and he had said, “In celebration, sir, I am taking Tina out for a drink.” But at eight minutes past 11 he was dead.
I went on, and a boy stood up and asked me whether I was a doctor. I looked like a doctor—I was wearing a coat. I said, “No, I am not a doctor.” He said, “She needs a doctor.” I looked down and saw a girl lying on the ground, entirely mashed—legs gone, arm a wreck. I knelt down beside her and said, “Are you all right?” She said, “I think so.” I said, “Oh.” She said, “What’s happened?” I said, “There’s been a bomb, darling.” She said, “Am I hurt?” I said, “Quite a bit.” She said, “Am I badly hurt?” I said, “Yes, you are.” She said, “Am I going to die?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Will you hold me?” And I did. Of course, this young girl died. She died in a state of grace. She died fully conscious that she was dying. And, thankfully, she died with no pain.
I then discovered that four of my soldiers who had been round a table were also hit. The first was dead and, rather like a pack of cards, after the first one had gone down the next one, who was on top of him, died in two hours and the third one died in three hours. The fourth, Lance Corporal William Bell, was trapped. I spoke to William Bell and eventually, when the doctors arrived, they said that they would have to cut his legs off because it had been four hours and the rule of thumb was that gangrene sets in in four hours. I said to him, “Corporal Bell, we are going to have to take your legs off.” He said, “One hell of a way to get out of the cross-country run, isn’t it, sir? No legs—good excuse for the regimental sergeant major.” He said it rather more in soldiers’ language than that, but bearing in mind that we are in the Chamber of the House of Commons I have modified the language.
It was a hell of a night. Things got worse, of course, because in the morning I was ordered by the commanding officer to identify my soldiers. That took four hours in Altnagelvin hospital morgue. In total, I had six men killed and more than 30 wounded. Eleven soldiers died that night and six civilians, three of them girls and all of them young. Today is the 30th anniversary of Ballykelly. I have the honour and privilege to be going there this weekend to remember those people.
Here is the point—Ms Stuart is not in her seat, but she has already made it: we have a responsibility to look after people into the future. It is very easy to concentrate on just the Afghanistan casualties or, indeed, the Iraq casualties, but we have had a lot of casualties in the armed forces and among our civilian population over the years, particularly during the troubles in Northern Ireland, where I lost far more men than anywhere else. In a way, it is understandable that we forget that we have lost so many people because we are concentrating on seeing our brave men and women coming back from Afghanistan.
Some people might look and see the people who have been hurt in previous wars, perhaps in a wheelchair or something like that, and say that they are a relic of the past. They probably do not say that, but they might think it. Those people might well be a relic of the past, but they live in the past. It is the past that has condemned their future. After all, Mark Young is only 48 and Lance Corporal William Bell cannot be more than 50, so we have a responsibility to them. I am using them as examples, because many more soldiers require to be looked after. We as a Parliament and we as a people are doing great things for our servicemen and servicewomen who are hurt now. As we have heard this afternoon, they get treatment that is world-beating.
I finish by saying this: remember that we also have men and women from previous conflicts who require world-beating care for the rest of their lives.
I feel quite inadequate to follow the speech of Bob Stewart. He and I are both Members of Parliament representing south-east London constituencies. It would probably be fair to say that we have very different political views, but after listening to the speech that he has just made, some of those political views become somewhat irrelevant, given what he said about his own experience in the armed forces, and what he and many others who serve in the Army, the RAF and the Navy see with their own eyes. I feel very honoured and privileged to have listened to the speech that he gave.
I shall make a brief contribution today. We have heard other speakers talk about important global issues relating to our defence forces, ranging from the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and their safety during that process to important aspects of the role of our defence forces in light of Britain’s emerging position in the world. I want to raise a specific issue about officers who are currently serving in our armed forces.
One of my constituents, Jayne Bullock, came to visit me a couple of months ago because her brother, who is a serving officer in the Army, had been issued with a redundancy notice earlier this year. He was given his redundancy date, which was only days before his immediate pension point. I understand that he will no longer be eligible to receive his pension immediately upon his redundancy, and that this represents a significant financial loss to him and his family. I understand that of the redundancy notices that were issued this summer, that situation affects about 70 or 80 serving officers.
We heard from the hon. Member for Beckenham the vital job that such officers do in our armed forces. The responsibility that goes with being an officer in our Army cannot be underestimated. They have to deal with situations such as that which the hon. Gentleman described. It is only right that those officers are given the pension that they are due. I believe that the compensation that has been arranged for them in some form of lump sum falls far short of what they would have received, had they got their pension at their immediate pension point.
Will the Minister, in his concluding remarks, explain to hon. Members what he plans to do about this problem in the future? Although it affects a certain number of people who received their redundancy notices this summer, the problem will continue as there will be further tranches of redundancies. Would it be possible not to make redundant those people who are less then 12 months away from their immediate pension point?
We are all here today speaking highly of our armed forces, but we need more than warm words. We need to put our money where our mouth is. Will the Minister look into the issues raised by the Pension Justice for Troops campaign that Jayne Bullock has established, and look at what else might be possible in respect of providing those individuals with appropriate compensation? I hope that if not today, then at some point in the future, he will be able to offer those service personnel some good news.
I think that I speak for everyone present when I say that long after everything else that is said in this debate has been forgotten, everyone here today will remember the speech made by my hon. and gallant Friend Bob Stewart. It is easy to see from the bravery with which he recounted his experiences in Northern Ireland those qualities of character and courage that led to him being decorated as he was in other combat theatres.
Today we are talking primarily about defence personnel issues, but I know that you will allow a small degree of latitude, Mr Deputy Speaker. Therefore, before referring to the two main areas on which I wish to concentrate, I will make a couple of slightly wider points of gentle disagreement. I have a gentle disagreement with the Government on the idea that it is adequate for a country with United Kingdom’s interests to spend 2% or 2.1% of GDP on defence. It is simply not enough as a proportion. As my hon. Friend Jack Lopresti said, if we can spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid, we should be spending more than 2% or 2.1% on defence.
I have a very gentle disagreement with my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Defence Committee, who said that he now feels that it was right to name a date for withdrawal from Afghanistan because he can see the beneficial effects that it has had on the Afghan Government and Afghan forces in getting their act together. It is true that there has been a beneficial effect; there was always going to be. The effect we have to worry about is that which it will have on the enemy. They now know when we are going and that all they have to do is sit on their hands for long enough or, even worse, redouble their efforts to damage us in the run-up to our scheduled departure, in order to be able to claim that they drove us out of the country. Although I accept that there are some advantages in naming a departure date, I do not accept that it was the right thing to do.
I will now turn to what I should have started with, defence personnel, which is the subject of the debate. I wish to concentrate on two areas, one general and one specific. The general area relates to veterans and the conditions they face on leaving the armed forces. In order to do that, I will draw heavily on comments made to me by Dr Hugh Milroy, the charismatic chief executive officer of one of the oldest and most respected welfare organisations, Veterans Aid, which is based in Victoria. It is so long in the tooth that if one looks at its website, one will find that its parent organisation, which was set up following the first world war, has a film clip featuring the late Ralph Richardson showing in fictional form the sorts of employment problems faced by someone coming back from that terrible conflict and the way in which voluntary organisations were necessary to give them a chance of resuming normal life. Indeed, the number of injured veterans was so large following that terrible war that there was inevitably a feeling of disillusionment about the way they were treated by a grateful country after 1918.
We have published the military covenant, and it has quite a bit to say about housing. I will read a couple of brief extracts. The covenant says that serving personnel
“should have priority status in applying for Government-sponsored affordable housing schemes, and Service leaders should retain this status for a period after discharge.”
It also says:
“Members of the Armed Forces Community should have the same access to social housing and other housing schemes as any other citizen, and not be disadvantaged in that respect by the requirement for mobility whilst in Service.”
The problem that arises is what a local authority does if it has no housing available and all it has is a waiting list.
I not only agree with the hon. Gentleman but pay tribute to him. I have listened year in, year out while he has raised this subject consistently in debate after debate. He is a champion of service personnel in relation to housing matters.
I know something about this problem because I was recently approached in connection with the situation in the New Forest, a large part of which is protected, with very little available in the way of new housing. What happens if there is only a waiting list to offer to people? Should returning service personnel jump to the head of that waiting list over other people who have been on it for a considerable period? Dr Milroy says that his charity has seen many cases where individuals have taken a copy of the charter to the local authority,
“and the LA has laughed.”
He says that the real problem is that
“if there are no available houses it is a pointless exercise. Until the Govt put resource behind this I can’t see things changing.”
Above all, he draws attention to the fact that we are heading for a “huge redundancy programme” that will result in a large increase in the numbers of ex- servicemen returning to civilian lives. Phrases such as “the emperor’s new clothes” feature in his remarks about the covenant, because, as he says, it is a fine idea but it will not change the situation unless backed by resources.
Given the challenges with service accommodation and some of the estates that we have, does my hon. Friend agree that there might be opportunities to introduce a right-to-buy scheme for armed forces families?
Yes, absolutely. I believe that the Government are working on schemes that will make it possible for ex-service personnel to get their foot on the housing ladder. I look forward to what I hope will be positive recommendations by the Minister on this subject.
I am delighted that there appears to be consensus across the House. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman had been in post a little earlier than he was, he would have started the scheme a little earlier in Labour’s long period in office.
On a more positive note, Dr Milroy and his organisation recently had a considerable success when the Government acknowledged and accepted their campaign saying that minor military disciplinary offences should no longer be allowed to count against Commonwealth soldiers who, after their period of service to this country, often in dangerous theatres, were applying for British residency and British citizenship. It was a massive injustice that issues that would normally be regarded in civilian life as minor infractions and not criminal in any way were being used by, I believe, the UK Border Agency, against the applications of individual Commonwealth servicemen or ex-servicemen to become British citizens. I am glad that Hugh Milroy and Veterans Aid mounted a successful, high-profile campaign and that the Government listened to them.
Finally, I hope that the Government will be in similar listening mode with regard to a very high-profile case—I think I was the first MP to raise it on the Floor of the House—namely that of Special Air Service Sergeant Danny Nightingale. I am aware that the case is going to appeal on the question of conviction, so I will not stray into the issue of whether that appeal should succeed. I note with great pleasure that the appeal against sentence was successful and I was privileged to be present in the court. I thought it was absolutely grotesque to see a man of Sergeant Nightingale’s character and record in the barred dock of the court, but it was a great result that his sentence was reduced and suspended. He should never have been in custody in the first place.
The only point I wish to make is that Ministers should bear in mind that if the appeal is successful—I say if—the question will arise of whether there should be a retrial. I hope that, if the appeal against conviction is successful, Ministers will have the good sense to say that enough is enough and to make that opinion clear.
My mind goes back to one of the first service personnel campaigns that I was involved in when I came to this House in the late 1990s, namely the case of the two RAF Chinook pilots who were killed when their helicopter crashed into the Mull of Kintyre. That case dragged on and on, and for no good purpose. Lord Chalfont and others in the House of Lords, Sir Menzies Campbell and my right hon. Friend Mr Davis in this House, and, I would like to think, many of us—in my case on the Back Benches and later on the then Opposition Front Bench, where I held a role similar to that held today by Mr Jones—pressed the case continuously. Our argument was that, given that the rules were changed after the crash so that no future pilots who were killed in a crash could ever be blamed in the way that they had been blamed, it was nonsensical and unfair that those whose case had led to the change in the rules should not benefit from it.
The same situation could well arise with Sergeant Nightingale. The Secretary of State for Defence has made it clear that he is considering—I hope that he will continue to consider it and, indeed, go ahead with it—an amnesty for other service personnel who have brought back and are holding on to, as trophies, weapons that should not still be in their possession. It would be absurd for the person whose trial had led to the amnesty—we should also remember that an amnesty has already been held locally, which led to other members of the SAS handing in a lot of unauthorised weapons—not to be given the benefit of the fact that an amnesty was now available for everyone else.
I will close as I began by saying that anything that any of us has to say pales into minor significance compared with what we heard from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham. It was a privilege to be here during his speech.
We are rightly praising members of Her Majesty’s armed forces for all that they do for our country. Representing the garrison town of Colchester, the home of 16 Air Assault Brigade, this debate perhaps has an added significance for me, because the Army is such an important part of the life of my constituency and the surrounding area. Colchester is proud to be a garrison town, proud of its Army—regulars and reservists—and delighted that it brings so much benefit to the local economy.
However, we often do not express our appreciation for the army of civilians without whom the Army could not operate. I hope to make amends for that today. There are in excess of 1,000 jobs in Colchester that exist, directly or indirectly, because the Army is garrisoned in the town. Behind the 3,220 military personnel serving with HM armed forces at Britain’s most modern barracks, there is a civilian army of 280 Ministry of Defence civil servants. About 500 people are employed through the private finance initiative project under which the barracks was built a few years ago. There are also civilians who work for the Defence Support Group, which repairs and maintains a wide range of Army vehicles.
The civilian work force at Merville barracks and within the Army housing areas include those involved in clerical, cleaning and catering work, property and grounds maintenance, housing support, welfare, retail outlets and the messes—which have my personal vote of approval, along with the Musket club—and security support. The latter are civilians, but they are civilians in uniform.
In praising those who serve with the Ministry of Defence Police and Guarding Agency, I challenge the Minister to come clean this afternoon and say precisely what is the future of the Ministry of Defence police and the Ministry of Defence guard service? The number of MOD police officers covering the Colchester garrison was cut during the period of the last Labour Government from 33 to just three. Where once there was an MOD police presence throughout the Army housing areas, which have an estimated 3,000 dependants, wives and children, today the already over-stretched Essex constabulary has had the Army estates added to its workload. Army families tell me that the peace of mind that they once had is gone.
The lifestyle of ethos and discipline that is part of everyday Army life is not necessarily shared by all the civilians who now occupy the former Army houses that were privatised by the last Conservative Government. The current owner, Annington Homes, has made a financial killing, to the detriment of the public purse, through sell-ons and by building new houses on former Army land, which they bought for virtually nothing.
I urge the coalition Government to reverse Labour’s cuts in the MOD police numbers at the Colchester garrison and to resist any moves to reduce, or close completely, the MOD guard service. From personal experience, I know that the guards provide a level of maturity and knowledge of security that would be lost if they were replaced on the gate by, for example, young soldiers or even a private security firm such as G4S. Let us keep the expertise and knowledge that the Ministry of Defence guard service provides.
On a national perspective, will the Minister accept that further cuts to the MOD police would put at risk the security of important and strategic national assets for which the MOD police provide defensive armed policing as required? MOD police officers, unlike G4S for example, are authorised to carry arms outside the wire and have full constabulary powers, and the organisation has an investigative capability with its own criminal investigation department. Reducing the number of MOD police officers from 3,500 to about 2,600, as set out in the strategic defence and security review, is pure folly. National security interests must come before such cuts.
I referred briefly to the Defence Support Group, which in my youth was known as the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers workshops and a few years ago as the Army Base Repair Organisation. The name may have changed, but its professionalism at the Colchester site is worthy of the highest praise. I invite the Minister to pay a visit. Last month in the Colchester business awards, it came first in the class for active and sustainable travel. It has seen cycling to work rise from 7% to 16% in the past two years. It has six pool bikes that are well used, including by senior management, for business visits around the far-flung Colchester garrison area. How many pool bikes are there at the Ministry of Defence offices in Whitehall?
It is right that the families of our military personnel should also be praised. The establishment over the past year or so of the military wives choirs—there are now more than 50—has been a success story that has resonated with the British people, which gives an indication of the nation’s appreciation. The work of the inspirational Gareth Malone, through his programme on BBC television, has led to a national movement under the Military Wives Choirs Foundation, which was established by the military charity SSAFA Forces Help. This time last year, the original choir had just performed at the Royal British Legion festival of remembrance at the Royal Albert hall and was on its way to the top of the charts at Christmas.
Three of the choirs have performed in the House of Commons, most recently on
I am so proud of the Colchester choir. Travelling costs for its visit to Westminster were funded by the Colchester-based company Call Assist—an example of how local businesses support soldiers and their families in the same way as the community supports our soldiers. We witness that every Remembrance day when 3,000 people attend commemorations at the Colchester war memorial, with a march along the high street before and afterwards. We remember those who died in past conflicts as well as more recent deaths in Afghanistan.
I take this opportunity to thank the Royal British Legion, ABF—the soldiers’ charity, formerly known as the Army Benevolent Fund—Help for Heroes, and other military and service charities for the sterling work they do to help locally and nationally. I also wish to express my appreciation to Veterans Aid and Combat Stress for the special support they provide to former military personnel who have hit particularly personal difficult times.
I am delighted that the Colchester military festival will return next year, and I am confident that it will attract some 20,000 members of the public as it did in the past. It is a fantastic showcase for the Army and I invite as many Defence Ministers as possible—and other hon. Members—to come and share the experience, which I am confident is without equal in the UK.
Before I make my final point, I will repeat what I said previously. Families of our military personnel deserve a higher quality and condition of family housing than is often the case. Maintenance and modernisation programmes must not be delayed. That is a false economy as well as being damaging to the morale of those who live in such poor conditions.
Having paid tribute to our armed forces through personal experience and knowledge of the wider Army family in my constituency, participation in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and membership of the Defence Committee, I must tell the Minister—quite bluntly—that cutting the size of Her Majesty’s armed forces is not in the national interest. He may remember that earlier this year I challenged the Prime Minister on that very point. The first duty of any Government is to defend the national interest at home and overseas. For that to be achieved, we must have armed forces to deal with situations that might arise. Reducing the size of the Army to its lowest level in 200 years is not in the national interest, and I will continue to argue that point.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Damian Hinds on securing this debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for supporting it. It is a privilege to speak for two reasons. First, we have today the publication of the first ever armed forces covenant annual report, which I will read with interest when I eventually get down to Devon tonight. Secondly, I have the enormous privilege to represent Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport which, as hon. Members may know, is the home of 3 Commando Brigade, which saw action in Afghanistan a couple of years ago.
My constituency also contains the Haslar unit that deals with members of the armed services who have lost limbs and need assistance. It does an incredibly good job. My constituency and that of Alison Seabeck contain HMS Heroes, which looks after the children of service families and does a very good job. I share half of the original military wives choir with Sir Nick Harvey, and I am delighted that this time last year I was able to play a small part in ensuring that VAT from the choir’s No. 1 hit, “Wherever you are”, was given to the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. I am grateful that the Government did so much on that.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Bob Stewart for making his visit later this weekend. Will he take our best wishes and thanks to family members who lost their loved ones in that appalling atrocity 30 years ago to the day? Only too often, we tend to forget the families.
I want to talk about mental health, housing and reservists. This year, national armed forces day took place in Plymouth. It was used as an opportunity by the local authority to sign its community covenant, which is a useful thing. The covenant demonstrates that the town, which is one of the principal naval garrison towns in the country, the local authority and the whole community are keen to ensure that we thank those who serve. There is an enormous amount of emotional support for our armed services, especially our Royal Marines and Royal Navy, and we need to ensure that it continues.
We must not forget the partners and children of our armoured service personnel. They bear the brunt of dealing with the more complex issues. In many cases, they are the one group of people who immediately see that their husbands, wives or partners are suffering from mental health issues. They deal with it. Only when it becomes apparent can commanding officers pick up on it. When service personnel are called away on deployment, their partners—for want of a better expression—have to keep their families together and manage the household, including paying the bills and those kinds of things. They must also ensure that service personnel wind down and settle back when they return from deployment.
That can be difficult. I have told this story before, but I will tell it again because it is an important one. The reservists were on exercises and training on Woodbury common, which is in the constituency of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend Mr Swire. I asked one of them how he was getting on. He said, “Fine, but when I came back from Afghanistan and I went to my wife and my family home up in Aylesbury”—he lived away from his base—“she said, ‘Don’t start talking to me about all the problems you’ve got. I’ve had a horrendous day. I’ve answered 300 e-mails today.’” Perhaps she works for a Member of Parliament, but he said to her, “I’ve was under mortar fire for eight hours during my time in Afghanistan.”
The reservist found it difficult to communicate to his wife on the subject, and he also had difficulty speaking to his civilian mates. Only fellow Royal Marines were able to take on board what he said and had that common interest. My hon. Friend Jack Lopresti had similar experiences when he came back from deployment. We must ensure that we continue to work very hard on delivering our mental health strategy in line with “Fighting Fit”, which was produced by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend Dr Murrison—what a good job he did!
However, we have more to do. We must ensure that our reservists can access much needed support. If we do not, we are letting people down. During my visit to HMS Haslar, I was told by the Royal Marines that they had done an enormous amount of work on trauma risk management, or TRiM. I was impressed, although my hon. Friends who speak about the Army might have a different view. We had a breakfast in Parliament, where the Royal Marines described the professional job they do to help some of their younger people through combat stress—I suspect it was called shell shock or similar in my grandfather’s day.
On my visit to HMS Haslar, I heard about Q fever, an illness that some end up having, and how difficult people find it to access support and funding. I am delighted to read in the report on the covenant that the Government have taken on board the Care Quality Commission’s report, to establish a unified Ministry of Defence primary health care. I hope GPs will be given training so they understand what is going on, especially in places such as Plymouth, to which many servicemen and women return. Some GPs do not have the training in mental health that they need.
On housing, before I was elected to this place I came across an officer in the Coldstream Guards who told me that during his deployment—in Iraq, I think—he had called his wife for a 45-minute conversation. The conversation began with his wife spending a good 30 minutes talking about how a leak in the roof had totally ruined the sofa that they had bought on credit, and that left him only 15 minutes to talk about their children and parents. We have to ensure that we look after accommodation, and the Government have done well to make significant changes. In 2008, a third of Navy personnel said they were satisfied with the quality of housing, leaving two thirds who were not. Under-25s and single people were also unhappy with their housing. We need to ensure that housing is modernised, and I would welcome an extension of the right-to-buy scheme for military personnel.
My final point is about reservists. From conversations I have had with Royal Marines, I know that they are concerned about training and whether they will be deployed as a unit or individually. If we are going to reduce our regular forces and make greater use of our reservists, it is important that they are given proper training and decompression activity when they come back. Let me make this final point, too. Reservists do not necessarily live on camp; they often live elsewhere, and so their opportunity to talk to their wives or fellow reservists is limited. We need to ensure that our reservists are better informed.
Finally, I completely agree with Ms Stuart on how important it is that as a country we are not sea blind.
My final point—[ Laughter ]—concerns Angus Robertson, so I am delighted that he is back in the Chamber. I wonder whether he and the Scottish National party are sending a confusing message. They want services in Scotland, but if it gains independence they want to get rid of the submarines and the naval bases.
I was tempted to say “Finally”, Mr Deputy Speaker. I draw the House’s attention to my interest as a member of the reserve forces.
It is appropriate that I started today in Portsmouth at the rededication service of the Falklands memorial plantation on Portsdown hill. It is right that we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice, acknowledge the courage and professionalism of all those involved in securing that victory and celebrate their legacy. We should do the same for our armed forces in Afghanistan. I know that not all Members agree with our mission in Afghanistan, but, whether we are pro or anti, we must acknowledge not only the skills, courage and professionalism of our armed forces, but their achievements —and not only those achievements in the area of our own national security.
I was in Afghanistan last week with the Defence Committee. While in Lashkar Gah, we had the privilege of meeting members of the provincial peace council. We saw a town that had new schools, including girls’ schools, and whose new governor was in India at a cotton expo, and around us were car lots, wedding shops and all sorts of businesses springing up. We were patting them on the back for their remarkable achievements, but their response was clear. They said, “These achievements are not ours. They are the achievement of your brave armed forces.” They have created the security, space and stability for those lasting changes to occur. I wonder whether, if we added up everything we all might achieve in our long—in my case short—political careers, it would ever come close to the achievement of our troops out there.
Our troops have achieved something else. This is a subtler point. The presence of such professional, diverse and well respected forces has changed for ever the view of the Afghan people of what it means to wear a uniform. When we were out there, President Karzai said that no rich men’s sons were in the Afghan army, but I think that will change because of the presence of our armed forces. We need to talk about that, especially as transition takes place.
We also need to tell our troops that. While I was in Lashkar Gah, I visited a forward operating base called Sparta. Speaking to Afghans in the neighbouring base, I learned that the further away they were from centres of communication in Kabul and Bastion, the less they knew about the achievements being made. We should be putting those achievements on paper-based communications to our troops, perhaps even on their daily or weekly orders. I raised that point before I left the country, and I hope that the Minister will take it up. I can give him a head start: I think that Radio 1 is broadcasting from Afghanistan next week. I hope he will phone up and give a long list of our armed forces’ achievements.
That leads me on to communications. This is a time of immense change for our armed forces, and there are complex personnel issues that have to be dealt with. The MOD has an extremely good internal communications plan, but it is no good if that information cannot be accessed in a timely fashion. There is a problem with people being able to access joint personnel administration, because there are too few secure computer terminals in units. That issue has been raised many times with me, and I am not just talking about the reserves. Surprisingly, not everyone has a personal e-mail account—I met several sergeant-majors in Bastion who did not have one—so it is difficult to get information to people quickly. If we want our armed forces to respond to consultation, especially if they are on JPA, we must do better.
The other communications issue I wish to touch on is a localised one to do with Afghanistan and Camp Bastion in particular. During Operation Herrick 9, our armed forces had free access to the internet, and although they have some access now, it is limited and they have to pay $90 a month to access wider broadband services, such as those that allow them to Skype their family. I raised this issue before I left the country. It is being looked into, but I am sure the Minister will want to know what can be done, especially as transition continues and welfare issues get pared down, as my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot pointed out. Being able to Skype back home will become even more important as troops pull out. I hope the Minister takes that on board.
I am sorry; I am very short on time.
On welfare services, I pay tribute to all who support and honour our armed forces, particularly—I hope hon. Members forgive me; I have my Portsmouth hat on—the Naval Families Federation and the Royal Navy and Royal Marines charities, which do an amazing job. I want to raise with the Minister again the Service Complaints Commissioner. The role needs to become an ombudsman. We need to review the rules that categorise a complaint as an employee grievance—if the person making a complaint is killed in action, it is dropped and not pursued. I urge the Minister to make best use of Dr Susan Atkins while she is still in post. She has done a tremendous job. He should encourage her to do the review that she wants to do before she goes.
I pay tribute to our armed forces. We do not talk about them enough in this place—actually, we never could—but at least we have had the opportunity to do that today.
I congratulate Mr Arbuthnot and the Backbench Business Committee on selecting this afternoon’s debate. Let me put on record everyone’s thanks and tributes to the members of our armed forces and their families, who are an integral part of the defence of our country. I also agree with Sir Bob Russell about the army of civil servants and civil contractors, without whose support we could not deploy forces.
There have been 11 very good contributions to today’s debate. The right hon. Member for North East Hampshire talked about Afghanistan. I agree that the deadline has focused minds in Afghanistan; my concern is about what role UK armed forces will play post-2014. There is a naive assumption that a training role will be without its dangers, but the people performing training roles with the embedded teams in Iraq were in harm’s way. We need clarification from the Government on that before 2014, because people will be in harm’s way. We also need to know what our armed forces’ footprint will be in Afghanistan post-2014.
The right hon. Gentleman also talked about the Service Complaints Commissioner, as did Penny Mordaunt. This was a tremendous success for the Defence Committee, following its report on the duty of care in the last Parliament, although I agree with the hon. Lady that the next step needs to be some type of ombudsman—a proposal that was in the original report to give the post teeth. I, too, pay tribute to the Service Complaints Commissioner, who has done a first-rate job in not only highlighting and dealing with complaints, but getting the trust of senior members of the armed forces.
My hon. Friend Ms Stuart raised the issue of medical support for our armed forces. She, like me, was heavily criticised at the time for the closure of Army, Navy and RAF-dedicated hospitals, but in hindsight it was the right thing to do. She rightly paid tribute to the Queen Elizabeth hospital and the investment that has gone into it, as well as the dedicated NHS staff working closely alongside the military personnel, breaking new ground not only with new surgical techniques but by keeping people alive who even a matter of years ago would not have survived, as she rightly said. However, I have concerns about how the NHS integrates with the Army recovery capability—which she also raised—which is something I am glad the Government are committed to. We need to ensure a seamless transition into civilian life for those people, and that they get the appropriate NHS care once they have left the armed forces.
My hon. Friend made some interesting points about finance in relation to the strategic defence and security review. No one will be surprised when I reiterate that the SDSR was not a defence review but a budget-led, Treasury-led review. As a nation, we need to ask what our role is in the world. That was not done as part of the SDSR, as it was led by the Treasury. That led to some of the mistakes that are now being unpicked as the new Secretary of State tries to get to grips with the situation.
Jack Lopresti talked about the defence budget. The Government keep pushing the myth that they started with a £38 billion black hole, even though no one has yet been able to explain the calculations behind that figure. The original National Audit Office report said that there would be a £6 billion black hole if the budget continued on its present basis. The only way of arriving at a figure of £36 billion would be to add flat cash over 10 years and to include everything in the equipment programme. That still leaves an unexplained extra £2 billion. Members will be pleased to know that I am now on Twitter, and I had an interesting exchange last night with the former Minister for defence procurement, Peter Luff, who told me that the figure was even higher than £38 billion. If that is the case, why do we not know what it actually is?
That brings me to the Ministry of Defence’s annual report and accounts, which make great reading. It is interesting that claims by the previous and present Secretaries of State to have balanced the budget are nowhere to be seen in the introduction. It will also come as no surprise that the accounts for this year have been qualified.
I acknowledge that, but I did not make wild claims about somehow having magicked away a £38 billion black hole in two years, which the Secretary of State is now doing.
The hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke mentioned Defence Equipment and Support, and I agree with him that there is uncertainty in that regard that needs early resolution. He might be interested to know that the accounts show that the average length of time that the MOD equipment programme was delayed in 2010-11 was 0.46 months, and that the figure has now increased to 5.5 months. No great progress has been made in the efficiency of the delivery of that programme.
Another startling fact to emerge from the annual report and accounts is that the Department has not received approval for the remuneration package for the Chief of Defence Matériel, who is earning considerably more than the Prime Minister. It has been suggested that the Department has somehow acted outside its authority in this regard. We need clarification of some of the issues raised in the annual report and accounts.
We keep being promised an explanation of the Secretary of State’s assertion that the defence budget is now in balance. On
Yesterday, during the Chancellor’s statement, it was mentioned almost as an aside that defence had somehow got off lightly, given the further 1% cuts that other Departments were being asked to make—but that is not the case. It will have to swallow cuts of its own, and, according to The Daily Telegraph today, that will involve another £1.3 billion coming out of defence. It is important that we get clarification of this so-called balancing of the budget, when it is clearly not in balance. We also need an explanation of where the original figure of £38 billion came from.
The reason that is important is that members of our armed forces and their families know that we are in tough times and that they have to take some share of the pain. What they do not want to see, however, are spurious figures and spurious claims made to justify some of what is being done. There are only two ways of getting money quickly out of the defence budget: either by cutting the number of personnel or by cutting in-year programmes, leaving capability gaps, which is what the strategic defence and security review has done.
Angus Robertson made some points about Germany and rebasing. We have been promised a statement next week, so it will be interesting to see whether that comes forward. I thought it completely bonkers when the right hon. Member for
North Somerset (Dr Fox) made the announcement. I looked at the issue when I was a Minister, so I know that four years ago the price tag was £3.5 billion—but where that is coming from, I do not know. It is important to have clarification not only for the reasons that the right hon. Gentleman gave regarding communities and individuals here, but because we must know what is actually happening for our servicemen and women along with civil servants, educationists and others based in Germany. If the cost was £3.5 billion then, it is surely a lot higher today. It is not just about bringing people back, as it is also about evaluating the costs of withdrawal—environmental and other costs that will be added to the clean-up of those areas. Under the treaty with the Germans, it is quite clear that two years’ written notice has to be given, but I am not aware that that has happened. I do not mind if the Government have changed their policy on this issue, but they should say so, as we do not want the uncertainty.
The hon. Member for Moray spoke about the so-called future Scottish armed forces, claiming that they will comprise 15,000. I am not sure what type of role they will take: if they are to be in NATO, what would they deploy? Will the army act as a border force to stop riotous Northumbrians crossing the border? Will there be a navy of fishing boats? Will the air force be of gliders? In this debate, it is important for the Scottish National party not only to deal with the present lay-down of armed forces, as the hon. Gentleman has, but to be honest with people and say what the future defence structure would look like in an independent Scotland.
I join Mr Gray in paying tribute to Wootton Bassett and to Sir Neil Thorne. I also commend the hon. Gentleman’s role on the marching parades, which have been supported across the parties.
I pay tribute to Jim Shannon for his quite proper recognition of the contribution of people from Northern Ireland to the armed forces. I visited Northern Ireland when I was a Minister, and I was very impressed by the dedication I found there to all three of our armed forces.
I know that on many occasions Bob Stewart adopts a light-hearted approach in his contributions to the House. Today, however, he made a very serious contribution, which I think shows the House of Commons at its best. He paid tribute to the victims of the Droppin’ Well bombing. It must have been very difficult for him to relive some of those experiences today, so I pay tribute to him for doing so. He is right that 30 years seems a long time ago, but not for him and the people who were there. Speaking as he did in this debate greatly honours those people and pays a fitting tribute to their memories. I hope that his contribution gives some comfort to those who were injured in the ways he described and to the families, relatives and friends of those who lost their lives.
The hon. Member for Beckenham mentioned another matter, and his position was the same as mine when I was veterans Minister. It is fine to get things right now for veterans and those injured in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. My concern, in common with the hon. Gentleman’s, is what happens to these people in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. We, as a society and a nation, owe a great debt of gratitude to those individuals. Irrespective of our political parties, we need to ensure that that remains the case. I hope that the work with service charities in relation to the Army recovery capability scheme, which is in the pipeline, involves something of that joined-up approach, but we shall have to monitor this on a yearly basis. We shall need to look after the people to whom the hon. Gentleman referred—who are already injured as a result of service in Afghanistan and Iraq—when they are older. There can be no “if” or “but”; we must do that.
When it comes to housing—the favourite subject of the hon. Member for Colchester—we must ensure that we continue to listen to the views of the British Armed Forces Federation.
Let me end by saying that it is always good to hear such well-informed contributions, and by again paying tribute to our brave servicemen and women.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Arbuthnot on helping to secure the debate, and thank the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for it. It has been a good debate, and I shall attempt to refer to as many contributions as is practically possible in the time available.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire, the Chairman of the Select Committee, raised several issues. Let me deal briefly with one of them, which was also raised by other Members. It concerned the Service Complaints Commissioner. I met Dr Atkins recently to discuss how we could help her to perform her very independent role. I hope that the dialogue on which we have embarked will prove productive, and I look forward to meeting her again in the new year.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Penny Mordaunt on her recent commissioning as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve. In debates such as this, it is always reassuring to know that the Royal Navy is sitting behind me, particularly as my father served in the Royal Navy.
I thank my Essex colleague, my hon. Friend Sir Bob Russell, for his contribution. He raised a range of issues, and, as usual, he had a long wish list. I can tell him that I was present when the Colchester Military Wives Choir performed in Portcullis House, and that I thanked them at the end of their performance. I visited Colchester garrison about a year ago, as a member of the Committee that dealt with the Bill that became the Armed Forces Act 2011, thus helping to enshrine the key principles of the covenant in law. I have met representatives of the Defence Police Federation and trade union representatives of the Ministry of Defence Guard Service, and I hope to return to Colchester early in the new year. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman, at least for the moment. I will not mention the meeting that I had with him at the MOD yesterday on a different topic.
This debate falls on the day on which we publish the first annual report on the armed forces covenant, which is a subject of great importance and should be given due regard. For too long we may have sometimes taken for granted the special nature of military service: a willingness, if necessary, to lay down one’s life for one’s country. I echo the tributes that have been paid to the extremely moving and powerful speech made by my hon. Friend
Bob Stewart, who reminded us of the tragedy of the Ballykelly bombing 30 years ago. I am sure that he will do good service when he returns to commemorate that very difficult anniversary at the weekend.
Let me also remind the House, if it needs reminding, that today, as I speak, men and women are on patrol in Afghanistan, helping to keep us safe from terrorism at home. We must and will go the extra mile for them for their families, and for the roughly one in 10 adults in the United Kingdom who are veterans. That is a very important statistic.
Jim Shannon also mentioned the covenant. We had a very good debate about it in the House last month. Let me update the hon. Gentleman on the points that were raised. There is a difficulty with local authorities in Northern Ireland signing the community covenant because it could be argued in some quarters that it conflicts with equalities legislation. That point was made powerfully in the debate. We have now formed a working group of officials from the MOD and the Northern Ireland Office to try to find a way through the difficulty, and I know that the hon. Gentleman and others are to have a meeting with the Prime Minister fairly shortly. We will do our best to come up with a solution.
It is simply unacceptable that past or present service personnel should be denied equal access to the services on which we all depend. Creating a fair deal for our armed forces past and present is at the core of the armed forces covenant. That is why in the Armed Forces Act 2011 this Government enshrined in law the two key principles of the covenant: that it is desirable to remove disadvantages arising as a result of service or former service; and that special provision for service personnel and their families may be justified to mitigate the effects of service, especially for the wounded or bereaved. I believe we are making a good start, but it is arrogant in the extreme to believe we can solve the many long-standing issues—some of which have been raised by Members this afternoon—in a single year.
Today’s first statutory report covers progress over the full scope of the armed forces covenant, including the four fields specified in the 2011 Act: health care, education, housing and the operation of inquests. I shall address each in turn.
On health care, the covenant has a particular resonance for those who have suffered injuries or health problems in the service. The importance we place on this is exemplified by the sign above the door of Colonel Kevin Beaton, commanding officer of the Royal College of Defence Medicine in Birmingham:
“The military patient, their Family and their Unit, we call our ‘Patient Group’. They are the most important people in The Royal Centre for Defence Medicine Clinical Unit. It is our privilege to be entrusted with the care and support of our Patient Groups on behalf of an indebted nation. We are not doing them a favour by looking after them. They are the reason we are here. Proudly serving them provides the overriding purpose behind all we do. They are our Main Effort.”
I take medical treatment for our armed forces personnel very seriously. In the three months I have been in post, I have sought to learn as much as possible about the medical support we provide to them. I have visited the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion, the Queen Elizabeth hospital in Birmingham, the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court, the personnel recovery centre at Tedworth house—run by that wonderful charity, Help for Heroes—and the headquarters of Defence Medical Services near Lichfield. Most recently, I had the honour to participate in a game of wheelchair basketball at the new Battle Back centre at Lilleshall, which I helped to open, and I can attest that fighting spirit and competitiveness are still present in abundance when that sport is played; I still have the blisters on my hands to prove it.
In the course of those visits, I have seen the medical process end to end, and I can say with confidence that the treatment we provide to injured personnel is world class, a sentiment that I know is shared by, among others, our American counterparts. Wherever they are in the world, the men and women who provide this care should be immensely proud that the Care Quality Commission described the provision as exemplary. It is.
On education, the pledges made in the covenant are being well received by schools and service families alike. The Department for Education allows infant schools to increase class sizes beyond 30 to admit the children of service personnel. Where resources permit, admissions authorities also have the flexibility to give priority admission to these children.
Oxfordshire county council has altered its schools admissions policy, allowing places to be allocated to children of service families in advance of a posting, based on a letter from the relevant unit. That is a small change, but it has a very big impact, as it gets around the Catch-22 that people cannot apply for a school place until they have moved to an area, and if they move after the beginning of the school year they are caught. We have changed the rules, and this change is being mirrored by a number of local education authorities around the country, with the backing of the Department for Education.
My hon. Friend Dr Lewis, the hon. Member for Colchester and others raised the subject of housing, and it remains a key issue for the armed forces community. Today’s report points to areas of progress, but also acknowledges that more needs to be done. Some 94% of accommodation for service families is in the top two of four categories. The single living accommodation modernisation programme has delivered almost 5,000 modernised, en-suite rooms in 2011-12, and we are on track to meet our target of 50% of trained personnel being housed in the highest standard of accommodation by March 2013.
In parallel, we are encouraging service families to explore the choice of owning their own home. Armed forces personnel have been placed at the top of the priority list for all Government-funded home ownership schemes, and service leavers retain that status for up to 12 months after leaving. The level of home ownership among service families has risen from 55% to 60% over the past two years.
Next I shall deal with the operation of inquests. Tragically, operations in Afghanistan have shown, once again, that members of our armed forces can face mortal danger. Above all else, that is why we owe them not only our respect, but the peace of mind that we will care for their families in the event of their death. We should do everything to ensure that the plight of grieving families is not compounded by inadequacies in helping them to understand the circumstances in which their loved ones died. I am encouraged that waiting times for coroners’ inquests have been falling since 2003, including under the previous Government, and maintaining that trend will be a priority. This year, the Government fulfilled their pledge to appoint a chief coroner—we appointed Peter Thornton—and to publish a new national charter for the coroner service. I will meet Mr Thornton on
Steps have also been taken in a number of additional areas to uphold the values and ideals of the covenant. We recognise, for example, that the process of adapting to civilian life can be daunting. Through the career transition partnership, the MOD provides outstanding career support to service leavers, with the result that 97% of those who use that service will find employment within 12 months. That is an impressive record.
We also encourage local authorities to appoint armed forces champions as a voice within local government, where a great many pledges within the covenant are delivered. In this regard, I am delighted to report to the House that some 230 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have signed the community covenant—this is spreading like a benign virus—and I sincerely hope that almost all will have done so by Remembrance day next November.
As announced recently in this House, the new defence discount service will offer a membership card allowing members to access a range of discounts from companies such as Vodafone, Vue Cinemas and Vision Express. I was delighted to join the Prime Minister yesterday to present cards to a number of veterans and serving personnel.
I also wish to express my gratitude for the contribution of the covenant reference group, which includes voluntary and charitable bodies, private organisations and individuals. The Government committed themselves to publishing the external members’ observations verbatim, alongside the annual report, and today we uphold that promise.
Of particular concern to the families federations is service accommodation. They comment that the
“availability of Service Families Accommodation in some areas is insufficient” and that
“higher priority must be given to maintaining and enhancing the quality of all Service-provided accommodation”.
To many service families, a decent home is the physical embodiment of the covenant. We are working to address these concerns, and I hope we will be in a position to provide further information to the House in due course.
Members of the reference group acknowledged the high priority given to the covenant by the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Office and the MOD. The appointment of a chief coroner was described as being “hugely significant” and
“of real long-term benefit to bereaved Armed Forces families”.
There is praise also for our progress in addressing disadvantage for armed forces children and in providing better support to deployed personnel and their families. Most encouraging to me is the observation that the covenant is changing attitudes to the armed forces community.
I must allow the Chairman of the Select Committee back in, so I shall draw my remarks to a close. The armed forces covenant is a work in progress, an ongoing pledge that has support from those in all parts of the House. Each and every year we will come before this House with, to borrow a military term, a “SitRep”, giving a state of play on the covenant and our obligations under it. While I hold this post, I am absolutely determined that we will demonstrate real progress year on year, put flesh on the bones of the covenant and honour the people to whom we owe so much.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, may I start my contribution, after a debate in which it has been a great privilege to take part, on a note of disagreement? In a year in which we have celebrated Her Majesty’s diamond jubilee and the greatest Olympics the world has ever seen, I must disagree with the suggestion of Ms Stuart that we may be losing our sense of self. I think we are a prouder nation now than we have ever been, and we have every reason to be proud. One of the greatest reasons to be proud is our armed forces.
In a few short sentences, my hon. Friend Bob Stewart reminded us what it is that we owe to our armed forces and of our duty to look after those who have looked after us so well. He reminded me of what a privilege I have in charing the Defence Committee of this House.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the matter of defence personnel.