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Troop Deployments

6. Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): How many Army personnel are deployed overseas. [127261]

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The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): Some 32,600 regular Army personnel, including Gurkhas, are currently serving overseas.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he accept that the infantry are currently 1,600 men under authorised strength, that the shortages are almost entirely in the lower ranks and that the regular battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment, which is currently 134 men under strength, is worst affected? Has it occurred to the Minister that the crisis in manpower and morale is the direct result of his folly in expecting more from less?

Mr. Spellar: Last year marked a 10-year high in recruitment. The figure for this year is slightly less, but remains extremely good. There are difficulties in retention, and it is surprising that recruitment is so good when unemployment is at a 20-year low. There is traditionally a direct correlation between recruitment and unemployment levels. It is a tribute to our recruiters that they have been able to maintain high recruitment.

There has been an increase in pre-sifting recruits and in sending them for fitness training so that they are better able to undertake training. That is good, because more trained strength is resulting from recruitment, and fewer are falling by the wayside during the recruitment process.

We do not underestimate the impact of many of the difficulties that we inherited, not least housing, which was mentioned earlier. It is a particular grievance of families, and we must address it. We have spent tens of millions of pounds in trying to tackle it. It is a major difficulty, which has an impact on retention. We have been engaged with the Families Federation on the matter. I have reported several times that, through the service families taskforce, we have dealt with many other difficulties that face service families in their engagement with other Government agencies. We have also consulted other Departments and made something happen.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): When our armed forces are deployed overseas, what are the rules of engagement when they, perhaps inadvertently, have an interface with outfits such as Sandline and Executive Outcomes? Are there strict instructions about the way in which they should respond and whether they should collaborate? The matter worries many hon. Members as a consequence of the Sierra Leone problems. Those problems also apply to other parts of the world. What instructions are given to our armed forces personnel?

Mr. Spellar: I am not aware that Sandline is operating in Sierra Leone, but my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the existence of private operations. If our forces are engaged in an operation in support of a Government, they are instructed to report any discussion that arises regarding any private operation. Of course, there is a question about an individual Government's right to engage personnel in support of their own operations which, inevitably, relates to the sovereignty of that country. Our forces are under clear instructions that, should they encounter such groups in any way, they should report that, although, as I said, I have no evidence that Sandline or any other group is operating in Sierra Leone.

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Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). Will the Minister confirm that the overstretch on the Royal Engineers and Royal Signals in relation to their tour cycle is even greater than that on the infantry? Will he confirm that wastage is so bad that the Army is now at its smallest since the Crimean war? Where, in the list of items that he gave my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), does he fit the £11 million cut in married quarters repairs, the horrendous state of our single persons' accommodation and a string of penny-pinching savings, which go right down to failing to repair the Royal Engineers' gym at Chatham so that it cannot be used for fitness training?

Mr. Spellar: I assume that the hon. Gentleman was a Member of the last Parliament when, as I recall, many of the problems that we inherited were building up. I will exonerate him a little as he made a bit of a fight about married quarters, although he buckled at the last minute in the face of the reaction from his Government. However, single living accommodation in particular is an ongoing problem and we are clear that we need to address it fully.

I fully accept the hon. Gentleman's point about numbers in the Royal Signals. He will accept that there has been an explosion in the telecommunications industry outside but, unfortunately, that industry does not see fit to train enough people for its own requirements and is actively recruiting from our extremely well-trained telephone and communications experts in the Royal Signals. That is a tribute to the training that we give but, unfortunately, adds considerable pressure which, of course, is why we are putting a lot of emphasis on the Royal Signals' reserve component. I take the hon. Gentleman's point: we are putting considerable work into the matter, including, as he will know from his constituency area, training Gurkhas in the Signals' role.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): The Secretary of State knows that retention is one of the key problems in overstretch, and that morale is a key feature of that. When troops are deployed overseas with their rifles, they ask how they will be supported. Will the Minister therefore explain simply why, when the Government undertook the upgrade programme, they did not insist that it went to the UK, rather than Germany? Was it because the Secretary of State said that he did not care about metal bashing in the UK?

Mr. Spellar: That is a sort of urban myth that the Opposition are trying to propagate--[Interruption.] It is not true. The question concerns the capability of BAE Systems and its ability to undertake that work. We had to consider its capability in Germany compared, unfortunately, with its declining capability in the UK which has been a long-standing position. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the main capability, even at Nottingham, was in large systems, rather than rifles.

The hon. Gentleman should really look at how the Conservative Government let that capability run down over the years in which they were in office. If Conservative Members thought that there was a problem with the SA80 which should have been dealt with earlier

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after the Gulf war, they should have instigated that. However, it is yet another problem that they left us when we came to power.

Mr. Duncan Smith: That is utter nonsense. The Minister should go and talk to the Nottingham facility which believes that it can clearly undertake that work. He is therefore not telling the whole story. Does he not realise that, if what he says is the case, and we lose small arms production in the UK and cannot support such production, our service men will look round and see that their gloves are made in eastern Europe, their combat clothing in Belgium and their boots in Spain and Brazil? They will therefore be able to ask legitimately whether the trading standards officer might not arrive at the door of the Secretary of State one day and say that, under trade descriptions, the British Army should no longer be called British?

Mr. Spellar: What a slur that is on all the British soldiers, who are very much British. About 83 per cent. of clothing orders go to British firms. There have been some headline stories about production going abroad, but actually, a considerable amount of production, of clothing and textiles, for example, has taken place in this country. At the same time, a number of British firms specialising in defence clothing and equipment are securing orders from elsewhere in Europe, under the European procedures.

We are governed by value for money and the European procedures, but we are working with British industry to ensure that wherever possible, it gets the contracts. The success of that policy, ultimately, is shown by the fact that Britain is still a major exporter of defence equipment--it was second in the world last year--and sells to a number of areas.

The hon. Gentleman must say whether he wants to go back to fortress Britain, or to engage successfully in the international defence equipment market. There is a case for looking carefully at whether we are getting fair trading conditions from other countries, and where we are not, for looking extremely closely at orders relating to those countries--but the matter is not as simple as the hon. Gentleman tries to present it.

Aircraft Weaponry

7. Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge): Which RAF aircraft are armed with cannon; and if he will make a statement. [127262]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): Cannon are carried on Jaguar, Tornado and Royal Navy Sea Harrier aircraft. They can also be fitted to Hawk aircraft for training purposes.

Mr. Randall: I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he share my dismay at the decision not to equip the Eurofighter with the Mauser cannon? Has he spoken to RAF pilots about that decision, and if so, what was their response?

Mr. Spellar: May I point out that a number of our other aircraft do not have cannon either? I draw the

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hon. Gentleman's attention to the letter in The Daily Telegraph from Air Vice-Marshal Nicholl, who I presume knows something about aircraft. He wrote:

The role of air-to-air combat aircraft depends on short, medium and long-range missiles. Therefore, cannon are not now an appropriate weapon for such aircraft, which are not for close combat over the channel. The reason is in the world of technology. Cannon have an impact, particularly on the fatigue life of aircraft.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): In talking about close combat, the Minister is trying to bamboozle the House. He knows perfectly well that in recent years cannon have been effective against helicopters, for ground strafing, and, occasionally, against ships. Do the Government not realise that when other European countries that have ordered the Typhoon are taking delivery of it with cannon as planned, and when the United States is fitting a cannon to its latest generation combat aircraft, the F22, and would not dream of doing otherwise, the Government are making a total fool of themselves and of this country by trying to pretend that the RAF will be better off without cannon on the nose of its Typhoon, which instead has a lump of metal as a counterweight?

Mr. Spellar: I think that the hon. Gentleman, who managed to keep just below the excitability level today, gave it away when he talked about ground strafing. This is a very capable air-to-air combat aircraft. That is its role. If we wish to attack targets on the ground, not only do we have a number of other aircraft, we also have the extremely capable Apache.

The hon. Gentleman needs to look at what role the aircraft will have and what advice we took from technical experts in the RAF, who saw that, with increasing capability, and with the distances involved, modern missiles are the key weaponry for that aircraft. Indeed, there is a good argument that says that if a pilot were close enough to be able to line up the cannon, he would have to be head-on to the other craft, which would be detrimental to the evasion tactics and the anti-missile technology that he would want to use. It is all very well for all the amateur technologists on the Conservative Benches to make those comments. We have asked the people who know about the subject, and that is their advice.

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