Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I fear that I shall not be the last hon. Member to apologise for not attending tomorrow's debate. I am afraid that I have a long-standing constituency engagement, for which I had requested leave to attend assuming that we would be on a three-line whip. I now discover that the debate arises on a motion for the Adjournment, but nevertheless, I fear that I shall not be in the Chamber for tomorrow's debate.

I shall first deal with the various parts of the world about which questions need to be asked. My hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) referred to Sierra Leone. On Monday, the Defence Secretary said that our presence in Sierra Leone was intended purely for training, and the Minister will support that view. However, our presence in Sierra Leone is at least questionable. Of course we wish a legitimate Government to be supported in Sierra Leone, but there are failures in the Government's policy.

The so-called ethical foreign policy led to the abandonment of Commissioner Penfold's proposals to support President Kabbah in 1998, because of which enormous numbers of people have had their limbs lopped off or have been killed as a result of the Revolutionary United Front's activities. We seem to be sitting in Sierra Leone without a clear purpose for our being there. We are training its armed forces, but there are question marks about some of the people that we are training. I fear that we are becoming a sitting duck.

If the British armed forces, with United Nations support, wish to defeat the RUF, perhaps they should do so. I might support that, but we now have people sitting there with no clear purpose. Training is not enough, because there is no evidence that training the Sierra Leonean armed forces will lead to their victory over the various rebel groups. The Minister should tell the House--and, indeed, the people of this country and the armed forces--how many troops are expected to remain in Sierra Leone and for how long. On Monday, we heard that a task force will visit the area in the near future.

Our policy in Zimbabwe is closely linked to that in Sierra Leone. We were told on Monday that we had to support the Government of Sierra Leone--a friendly Commonwealth country. We are supporting the Government of Zimbabwe with a British Army training team. Although it is a regional team, it is based in Harare and has trained the Zimbabwean army. The Zimbabwean army is mostly not evicting white farmers, many of whom may have British nationality, from their farms; it is not beating up people on the white farms. There have been dreadful cases of black workers being burnt alive and the like. It is actually fighting in the Congo, supporting the misguided--to put it mildly--policies of the Zimbabwean Government and lining the pockets of various senior members of the Zimbabwean Administration. It cannot be right that British Army personnel are seen to support--irrespective of whether they actually do so--the Zimbabwean Administration, which have, frankly, put themselves beyond the pale.

The situation in Bosnia is closely linked to my previous point about Sierra Leone. I am well aware that the position in Bosnia and the Balkans is extremely complicated, but we first sent troops into Bosnia in November 1992--now eight years ago--when the situation was ghastly and it has been very confused ever

1 Nov 2000 : Column 773

since. We have sent troops into Kosovo, but the British Army and the rest of the armed forces, which are heavily overstretched, need to know how long that commitment will last. Is it open-ended? It was not in 1992, but I fully accept that that was under the previous Administration. If it is not open-ended, when will it end?

There have been tremendous changes in the Balkans, including elections in Serbia and Croatia and, indeed, in Kosovo over the weekend, but we must consider how long to keep British troops in those places when they are often not doing quite as much good as they might be. I pay tribute to all those working there, but it must be depressing for those who were there in 1992 to return in 2000. They must wonder what has been achieved by keeping British forces there--a lot of good, of course, but the situation remains difficult. We owe it to our soldiers to say how long we expect them to remain in those areas and until which conditions prevail.

Another part of the world which I should like to mention is Belize, which I know well because I spent six months there during the Falklands crisis. We used to have a battalion there. The previous Government, as I am sure that the Minister will remind us, withdrew the battalion, much to the consternation of the Belizean Government. I recently met the Belizean high commissioner and also the Belizean Prime Minister when he visited the House in the summer. They are concerned about the support that the British Government will give to the territorial integrity of Belize. There used to be no doubt about that; we kept forces there to guarantee its territorial integrity. I understand that that guarantee has lapsed. If it has not, and if we will guarantee its territorial integrity with armed force, I should be grateful if the Minister would say so. That is a serious point. I understand that it is also a matter for the Foreign Office, but the Belizean Government are concerned about the matter of armed support.

The Guatemalan Government claim part of Belize for historic reasons with which we have never agreed. They used to claim it all, but they now only want part of it. We owe Belize--a former colony and member of the Commonwealth--our support. We should say that we will back up the Belizean Government if necessary, because the threat of backing them up has worked in the past against the Guatemalans. I do not know what the Guatemalan Government are like now, but its Governments tend to be unstable. I was in the area during the Falklands crisis and know that the Guatemalan Government were pretty unpleasant. When the Falklands were invaded in 1982, a lot of sabre rattling went on in Guatemala. Its Government said that they would invade Belize and there were demonstrations in the streets. When the task force sailed, everything went quiet. When the task force landed and succeeded, the Guatemalans went away quietly and did not bother us for the rest of my stay in Belize.

I should like to deal with the state of the armed forces. As always, we have heard tributes to the excellent armed forces personnel. Of course, I should like to reinforce those tributes, but I regularly speak to friends, past colleagues, in the armed forces and I can assure hon. Members that they feel rather beleaguered. My first point is about recruitment. The Minister will confirm that the Army is 6,000 personnel under strength. I understand that, according to Jane's defence publications, an army is defined as trained force more than 100,000 strong.

1 Nov 2000 : Column 774

Perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but the Army has now dropped below that strength and, therefore, is technically seen as a defence force.

Although it is a serious problem throughout the armed forces, I should like to home in on Army officer recruitment. Earlier this year, the Minister announced that the target figure of 770 officer cadets had not been met and only 646 officer cadets entered Sandhurst, and that the passing out target figure of 620 trained officers had not been met and only 534 passed out in the previous financial year. If that is the case, that will, as the Minister will know, have a long-term knock-on consequence, which he and, indeed, the Government need to address.

We need to look at why that is so, and one reason among many is pay. I am not arguing for an increase in pay for the armed forces, although I am sure that it would be welcome and I would be delighted to support such an increase if it came along.

Mr. Spellar: Another spending commitment.

Mr. Robathan: I am not arguing for that, as I said.

We need to realise that young men and women do not join the armed forces for financial reward, but they expect financial remuneration--that is fair enough, for heaven's sake. A graduate joining the Army now would get £21,000 a year, which is not bad for a person straight out of university. However, eight to 10 years later, as a captain, he would earn only about £31,000 a year. That is not bad pay either, but, if we want high quality people in the Army and the rest of the armed forces, we need to consider how to reward them.

I know many people in their early 20s who are earning considerably more in the professions and the City. Perhaps one might say that the City distorts the job market--I might applaud that, but those employed in it are certainly earning a lot of money. The pool of high quality people coming out of university and going into the armed forces is shrinking and part of the reason is pay. I know of various instances of that, and people to whom I have spoken have said that the rewards were so great outside the armed forces that they went elsewhere instead.

A greater part of the problem with recruitment and, particularly perhaps, retention is the political correctness of Government policy. I have mentioned it before. I know that there will be hoots of derision from the Minister--indeed, here comes one.

Mr. Spellar: Garbage.

Mr. Robathan: Perhaps instead of wandering around not listening to what members of the armed forces say when he visits establishments--I know that he does wander around and visit them--he should listen carefully to what they say and try to engage them in conversation. He should not expect them to do the great old military thing and to say, "Yes, Sir." Many of them are willing to talk.

A gradual erosion, a gradual undermining, of the armed forces ethos is contributing to people leaving the services. Again, I know that to be true. I accept that the sky will not fall in because of the new policy on homosexuals in the armed forces--there have always been homosexuals in the armed forces. That is not the point. The point is that, gradually, the whole ethos of the forces is being undermined.

1 Nov 2000 : Column 775

I should like the Minister to comment on and to reaffirm what the Secretary of State for Defence said:

It is quite straightforward--until one reads The Sunday Times from last weekend:

I do not believe everything that I read in the newspapers, but it would be helpful if the Minister responded to that report.

Next Section

IndexHome Page