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Mr. Robathan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That underlines the point that we are moving in a direction that causes concerns to many people. I freely admit that the sky will not fall in as a result of those changes, but they are undermining the purpose and existence of the armed forces.
Much more important than the question of homosexuals within the armed forces, the argument over which has been lost and given away, is the report in The Mail on Sunday--I am sure that the Minister saw it--which said:
His job is to deliver a fighting force made up of people who have to kill or be killed and not worry about the comrade on either side who can't really cope. He can't do that if politicians take control from military chiefs in deciding who is allowed to serve.
The crux is the physical abilities of men and women and whether allowing women on the front line and in the infantry would lower standards. It must inevitably be a somewhat subjective judgment, but I assure the Minister that any such decision would also contribute to undermining the ability of the infantry to do its task because it would fundamentally alter its capabilities. Members of the infantry are not misogynists--no more
The problem is that we have forgotten in this place and perhaps throughout too much of society what real war is about. We should ask our fathers generation. I believe that I am right in saying that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) served during the war. There are very few here who did, but may I refer the Minister to the obituaries in many newspapers, particularly The Daily Telegraph--which I read, although he may not be such an avid reader of it--of the second world war generation, which is disappearing? It is important to understand what that generation saw and what happened to them. It was not some nice peace time parade ground.
Mr. Robathan: As I said, the sky will not fall in because of the proposed changes--it is a gradual process. I suggest that he talks to people in the surface fleet who practise fire-fighting drills, as I have done. Perhaps they will tell him the answer, as they told me, or perhaps they will be a bit more deferential. Perhaps if he talks to them for long enough he will discover the facts. They say that, when they practise fire-fighting drills--he will know that they have to close bulkheads and whatever and drag bodies--it is very difficult because it is strong physical work. Unfortunately, many of the excellent women who are serving on royal naval ships are not able to do that strong, physical work, so the men have to come to the fore. That is fact. It is not my fantasy. It is self-evident and common sense.
As we pursue the agenda that is alleged in the newspapers of putting women on the front line, we should consider the Israeli experiment. The Israelis, as I understand it, are moving away from having women on the front line because of all the problems, which have been explained, but particularly because there is enormous difficulty with the strength and physical capabilities of women. It is not misogynistic to say so; it is self-evident. Women tend to be frailer, perhaps to be smaller in physical stature and to be less strong than men. That is not a criticism. It is a fact, which is why we have Olympic men's sports and women's sports. It is pretty straightforward.
The problem is not just that we have forgotten what real war is about, but that far too many Members on the Government Benches see the armed forces almost as an affront to so-called modernising Britain. They see the armed forces as the forces of conservatism, to coin a phrase--old fashioned, elitist and traditional. They are old fashioned, elitist and traditional, and they are the envy of the world. It is not just that they dress up in red coats--they are chinless wonders, to coin another phrase--although they do, are very good at it and are much admired throughout the world in terms of ceremonial duties. It is not just that they are excellent peacekeepers and admired in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Bosnia--wherever one would like to mention--although they are very good at that, too. They are there to defend this country. That is their primary purpose, which is old fashioned and traditional.
The fact is that soldiers in the infantry have to kill with bayonets. They have to kill or be killed. Bayonet drill is still undertaken. I do not know how many Government Members have tried it, but it is pretty unpleasant. Indeed, if one thinks about its purpose, it is extremely unpleasant--as is being blown up. One needs to read the obituaries of people whose friends were blown up all around them and survived the most desperate deprivations during the second world war to understand what real war is about. God willing, we shall never return to that, but we must accept that one day we may, which is why we have armed forces.
Many of my former colleagues, some of whom have recently left the Army, say that the Human Rights Act 1998 has undermined discipline. Discipline is a tremendous strength of the armed forces, and is one reason why we are so admired by fellow European countries. However, it is under threat from the Human Rights Act, the introduction of which is not sustainable in war or operations. In peace time, when the Army is in barracks, the Human Rights Act does not matter that much, but it will matter if we go to war. For instance, a commanding officer used to be able to lock someone up. As the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) said, there was always a right of redress if things went wrong.
The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but a commanding officer is now allowed to keep someone in custody for more than 48 hours only if he has a decision from a judicial officer. That has not happened very often, but I shall give an example of when it has. In Germany, a commanding officer found a drug dealer--not a user--peddling drugs in the barracks, and locked him up and put him in custody prior to trial by court martial or, if necessary, the civil authority. After 48 hours, a decision from the judicial officer was needed. Although it is hearsay, as I have not spoken to the people involved, the drug dealer was released by the judicial officer. He was not just confined to barracks, but was released and was able to go home. That is bizarre, especially as it is unlikely that that would have happened in a civilian court. The Minister may correct me on the details, which I have on hearsay. However, it is worrying that such hearsay is doing the rounds of the Army. What message does that send about discipline? It sends the message that justice is not being served. Discipline matters in peace, but is essential in war. Before the Minister rubbishes me on the matter of the Human Rights Act, perhaps he will tell me what representations, if any, he has had from the armed forces.
My penultimate point is a minor one that was made in Defence questions on Monday, and concerns the possible use of Army drivers in any subsequent fuel crisis. Of course, it is the Government's right to use Government servants as they wish in the pursuit of their policy. However, about 80 per cent. of the British public consider that the fuel protesters have a point, which is in contrast to past strikes, such as the firemen's strike, when drivers from the armed forces were used. I do not criticise the Government for wanting to use the armed forces, but they should be wary. Many of us would be saddened if, by using Army or other forces drivers, the Government put the armed forces in confrontation with the public. The armed forces in this country have not been in that position for many years and on those occasions when they were, such as at Peterloo, have gone down in history.
Finally, Remembrance day is soon, and most Members are wearing poppies. We owe it to all those whom we will remember, honour and respect a week on Sunday to ensure that we do not let our guard in the Army and armed forces drop.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): It is a pleasure to take part in our debate, and especially to follow the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan), an ex-service man who brings with him experience, and recent news and information.
I looked at the section on procurement in the review, in relation to which my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) brought up the subject of industry. I am pleased that smart procurement is projected to save us billions of pounds, as we need that money to spend elsewhere. I am also pleased that we are going to provide equipment for our armed forces, as they deserve the best equipment that money can buy. I have said for years that I never want to be in the position of knocking at a door and telling parents that their son or daughter has been lost because we asked him or her to do a job, but did not provide the right equipment. It is our duty to provide the forces with the right equipment. Tanks, attack helicopters and frigates are vital to fight a war, but the best piece of equipment that we have in any peacekeeping role is a professionally trained soldier with a rifle, which, very often, has a bayonet fixed on the end.
How often have soldiers been in situations of conflict in which people know that they can have confidence in them? Unfortunately, although we have increased the number of soldiers by 3,500, that increase is only on paper, because, as the hon. Member for Blaby said, the numbers are short, there are gaps in the ranks and we are finding it difficult to recruit. I do not follow the hon. Gentleman's line on why recruiting is difficult; I see a different scenario. I used to have a barracks in my constituency, but a boundary change meant that I lost it. Before that happened, I dealt with several cases at the barracks involving families who were leaving the Army because of the redundancies that resulted from the previous Government's cuts. Those people were in married quarters, and to get housed, they had to be evicted. The last piece of paper that the Army gave them was a bill for court costs of £134. Some of them had served in the Army for 13 or 15 years, but left with a bitter taste in their mouths. How could they recommend a career in the forces?
I am of the generation that was the last to do national service. My son and his family have no connection at all with the military; there is a generation today that cannot pass on any information about what a life in the military is like to their children who may be considering that avenue. Army recruiting teams have had a difficult time getting into schools.
I welcome the improved welfare conditions that the Government have introduced, including common leave allowance, which means that all ranks get 30 days, and guaranteed post-operational leave, which is vital and means that personnel can go back to their families and re-establish links. The Government have also improved the separated service allowance and personnel can get £2,000, although to qualify they have to spend any 365 days in a two-year period away from their families. However, they will get two
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) said, the Government are investigating Gulf war veterans illness, and have doubled the money spent on it, but we have not dealt with the case of the nuclear test veterans. The American, Australian and Canadian Governments, who are our allies, looked after their nuclear test veterans while they were on active service, but we have yet to look after ours. I hope that the Government will reconsider their position on the issue, which needs to be worked on.
Personnel are a vital part of our military force. People who go into the Army are trained to become professional soldiers. More than that, however, the Army is a modern operational force and, although not many people know it, young people can be trained and gain qualifications that are acceptable in civilian life. They come out with nationally recognised qualifications of the highest level. Very few employers, schools or colleges know that, but we should point it out to them. I am afraid that we have distanced ourselves from our forces.
Much of today's debate has dwelt on Britain's role in NATO and in Europe. Although I do not want to repeat other hon. Members' speeches, I hope that Ministers will keep one thing in mind. As we know, NATO was formed at the end of the second world war to deal with contemporary conditions, and its defensive forces were established to meet a common enemy and to fight on Europe's level plains. We saw just how difficult it was to fight on different terrain in Kosovo.
We, and our allies in Europe, have to stand on our own two feet. Anyone who has read Governor Bush's comments will have no doubt that if he is successful in the presidential election, he will remove American forces from Kosovo and then start to withdraw American funding for Europe's defence. He believes that Europe should pay more for its own defence. Our European allies will have to face up to the fact that defence does not come cheap, and start to match Britain's defence contributions. However, if we are going to work effectively with our allies, it is no use duplicating one another's efforts; we have to try to co-ordinate those efforts.