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2.54 pm

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): Much of what the Minister has said is extremely sensible and positive. We welcome many of the things about which he has talked, such as the improvement in the logistics organisation and the recent arrangement with Rolls-Royce for repair of aircraft. All that seems to make complete sense, and we are glad that he is doing it. We congratulate him on the progress that he is making in improving some of the welfare issues that are so important for our armed services. The compliment that the Minister received from my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) was thoroughly deserved.

In the spirit of good-natured frankness across the Floor of the House, it might have been appreciated if the Minister had recalled--perhaps he did not mention it because he did not recall it--that three years ago my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) drew the attention of the Government, who were apparently ignorant of the problem, to the difficulty that our armed forces families experience, owing to the extent to which they move about, in getting credit and qualifying for the working families tax credit. I am glad to hear today that the Government have taken action on that, but the initial impetus came from the Opposition Front Bench. It was long before I sat on the Opposition Front Bench, but some credit might have been given to my hon. Friend.

Most of what the Minister said was measured, sensible and businesslike. Why he decided to start off so hysterically, I have no idea. Perhaps some spin doctor gave him his riding instructions. No doubt he would not give way to me because he was embarrassed about the rubbish that he was reading out. The whole Conservative party is committed to the Eurofighter programme. We launched the programme, signed the contract for it and defended it when there were difficulties with our allies--for example, when the Germans got cold feet about it.

Mr. Spellar: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Quentin Davies: I will of course give way to the Minister if he will let me finish my sentence.

We are also committed to the A400M programme--my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) made that clear when the programme was announced--but we are worried about whether the Government are capable of running that programme in a properly disciplined fashion and getting those aircraft into service when they are required.

The trouble is that the Government do not care about Parliament. They do not listen to what is said in Parliament. They would be a much more effective Government if they did. It is one of the great purposes of a debate such as this to bring forward the experience and knowledge of people across the House. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who is again present in the Chamber, said

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on the record that a French two-star air force general had said to him that he did not expect the A400M to come into service for 15 years. I trust that I am accurately quoting my right hon. Friend--I see from his nodding that I am. As we all know, my right hon. Friend is an extremely senior Member of the House and extremely experienced, especially in foreign affairs and defence matters. So a comment such as that must be taken seriously. We should be failing in our task as an Opposition if we did not raise such desperately serious matters and expect the Government to deal with them seriously. Childish scatter-gun insults based on ignorance of Opposition policy is no way to deal with vital defence matters.

If the Minister still wants me to give way to him, I will do so.

Mr. Spellar: Will the hon. Gentleman condemn the comments of Lord Tebbit in attacking Eurofighter?

Mr. Davies: I have not seen, and am not particularly interested in, Lord Tebbit's comments about the Eurofighter. I know that Lord Tebbit used to fly aircraft, but I believe that they were civilian aircraft. In my job, I have an awful lot of reading matter to get through written by people who are considered experts, and I am afraid that I have not come yet across anything written on the subject by Lord Tebbit.

This is a debate about our armed forces, and I want my principal remarks to be focused on the men and women who serve in them. It is also a defence debate and, as such, a very important occasion in the parliamentary timetable. We have only three major defence debates in the year.

I wish to raise a number of current issues on which we must get answers from the Government. I have seven key questions and I expect seven thoroughly serious answers before the end of the debate tonight.

It is about eight months since my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition asked me to take on my role as Opposition spokesman on Defence. It has been an enormous privilege to do so, but the greatest privilege of all has been the opportunity to spend time with the men and women who serve in our armed forces. In that regard, I am extremely grateful to the Government because they have enabled me to visit many military units in this country and, on two occasions, abroad--in the Gulf and in the Falklands.

Unlike some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I do not have a professional background in the forces. Anyone who comes afresh to the world of the forces would share my reaction, which is one of enormous admiration and, sometimes, positive amazement at the consistent standard of motivation, and the thoroughness, professionalism, and perfectionism--a word I do not use lightly--with which members of the armed services approach their tasks, whether it be the handling or repairing of their equipment, their staff work or the planning and carrying out of their exercises. The atmosphere of discipline, interdependence, teamwork and selflessness that pervades the armed forces, and their can-do approach to life are wonderfully refreshing.

Anyone who meets members of the armed forces--as I have so fortunately been able to do during the past few months--will have no doubt that the country is enormously

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lucky in their calibre. The only problem is that there are too few of them. Their numbers are down--currently, 8,000 below the minimum set out in the strategic defence review. That is thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Those numbers are subject to two variables: recruitment and retention. I have no criticism to make of the Government on recruitment; on the whole, they are undertaking sensible measures--similar to those that we might adopt if we were in their place--and there should be some small improvement as a result. We hope for further improvement.

The retention aspect, however, is especially alarming--as I think the Government realise. The retention problem contains the potential for a serious indictment of Government policy. Men and women are not serving in the armed forces for as long as they themselves expected to serve, and thus for as long as was anticipated when they were recruited. Furthermore, they do not spend as long in the forces as their predecessors. That is worrying and we must take the problem seriously.

There are several reasons for falling retention, all of which relate to morale. One reason is political correctness. The points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) yesterday were absolutely correct. He referred to the absurdities of the armed forces discipline legislation. Apparently, if one appeals against a commanding officer's decision in a disciplinary case, the ultimate punishment that one can receive cannot be more severe--and might even be more lenient--than the one originally imposed by the commanding officer. It will thus be rational for everyone to appeal against their commanding officer. It is hard to imagine a provision which, with one blow, will more effectively undermine discipline in the armed forces. We owe that wholly gratuitous attack on morale and discipline to the new Labour Government.

I shall not avoid another extremely important issue--women. No civilised or sensible person would suggest for a moment that we should discriminate against people on the grounds of sex. However, I have yet to meet any service woman who suggests that women should benefit from positive discrimination--so-called affirmative action. It would be irresponsible to the point of insanity to suggest that the thresholds for performance or other military attributes should be lowered on the grounds of sex when recruiting or promoting service personnel when people's lives depend on how they perform in conditions of great stress and difficulty.

The matter is not one of principle but of pragmatism. I pay great tribute to the role of women in all three services--in the front line in the RAF and, even more so, in the Navy. The extent to which women should be employed in the Army is a matter for the Army to decide. That is most important. The idea that politicians are interfering with such professional decisions is devastating for military morale.

Of course, it is up to political leaders to deploy the armed services: to ask them--at risk of their lives and, invariably, under considerable discomfort--to deploy to promote the country's interests and to defend our freedom. However, it is not the business of Ministers to interfere in the actual management of the armed services and to tell them by which criteria they should carry out recruitment and promotion. That distinction is essential.

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I hope that Ministers will keep out of that matter altogether--as I assure the House the next Conservative Government will.

Several points on welfare were made clearly in yesterday's debate. I hope that the Government will listen to what is said in Parliament--especially from their Back Benchers. The hon. Members for Ilford, South (Mr. Gapes) and for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) and other hon. Members mentioned housing problems both for single people and for married couples. Those matters must be taken seriously.

The Minister for the Armed Forces tells us that he is taking all these points on board and that he is trying to do his best. We shall hold him to that. Will he give us regular updates and reports on the progress in improving housing?

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