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Mr. Gapes: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the problems of housing that have bedevilled the armed forces date back to the 18 years when his party was in Government?

Mr. Davies: That is a petty party political point. Those housing problems go back to the 18th century. During the past 200 years, we have been making steady progress in housing Navy and Army personnel--as we have for the RAF during the past 50 to 80 years.

As civilisation advances, we hope that the armed forces--and not just the rest of society--reap the benefits too, and that people do not have to sleep on iron bedsteads 40 to a barrack room in a Nissan hut. That was probably the situation when the hon. Gentleman was a national service man in the 1950s--or during whatever the period on which he bases his example.

Contact with families is also crucial. It is one thing to be sent abroad--to a remote location, doing an inevitably dangerous job in difficult conditions. That is what the armed forces are trained for. However, contact with one's family is essential. These days, that means being able to telephone and to use the internet.

I welcome the Minister's statement about the greater availability of internet access for members of the forces posted overseas. I experienced that when I visited the Falklands recently. Real progress is being made. A new computer centre is being installed. That is a positive move and I pay tribute to the Government for that.

Progress has been made on telephones. Earlier this year, the Minister announced that members of the armed forces serving in war zones would be given 20 minutes of free telephone time every week to speak to their families. One could always ask for more, but that is an important step forward for which I thank the Government.

When I returned from Kuwait, I held a private conversation with the Minister, but--as will become clear--it is reasonable and proper for me to mention it now. I told him that, in practice, people were experiencing problems in getting through on the telephone. He sorted out the problem and--generously--paid tribute to me in the House for having brought it to his attention. Obviously, his mood then was different from his mood earlier this afternoon.

We are making steady progress and that is splendid. I take this opportunity to make a further suggestion. When I visited the Falklands, I found that although people had telephone access, it was extremely expensive.

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The overseas allowance for the Falkland Islands happens to be 35p a day, which seems pretty derisory. It costs 80p or 90p a minute to telephone the United Kingdom from the Falkland Islands, depending on the hour of the day, so one minute costs twice the whole of one day's overseas allowance.

Obviously, that situation is very unsatisfactory. Perhaps the overseas allowance should be increased to take account of the cost of telephone calls, but I want to suggest to the Minister a much more sensible arrangement. Of course, in a war zone, our armed forces may telephone home for 20 minutes for free, but my suggestion extends beyond that. We should establish a general principle that when we deploy our armed forces abroad, they may telephone home for the rate that the same call would cost them within the UK. That is very reasonable. It is not their fault that they are sent abroad; it is not their fault that "abroad" may mean 500 or 8,000 miles away, as with the Falkland Islands; and it is not their fault that a particular telephone company happens to have a monopoly of telecommunications in the country concerned. I hope that we shall make further progress on that.

Contact with families is very important indeed. Traditionally, it has been very important. The hon. Member for Ilford, South will remember from his time in the Army that troops were very concerned about when their mail deliveries arrived. Of course, in those days, although there may have been telephones, they did not really work across frontiers. Now we are moving into the telecommunications age, and I hope that we can improve matters.

Mr. Gapes: Let me put the record straight. I was born in September 1952, so presumably I would have been called up at the age of six.

Mr. Davies: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if his appearance deceived me somewhat. I am getting fairly bald myself, so I had better be careful.

Clearly, one of the big issues about morale, and the retention that impacts greatly on it, is the number of deployments and the rapid turnround time between them. The Minister has said that the situation is much better than it was at the height of the Kosovo campaign, and we are grateful for that. We are certainly grateful for the minimum leave time after overseas deployments, but obviously this is a self-aggravating problem. To improve morale, we must get our numbers up to scratch. The only way to get our numbers up to scratch effectively in short order would be to work on the retention, rather than the recruitment, side of the equation, because it would take much longer to get our numbers up simply by enhanced recruitment. If we can persuade people to stay on a little longer, we shall get there. Everything should be focused on trying to do so.

At present, what is particularly upsetting people is not the announcement of unexpected new deployments, because everyone who joins the armed services knows that they are at the mercy of international events. They are serving the Queen, and they know that they may have to go anywhere in the light of what happens in the world, which, in the nature of things, is not predictable. But what is particularly annoying and frustrating, and a legitimate source of grievance, is knowing that the reason why they

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have not had the leave, or the time at home, or the home posting, that they expected has nothing to do with the international situation, or with serving the Queen--it is simply that the Government have not got the numbers up to strength. They are being deployed because the guy who should have been deployed for the operation is not there because the numbers are lacking. Therefore it is a self-aggravating problem, and in my view the Government must do something about it, as a matter of real urgency.

Two other things impact on morale, although their major deleterious impact is actually on the operational side--on our ability to do the job, defend the country and carry out our mission. The first of those is the training business.

In the past 12 months, the present Government have gone in for cancelling training exercises to save piffling amounts of money. The amounts are probably less than they are spending on military lawyers and military policemen under their completely unnecessary Armed Forces Discipline Act 2000, which will cost £15 million in the first year. For such amounts of money they have been cancelling major naval exercises. They cancelled the Flotex exercise. They cancelled the Marines' winter exercise in Norway. Anyone who knows anything about the Marines knows that that is one of the two major events of the year--an essential part of their training. The Government must stop cancelling these exercises for such reasons.

Of course there are operational reasons, or other reasons beyond the Government's control, why exercises may have to be cancelled and rescheduled, but they should not be cancelled for that kind of penny-pinching reason, least of all when the Government are wasting money as they are. We want an absolute commitment that when exercises are cancelled they will be reinstated. They should merely be deferred, and the Government should have an obligation to reinstate them.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): On the issue of the Royal Marines' Arctic exercise, when I was with 42 Commando in Virginia last year, people told me that they were quite pleased not to be doing the Arctic training that winter because it was a regular thing, which they had done time and again, and they felt that they knew it. They found other things that they were involved in to be much more beneficial to them. I accept that some exercises may have been cancelled on financial grounds, but I do not think that the Marines going to the Arctic was one of them.

Mr. Davies: It is wonderful with what gallantry the Liberal Democrats rush to the Government's defence, even though Ministers sit paralysed on their Bench, not knowing how to respond. That is a good try, but it will not work, because that exercise was not cancelled for functional reasons. If it was cancelled for functional reasons, let the Government now say in terms what the functional reasons were which meant that, in terms of greater priorities, that exercise should not have taken place at that time. I fear that it was cancelled for the reasons that I mentioned. It makes the whole matter a great deal more squalid when concealment is added to the initial failure and there is an attempt to bamboozle the public. It is a very important issue indeed.

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The second matter that has an important impact on morale but is primarily of importance for operational, functional reasons is equipment. The Government must not neglect it. If equipment is not adequate--if we ask our men and women to fight without the equipment which they should have, and which allies fighting alongside them, such as the Americans, have--that is deeply demoralising. It is a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs if our armed forces cannot communicate, if they are not properly interoperable, or if they are at risk from events from which allied forces taking part in the same operation may not be at risk.

On Thursday, I mentioned a list of instances in which, at present, our equipment is inadequate and the Government have not responded with anything like the necessary urgency, or at all. Where are the stern sonars for type 23 frigates? When will they be fitted? Five type 23 frigates, supposedly with an anti-submarine role, do not have those stern sonars. The Government have spent three years on the GR1-GR4 conversion programme. We have yet to hear what stage it has reached and when it will be completed. Those are very important matters.

The SA80 is absolutely crucial. The fear that one's rifle may jam in an emergency can have a terrible effect on morale. That must be sorted out definitively, one way or another.

That brings me to the subject of communications. What an extraordinary state of affairs it is in which the British Army is sent into combat in the field with portable telephones--the sort of thing that can be bought in any store on the Tottenham Court road--or, even worse, with a radio system, the Clansman, that does not work properly or is not as secure as it should be.

There is no doubt at all that this has been a long, complicated saga and that the matter was not resolved--as I wish it had been--in the 18 years of Conservative Government. Equally, there is no doubt at all that this Government bear 100 per cent. responsibility for what has happened over the last three and a half years. Almost throughout that time they have put themselves in the hands of the Archer consortium, and they have now confessed that that was a mistake.

I understand the reluctance of any Government to stop throwing good money after bad. The Government have taken more than three years to take that decision. They have pulled the contract away from Archer and are re-letting it, and we wish them good luck and godspeed in getting it right this time. Nevertheless, we have lost £200 million and three years. The Government would come out of this story with a great deal more dignity and credibility if they were prepared explicitly to accept their share of responsibility for that disaster.


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