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6.21 pm

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on becoming a Privy Councillor, and welcome him to what is a rather strange organisation. I welcome him sincerely, given his many years of service as Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence.

I echo the right hon. Gentleman's tribute to the armed forces. Such tributes are commonly paid, and when the right hon. Gentleman paid it there was an echo of support around the Chamber; but the reputation that we praise here, in so facile a way, carries a heavy responsibility. That reputation, and the standard of excellence that we have come to expect from our armed forces, have been achieved not simply by accident, but through centuries of evolution and the gradual development of a system--a discipline; an organisation--that has stood the country in very good stead, and continues to do so.

Several Members mentioned Sir Charles Guthrie's recent speech at the Royal United Services Institute. I was struck by one of his comments. When we talk of what we expect from our armed forces, we tend to forget what is actually involved. Sir Charles said that, during his time as Chief of the Defence Staff, British forces had been involved in no fewer than 40 operations in 20 countries. That is a measure of the activity that we expect from them, and the complexity and variety of the tasks that we expect them to perform.

Parts of the Bill are not particularly controversial, although they are detailed, technical and evolutionary. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) that much of the Bill can be supported by members of all parties. That may be why some have looked for aspects to criticise.

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Some rather fatuous remarks were made about my hon. Friend's perfectly sensible comment that there was a problem with the role of women in the armed forces. That, surely, is accepted. I do not know whether anyone has proposed that women should serve in submarines or in Royal Armoured Corps tanks, although there is some debate about whether they should serve in infantry badge units. Such matters will have to be discussed.

Anyone with experience of the armed forces knows that women make a valuable contribution in many areas. Indeed, I have the impression that in some aspects of electronic warfare--certainly on ships--some display an aptitude that may be superior to that of men. During the Gulf war, there was a concern about women serving in our forces in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where women civilians were not allowed to drive cars. We observed the contrast with the air refuelling capability of the United States national guard--based at Jeddah, next to the Mecca pilgrim terminal. Half the pilots of the planes involved were women. The valuable contribution that women can make is no secret, and what my hon. Friend said was entirely sensible. I am sorry that some hon. Members sought to misrepresent it.

The evolution of our defence policies can be compared with the evolution of our military strategy. Labour Members, including Ministers, often talk as though they invented the strategy of greater mobility and more flexible capability. I was glad to note Sir Charles Guthrie's reference to our steady progress in realigning our policies and developing

He took some pride in the progress made on that doctrine, which was established 10 years ago. As I was involved in aspects of its creation, I was grateful for the recognition that a strategy drawn up in "Britain's Army of the 1990s" had been allowed to make such progress--progress that started with "Options for Change".

I have had the privilege of holding positions of responsibility in both Northern Ireland and the Ministry of Defence, which revealed to me the difficult challenges that we pose to our service men in a host of different circumstances. Those circumstances may present them with real danger; their lives may be threatened--but we require them to act, and react, in a disciplined, responsible and legal manner.

We should bear in mind the challenges that are posed to service men on the street. It is easy enough in Committee to try to draw up blueprints; it is easy enough for Ministry of Defence lawyers to write down the required obligations and rules, and for other clever lawyers to crawl all over what they have written. We should, however, consider the challenges presented on the street to someone of 18 or 19.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has campaigned on behalf of two of his constituents. That tragic and awful case, with all its complications, illustrated very clearly the challenging and immediate problems faced by individual soldiers. The yellow card in Northern Ireland, the rules of engagement in the Gulf war and the disciplinary codes, requirements and rules, such as Queen's regulations, under which the services have had to operate in the past--demonstrate the need for a structure that members of the forces can understand, in which they can have confidence, and which can enable them to work effectively.

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The right hon. Member for Walsall, South discussed our needs. Sir Charles Guthrie said exactly the same. We need proper resources for defence, we need effective equipment and we need adequate personnel with high morale. That has always been the objective of our armed forces, and achieving it has enabled them to serve our country as well as they have in the past.

High morale depends in part on the provision of sufficient resources--not just finance, but numbers. Although this is not directly relevant to the Bill, I refer in passing to Sir Charles's worrying statement that the Army is 8,000 short, and has had to change the date by which it expects to achieve full manning levels from 2005 to 2008. I do not believe any prediction for 2008: that date is too far away, and there are too many variables between now and then. What we are really being told is that we are 8,000 short now, and will remain short until at least 2008. That is the best prediction, which is very worrying.

What is the importance of that and what is its relevance to the Bill? We face in any case a worrying recruitment problem--and the demographic situation is against that. It will be a difficult challenge. We face a 6 per cent. fall in the catchment potential over the next 30 years and difficulties of recruitment. We will not be able to deal with additional problems if the morale of the armed forces is affected and if they feel that they are operating in circumstances where it is not possible for them to do the job that is expected of them.

That is what Sir Charles Guthrie referred to, but being Chief of the Defence Staff, he understandably spoke with moderation. I commend his speech to every hon. Member. He chose his words with care and has understated the position. As a serving officer, he has no choice but to do that. One should recognise that for him to raise these issues means that we are facing a really grave situation. A threat to combat effectiveness arises--it is spelled out in the amendment--with the multiplicity of legislation. The more we treat our soldiers as though they are civilians working within normal civilian law, the more challenges we face.

There is no doubt--I made the point in the foreword to the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which has been tabled in the House, and Sir Charles made the same point--that there was a wonderful stability in the cold war. He said that he knew the German plain as well as he knew Hyde park. At the time of the cold war, the threats that our forces faced, the challenges, the issues and the rules of engagement were clear. Now, a much more difficult environment exists.

The Minister does not know what call may come tonight from the Foreign Office for support and urgent action in a territory or area that we may not have visited and may not have any accurate intelligence about, but where the military are expected to respond. If the Minister and his colleagues say to the Chief of the Defence Staff, "Can you do it?", he will say, "We'll do it. We do not know how yet. Give me some time." We have all been in that situation.

There is even talk that our forces may be engaged--as they will be--against well-armed international criminal organisations or drug cartels, which is outside the former remit of fighting the Soviet Union or dealing with the cold war. The circumstances are completely different. Therefore, the need is for clear protection for our armed

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forces, so that they do not go into operations not sure of what their legal position is, what actions they may face or what claims may be made against them afterwards.

It is a difficult challenge. Sir Charles talked about the lack in our society, in the media and in politics of any real military experience. The Chairman of the Defence Committee made the point. Like him, I draw the distinction--what is the duty of politicians and Ministers and what is the duty of the Chiefs of the Defence Staff? I quote Sir Charles:

He went on to say that we must ensure that nothing--I repeat nothing--damages the combat effectiveness of the armed forces.

I absolutely accept and endorse that the armed forces do not rule this country. It is not a military dictatorship. Chiefs of the Defence Staff are responsible to a democratically elected Parliament and to Ministers, but as, increasingly, Ministers have no military background--the Prime Minister has no military background--the difficulty lies in correctly assessing the situation.

I make no secret of the fact that Chiefs of the Defence Staff, Chiefs of Staff and the services have their particular angles and objectives, but the challenge and difficulty is to ensure that the effectiveness of our armed forces is maintained and that advice is listened to seriously. For Ministers who do not have practical military experience, the responsibility of listening all the more carefully to the professional advice that comes is clear.

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