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Patrick Mercer (Newark): Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech. It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) and I congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) both on his speech and on his stunning victory in a beautiful town that I know well.
I wish to pay tribute to my two immediate predecessors and one other. Mrs. Fiona Jones was my immediate predecessor in Newark, and her achievements probably speak for themselves. I believe that she is now having more time to spend with her family. Her predecessor, Richard Alexander, was the Conservative Member for Newark. He was a firm friend of the constituency, the voters and the armed forces, on which I shall dwell in some detail in a moment.
I tread in the footsteps of Gladstone--at least, in his Tory footsteps. I remind the House of his prophetic words that his task was to pacify Ireland. We saw on television last night shots of the Ardoyne yet again up in flames. That in itself is not strange, but it was curious to see khaki uniforms on the streets again, rather than the bottle green of the Royal Ulster Constabulary--a sign that things are going very much amiss in the Province.
I have come to politics after 25 years as a regular soldier in the Nottinghamshire regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, followed by time as a defence correspondent with the BBC. What brought me into politics was the men with whom I served in the Foresters and their families, many of whom come from the Newark and Retford area, which I now have the privilege to represent. My father served in the same regiment. More than anything, it was recruiting these men, many from terribly underprivileged backgrounds, taking them into the Army, watching them being made into something special--those who survived--and then watching them go back out into a society that was often less than friendly to them.
Those men, along with many others, have tried to find jobs in my constituency in a failing agricultural community. I was stunned not to see any mention in the Gracious Speech of help for the agricultural community. Many of them tried to find jobs in the transport industry, which has spiralled downwards in decline in Newark and Retford. With our communications relying on the A1 and the routes to and from the coast, road haulage is terribly important to us, and it is in a terrible state of decline. The manufacturing industry has also been hammered particularly hard in the past four years.
I feel deeply about the situation, and I feel deeply about the people who have chosen me to represent them, and who--I say with due modesty--gave me a resounding success in Newark against someone who represented policies that have clearly failed in the area.
I shall now break with tradition and go back to the subject of defence. Newark and Retford have a distinguished military history. I shall skate over Robin Hood and go on to the three great sieges of Newark during the civil war. I named my son after Prince Rupert, one of the great heroes of the time. I particularly bring to bear the motto of Newark: "Deo Fretus Erumpe"--trust in God and sally forth. Newark's arms are supported on one side by a fox and on the other by a foxhound, thank God.
Newark and Retford men and women continue to serve in the forces today, providing soldiers for the Queen's Royal Lancers, the Coldstream Guards, the Grenadier Guards, the Royal Green Jackets and the county regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, who are back on operations in Northern Ireland.
One of the great pleasures of canvassing hard in the constituency was that I came across some of my former soldiers. I knocked on a door in Tuxford the other day, and a gentleman answered, smiled broadly at me and said, "Therapist". I immediately recognised him as the man who had been my colour sergeant about 10 years ago in Northern Ireland. A colour sergeant is a man who provides administrative support. He is not one of nature's brightest of men, and we had been on an operation called "Therapist". I had warned him of the operation and given him detailed orders, when he said, "Sir, I know absolutely nothing about this operation--but there is another operation planned for that day called Operation The Rapist." Luckily, I did not have to write to a wife or a mother and tell them that their husband or son had been killed in "Operation The Rapist". None the less, those memories still exist.
I should like to draw to the House's attention the whole business of overstretch in the armed forces. There simply are not enough men and women to carry out the commitments that the Government have forced on the armed forces. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) mentioned that we had not enough combat pilots to pilot aircraft off the two proposed new aircraft carriers.
I emphasise, above and beyond all else, the need for manpower in the armed forces. It is no good having the kit, the intention and the policy if we have not the men to carry out the task. So often, the Army in particular will give the impression that everything is under control, be thoroughly positive and thoroughly straightforward, while not revealing the hurt that it is feeling.
As a defence correspondent in Kosovo, I saw a particular battle group that came to the theatre and was patently incapable of taking the field because it was so badly under-recruited. Two companies were made up by soldiers from other regiments, but both those other regiments were warned for operations in Northern Ireland. You cannot rob Peter to pay Paul incessantly; you cannot send a boy to do a man's job. The armed forces must be allowed to recruit properly and effectively.
In many cases there are regiments that do the job well, and others that do not do it so well. The Army's recruiting structure falls on something called the recruiting group. I suggest that the recruiting group has failed to meet its target of making up a 5,000 shortage in the Army. Yet
Let me return to my earlier point. Soldiers are on the streets of Northern Ireland again. They have not been there for some time. The police have been able to hold the ring in Ulster, but that is clearly no longer the case. We are asking men to do more than may be humanly possible. The commitments in Sierra Leone continue, and there is now a suggestion of a further commitment in the Balkans. We cannot do this without asking the armed forces to reach a point that they can simply no longer bear.
Tour gaps are meant to be 24 months; in other words, the gap between finishing a tour and starting another is meant to be two years. Nowhere in the Army is that target being reached--least of all in the specialist arms, where tour gaps in some instances are as short as 10 or even nine months.
There are those who will say that retention is the key to recruiting, but I suggest that it is the other way round. Unless men and women are recruited in number, there will not be enough men and women to do the dirty jobs that the armed forces are being asked to do. Disillusion will spread further than it has already, and more people will leak out of the bottom of the cycle faster than they are being added at the top. I ask the Secretary of State for Defence to examine the matter urgently, and not necessarily to entertain the placebos that are being offered.
I go a little further with regard to the Eurocorps. I do not believe in it, I do not consider it feasible, and I do not think that it is needed. If plans are to be made for it, however, let us get away from the typical cant that we hear. Non-straightforward answers are being given about plans, and there is no thought of adding combat power or fighting power to a corps. It is all very well providing headquarters, staff officers, communications, engineers and the like, but if a Eurocorps is to exist it must be properly recruited, not simply double-hatted, as in present practices.
I conclude by returning to the subject of my constituency. This may seem like a history lesson, but it was Newark men who helped to suppress the Irish rebellion of 1916. Some would say that that was the spark that lit the fire that burns on today. I do not know. I would not like to answer that, but in Balderton cemetery in Newark there are three gravestones of teenagers who were killed in Dublin in 1916 and whose bodies were brought home. In Ollerton, one can see the name of the last man of the Nottinghamshire regiment to be killed in Northern Ireland a few years ago. Let us hope that we see no more Nottinghamshire bones being brought back to be buried in this country because men have been killed in Ulster.