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Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): I shall keep my speech as short as I can; I know that we are short of time. It is a privilege to take part in this debate, as there are a lot of very knowledgeable Members on both sides of the House. Perhaps there has been an occasional hint of disingenuousness, however, in the comments of Opposition Members about the problems of overstretch in the Army. That problem has existed for many years. As the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) said, the figure for people on operational duties is about 27 per cent., which is about the same level that this Government inherited in 1997 from the Tory Government. That is pretty normal. The figure went up during Kosovo, and then went back down. This is still a problem, but it always was and, in many ways, it always will be, because we cannot solve problems of recruitment and retention overnight.
At least one of the Opposition Members present has greater expertise than I have in this matter. They may talk about hugely raising troops' pay, but that will not solve the problem, because troops are not all that pay-sensitive. They expect to be reasonably well paid and well accommodated but raising their pay hugely will not solve the problem of recruitment and retention in the services. The situation has been the same for a while and I suspect that, regrettably, it will be the same for some time to come. So when we talk about future defence policy, we have to assume that we will always have rather fewer soldiers, airmen and women, and sailors than we might wish to have.
I shall cut to the chase and deal with the discussion document that was issued today. It refers to preventing the conditions that allow international terrorist organisations to operate, and to our providing training assistance to the armed forces of other states, when we have the resources. It is worth noting that the service personnel who are sent on such duties are invariably highly skilled, and are often senior and near the end of their military careers.
In places such as AfricaI was in central Africa a few months agomilitary assistance would be invaluable. However, we cannot necessarily provide British military advisory and training teams, either because we do not have enough highly skilled soldiers, or because the political conditions are not quite right. The Foreign Secretary's recent thought that well-regulated private companies could fill that breach is therefore worth extensive consideration.
Sometimes, hon. Members hear the term "mercenaries" used. The Prime Minister used it, presumably on advice, but it is an unfortunate word. It might be in vogue or even correct, but "mercenaries" makes me think of Richard Burton in the 1970s film "The Wild Geese". That is not the kind of role that we are talking about today, and it is an unhelpful image to place in people's minds. Well-regulated private companies could have a role to play in filling that breach. The issue is in the public domain and it needs to be discussed.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot)he is also not in his placementioned the Chinook issue, which has been taken up. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands, is to discuss pragmatism in politics on Libby Purves', Radio 4 programme, "Midweek". His definition of pragmatism is likely to be a tiny bit too wide. I was disappointed to discover that, in effect, he blames his officials and officers for his wrong decision, as he now regards it, on the Chinook disaster on the Mull of Kintyre. He told a Scottish Sunday newspaper that, in those circumstances, politicians are at the mercy of their advisers. I believe that he made the correct decision, but to compound his misdemeanour he also cast personal aspersions on current Ministers for not overturning the original decision.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) referred to the speech of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire as honourable, but I am not convinced. Both made fine speeches, but I am not convinced that it is honourable to describe as dishonourable current Ministers who are upholding the decision of a former Secretary of State. It is not right to throw around such a word, and its use was ill-considered.
Mr. Soames: I want to clarify the point. I was not suggesting that the Ministry of Defence or Ministers have acted in any way dishonourably, but it was extremely honourable of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) to speak as he did.
Mr. Joyce: I appreciate the distinction. Perhaps I should clarify my explanation, which may have been a little inelegant. I am slightly concerned about describing as honourable a speech that calls Ministers dishonourable simply for acting correctly. Essentially, that is what the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire did.
Mr. Gray: My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who is not present, did not in any way imply that Ministers acted dishonourably in not overturning the finding. It is high time that Ministers did overturn it, but there is nothing dishonourable in their not doing so.
Let me return to Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Sir Malcolm is a capable man. It cannot have escaped his attention that it is at best inconsistent for him to argue on the one hand that present Ministers must take full responsibility for such decisions, which indeed they must, and on the other hand that the principle should not extend to him.
That contortion may be an expression of Sir Malcolm's new doctrine of pragmatism, but I think that the lesson may go deeper. It seems to me that the Conservative partywhich, after all, is full of knowledgeable expertsis struggling to come up with a critique of the Government's defence policies with an "oppositionist" resonance. I believe that the Conservatives agree with many of those policies, and are trying desperately to find some reason to oppose them.
In the Chinook case, Sir Malcolm has been pulled a bit too low in terms of the level of debate. There were a couple of glaring factual errors in his newspaper article. He said, for instance, that both the senior officers involved had retired. I do not think that Sir Malcolm himself would have made such a mistake; I suspect that the article was heavily drafted.
It would be a pity if a former Defence Secretary, who must be very frustrated and disappointed by his failure to be re-elected as a Member of Parliament, misjudged the tone and the effect of his own political comments. He may have chosen to continue in this way for all I know, but it would be disappointing to learn that he had.
On a lighter note, let me say a little about Scottish National party policy, as an SNP Member is present. This week the SNP leader attended a demonstration against Trident at Faslane, at which one of his MSPs was arrested while pursuing the party's anti-Trident policy. With astonishing hypocrisy, the SNP's 2001 manifesto stated:
Mr. Joyce: I was about to sayperhaps this is why the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) was beginning to get upsetthat the SNP has made only one suggestion of a possible replacement for Trident. Two years ago, its assistant spokesperson said: