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6.11 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray): May I praise the brevity of many Members who have spoken? I, too, shall try to be as brief as possible, as I know that a number of other Members wish to speak.

I shall perhaps surprise the Minister by whole heartedly welcoming the discussion document, the announcement of a series of debates on the issues, which are important and deserve regular examination, and the detail of the Government's report. Like many others, I shall take the opportunity to praise our service personnel from Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, especially those stationed in my Moray constituency, which has two of the largest RAF bases in the UK—RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Kinloss. It will be no surprise to the Minister if I reiterate briefly the distinction that differentiates the defence policy of the Scottish National party from that of other parties in the House. We believe that defence policy should have a democratic basis. If we send someone into conflict, possibly to die for their country, that decision should be taken in the nation's Parliament which, for the SNP, is the Scottish Parliament. However, I do not expect the Minister to agree.

Moving on to the report, I support the emphasis on European security and defence policy and its headline goals, which are of great importance in the coming year. My party and I support that, as we do the partnership for peace programme. Sadly, the report omits mention of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which has an important part to play. That may be my oversight, but it does not appear to be mentioned, and no one else has talked about that important organisation today. It is an important element of peace policy in Europe. It is the only organisation on the continent that reaches as far as central Asia.

I shall not dwell on the partisan matters raised by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce). I was going to make the point that there is not a single Scottish Labour Back Bencher in the Chamber, but the hon. Gentleman has returned in time for the start of my speech. I congratulate him and thank him for making the effort. I wish to make specific points, first, about the Territorial Army, then about the defence fire service, which has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan).

The Minister will be aware that the SNP has consistently argued, since before publication of the strategic defence review, that there should not be a

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diminution of the Territorial Army. At about the time that the review was published, George Robertson said:

After the events of 11 September, which Lord Robertson certainly could not have foreseen, it is absolutely right that the Territorial Army and other reserve forces should become more central to Government defence planning.

A number of issues need to be raised with regard to the Territorial Army. First, the fact that there are too few TA numbers means that the burden of disruption caused by TA obligations falls on a smaller number of businesses that have to release their staff, and not every business is prepared to do that. That is an important issue in respect of any rise in TA numbers. TA personnel who volunteer to reinforce the regulars in peacetime do not have the right to return to their jobs on return from their duties. That is only possible when they are mobilised, and it contrasts with the conditions of the National Guard in the United States.

Military observers in Scotland believe that there are simply too few trained personnel among the 4,500 TA credibly to defend key points. Does the Minister believe that there are sufficient to cover shifts at the gates or patrol inside installations? Perhaps he can say how many platoons were needed in the cold war for key point defence. How many key points are there in Scotland? I would not expect the Minister to name them; the numbers would suffice. It is important that we have an informed debate on the role of the Territorial Army as part of the ongoing consultation.

The SNP's position since 1996 is that there should be up to 8,000 part-time volunteer reservists in Scotland. That would thicken the volunteer reserve footprint in Scotland and bring more people into the TA and the reserve forces of the other services. It would create more trained personnel, spread more widely the burden on businesses that have part-time volunteers on their staff and encourage the recruitment of regular forces. In that respect, I fully support any efforts that the Government make in reaching that number.

Mindful of the time, I turn to the fire services at RAF bases, which, since my election in June, has been overwhelmingly the largest issue brought to me by service personnel from both bases. Only a few weeks ago there was a lobby of Parliament by more than 50 fire officers from throughout the United Kingdom, and those who travelled furthest of all came from RAF Lossiemouth in my constituency. The issue has been fully outlined by the hon. Member for Selby to whom I pay tribute for his work on this. I also thank hon. Members from both sides of the House who have signed early-day motion 853 on the subject and urge others to do so.

I have a number of questions for the Minister. I have asked them before, but received no answers. They concern RAF Lossiemouth where morale among staff is at rock bottom. They have raised the matter with me, with the Transport and General Workers Union and the Moray Trades Council and I hope that the Minister will be able to respond now. They are concerned about back-fill—the ability to bring in extra firefighters to cover extra changes in the category of planes that use those bases. As the Minister will be aware, in general Tornados operate from RAF Lossiemouth but an increasing number of VC10s

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and Tristars use it as well. Those planes are large and have heavy fuel loads and their status for firefighting goes from category 4 to category 7. The base also has squadrons on detachment and there is flying every day. Will the Minister confirm that squads at RAF Lossiemouth will be reduced from seven to six? I should be keen to hear his views on how airfield commitments can be met with fewer men. Morale is at rock bottom. Is the Minister not worried about the safety implications of that?

Specific measures were incorporated into the minutes of the local works Whitley, which met on 28 September 2001. It noted that RAF Lossiemouth is to be recategorised as a category 3 station and that its four firefighter crews will be

The report adds that the person in question has, however,

It adds:

This is matter of supreme interest to people at RAF Lossiemouth.

On 13 November 2001, the Minister said to me:

He now has the time, and I should be grateful for the answers—if not when he sums up, in writing within the next few weeks.

6.21 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson). I want to talk about morale—a crucial element of fighting power that is intangible but makes our soldiers, sailors and airmen do what they do so well.

The problems of a two-tier army may be just as applicable to a two-tier navy and a two-tier air force, but they are probably most obvious in the Army, and they are getting worse. I shall give the views of a company sergeant major of a Warrior battalion in Tidworth. The battalion has become part of the joint rapid reaction force and was alerted for action at short notice as its spearhead battalion. That means that, other than troops actually deployed on operations, no battalion anywhere else in the Army is on shorter notice to move. The sergeant major brought his company on parade, made sure that every last gaiter button was ready and every bootlace was tied, then said, "Boys, we are the leading edge—the spearhead—of the JRRF. That means we're going absolutely nowhere." In other words, the problem is that, as far as the troops are concerned, unless they are wearing a red hat or a green hat, they ain't moving.

In fact, that is not true. For example, 16 Air Assault Brigade contains elements of two fine battalions—the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Regiment and the Royal Gurkha Rifles. The Commando Brigade contains men of the Royal Artillery, the Royal Signals, the Royal Engineers,

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and so on. It is a growing list. Too many of the line infantry see themselves as underemployed and undervalued. Will the Minister address that?

I ask the Minister carefully to consider the plans for 2 and 52 Brigades. I applaud the idea of creating infantry brigades, but they must be given organic sappers, gunners, signals and a headquarters if they are to become proper brigades. At the moment, they are only training brigades. Although the proposals are good for the morale of the battalions inside those brigades, they do not deal with the problem.

In my opinion—and, I humbly add, my experience—the factor that erodes morale more than anything else is under-recruiting and undermanning. Earlier this week, in Defence questions, the Minister said:

The add-back to the strategic defence review makes it 108,000. We now face the prospect of not approaching that figure until 2005. Why is manning so chronically unsatisfactory?

The Minister went on to say:

I am not trying to talk down the armed forces at all. The fact remains, however, that the examples are legion. The Omagh Battalion, which is the north-western battalion in Northern Ireland, as the Minister will appreciate, is a difficult and tough two-year posting. The battalions very rarely keep their numbers up to strength during that time; their numbers are always eroded.

The 1st Battalion, the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire has just deployed with one quarter of its combat power under strength. It is completely lacking one whole company. I hope that the Minister will forgive me if I appear to be teaching him to suck eggs when I tell him that the battalion has four operational tasks to do, for which it needs four companies; it has only three. What is the solution? A unit from the famous 16 Air Assault Brigade, a battalion of the Parachute Regiment, has to provide a company to make the Prince of Wales's Own Regiment of Yorkshire up to strength. Not only do we have an ineffective battalion, but the precious resource of troops trained for airborne operations—part of 16 Air Assault Brigade—is being diverted towards relatively routine duties in Northern Ireland. It is extremely difficult for the commanding officer of that battalion to make it work properly and to maintain morale.

I tabled a written question about the number of troops leaving the Army, compared with the number entering it. The answer that I received was that the number entering is slightly higher than the number leaving. That is absolutely right, but those numbers do not shed the correct light on the problem. I spoke recently to the commanding officer of an Army training regiment. He expects to lose 20 per cent. of his recruits during phase one training. I do not take issue with that; it is probably reasonable, although unfortunate. During phase two training, he expects to lose a further 10 per cent.

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We need to look at the numbers joining the battalions, and at the numbers leaving them. The former is chronically lower than the latter. There are one or two exceptions to that rule, however: the Light Dragoons, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, the Sherwood Foresters and, most remarkably of all, the Coldstream Guards. Those battalions and regiments are consistently fully manned, or even over-manned. How do they do it?

The answer is that they conduct their own recruiting operations, because the resources of the recruiting group are seen to be inadequate. Soldiers are, therefore, mis-employed in what the Army refers to as the black economy. Mortarmen, machine-gunners and snipers are taken away from their tasks with their battalions and paid for, clothed, equipped and fed by their commanding officers while being deployed to Middlesbrough, Birkenhead or Clitheroe, for example, where they are told to go out and get recruits. If we ask how many men and women are recruited by regimental recruiting parties on the so-called black economy, and how many are recruited by the recruiting group, we are told that the figures are impossible to assess.

I maintain that that is the way to recruit successfully. It is not fussy or sophisticated, but it works, as it has worked down the centuries. I recommend that the Minister looks closely at this matter, and takes a spyglass to the operations of the recruiting group and to the budgets allocated to it. Interestingly, commanding officers of territorial battalions are given responsibility for their own recruiting. That would not wholly work in the regular Army, but there is merit in looking to see how it is done, and how those particular regiments approach the problem and—despite the economic climate—come out with the right answer time and again.

The Sherwood Foresters, based in Chester, will be 20 men over strength in six weeks' time. They have been told, "Do not recruit any more. You are over-bearing on salaries too much, so pack in your recruiting efforts." Why? Where is the logic? Surely, if they are recruiting, they should be allowed to do so. It is not a cap badge issue, as cap badges can be used elsewhere.

I have said enough and I am grateful to the House for its tolerance. It need not be reminded, I hope, of my undying admiration for our armed forces, but we are selling them short by treating them unfairly. Soldiers, sailors and airmen want to fight and to go on operations, and such opportunities should be given to them all. If units are to be effective, they need to be fully manned and morale must be kept high.

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