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Mr. Francois: That is two battalions.

Mr. Jenkin: My hon. Friend says that that is equivalent to two battalions and, in effect, that means short changing every battalion in the British Army because the Government, rightly, cannot face the prospect of axing whole battalions.

During the general election campaign, I recall that the Labour party attacked the Conservatives' commitment to make full manning a priority, saying that that would cost £1.3 billion. That claim was later denied by the Secretary of State for Defence, and perhaps we can now see why. It is difficult for the Government to meet their manning targets.

We need to ask why the forces are suffering such terrible retention problems. It is clear that one of the main factors is overcommitment. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body noted in its 2002 report that the level of armed forces commitments remained "high". It pointed out that in November 2001, 31 per cent. of the armed forces were committed to operations. At the height of the Kosovo operation, the figure was 89 per cent. of Land Command. In autumn 2000, 34 per cent. of the naval services front-line manpower strength was engaged directly in operations, and the Secretary of State has pointed out that today, 28 per cent. of the Army is committed to operations. That compares with the planning assumption in the SDR of 20 per cent.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): In the unlikely event that the hon. Gentleman found himself in government tomorrow, which of those commitments would his Government cut back on?

Mr. Jenkin: Labour Members are programmed to ask that question, and I am happy to fantasise about being Secretary of State tomorrow. However, I have better things to do.

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The Secretary of State should watch out. The truth is that no Government would be in a position to axe arbitrarily existing commitments. The question is the rate at which commitments are taken on, and we are periodically sceptical about the enthusiasm with which the Prime Minister spreads our forces around the globe on peacekeeping activities when the Ministry of Defence is not funded for such a high level of operations.

Mr. Jones rose

Mr. Jenkin: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman once.

Mr. Keetch: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jenkin: I will.

Mr. Keetch: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If he cannot tell the House what commitments the Conservative party would axe in the unlikely event of its coming to power, will he tell us the Opposition's policy on the defence budget? Are they committed to the defence budget remaining at its current level, to increasing it or to increasing it at above the rate of inflation? Will he explain their policy on that?

Mr. Jenkin: The hon. Gentleman is so utterly predictable—I debated with myself whether it would be worth giving way to him. We do not anticipate becoming the Government next week or next month, and it is the Government's declared policy, which I quoted from their SDR, that they would match their capabilities and their commitments. They are failing to do so. The hon. Gentleman may not be part of the official Opposition—I am, and I am entitled to point that out.

On 10 February 2002, the Secretary of State for Defence admitted:

That indicates how stretched the elastic is in his Department. It comes as no consolation to know that he made that statement before the deployment of 1,700 Royal Marines to Afghanistan.

In its report, "Policy for People", the Select Committee on Defence noted that the continuous attitude surveys, which assess satisfaction with service life, showed that separation from family and its effects on relationships and the inability to plan one's life consistently scored high as reasons for leaving the services in surveys of leavers. The key point about retention is the need to restore the quality of life of our service men.

During the Committee's inquiry, the Army Families Federation said:

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will clarify something for me. If the Defence Committee suggests in a forthcoming report that the defence budget should be increased to 3 per cent. of gross

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domestic product, would he allow his defence spokesman, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is also a member of the Select Committee, to sign that report?

Mr. Jenkin: I would draw the relevant paragraph to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Chancellor.

Most recently, the commander of the British marines arriving in Afghanistan warned of the strain that their heavy schedule is placing on his men's families. The commanding officer of 45 Commando said that there were consequences to the constant demands on his forces' time and hoped that, when the operation was complete, his men might be granted some quality time. On 4 April, he told the Financial Times:

He added:

That officer's words demonstrate graphically how overcommitment can lead to people leaving the forces.

Obviously, with 10,000 fewer personnel than we left the Secretary of State in 1997, the pressure on those remaining in the services increases. At the same time as the number of commitments has been increasing, the budget has been reduced by around £1 billion a year in real terms. Those cuts have a real impact on morale. The Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Peter Squire, has said:

The Minister must be in no doubt of the impact that those continued cuts are having on the forces. There has been widespread dismay, particularly at the withdrawal of the Sea Harriers, as has been mentioned.

In any personnel policy, training has a central and important part to play. Training is what suffers most as a result of overcommitment. I noted with alarm a recent written answer that revealed that in the past 24 months, 84 exercises have been cancelled, many because of commitments to operations or because of financial restrictions. Five were cancelled directly because of a lack of funding and 36 were cancelled because of operational commitments. It has even emerged that the Secretary of State for Defence wanted to cancel Britain's biggest post-cold war exercise—Saif Sareea 2, recently completed in Oman—to save £93 million, but was overruled by the Prime Minister on the advice of military chiefs.

I have not forgotten that two years ago the Royal Marines annual arctic warfare course was cancelled through lack of funding. Fortunately, it was reinstated in

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2000–01, because the skills learned and honed by the Marines in those exercises directly relate to their duties in Afghanistan.

Mr. Dalyell: Week after week, some of us listen to the assertions from the Leader of the Opposition that he is enthusiastic for military action against Iraq. Who will take that action in the circumstances?

Mr. Jenkin: I do not think that we are enthusiastic for military action against Iraq, but unlike the hon. Gentleman, we do not think that we should rule out options against Iraq, as that would be contrary to the Government's foreign policy and contrary to the interests of the free world.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): The hon. Gentleman has said that he is in favour of joint exercises. Is he in favour of Britain continuing the joint exercises that have taken place in the United States with the Israeli air force and the Americans?

Mr. Jenkin: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman address that question to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I personally think that Israel is not a rogue state in the same category as Iraq, and it is a mistake to try to pretend that it is a case of six of one and a half a dozen of the other.

Skill fade inevitably occurs when units are on operations, particularly peacekeeping operations, because they cannot maintain their training for their assigned roles back home. They cannot train on tanks or artillery if they are peacekeeping. That shows how overcommitment can directly degrade fighting capability.

The Secretary of State addressed many of the questions that he was asked about the Territorial Army. With the Government now seemingly scaling back their plans for the size of the Army, we must not forget that they have also cut the Territorial Army by 18,000 men. That move never made any sense, especially as the TA provides a valuable avenue of recruitment for the Army and, in supporting the regulars, can relieve some of the effects of overstretch.

I was somewhat heartened to hear that the Secretary of State said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph that, in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks on America, he was glad that the TA had not been fully cut from its previous strength of 56,000 to the 41,200 set by the defence review. Although I was pleased at his apparent conversion, I am afraid to tell him that the TA is, in fact, well below its SDR target. Perhaps he can tell us today whether he has plans to increase the TA's establishment. If not, can he at least clarify his position?

Another important factor in retention is the standard of service accommodation. Following the sale of married quarters by the MOD to Annington Homes in 1996, the Conservatives gave a commitment to service families that their quarters would be upgraded to grade 1 condition by autumn 2003. Some £470 million of the £1.6 billion proceeds of the sale was allocated for that purpose. However, pressure on the defence budget has forced the MOD to delay the upgrade programme by two years, until 2005.

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