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5.3 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Tony Worthington). During the recent visit by the Select Committee on Defence to the naval bases and shipyards in Scotland, we all learned a great deal. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

I want to underline what was said by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who demanded extra spending on defence commitments. Sadly, he is no longer in the Chamber. Were he here, I would have to raise my voice, as my hearing was damaged as a result of sharing a tent with the right hon. Gentleman for one night in Afghanistan. I do not know how the right hon. Gentleman can be aware that he drowned out the noise of the generator, as he was asleep—no one else in the party was, though.

I wish that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South were here, as I want to take issue with him about his "year zero" comments. We all know that certain problems go with defence. I make no pretence of defending the Conservative party's record on that. We clearly got things wrong. However, we now stand on the brink of a grave national emergency, if we are not already in one. The matters that we are discussing are far too important for us to concern ourselves with the trivialities of inter-party point scoring.

The trip to Afghanistan was seminal for all of us who went on it. It was extremely informative. I want to use the example of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment, which calls itself the Vikings, to illuminate one or two points. There is no doubt that the Royal Anglians and other infantry battalions are disturbed and destabilised by the length of the commitment to Afghanistan. I was due to lunch tomorrow with an infantry commanding

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officer, but his adjutant phoned today to say, "Frightfully sorry, but he's too busy to lunch with you because he's lobbying to get his battalion to Afghanistan." We should be beyond that: commanding officers should not have to lobby to know what the arms plot is.

The Royal Welch Fusiliers are dying to go to Afghanistan and think that they are. The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Anglians thinks that it is going to replace the 1st Battalion. No one knows what is happening. Is it not time we came clean? To echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), we need to know exactly how long the commitment will last, what it will involve and the number of troops necessary to sustain it. Ministers should make a clear statement on the implications for the arms plot. It is only by creating stability in the arms plot that we will help to stem the haemorrhage of trained personnel, especially from the infantry regiments.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex explained, it was interesting to note that when we went on patrol with soldiers of the Royal Anglian Regiment we were surrounded not just by the khaki berets of the Royal Anglians, but by the plum-coloured berets of the King's Royal Hussars—cavalry men who were forming part of an infantry patrol. The 1st Battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment is well recruited in a difficult part of the country for infantry recruiting. Fortunately, my constituency lies in Nottinghamshire, on the edge of Royal Anglian country. It is interesting to see how those two battalions approach the problem of recruitment. Despite the fact that the 1st Battalion is only marginally under strength, it has had difficulties deploying to Afghanistan and finding the manpower that it needs.

The commanding officer—strangely enough, quite well known to me—pointed out that he had to leave almost 40 men behind in Pirbright because they were sick. They could not be deployed on operations not because of temporary illness, but because of chronic difficulties for which medical discharges could not be procured. The soldiers were capable of sedentary duties, but there are not many sedentary duties to perform in an infantry regiment. So the regiment called on soldiers from its battle group—men of the King's Royal Hussars—to help them with the problem.

The commanding officer also pointed out a fascinating fact, which relates to an issue raised by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch). The battalion spent two years serving in Londonderry, which made it less than enthusiastic for other tasks. The deployment was gruelling, not very exciting and numbers had fallen. Yet as soon as the news spread through the battalion that it was to deploy to Afghanistan, and 1 Royal Anglian realised that it was going to be allowed to do a task that had been reserved for the units of 16 Air Assault Brigade and that the two-tier Army was being put on the back burner, a dozen men withdrew their notice to sign off, became good, loyal and motivated soldiers again, and were slavering for operations. It was clear to the officer that part of the retention problem, at least as far as he was concerned, turned on the tasks that the battalion was being given. The men understood two years in Londonderry, but—by golly—they preferred a good, exciting tour in Afghanistan.

The commanding officer made another interesting point: "One of the reasons why I'm short of manpower is that I've had to leave 20 men behind to recruit." It would

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have been naive of me to ask, "Why on earth are you doing that?" The answer is that the recruiting group cannot or will not do the job.

I was fascinated to hear the Secretary of State refer to new and imaginative means of recruiting. I welcome that, and I am sure that several measures have already been used successfully. He invited Conservative Members to suggest other measures; I shall not disappoint him.

The men who are recruiting are not recruiters—they are snipers, machine-gunners, non-commissioned officers and mortar men. All those men are back in East Anglia, Lincolnshire and the south using their salaries to recruit—in other words, abusing their salaries. The Army describes that as the black economy. Those men should be on operations helping out and ensuring that men from the King's Royal Hussars do not need to plug the gaps in 1st Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment.

I have asked the Ministry of Defence to provide me with the estimated cost of recruiting a humble private soldier for the infantry; apparently it is unavailable. One can conduct an interesting analysis by looking at the cost of running the recruiting group and putting on top of that the costs of all the salaries that should be used in the field being misemployed in recruiting back in England. The humble hewer of wood and carrier of water—the man who shoulders the pike in the British infantry—is probably one of the most expensive public servants to be used to recruit in the whole gamut of public service.

After visiting the Royal Anglian Regiment, we went on to the joint Army and Royal Air Force nuclear, biological and chemical warfare regiment in Kabul—the first experimental unit of RAF aircrew and Army soldiers to be formed for a highly specialist task. Without going into too much detail, much of the evidence that they have discovered in Kabul and its surroundings is fascinating. Their task is difficult, and the commanding officer of 1st Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment, which provides the Army elements of the regiment, is having grave difficulty keeping his recruiting up to snuff. He has had to go to what the Army describes as a recruiting witch doctor—in civilian life, he would be described as a consultant. Several people in the Army are not employed in recruiting but have remarkably successful records as recruiters in their own right.

Next month, 1st Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment will deploy to Liverpool with one of those witch doctors at the helm. He is a major who should be teaching tactics at the all-arms tactics wing, but is out helping the Royal Armoured Corps to recruit—completely under its own auspices, with no assistance from the recruiting group, and with men yet again misemployed in the black economy trying to make up the numbers that should already be provided by the normal recruiting chain.

Recruiting is very much the Army's main effort. Operations must clearly take priority, but after that every unit has to be topped up with the correct number of men and women. In the past, the Army has declared that to be "main effort"—a technical term meaning that every resource, expertise and ability is dedicated to the task in hand. Why, then, do the Army, Navy and Air Force rely on retired officers and time-expired non-commissioned officers to try to recruit their young men and women? I ask the Minister to answer that question, if he can, in summing up.

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Why should young people necessarily be appealed to by retired officers—men in their mid-50s or early 60s? Are they the right people to do the job? Should not the young, sparky staff officers grade 2—young majors and the equivalent who pass out of staff college—be given that crucial task? I ask the Minister at least to think about that.

Without damning the MOD's recruiting group too much, I also pay tribute to the breadth of thinking that has gone on in recruiting soldiers, sailors and, to a lesser extent, airmen from the Commonwealth. I recently visited the Army Training Regiment at Lichfield and it was fascinating to see the mixture of nationalities in the ranks of the platoons that were passing out. It is a good idea and it has worked well. Why has it taken so long to be implemented?

I should like to join many other hon. Members in paying tribute to the Queen Mother, but I should like to iterate the point that three of her brothers served in the Black Watch and one of them was killed at Loos in 1915. That regiment was particularly dear to Her Majesty, and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) is not here because he had the privilege of serving in that regiment earlier in his military career.

The 42nd is one of our oldest and finest regiments, raised in the 1740s. The Times carried an article last week saying that, with the sad demise of the Queen Mother, that regiment, which could not be properly recruited, was bound to go, as someone said earlier, as the result of being hollowed out to the point where it does not exist. I suggest that there is no difficulty in recruiting. Certain regiments have no difficulty in taking imaginative and lateral approaches to recruiting and bringing themselves well above establishment. It would not only be a disgrace if the Black Watch were allowed to perish, but a dishonour to the Queen Mother.

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