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5.16 pm

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): May I tell the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) that, as the Black Watch is my local regiment, I will certainly pledge myself to supporting the continuation of its tremendous role and history in the defence of this country?

May I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to our armed forces? They are simply the best, whether acting as a superb funeral cortege for the Queen Mother; acting in a war fighting capacity, as they are currently doing in Operation Jacana in Afghanistan; or operating in a peacekeeping role in what are often tense, complex and unstable environments.

May I also join the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) in expressing my deep sympathy to the family of the young soldier from the Royal Anglian Regiment who tragically died this week? It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the other armed services personnel who have died or suffered severe injury in the service of their country, especially as we remember this year the 20th anniversary of the Falklands war.

The House's responsibility to our armed forces personnel and their families has to be deep and far reaching. We must seek to provide them with the training,

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equipment and support that they need. The MOD's overarching personnel strategy states that the ultimate aim of the policy regarding service personnel is

I welcome the fact that, under this Government, defence has received the first real-terms, year-on-year increase in investment since the end of the cold war, but I will be blunt and join others in saying that I do not think that the increase is enough and I hope to see more. Although real progress has been made in purchasing new and better equipment and in improving conditions, more needs to be done. One of the benefits of being a member of the Select Committee on Defence, and having been through the armed forces parliamentary scheme, is that it has given me and others the opportunity to listen to what all ranks of our armed forces are saying, and to come back and convey that to Ministers.

I want to raise a few concerns, especially in connection with equipment and support. First I shall pick up the points made by the Secretary of State, by my hon. Friends and by other hon. Members about the importance of decent sanitation and washing facilities, including showers and hot water, and sleeping accommodation, especially for our peacekeeping forces.

I recognise the fact that, in Pristina for instance, there was uncertainty about how long our forces would be present, and hence about whether it was justifiable to invest in more permanent facilities for them. I hope that the lessons from those operations have been learned and that our forces serving in Operation Fingal in Kabul will quickly be given mobile facilities—decent washing, sanitation and other facilities—although we hope that they will be there for only a short time.

The second issue that I want to mention is the importance of giving all ranks the opportunity to tell us what they think they need, and to comment on their current equipment and its future design. Like other members of the Defence Committee, I was somewhat taken aback when we visited the US Marines base in Quantico and found that the Marines designed their own rifles. I am not saying that we should encourage our own Marines to do that, but it was clear that the comments of Marines using the equipment on the battlefield were fed directly back to those who were manufacturing the weapons, and the weapons were adapted to suit the Marines' requirements and needs.

We have all heard time and time again about the frustration of people who say, "We've been saying this for years. When will things be improved?", and about other problems, especially the delay in obtaining spare parts and other essential equipment. When the Defence Committee recently visited the Defence Procurement Agency, I was pleased to be assured that all ranks do get the chance to have their say, but I hope that that will be built upon further and extended.

We all recognise the impact on morale of poor and inadequate equipment. One of the main lessons of Operation Saif Sareea 2 was that some equipment was still failing in spite of the fact that problems with it had been identified some years earlier in the Gulf conflict—problems with the SA80 rifle and with the Challenger tank, to mention just two.

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It is right and proper to pay tribute in the debate to the support staff and civilian personnel who manufacture and provide equipment, and act as support staff in our bases and dockyards. I think that my hon. Friends and other hon. Members would be surprised if I did not use this opportunity to praise the skills and professionalism of the Rosyth dockyard work force, who have taken on major changes and challenges over the past few years, but still deliver on cost and on time. They have recently been highly praised for the work that they have carried out for the Royal Navy—on the refit of HMS Ark Royal, for instance.

I am aware that other hon. Members want to speak, so I shall just make one or two further points about families. What the hon. Member for Rayleigh said about the reality of life for Army families was valuable.

As we all know, it is very important for all of us to ensure that we go out there to hear what the public are saying. I decided to begin this week in a healthy way by going to a local swimming baths, where I found myself eavesdropping on a conversation between two Army wives. One was telling the other of how she had had no heating or hot water over the weekend, had rung the emergency number and not got an answer, and had rung the main line and was told to ring the emergency number. When she said that she had already done so, she was given another number, which she discovered was a private residential number. It was clear that that was not her first experience of being passed from pillar to post. As she said to her friend before—unfortunately—I had to wander off elsewhere, "They need a site meeting to change four light bulbs." I thought that that was a rather good comment.

The benefits of good family support are so important, particularly to retention and maintaining morale. What will that woman's husband think if he rings from Afghanistan to find that his wife and family have not had hot water and heating over the weekend? Although I certainly welcome the achievements so far of the service families taskforce, I hope that it will be allowed to continue and that all families will be aware of its presence and work.

Obviously, many other issues have been raised, but many of them have already been eloquently spoken about, so it would not be right for me to take up the time of other hon. Members who still want to speak. Clearly, we shall all keep a close watch on the defence medical services. I join the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) in praising the defence medical staff at Selly Oak, who cared so deeply in recent months for the son of one of my constituents.

We need to consider further what security we provide for our forces and their families, particularly post-11 September. We could do with a debate just on veterans issues, especially addressing further subjects such as pensions and compensation. We could certainly continue our debate on recruitment and retention, and related problems and issues that have been highlighted.

We need to do more to promote the role of cadet forces, which I particularly praise, in recruiting young people. We should encourage their presence in schools far more. At presentations by the Army cadet force that I have attended, I have met young people who reckon that the cadet forces took them away from a life of petty crime towards which they were heading, which would have led

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to more serious offences. I particularly want to mention my local sea cadet air training corps and of course the Dunfermline Territorial Army base.

I end as I began by saying that our forces are simply the best and that our job in this House is to ensure that they have what they need to stay the best and to continue to be held in very high regard in all parts of the world.

5.29 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester): I should like to concentrate my remarks on the retention and recruitment of armed forces personnel. The Minister will know that, according to a written answer on 1 February, the shortfall in personnel was 7,477—a 6 per cent. shortfall. If 25,000 people are joining the Army every year, a similar number must be leaving it each year. That means that over the Government's lifetime the number of people who have left the Army is roughly the same as those who are in it, so there is a massive turnover. Recruitment appears to be working, but we need to concentrate on the retention of personnel. I concur with the comments that have just been made about the Army cadets, and I would include the territorial and reserve forces: they are a potential source of recruitment.

Tours of duty and overstretch are critical factors in retention. Interestingly, as we have heard, the prospect of real action in Afghanistan made people enthusiastic about overseas tours, so it is largely a question of the duties that the soldiers are being called upon to perform.

Can the Minister confirm that while some support is given to employers who allow members of their work force to join the territorial and reserve forces, more needs to be done to encourage that?

As a graduate of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I was advised that many would-be recruits had to be sent away to acquire sufficient fitness to train to be soldiers. Would the Minister care to discuss that with the Secretary of State for Education and Skills? Clearly, school sports and physical education programmes are producing young people who are less fit than their parents and grandparents were. That needs to be considered.

Will the Minister and his advisers consider my Adjournment debate of 25 October 1999 relating to education for military personnel? An organisation known as the National Association of State Schools for Service Children has produced evidence showing that more needs to be done to support the education of children of service personnel. The phrase used to describe the problem is "the turbulence factor." The number of schools that such children go to affects their education. That is all part and parcel of the need to improve retention.

The hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) gave us a graphic example of how the domestic scene affects family life in the Army. Representing a garrison town, I receive many letters, phone calls and visits to my advice bureau from Army families, but I only see the tip of the iceberg. I pay tribute to the welfare services provided by the Army. They have never been better. In particular, I praise the garrison commander in Colchester, Colonel Julian Lacey, and others engaged in welfare work. The importance of their work was particularly brought home to me when the troops went to Kosovo, Bosnia and, more recently, Afghanistan. The Army provides a marvellous welfare net but that on its own is not sufficient given the current tours of duty and the overstretch that results.

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The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) referred to the housing problems experienced by two Army wives in another part of the country. We need to consider recommendation 48 of the fourth special report of the Select Committee on Defence published on 2 May 2001, almost 12 months ago. It states:

I invite the Minister to tell us what has been done in the past year and what further action will be taken.

As part of the feel-good factor, we need to concentrate on better welfare, housing and education for the Army family; other hon. Members have spoken eloquently about other issues, but I am concentrating purely on retention. Some good will could be shown at minimal cost, not least in relation to some of the old soldiers. In my capacity as parliamentary adviser to the Royal British Legion, I should like to make a suggestion to the Minister about the 2,200 members of the retired officer corps, who, although they are not official members of Her Majesty's armed forces, are still in service—indeed, many of them are required to wear uniform at work. Without exception, they do jobs that would otherwise be occupied by serving personnel, but they are being told that they cannot have the Queen's jubilee medal. The request for the medal is a small one and could be granted. I invite the Minister to use his connections with those who make decisions on such matters to ensure that those 2,200 members of the retired officer corps will have the medal. It would cost nothing, but the good will that would be generated would be worth having. My second such suggestion concerns the old soldiers who were in the Suez canal zone in 1951–54. Why on earth cannot those national service men from all those years ago have a medal to commemorate their service for King and then Queen and country?

Finally, I should like to mention the new garrison at Colchester for 16 Air Assault Brigade. In raising the issue, I want to associate myself with the remarks made earlier about the home regiment for Essex, the Royal Anglians. Can the Minister inform me, the House and my constituents exactly where we are with the new proposals for the Colchester garrison? I feel that firm decisions should have been made by now, but for some reason, there appears to be a logjam. Clearly, it is in the interests of the wider military family in Colchester that that new garrison be built. In terms of retention, the accommodation has to be the best that can be provided. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to say exactly where we are—if he cannot do so, perhaps he can write—and when we can look for progress on the Colchester garrison.

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