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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1064continued
Ms Drown: The hon. Gentleman is right. I have raised the matter, and the Government have not moved to change their opinion. I believe that they should keep the matter under review. The current position is not right, and that is why I shall continue to challenge it.
The committee wants the Government to ratify the optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and to take all necessary measures to prevent the deployment of persons below the age of 18. It also wants us to strengthen and increase efforts to recruit people of 18 and older.
The Minister talked of the need to follow international obligations and one would have thought that the UN convention on the rights of the child would be central to that. In response to my intervention, the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said that recruiting under-18s was a successful way in which to staff the armed forces. How do other European countries manage to staff their armed forces without having to do that? Why cannot the Government introduce a separate training organisation
The hon. Gentleman twice said that 16 and 17-year-olds are not children, but to say that is to ignore UN rules, which, given the international situation, is a dangerous precedent to follow. When UNICEF sought to deal with the problem of the 11 to 13-year-olds who are recruited in some of the poorer countries, about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, those countries ask why it is raising that when the UK itself recruits children. There is an issue there about the Government having the moral authority to play their part in challenging the even more outrageous recruitment of very young children throughout the world.
I support greater financial investment in the staff of our armed forces, and we need to look further at intelligence, as the hon. Member for New Forest, East said, because that is crucial to protect the country. We can do that by diverting some of our funds and support for arms exports into personnel issues. I end where I began, supporting those personnel, those armed forces, who protect the country so well.
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): I was interested to hear what the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown) said. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I was a Territorial Army officer. I held the rank of major in the Northumberland Fusiliers, and I led many young people who were extremely good. They were dedicated, tough and knew what they were doing, and they were not children. They were people on whom I would rely and for whom I would lay my life on the line to lead them. They were very good. In the Gulf, where our 3rd Battalion took a friendly-fire incident, which the hon. Lady may remember, those young people did not stop. They carried on with their job and went through with it. I have great respect for the young people of Britain. They do a great job. They are not children but have minds of their own. If we treat them like children, we shall never get over the stigma. We have a young military force called the Combined Cadet Force or the Cadets.
Ms Drown: I in no way suggested that those young people are not as fantastic as the rest of our armed forces, but why does the hon. Gentleman object to those people, who have a separate training organisation, making the decision to join the armed forces when they reach 18?
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Why not before? I do not understand the hon. Lady's arguments. I strongly believe that young people must be given the right to make up their own mind. If one wants to start work at 14, one can do so. If one wants to train for a trade, one can do so.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: My hon. Friend makes a most eloquent point, with which I completely agree. There are strong safeguards to ensure that young people are trained to the standard at which they can do the job. My hon. Friend was commanding officer of a fine regiment that took young people to Bosnia and brought them all home. That shows the dedication and ability of the young people.
Ms Drown: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that discharge as of right applies for only six months, and it is iniquitous that when young people sign up they have to do so for six years, whereas 18 and 19-year-olds usually sign up for four years?
The TA has given great service in the defence of Britain ever since it was a militia. It has a unique ability to be a local defence force. It knows its area. There is no better organisation to defend a local area, because it already knows it. If one wants to deploy troops with the ability to defend strategic sites, such as the nuclear power station in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) and the ammunitions factory in my constituency, there is no one better than the TA because it knows precisely where such sites are. Following 11 September, many such places were protected. I am grateful to the Minister for allowing Skyguard radar to come down to the Minehead area where it did an invaluable job in checking the height of aircraft across strategic locations in Somerset.
I was interested to note that one of the problems of the CCRF, which will be made up of 14 battalions of 500 men, is recruitment. I do not know whether the level of recruitment in the TA has changed, but the turnover used to be near 30 per cent. I suspect that it has not greatly changed. If one tries to maintain training so that soldiers can be used effectively in the field, there must be a nucleus of people who will continue to be able to train others. It might be worth considering having a core of people, for not just training for external operations but internal operations. I thoroughly agree with the idea of having 280 command and control personnel, but it may be better to expand that to have a core of people who
Having undertaken a Government course at Easingwold on emergency planning as a councillor, I know how difficult it would be, should a petrol tanker explode in a town in the north-east where I was, to ensure that those 280 personnel were trained to a level at which they could cope with such disasters. At the moment, the police, fire and ambulance go to a command centre, and, if Army personnel are used, they must be trained to that level. When I was in the TA we used to try to do that for larger operations. We would have to go to north Yorkshire from Newcastle. That may not seem a long way to hon. Members but it is if one has only a weekend.
One has to put time and energy into achieving a level where such jobs can be carried out. In my experience of training at Longmoor for operations in this country, I never felt that I had got my men to a level at which I could guarantee that they could do the job in the field if they were pushed in straightaway. The problem with homeland defence is that one does not know what the threat is. It could be anything from white powder to something major in London or elsewhere. People may have to be deployed who, through no fault of their own, are not up to scratch. We must ask ourselves whether we as a Parliament are prepared to take action. We have one chance in such circumstances and no more. In Russia, people made the decisions that they felt to be right. I cannot fault that. Commanders on the ground will have seconds, minutes, half an hour or possibly an hour to make the decision to deploy troops and to ensure that they get it right.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Government have recognised that there was a co-ordination problem between the military and the civil authorities at a local level and have taken action to improve that co-ordination? I was a member of the Defence Committee when it dealt with the matter. Does he not agree that the Government have reacted and tried to solve a key problem in communication at a local level between the Army, the other forces and the civil authorities?