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Mr. Blunt: I understand that the Secretary of State has given a public undertaking about cap badges and regiments, but he should not be allowed to get away with what he did to my own regiment. He was supposed to retain four armoured reconnaissance regiments, but he achieved that by giving such

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regiments three squadrons rather than four. If he starts stripping companies out of infantry battalions there will, frankly, be no point in what he is proposing.

Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend raises an important point, and we look to the Secretary of State tonight to give us an assurance about his intentions, so that the forces can be clear about what will happen. These men are putting their lives on the line and it remains unclear whether their jobs will be on the line tomorrow. What effect will that have on the tour gap, on hard-pressed families and, indeed, on further recruitment and retention?

Sir John Stanley: As the House knows, I chair the all-party Nepal group. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that any threat of major cuts to the Gurkhas, who have made an enormous contribution to the British Army for more than a hundred years, would be most profoundly unwelcome, particularly in view of the current serious position in Nepal?

Mr. Soames: I wholly endorse the views of my right hon. Friend and I pay tribute to the Gurkhas for all that they have done in their military service of the Crown over the years. The Secretary of State will understand that cutting the Gurkhas below a certain level cuts into the critical mass of the entire Gurkha operation. That would be a catastrophe, and it would be wrong—for international relations and the interests of the British Army—to make cuts in such signal service that has been provided for generations.

Intervals between operational tours are well below the guideline figure of 24 months, with some people having as few as six months respite between operations. It is wholly unrealistic for the Secretary of State to go on expecting the armed forces to be able to continue at that rate. The impact of overstretch on individuals and their families, particularly in forces experiencing significant manning shortfalls, is an issue of major concern.

When the services are meeting an extraordinarily high level of operational commitment at the same time as training hard for other contingencies, my colleagues and I recognise the real pressures that can be brought to bear on the families of servicemen and women. I should like to take this opportunity to pay the warmest possible tribute to service wives, their children and their wider families. At a time of high levels of commitment, when their loved ones are away a great deal, I want to acknowledge each and every one of them for their patience and their forbearance. I am personally very conscious that theirs is sometimes not an easy life and I want them to know that their concerns and anxieties are very much at the forefront of our thoughts.

Soldiers today have less time for training and for personal development through career courses. Furthermore many planned exercises have been cancelled already this year, which is becoming a wholly unacceptable feature of the operational tempo, and will in time have profound implications in all three services for efficiency and effectiveness. Not only is the overstretch of regular forces disrupting the training

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cycle—this year, for example, with the fast track—but further problems have been caused by the lack of resources in the training system.

We believe that it is true, and not an idle boast, to say that the British armed forces are, man for man, the best in the world. In the Gulf, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, both enemies and allies have been truly amazed by their fitness, their determination, their courage and their professionalism. The question is, why are they so very good? The answer is that their training and discipline are extremely thorough and very robust. They deliver first-class young men and women with absolute confidence in themselves and their commanders. Any threat to training is therefore profoundly serious, and we would be grateful for an assurance from the Secretary of State tonight that there is no intention to degrade the rate of training or the ability to train the large numbers of manpower that are required for the very high tempo of operation, and for his absolute assurance that he is satisfied that service training is not being degraded across all three services.

The pressures on the armed forces mean that the reserve forces are being intensively used. I pay a warm tribute to all those involved for the tremendous skills and enthusiasm that they bring. The Territorial Army, in particular, has been heavily used. In operations in the Gulf, I understand that the reserves account for 25 per cent. of the total deployment. The question is: do we give them a fair deal?

On 1 October 2003, The Times reported that some of the 5,800 reservists mobilised compulsorily for war duty in Iraq were given such short notice that they had no time to prepare their families or their employers. Some employers did not even know that they had reservists on their payrolls and complained to the Ministry of Defence about a serious lack of information. This is not acceptable.

I understand that the problem is being addressed. Indeed, I chaired a session at the Royal United Services Institute conference on the use and call-up of the reserves. Of course, there are lessons to be learned and the Ministry of Defence will learn them, but I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could give us an update. How long does he believe that we can expect to maintain this level of commitment from the Territorials? Does he therefore believe that an increase in the strength of the Territorial Army is necessary given the extraordinarily increased demands on it and the great value that it provides?

Andrew Selous: I was a Territorial for 12 years. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to consider the peacetime employment protection of our reserve forces? Given that we give local councillors the right to attend council business for a limited time in their working hours, is it not outrageous that there is no right in peacetime for our reserve forces to undertake the training that they need to be competent at time of war? Does he not agree that we should consider this issue?

Mr. Soames: Yes, I do. When my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) returns from his service in the Gulf, we shall

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put him to work to see how we can better operate. Given the extraordinary demands that the Government make on the TA, it is inexcusable that the process for a call-out should not run as smooth as silk.

I hope that the House realises how extraordinarily lucky we are in Great Britain to have such armed forces. At every level of command in all three services, and indeed throughout all ranks, they are truly formidable in their standards both personally and professionally. In their teamwork and in their highly developed sense of cohesion, duty and obligation, they are an institution that forms a matchless asset for Great Britain in the pursuit of our aims and interests both at home and abroad. It is of enormous credit to the quality of the forces' leadership that, in a period of considerable upheaval, they have retained exceptional flexibility combined with great clarity of purpose and endeavour.

As I said, we welcome some of the items in the Queen's Speech. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes said, we particularly welcome the proposal for an armed forces pension and compensation Bill—an issue to which we will wish to give detailed scrutiny. However, my message to the Secretary of State is that we believe that, whatever the Government's intentions, it looks as though the armed forces of the Crown are being used as a political pawn in a high-stakes poker game over the future defence of Europe. It is not good enough.

5.34 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): May I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) on his well-deserved, although belated, return to the Front Bench? However, I must warn the House that that is likely to have extraordinarily serious consequences on the Ministry of Defence's budget. I have already authorised emergency action to reallocate extra funds to the catering corps. As I speak, our best logisticians are scouring our stores to find a suitably sized set of combat clothing.

Mr. Soames: I have already got one.

Mr. Hoon: But does it still fit?

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Brent, East (Sarah Teather) on her superb maiden speech. On behalf of Labour Members, I am especially grateful for her moving tribute to Paul Daisley, her predecessor. That was most appreciated and I thank her very much.

When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary opened the debate, he outlined the common series of security threats that we and our allies face. First, and most obviously, international terrorism presents a real and immediate danger, and we saw the devastating consequences of terrorism yet again in Istanbul. Secondly, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction technology and the delivery systems required to launch attacks pose a direct threat to our peace and security as access to technology and production becomes easier. Our obvious concern is that international terrorists will manage to acquire such weapons. The third key challenge concerns weak and failing states that are characterised by political

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mismanagement, ethnic and religious tensions or economic collapse, which in turn can lead to humanitarian crises and mass migration. Such circumstances may provide an environment in which terrorism and organised crime can flourish.

Therefore, to achieve our foreign policy and security goals, we will need to engage directly with our international partners. We will need a still more joined-up approach across Government to ensure that the diplomatic, economic and political instruments available to us are used to best effect. However, the ability of the UK to project and deliver armed force is, and will remain, a vital instrument of our foreign and security policy. Not every problem demands a military solution, but as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary pointed out, we must be prepared to act when and where necessary.

The challenge that I put to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex remains the same as that which I put to his predecessor. If he says that the armed forces are overstretched, which I do not accept, he must explain which of the challenges that the Government took up to act as a force for good in the world he would not have undertaken—that is the issue. Unless Opposition Members wish to remain permanently in opposition, it is no good for them to criticise without addressing that question. Unless and until they answer the question, they cannot pretend to form a fit and proper Opposition that could act as a Government.

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