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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I welcome this opportunity to speak on behalf of my party in this debate on armed forces personnel. The Government, the Opposition, members of the Select Committee and Back Benchers have all rightly emphasised the importance of our armed forces. Their quality and professionalism are central to our defence and security. In all the debates we have, all hon. Members rightly praise our armed forces, who frequently respond rapidly and decisively to the orders of the day, despite those orders increasingly coming at short notice, sometimes with less than adequate equipment, and involving deployment worldwide.
We take it as a matter of course that our armed forces have the ability to move seamlessly from war fighting to peacekeeping. Relatively few armed forces have the ability to do that. Some can just do war fighting and some can just do peacekeeping. We should be grateful for the professionalism of our armed forces over many years and their leadership, which have meant that they are able to do both.
What our armed forces do and say is now examined in minute detail by 247 media, by Parliament and by the public. Their families, as much as they themselves, are now in the firing line. The task we politicians face is to provide the legal basis on which they operate, to provide them with the necessary resources, to give them our support and, at the same time, to hold them to account. It is against that background that we must consider in the course of this debate some of the problems relating to our armed forces in operations overseas.
Earlier, Mr. Speaker rightly said that he would not consider any comments or discussion of the case involving the recent allegations about members of the armed forces. My party actively and absolutely supports that ruling. However, I have some general questions to put to Ministers, which the Under-Secretary may be able to cover at the end of the debate. I put the questions on the grounds that many misleading comments have been made in the press and it is possible that if some factual information is put into the public arena, it will benefit the debate and provide reassurance and confidence to the members of our armed forces, their families and the public.
First, does the Under-Secretary agree that the military do not see themselves as above the law, but that hard lessons have to be learned about how they operate
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within the law, given military constraints? Is he able to tell the House how many other cases of alleged abuse are being investigated and/or are coming to trial? Some figures have been put by the press into the public domain. Will he clarify, if possible, whether there may be any further repercussions, such as civilian convictions, for any soldier put on trial by court martial who is not found guilty. In other words, is it possible that the case could then come before a civil court? Can he confirm that the Army reviewing authority has the right to overturn a finding of guilt, and amend it and/or the sentence that has been imposed? Is he fully satisfied that proper, timely and full briefing, including the individual training directive briefing, was offered to all our soldiers deployed to Iraq? I hope that we can have some factual information about those problems.
Mr. Bellingham: Many of our constituents have expressed much disquiet about how some cases have been looked at by the Attorney-General before the Army legal people examined them in great detail. Does my hon. Friend agree that those cases should be left to the Army legal services, not to the Attorney-General?
Mr. Simpson: My hon. Friend reflects the concern not only of our constituents but of a number of Members on both sides of the House. To many of us, including those of us on the Front Bench and possibly even Ministers, at times, there appears to be a lack of real clarity about some of the legal aspects, and indeed about the type of legal opinion that not only Ministers but senior officers have to take. I look forward to the Secretary of State coming to the House at some stage and making a full statement about the legal aspects of that problem and of the problems experienced by service personnel as to when they have to, or do not have to, use force on operations, and the consequences if, on the spur of the moment, they make a mistake.
Reductions in training have a progressively damaging effect on the fighting power and ethos of the armed forces. At the highest level, combined arms collective training at formation level and above may look like a quick fix for making savings, but it may take years fully to recover the standards and combined training that have been lost. Being heavily committed to operations can offset some of the disadvantages. At the end of the day, our armed forces are not just on operation as bandbox armed forces. They are there to be used and they have a considerable amount of experience, and I concur entirely with the Minister of State in his criticism of SNP defence policy. I always hate to get in the middle of what is obviously an old family feud that only those with Scottish bloodalthough with a name like Keith Robert Simpson I have a little Scottish blood
Have the Scottish Conservatives given up the fight to save the Scottish regiments? This is the third time that the one and only Conservative Member
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with a Scottish constituency has missed an important and crucial debate about the Scottish regiments. Where on earth is he?
Pete Wishart: There we have it. The one and only Scottish Conservative is traipsing around somebody else's constituency instead of being in the Chamber putting the case for the Scottish regiments. The Scottish Conservatives may have forgotten about our regiments but the Scottish National party certainly has not.
Mr. Simpson: Unlike the Minister of State, I welcome the SNP intervention because of the sheer cheek of people who are the greatest political ambulance chasers in the United Kingdom. That statement should be examined and taken at face value.
"It is important that our service men and women are properly trained. It should be of great concern that soldiers are now being deployed less well trained than they should be and less well trained than they have been in the past. The defence budget is so tight that training suffers. That affects all parts of the Army. Individual soldiers are less skilled than they were; training standards are too low; gunnery and field firing camps are cancelled; training between infantry, tanks, engineers and those parts of the Army that may have to co-operate and fight together rarely take place."[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 2005; Vol.668, c. 564.]
In the past when such quotations were used by Conservative Members or even, to be fair, by Labour Back Benchers, they were usually dismissed by Ministers on the grounds that they came from retired military dinosaurs in the other place. No one could refer to General Lord Guthrie as that. He is a man who served all Governments with great loyalty and professionalism and has always been constrained about what he says in public. He reflects publicly the deep concerns about training felt in many parts of the serving armed forces, who rightly do not put their reservations into the public domain.
I have a question for the Under-Secretary about language training. As we prepare our armed forces to fight constantly overseas, developing capability in language training for our military personnel should have considerable priority. Currently, relatively small numbers of our armed forces attend courses at the Defence School of Languages: 363 in 200102; 271 in 200203; and 380 in 200304. Will the MOD consider putting greater emphasis on language training, and is it considering ways of encouraging personnel to undertake further such training, possibly through financial inducements or educational qualifications? Language skills should be given great priority.
I want to turn to the overall situation in Iraq. Our armed forces personnel, as citizens as much as members of the armed forces, have a right to know in detail what Government policy will be over the next few months. With the Iraq elections two weeks away and no signs that the deadly insurgency is abating, the Government should be thinking of and beyond the election date. The imminent Iraqi elections have brought to the foreground calls for an early US withdrawal. Brent
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Scowcroft, national security adviser to George Bush Senior, predicted "an incipient civil war" and suggested that
Does the Minister agree with the US Secretary of State designate, Condoleezza Rice, who acknowledged that problems of absenteeism and desertion among Iraqi forces are endemic? Is her assessment that there are 120,000 trained Iraqi troops more realistic than the suggestion of Senator Biden, who claimed after his recent visit to Iraq that the number was closer to 4,000? What is the British Army's assessment, in its area of southern Iraq, of the number of insurgents and the number of trained Iraqi security forces who are available and effective?
We know that the Netherlands will pull out its troops on 15 March, along with the Portuguese contingent, sticking to a decision made in June. What plans are there for increasing the number of other coalition troops in Iraq? Perhaps the Minister will be able to enlighten the House as to whether other countries have been approached and whether there are any positive signs. What are the MOD's plans for additional deployment of British troops to and beyond Multi-National Division (South-East)? Can the Minister shed any light on the report in The Daily Telegraph today that Britain is urging America to announce a timetable for withdrawing coalition troops from Iraq over the next 18 months?
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