Mike Gapes: In view of the hon. Gentleman's remarks about possible withdrawal from Iraq, can he clarify the position of the Conservative party? Does he believe that we should stay in there and finish the job or that we should cut and run?
Mr. Simpson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that highly partisan point. He knows that we have supported the Government in their attempt to bring law and order to southern Iraq. We support the election. I have been asking the Government specific questions about the situation beyond the election. The Select Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, has also asked such questionsbut answers have we none.
I now turn to MOD support for civilian contingencies, which the Minister touched on. We very much welcome the efforts made by the MOD and by military and civilian personnel who continue to offer support to those people affected by the tsunami in the far east. Can the Minister cast any light on the reasons behind the offer of 500 Gurkhas to Indonesia, and why the Indonesian Government rejected it? Did the advice to offer the Gurkhas come from the Foreign Office or the MOD? Why was the civil affairs group not mobilised and deployed, given the amount of study and work that it has done in the past?
On civil contingencies, may I also press the Minister on homeland security? What plans exist for the use of regular forces stationed in the United Kingdom to react to terrorist incidents in this country, or will that be left entirely to those units of the reserve forces that have been specifically set up to deal with it? Clearly, even if plans exist for regional brigadiers to call for regulars in their commands to assist local authorities, it is difficult
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to predict whether units will be available while the current overstretch in operational deployments continues. Has the problem with the number of reservists who are double-hattedthose who have a commitment to serve overseas but have also been allocated to Territorial Army units for home defencebeen sorted out?
Deployments over the past seven years have included continuous operations in the Balkans and additional operations in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Commitments have fluctuated from a peak of 44 per cent. of the Army on operations in 1999, falling to 22 per cent. in April 2001, with 31 per cent. committed to operations in November 2001, falling back to 23 per cent. by December 2002, but rising again to about 40 per cent. during the height of the Iraq conflict.
"It seems extraordinary to many of usat a time when there is so much uncertainty in Northern Ireland, where it sadly appears that the situation could again deteriorate; when Iraq needs reinforcing; when Afghanistan needs additional troops; when the Balkans, in particular Kosovo, could erupt; and when the tragedies of Darfur and elsewhere are clear for all to seethat we are actually reducing the size of the Army and in particular the number of infantrymen, who are the very people we need on current and future operations. Cessation of arms plotting certainly will help, but the Army will still be too small for what the Government expect it to do. They expect the Army always to succeed on operations, but they also expect it to sort out the foot and mouth crisis, to fire-fight and to undertake disaster relief."
Mr. Ingram: Just for the record, although this has been said from the Dispatch Box beforeI have the utmost regard and highest respect for Lord Guthrieit is worth the hon. Gentleman reflecting on the fact that the Regular Army is about 2,500 bigger today than when Lord Guthrie was Chief of the Defence Staff.
Mr. Simpson: The Minister's problem is that the Army is deployed more frequently and more of its personnel are now on operations. Unfortunately, as he said, size is not everything, and Lord Guthrie, who has considerable experience, makes the point that, at the end of the day, the Army's critical mass is too small. In particular, the fact that the Government intend to cut four infantry battalions will damage the Army's operational effectiveness.
"Ministers sometimes infer that the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Mike Jackson, and the Army Board approve the measures that are planned. We should be very clear that if adequate resources were available, they believe, as many of us do, that the Army should be increased in size. The Army Board is loyal to Ministers, as it should bethey make the best of itbut that does not mean that they are happy with a smaller Army. I hope Ministers recognise that. It is wrong for them to hide behind the Chiefs of Staff."[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 564.]
"I would much prefer increasing the size of the Army but that's simply not on offer. I can either accept what's on offera reduced size of the Armyor go . . . The debate about the Army's future is not simple. It is time to make some hard decisions."
Mr. Simpson: The hon. Gentleman should know that any professional organisation always requires more, but to my mind and to those who have nothing to do with politics, to have provoked General Lord Guthrie of all peoplehe is very considered and has worked very closely with the Prime Minister and has been careful not to appear parti prisinto saying such things shows that the matter is one of considerable concern and worry.
Let me turn briefly to Army restructuring, regimental cuts and the reorganisation of the infantry, about which we have had many debates and many statements, and hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed their concerns, as has the Defence Committee. It is extraordinary that, when we sadly have a stalemate in Northern Ireland, when Iraq may need reinforcing, when there could be other problems in Afghanistan and elsewhere, we are actually reducing the number of infantry battalionsthe very people whom the Army and the other services recognise that we need on current and future operations.
The ending of the arms plot has been broadly welcomedfew people in the armed forces or outside would say that its continuation is necessarybut the kind of regimental cuts that Ministers came up with was not such a purist package as they made out. A number of options of one kind or another were on offer. The Minister rightly said that, from a purist, academic, or indeed a civil service point of view, there could be a good argument for reducing further the number of Scottish infantry battalions. Quite rightly, he said that a footprint of one kind or another must be borne in mind.
To any outsider and certainly to those in the Army, the absurdities of the infantry reorganisation, in which the Scottish regiments managed to get their names up front and the English regiments behind, appears to be the most amazing piece of military theology and tautology. I see the Minister smiling. The only point that I would make is that there was a template that the MOD could have used. One part of the infantry that it was decided not to touch were the Guards infantry regiments. The MOD director of infantry's briefing paper said that they were not touched because they have a ceremonial and national profile.
I would not disagree with that view, but the Guards infantry regiments represent the model that could have been used. They are effectively a larger regimenta Guards regimentand they retain in that regiment individual infantry regiments, with their history, battle honours, badges, recruitment and so on. They operate effectively, and in respect of arms plotting, they are able to post and cross-post between them. They are a national institution: the Grenadiers, the Coldstream, the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh. I should be fascinated to know why that model was not usedit seems a blinding glimpse of the obvious. That question will not go away, and I tell all hon. Members that I suspect that
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the reduction in infantry battalions may have to continue, as much as anything else, not just because of financial pressure but because of the pressure of reconfiguring the Army at large.
Not only has the Army been affected. The other two services at times rightly resent the fact that so much emphasis is placed on the Army. RAF trained strength will be reduced from the current figure of 48,500 to approximately 41,000 by April 2008. There may be a major reduction of RAF air bases and facilities throughout the country as part of that configuration. The process will be painful and will raise legitimate questions about the levels sufficient for the RAF to carry out its functions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) will touch on the Royal Navy. There will be a reduction in the strength of not only its manpower but its platforms. As Admiral Lord Boyce has pointed out on numerous occasions, today we can have only one naval platform in one part of the world at any one time. There is incredibly limited flexibility, and if some of the cuts go ahead, operational limitations will be imposed on the Royal Navy, and its ability to assist in disaster relief will also be affected.
Has the average interval of 24 months between tours for the Army been achieved? The Minister rightly highlighted people policies and welfare, and I know that he and his predecessors have put a lot of time and effort into that. I am grateful for his comments about the treatment of our wounded and injured military personnel on operations, because rather lurid comments have been made in the press. I would not infer in any way that either he or his colleagues are insensitive to the situation.
I have some specific factual questions. How many personnel are currently receiving medical attention in the UK? Is there a breakdown between those suffering from physical injuries and stress-related injuries? I welcomed the Minister's comments about the work being done at King's college, London. How many of the servicemen who have been physically or mentally wounded in the past few years have been able to take up their former military careers? How many have been discharged, and what measures have been taken to compensate them financially and enable them to seek civilian employment? The Minister rightly touched on the problems that the Government, and indeed previous Governments, have faced regarding homeless ex-servicemen, which is often highlighted before the holiday season. Does he have any statistics showing many ex-servicemen are homeless today compared with a year ago, and is there a trend?
During our consideration of the Bill that became the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) ably led for the official Opposition, the Ministry of Defence refused to address the inability of most members of the armed forces to earn a full career pension. Although we welcome benefits of the new scheme, such as the increase to the death-in-service benefit, it should be noted that the early departure scheme means that those who leave mid-career will be materially worse off than they would have been under
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the existing scheme. Such important manning and retention tools act as a pull through for members of our armed forces who would ordinarily have left earlier.
Owing to the heightened risks of military service and the requirement for those serving to have high levels of physical fitness, the compensation arrangements under the war pensions scheme have always been generous. The standard of reasonable doubt, which has traditionally been applied in the absence of a time limit on claiming, reflected the exceptional nature of military service and led to the awarding of many claims that would have been unlikely under comparable public service schemes.
Figures provided by the British Legion on claims made in 200203 suggest, however, that 60 per cent. of claims would fail under the new criteria following the introduction of the balance of probabilities and the five-year time limit. On Third Reading, the Under-Secretary confirmed that the change to the new scheme would result in a saving of £300 million over 10 years. What else can that money be except that which would otherwise have gone to those injured in the line of duty? Does that affect the Government's concept of a duty of care?