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Annabelle Ewing: The hon. Gentleman says that restructuring is a minor matter compared with the bigger context that he describes, but perhaps he could explain that to the six Scottish regiments, which regard it as far from minor. Scrapping the entire Scottish regimental system surely cannot be described as a minor matter.
Mr. Henderson: I disagree with the hon. Lady. To my mind, restructuring is a relatively minor matter. It is important that we get the answer to it right, but compared with the question of whether a major threat to this nation or its allies exists in some other part of the world, it is not the main issue. Anyone who tries to tell the public otherwise is merely creating confusion. Such reorganisation is necessary.
There is also a clear need to re-orientate training programmes. The traditional requirements of war fighting will always be the central purpose of any army. If our Army is to be any kind of deterrent, people have to know that, if we go into battle, we are effective. That must be the central purpose of training, but there are other purposes that have to be met. Peacekeeping is a very important issue. There is no point in winning a battle, only to lose the peace three weeks later. We also have to be effective in dealing with humanitarian tasks. There is no point in winning a battle and keeping the peace, if poverty or natural disaster means that everything is then ruined and no humanitarian aid can be provided. Such an outcome renders those efforts purposeless, which is why our forces must be trained to deal with all those eventualities.
There is little disagreement over ending the arms plot. When I had to deal directly with such issues some years ago, I could not understand why everybody clung to it. I am glad that a different view is now taken and that a consensus has developed. My doubts about the arms plot arose from talking to soldiers' husbands and wives. They said, "It is unnecessary. We understand that our spouses have to be away and that there must be some disruption, but we don't understand why we must move camp to meet some general statistical plan." Ending the arms plot is a good move and it will win support among forces families. For working spouses, giving the family as much support as possible is important. Moreover, those with children do not want their education disrupted.
Many changes are ahead of us. Some are the consequence of changes in the European theatre, and others of technological advances. Some are the
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consequence of the increasingly significant role of the United Nations and the demands placed on it, and others of the ever increasing need for specialist staff. Other important issueswe have been shy of tackling them in the House todaywill also have major repercussions, such as how we replace our existing nuclear weapons and how we deploy such weapons. From the technical and operational point of view, that issue has to be faced. I have always believed that a nuclear deterrent is an important instrument in defending our country at home. It is perhaps not as important in dealing with overseas issuesI am glad that it is notbut it still has a role.
Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I welcome this timely debate, not because it comes in a week when some of our armed forces are unfortunately in the media spotlight, but because it gives us an opportunity to remember and to pay tribute to those personnel still serving in Iraq, and to recognise the magnificent support that our armed forces provided in response to the devastating tsunami on Boxing day. A tremendous amount of work has been done and it reflects the huge variety of tasks that we ask our armed forces to undertake at a moment's notice.
Mr. Caplin: The hon. Gentleman rightly mentions the tsunami, but we should also consider matters closer to home and reflect on the work undertaken by the armed forces in particular in Carlisle and in Boscastle, which is of course in his own county. That shows the considerable contribution that our armed forces can make in dealing with crises at home arising from natural disasters.
Mr. Breed: Quite so, and the Minister will know how important it was that the helicopters used in Boscastle were very close to hand. I hope that he will reflect on the suggestion that they might not be there in the immediate future and think carefully before taking a decision.
We have heard this afternoon about our armed forces' various commitments and we have also heard that, unfortunately, there will be redundancies. All three of our armed forces will be subject to cuts and it is necessary for us to question the balance that is being struck between manpower and technology. Achieving the right balance is a difficult thing, as I have always accepted. It is a perennial problem for any Government. However, we have to weigh the demands of operating at the high end of the war-fighting spectrum against the equally demanding humanitarian and stability-related tasks that we are asked to carry out around the world. We recognise that technology is expensive, but manpower is invaluable. It is widely known that our troops on the ground are greatly admired for their flexibility, training and professionalism, which they can display in a variety of circumstances. We never underestimate their value, but we should also never overstretch their capabilities.
It is tempting to believe that fewer fighting troops are needed when technological advances are made in weapons and communication equipment, but it is clear
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from the events of the past few months that technology alone does not win battles. It therefore seems astonishing, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, that even though our troops are still required in a variety of situationsbe it Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan or the Balkanswe are seriously contemplating reducing the Army's size. In particular, a reduction is being considered in the number of those infantrymen who are a crucial component for many such operations.
I was surprised to read that, at a time when we are cutting our manpower despite our considerable commitments, it appears that the United States army is likely to increase its forces by another 20,000 or 30,000, despite its already huge numbers. We have indicated that we support the ending of the arms plot, which has been welcomed across the House, but we do not see why that should necessarily lead to a reduction in numbers. Cutting personnel numbers is a dangerous game, especially in the current climate, as there seems little likelihood of any major reduction in our commitments throughout the world, at least in the immediate future.
Recruitment and retention of our armed forces personnel are therefore even more crucial, as the Minister said in his opening speech. We must ensure that we have a continual recruitment process and that the forces have a promotional structure to retain our best servicemen and women. I was particularly pleased to hear of the continuation of the upgrading of family housing, which is crucial to retention. I shall listen with interest, however, to hear why there has been some slippage in that programme, which was welcomed by everyone when it was announced. I hope that the slippage is not too great.
As for reserve forces, reservists called up to serve in Iraq are said to be a little more unwilling to go again. At the moment, only a small fraction of trained reservists are immediately available. Clearly, some are untrained, some are unfit, and others are already stationed out in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The considerable pressure on our reservists continues. Will the Minister comment on what progress has been made in recruiting and retaining reservists?
The ability to deploy and move around sufficient numbers of personnel who are suitably trained and appropriately equipped is vital, but the resources available and manpower levels in the Army are becoming dangerously low. The Minister will remember that the MOD's internal survey last year revealed that two thirds of those questioned were spending their money on extra equipment because they did not have enough confidence in that which was issued by the MOD, and nearly half our soldiers in Iraq had no confidence in their fighting kit. That same survey revealed that 39 per cent. of soldiers do not feel valued by the Army and that 35 per cent. felt that morale was very low. When asked whether the MOD looked after its personnel, only 3 per cent. of respondents agreed strongly, and 32 per cent. somewhat agreed, leaving a rather damning 62 per cent. who either did not know or did not believe that the MOD looked after its staff. Those figures are worrying. I hope that the Minister will provide some evidence of efforts made by the MOD to try to address some of the matters raised as a consequence of that. We need to address what our troops say in such surveys, as they are not just carried
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out for statistical reasons and I hope that there will be some evidence that the MOD has addressed some of the issues that underlie those views.
We must ensure that our forces have the best and most effective equipment. The alarming figures from the survey suggest that they do not. The amount spent on basic kit and equipment, as a proportion of total expenditure, cannot be large. The situation must be remedied so that no member of our armed forces feels compelled to purchase additional kit with their wages in order to feel more confident in any dangerous situation to which we send them. They are protecting us, so surely we must ensure that we protect them.
Training is causing some concern. We are witnessing signs of overstretch and it appears that some soldiers are being deployed who are less well trained than used to be, and perhaps should be, the case. I want to praise HMS Raleigh, which happens to be in my constituency and of which I and the community in South-East Cornwall are proud. It has undertaken some incredibly good training work, over many years, and it is an absolute joy to see many young men and women going into that training establishment and coming out as confident and effective young men and women going into the Navy. Training establishments such as HMS Raleigh are vital to our personnel and defence. Whatever budget calculations take place, our training establishments must be protected to ensure that they get exactly the right resources, so that training standards are not affected and we do not see any failures and incidents in training organisations such as those at Deepcut.
In our last debate on this subject, the Minister offered several Members the opportunity to visit a number of establishments. I took up that offer and was pleased to go. I do not know whether we were allocated a Chinook with a window missing, which allowed us to endure previously unknown temperatures, in order to demonstrate that the cuts were hitting. The visits to establishments were extremely worthwhile and we all came away much more impressed in the sense that there was a more proactive approach to recruits. The training officers, voluntary services and chaplaincies were all working effectively together to address some of our underlying concerns. I for one felt that that day was well spent and I want the Minister to recognise that those of us who made that visit felt that it was a worthwhile exercise.
It was interesting to read through the defence debate in the other place earlier this week, which was clearly attended by a considerable number of senior retired gentlemanfive former chiefs of staff, I think. Although we might feel that they do not say now, when they are retired, what they might have said previously, if we reflect on that debate, I hope that the Minister will accept that they have a great wealth of experience from which they were trying to make constructive points.
This week, figuresto which the Minister referred in his opening statementwere revealed on the high number of soldiers who have been wounded and are now hospitalised. I hope that the sort of detailed analysis that was offered earlier, and which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk called for, becomes available. Some categorisation is important and I recognise that the hundreds mentioned could cover a wide spectrum of
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injury. It would be helpful if the MOD could provide some analysis of the figures. I hope, and I am sure that the MOD and Ministers will recognise, that those troops who have been brought back because of casualties demand our attention. I am sure that they will get that and hope that they will receive regular visits.
Perhaps more worryingly, the same newspaper report, although I agree that we should not always accept what we read in the newspapers, seemed to suggest that those who had been wounded, and their relatives, should not talk to the media, and should be careful of what they were saying and to whom they said it. That sends a worrying sensation through us and our constituents. We owe a significant amount to these men and women, and we should not deny them the opportunity to speak to Ministers and to their constituency MPs, if they wish to visit.
Finally, I am sure that the issue of voting is uppermost in people's minds. It is ironic, when we send our troops to places such as Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq to help promote democracy, that they should effectively be disfranchised. The number of registered service personnel voters has dropped dramatically since 2000, when there was a change from a single lifetime registration to a requirement to register every year. I am not certain why the system changed, so perhaps the Minister can explain. In some areas, only 10 per cent. of servicemen and women have registered, which is worrying. We have heard that they should understand what Government policies are and so on, but being able to vote is more important. I hope that the Government will ensure that our armed forces personnel do not lose their right to vote and will provide every opportunity to promote registration.
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