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Mr. Caplin: I might be able to assist the hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) secured a Westminster Hall debate on the matter and I explained in detail all the changes stemming from the Representation of the People Act 2000. Unless my recollection is incorrect, I am sure that I answered questions on this in Defence questions only 10 days ago, and that the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) became excited. There is a great deal on the record about the issue, but the simple fact is that it is not as bad as it seems.
Mr. Breed: I am delighted to hear that and hope that it is the case. It would be helpful if the Minister gave us an idea of the number of people who have registered, and whether it is 10, 20 or 50 per cent.
In summary, we are extremely fortunate in the quality of our armed forces, which is the product of many years' work. I hope that we can further improve the career prospects of people who join the armed forces and enhance the training available to them. I hope that we can supply them with the equipment that they need and look after their welfare needs, as well as those of their families, so that we can repay them in the very best possible way.
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab):
Bearing in mind the earlier ruling by Mr. Deputy Speaker on speeches and the number of people who wish to speak, I will confine myself to one or two personnel issues.
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I welcome our debate because it gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work that our servicemen and women do throughout the world. Hon. Members who have the privilege of serving on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly regularly see examples of such work. We see our servicemen and women doing a tremendous job, often in grave circumstances. Whatever is taking place elsewhere today, it should not cast a shadow on the record of our service personnel. As an ex-serviceman myself, I am concerned about the effects of being put under the microscope by the media and of the 24/7 coverage. There is a certain naivety and a lack of realism in attitudes towards military conflict. Warfare is a brutal, cruel and bloody business, and anyone who thinks otherwise makes a grave mistake. My view is that mistakes take place in those difficult environmentsthere but for the grace of God go I. It may not be popular to say sounfortunately, however, it is truebut in my limited military experience I saw some terrible things that make current activities pale almost into insignificance. We live in a democracy and members of our military forces who make mistakes will face justice and be made accountable if necessary.
The Government's record on personnel matters is particularly good, and the policies introduced since the strategic defence review are a credit to them. We have not implemented all those policies by any means and we will probably have to review a great many, but the Government's intentions are good as they are trying to change personnel policies in response to the dramatic change in the military's role since the end of the cold war. There has been an attempt to train, recruit and organise personnel to meet threats and challenges outside this country but there have also been dramatic internal changes. Earlier, we had an exchange about recruitment and retention in the armed forces. I remind Members that being able to recruit and retain servicemen and women when there is almost full employment is a hundred times more difficult than trying to do so when there are 3 million to 5 million unemployed, as was the case not very long ago. That is a major consideration. If we do not offer attractive terms and conditions, as well as support for service personnel and, in particular, their families, we will find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the best people to serve in our armed forces.
I therefore welcome the personnel policy that we have introduced and warmly welcome, as do most hon. Members, the abolition of the arms plot. In future, larger units will be located in an area for a much longer period, which will improve training, expertise and continuity. When I was in the forces a long time ago, my wife did not work. Now, however, practically every service wife, husband or partner wants to work, so we need an environment that allows them to pursue a career. Their children should all be able go to the same school. I have a large military base in my constituency, so I am aware of the problems, especially the educational problems, that affect families who move on every two yearsfor example, their children have to move to a different school. I am glad that those issues have been addressed.
I am also glad that we are rebalancing our forces and I welcome the restructuring that will allow us to meet the challenges that we face. I think that all in the House, if they are honest with themselves and assess what we need
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to do with the resources that we have, will recognise that restructuring the infantry regiments is inevitable. What is the point of having 40 infantry battalions if they cannot be deployed to carry out the tasks that we now face, rather than those that we faced 15 or 20 years ago during the cold war? It is much better to have 36 battalions that can be deployed at very short notice.
Annabelle Ewing: How do the hon. Gentleman's comments square with the fact thatto take one Scottish regimentthe Black Watch was recently deployed on its second tour of duty within a year in Iraq? The Royal Highland Fusiliers have just been sent out for their second tour of duty. I do not understand how that squares with what he is saying.
Mr. Smith: It does in fact square up because we want to share that burden of deployment so that more battalions can deploy in the front line and in difficult situations around the world. We have been unable to do that, partly because of the arms plot and partly because of the gaps that still exist in logistics and other areas, which do not allow us to mobilise those forces.
The way in which we conduct the process is very important. In Wales, we have seen the merger of our historic regiments. I support that move, although I know that it is not popular with everybody. We must do things the right way, however, and I believe that we have made a mistake in the names that we have chosen for those historic regiments, which have a 300-year history of excellence. The Royal Regiment of Wales has received battle honours such as the wreath of immortals, which was awarded to it after its heroic defence at Rorke's Drift. Playing about with its name after the Government have proposed restructuring is a mistake. The same policy should be adopted in Wales as has been adopted for the Scottish regiments in putting their historic titles first within their new names. That should be done in the new Welsh regiment, and failure to do it is a slight to the Welsh regiments.
Mr. Robathan: I think that I am right in saying that it was the South Wales Borderers who were at Rorke's Drift, after which they were incorporated in the Royal Regiment of Wales. Names are important, but I would like to get one thing absolutely straight: is the hon. Gentleman saying that he supports the reduction of the infantry by four battalions?
Mr. Smith: I certainly support the restructuring of our regiments to make them more usable and more deployable to face the challenges that are ahead of us. Anybody who denies the need for that restructuring has his head in the sand and is unaware of the problems that we face. There is still a debate to be had about the exact numbers of units and personnel, but there is no doubt about the need for restructuring.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): If we are going to quibble over titles, I point out that it was the 24th of Foot who were involved in Rorke's Drift. They were then entitled the Warwickshire Regiment, but they were recruiting in the south Wales area and went on to become the South Wales Borderers, who were in turn incorporated in the Royal Regiment of Wales.
Both those interventions are right, but we must be careful or we will lose the very argument that we
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are trying to put. The regiments that have been mentioned have been amalgamated in the past, which proves that tradition and loyalty can be maintained. Nevertheless, we must get the message across about the Welsh regiment. The Prime Minister referred to the matter yesterday in Prime Minister's questions, and I hope that the Ministry will have another look at it.
In the time that remains to me, I want to focus on one very important personnel issue that relates not to the Army, but to the Royal Air Force. It is crucial that we get our personnel policies right. We must not only enable our forces to do the job that they were recruited for, but give them appropriate resources. The changes that are now taking place present us with a big challenge, which is why it makes no sense whatever that we have decided to give the Royal Air Force a role that has no military relevance. Following an announcement on 16 September last year, which was confirmed on 16 December, Royal Air Force personnel will now be asked by the Ministry of Defence to undertake depth support of our front-line offensive fighter jets at RAF bases in central and eastern Englandsomething that they have not done for some years and that involves carrying out a function that they do not have the capability to carry out.
Depth support for Tornadoes and Harriers does not exist anywhere in Europe other than where such work has been done for the past 50 years, obviously with other front-line aircraft. It has been done by military personnelincluding RAF personnel in the pastas well as civilians at RAF St. Athan. The reason why the RAF has not done that work for some years is that there is no military requirement for it to do so. There used to be such a requirement, but the Government have reached a conclusion that is somewhat bizarre and runs counter to the whole argument about rebalancing forces and outsourcing as much support for our front-line forces as we can to allow our military to get on with the job that we pay them to do and that they do bestfighting wars and preparing to fight wars. We now have the absurd decision by the Government to ask service personnel to do factory maintenancedeep maintenanceon those jets.
We are reducing the number of our deployable offensive jets to 64 ready at any one time. The support facilities must be available to ensure that those aircraft are repaired, maintained and overhauled correctly, as they have been for many generations in south Wales, at St. Athan in my constituency. The Government have decided to renationalise that function within the Ministry of Defence and to ask RAF personnel to carry it out. That is a dangerous move, which threatens front-line capability and is demoralising for the RAF.
I have a letter from a senior NCO stating that that is an appalling decision and recommending that one of the Ministers go to RAF Cottesmore, where the Harrier has recently been moved to be repaired in that way, and speak to some of the NCOs in the crew roomoff the record, of course, and away from their commanding officersand ask them what they think about doing such irrelevant work in the 21st century. There was a case during the cold war for our military personnel to undertake such factory maintenance, but since "Options for Change", aspects of which we picked up as a
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Government under the strategic defence review, all non-essential military work has been taken away from service personnel and given to the private sector or, as in the case of the Defence Aviation Repair Agency, outsourced to a trading agency made up entirely of civilians who operate in an exclusively commercial environment and who have done a fantastic job for the past five years.
Having built an £80 million military hangar that will open in three weeksthe size of six football pitches, it is the largest and most advanced military hangar of its type in the worldinstead of repairing the prime of our front-line jets in that wonderful facility, the Government are to transfer the work to remote air bases in the east of England. When I say remote, I mean remote. I am old enough to have been stationed at one of them, RAF Marhama delightful posting, as I recall it, nicknamed when I was there "the el-Adem with grass". There are probably not many hon. Members who can remember the RAF base in el-Adem, which happened to be in the middle of the Libyan desert. We are seriously proposing that the entire front-line fleet of the Royal Air Force is repaired in the middle of nowhere, with all due respect and apologies to any hon. Member who represents that area. I had a lovely time at RAF Marham, and they were lovely people, but it is not the place to repair the RAF front-line fleet.
I can tell my dear friend the Minister that that demoralises military personnel. They know more than most that what they are being asked to do is nonsense. The work that is to be done at RAF Marham was done by RAF personnel at St. Athan five years ago4,500 military personnel were doing the work that 1,500 civilians do now. Anybody who has had service experience knows that there is no great mystery about that. Military personnel join the forces because they want to play a part in defending our country. They want to work together as a team, doing something relevant in that defence. They are the first to spot it when they are asked to do something that is not directly relevant to that role. They know damn well that what they are being asked to do in respect of maintaining the front-line fleet is wrong.
I make a prediction: the RAF will be unable to meet its in-service date for the Harrier after giving that work to the RAF. The front-line capability of our Royal Air Force is placed at risk by such work being given to the RAF. The RAF will do it, and do it to a very high standardthere is no such thing as not getting the job donebut it is not noted for doing it within fixed budgets and efficiently. If they had wanted to be aircraft engineers in big factories, they would not have joined the Royal Air Force.
It is no good my coming back in five years' time and saying, "I told you so." I plead with the Government to look at this issue again. I ask them to give this work to the people who can do iteither the civilians who currently do it or othersand for goodness' sake do not waste vital pounds of our defence budget on unnecessary work.
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