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Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): I hope that the Government listen to the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith), who speaks with passion and
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has right on his side. It goes against the stream of Government decisions to bring work back from a specially designed, skilled organisation and allocate it to service personnel who are more expensive to maintain. I really think that the Government are going down the wrong route on this issue, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to campaign on it.

It is always a pleasure to listen to the Minister, but I regret the absence of the Secretary of State. One might say, "The House is rather thin, and why should the Secretary of State spend his time in a thin House?" But what about cause and effect? If Cabinet Ministers were shown to be taking account of debate in this House, where many of the speeches are made by people with very specialised skills and knowledge, the House might fill up and the Government might learn something.

At their best, the armed forces are absolutely outstanding. Right at the top, they are commanded by people who have usually been to the Royal College of Defence Studies to take a one-year course that gives them a rounding and a generalisation that armed forces chiefs in many other countries do not have. The RCDS is outstanding and contributes very much to the exceptional and rounded skills of our leading generals, admirals and air marshals. Likewise, Shrivenham staff college is exceptional in providing ranks at the level of major across the three services with broadening experience. I will never forget the last day of the Shrivenham experience—it was devoted to the realities of war, and people with experiences ranging from the D-day landings to being shot down over Iraq came to speak about the reality of being involved in war.

The Army, Navy and Air Force provide the largest single amount of training for 16 to 20-year-olds in this country. As a member of the Defence Committee, I visited several training establishments when we carried out our study on the duty of care to those who are undertaking training. We found that they, too, are responsible for producing very well-rounded people. It is a remarkable fact that these young men and women, some of whom have pretty rough edges, can be facing fire after as little as eight months. The armed forces have an exceptional ability to train people and to bring them forward. A corporal commanding a patrol will take decisions with very little time and very little experience other than the training that he has been given. The ability of those young people to accept responsibility is remarkable. It is amazing that they can be given responsibility for using sophisticated and expensive equipment, including weapons that can kill. The armed forces do an exceptional job from top to bottom.

There have been various discussions about overstretch—a word that tends to be used a great deal. The 1999 defence White Paper referred to the need to retain the edge of skills and

Even in 1999, the Government were looking forward to solving that problem. Overstretch means that more tasks are being given to armed forces personnel than they can do well and safely on a resilient, continuous basis. The Chief of the Defence Staff recently told the Defence Committee that the armed forces could not undertake another operation the size of Telic—the operation in Iraq—until the end of this decade. He said that we will not
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Overstretch means that there will be more deployments and that individuals will have less time between deployments, more time overseas, more time away from their families, less training and less preparation. That can cause problems.

I want to discuss three aspects of overstretch. First, the reserves are now more committed than ever before to being involved with the regular armed forces. Their role in providing infilling for the regular forces is very important, but there is one role that they do not currently have. They do not have the ability to reconstitute a much larger Army should there be a need to expand the Army rapidly. That has always been the role of the Territorial Army: to provide a framework around which it is possible to reconstitute a much larger armed force. During the last war, units with the framework of a Territorial Army unit were much more effective than units created from scratch. Asymmetrical warfare may lead to threats that we cannot currently anticipate. What might the unexpected be? I do not know, of course, because it is unexpected, but I think it is an unwise Government who fail to maintain the ability to reconstitute much larger armed forces.

The second aspect of overstretch that I want to discuss is the treatment of prisoners of war. I am extremely conscious of Mr. Speaker's ruling and nothing that I say should be interpreted as a comment on current events, but current events did cause me to look into the manner in which prisoners of war should be treated and the way in which the rules came about. It is quite a touching story.

In 1841, a Swiss who had been on a battle site went back to Geneva, and with four colleagues from Geneva created, in 1848, what became the International Committee of the Red Cross and the first four Geneva conventions. The first is the convention for the amelioration of the condition of the wounded and sick in armies in the field. The second is the convention for the amelioration of the condition of wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea. The third relates to the treatment of prisoners of war, and the fourth is relative to the protection of civilian persons in times of war. It is laid down clearly that people who comply with the conventions are

of the Geneva conventions

the conventions

My reading on this subject included a Ministry of Defence publication dated March 2001. I read about commanders' responsibilities. Commanders in military campaigns are instructed that prisoner-of-war issues should be taken fully into account. Paragraph 202 states:

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It is clear from my reading that there is a heavy obligation on all those planning any military operation to take advanced notice of the manner in which prisoners of war are to be handled. There are strict rules about the escorting of prisoners of war and the work that they are allowed to undertake. Paragraph 3G9 of the MOD publication states:

I was not aware, until I studied these regulations, of the extent to which it is an obligation on every power to plan for prisoners of war and to take all proper provision to ensure that they are looked after in a decent manner.

My third point on overstretch relates to Defence Medical Services. This is another area of undoubted weakness. The current military plan is that the Army should be capable of producing 14 field hospitals—three from the regulars and 11 from reserves. In fact, the regulars are capable of producing one and a half field hospitals, while the reserves could produce two and a half, making a total of four. That shortfall is extremely serious and it is merciful that we have been spared from having extensive casualties in recent military operations.

A recent press report, the accuracy of which I do not know, suggested that 790 casualties had come back from Iraq. They would have to be spread among the civilian hospitals around the country. The Government decided in December 1998 to close the remaining military hospital, the Royal military hospital Haslar, which is in my constituency. I am delighted to say that it is still in service and I hope that the Government will rethink their plans. The Government's strategy was to move to a new centre of defence medicine in Birmingham, based at Selly Oak hospital, at a cost of £200 million. However, they ran out of money and cancelled the £200 million that was intended to go to Selly Oak. As a result, the new centre of defence medicine is based loosely around Birmingham university hospital, but it does not have its own centre for the purposes of ethos and morale. It does not have its own mess arrangements or sporting facilities, for example.

While the Government take great pride in the fact that they are recruiting quite well into Defence Medical Services at the moment, the level of retention is extremely bad—there is very little to keep someone at consultant level in the armed forces. The result is that Defence Medical Services will recruit people from school and university but will find it very difficult to retain them at consultant level. That will lead to an even greater loss of defence medical personnel than we are experiencing at present.

The Under-Secretary knows, because he and I have debated this many times, that there is already a critical shortfall in the key faculties of anaesthetics, general surgery, orthopaedic surgery and general medicine. That will get worse unless the Government rethink their
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proposals. We in south Hampshire continue to believe that the right way ahead would be to realise that Selly Oak is not working and instead to work for increased facilities where the armed forces tend to be based, which is in the south Hampshire area. This work could certainly be done in hospitals around Southampton and Portsmouth.

My concern about the Government's personnel policy in the armed forces is that they are trying to deal with existing issues, but that there is very little in reserve to deal with the unexpected. We ask a great deal of our armed forces and we should treat them accordingly. Our treatment in terms of pay, pensions and conditions is not as good as that of many of our allies, including the Germans. We should take account of that and do rather better for our armed forces.

3.53 pm

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