|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): The armed forces reflect the esteem of the people for their way of life and the commitment of a nation to the defence of its values and culture. Any Government who neglected the interests of the armed forces and those who serve in them would demonstrate a lack of care for the way of life that the people themselves hold dear.
The subject is important, and it is sad that the Secretary of State could not be present, particularly because our armed forces have served with exceptional distinction in Iraq, where they have taken so many casualties. Soldiers have been killed and, as we have learned, wounded in very large numbers. As was said, we should also remember the sterling help given by our armed forces to the victims of the tsunami tragedy in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.
I want to address two practical themes and a further, more strategic one. Apart from the exploits of the British Army in Iraq, there has also been some unfortunate publicity. In addition, particularly unfortunate publicity was given to the suicide last year of four recruits at the Royal Logistic Corps training centre at Deepcut barracks. One theme unites both these episodes: that the discipline of our armed forces must be absolutely fundamental. We do not emphasise sufficiently in our debates the need for our armed forces to retain the very highest standards of discipline. When things go wrong, it is not the soldiers, airmen or sailors who are so much to blame: it is the officers who should carry the can and demonstrate a sense of responsibility, care and concern for those in their command, and a sense of leadership.
Officers will have those attributes only if they are properly trained, and training is the second of my practical themes. For officers, the training process these days has become too much of a sausage machine. Let us consider other armed forces of great distinction, such as those of the United States. The West Point army academy, the Colorado Springs air force academy, and Annapolis naval academy have four-year courses. Other armed forces of leading nations are not taking our path,
20 Jan 2005 : Column 1020
which is to cut the length of training for officers in the early stages. That is a wrong-headed economy, which does not give the necessary basic training or the required sense of commitment, duty and above all discipline. Shortfalls in basic training and in the induction process have to be made up in the units themselves, which reduces their operational efficiency.
It has been complained that the Territorial Army, which constitutes some 20 per cent. of the British Army in Iraq, has gone into theatre with inadequate weapons training. That is absolutely inexcusable, and it re-emphasises the point that there can be no shortcuts in training. Of course, the TA's performance in theatre has been admirable and everyone has rightly praised it, just as they have praised the performance of the Royal Naval Reserve and in particular of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force's 600 City of London Squadron. The squadron, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary, is based at RAF Northolt in my constituency. The reserves have an enormous part to play in the future of our armed forces, but they need adequate training and the support of the regular element. Over time, we should pay more attention to the reserves, and the Conservatives will. Indeed, such a policy is at the heart of one of our main proposals for the future of our defence.
The strategic theme on which I want to touch is not the growing power of China. In that regard, I was interested to hear the observations of the former Minister, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), which exemplified one thingthat we live in a greatly changing worldbut the disposition of our forces does not reflect the fact. It is an anachronism that the largest single element of our Army should be deployed in Germany. Of course, we have forces elsewhere, too. We have more or less 1,000 troops in Kosovo, some 1,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, approximately 1,000 in the Falklands and a further 1,000 in Gibraltar. There are 3,500 troops in Cyprus, some 1,000 in Brunei and just under 1,000 in Afghanistan. But do we need 21,250 in Germany, at bases that are left over from the cold war?
The Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, of course, is dependent on the British, as we are the framework nation and provide 60 per cent. of the headquarters personnel. I wonder, however, about keeping an armoured division, with three armoured brigades based at cold war garrisons such as Hohne, Osnabrück, Münster, Paderborn, Gütersloh, Sennelager and Falingbostelnames that will be familiar to cold war warriors such as me. Does that reflect today's reality, now that the Warsaw pact is disbanded, and NATO has expanded to encompasses the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland? There is a buffer zone between western Europe and the east, and there is even a clear divergence of attitude between our German friends and usthe Germans sought to prevent Turkey from having Patriot missiles for its air defence before the Gulf war, and the Germans, French, Belgians and Luxembourgers had their own Defence Ministers meeting in the spring last year to try to pursue a slightly different strategy.
We ought to try to evolve a new strategy to pay much more attention than we do to expeditionary warfare. We are moving in the right direction, and the various reviews have embraced that idea. In practical terms,
20 Jan 2005 : Column 1021
however, a great deal more needs to be done. The Government have announced the provision of a new C-17 heavy air-lifter to take personnel to trouble spots overseas, but we have only four others, although the amphibious forces and the Royal Marines are the best of their kind in the world today, and I wholeheartedly applaud Her Majesty's Government's attention to amphibious capability. Nevertheless, the British presence in Germany, which, I think, costs about £1.2 billion per yearperhaps the Minister will correct me on thatis an anachronism, and should be reviewed. There is no need to keep our forces stationed in Germany for them to participate in the ARRC.
I was interested to note, too, that Her Majesty's Government, and certainly the Minister of State in his speech, made no mention of the European security and defence policy, and the commitment, to which we are signing up under the European constitution that the Government embrace, to be ready to participate in the deployment of an army corps up to 4,000 km from Brussels, and to keep it in theatre for up to a year. Those are big commitments of an expeditionary kind, and I do not yet see that our armed forces have been modified sufficiently in that direction. I find it perverse that the main instrument for projective power, the Royal Air Force, should be the one sustaining the biggest cuts in the review being imposed by Her Majesty's Government.
We should spend our money more at home, deploying our forces from home bases, using instruments of power projection such as amphibious vessels and an enhanced air transport fleet. In that way, our armed forces would be better configured, particularly if they had larger reserves. I know that my party is working on many of those ideas, particularly in the field of deployment and reserves, but the stationing of such a large proportion of our Army in Germany, particularly western Germany, is questionable at the present time.
Annabelle Ewing (Perth) (SNP): As the MP for Perth, where the Black Watch has its regimental headquarters, I know that my constituents would wish me to make several points on their behalf today. I am therefore very pleased to have been given the opportunity to do so.This is the first time since the Defence Secretary wielded his axe to scrap the entire Scottish regimental system, further to his announcement on 16 December last year, that the House has had the opportunity to debate the matter more fully. It is just a pity that the Government have not had the courage of their convictions and allowed a vote, because if we were allowed a vote on this shameful decision, it would be interesting to see which Labour Members would be prepared to stand up and be counted to save the Scottish regiments. I fear very few indeed, if any.
That contrasts with the position of the Scottish Parliament, which had a vote on the same day as the Defence Secretary made his announcement. At present, the Scottish Parliament does not enjoy power and jurisdiction in this matter, but the House may be interested to learn that, none the less, it voted against the decision by the UK Government to scrap Scotland's regimental system, which was a rare defeat for the
20 Jan 2005 : Column 1022
Labour-Liberal Scottish Executive. Since the Defence Secretary made his announcement in December, I have been inundated with messages of support for my stance on the Black Watch, the Argylls and the other Scottish regiments from my constituents, people the length and breadth of Scotland and, indeed, people throughout the United Kingdom and further afield.
That support was clearly in evidence at the "Save the Scottish Regiments" rally in Edinburgh on 18 December, when veterans, retired officers, the families of serving soldiersthe Minister of State rightly recognised that their interests are importantand members of affected communities marched proudly down Princes street. Serving soldiers even came along, but they could not wear their uniforms because they were expressly ordered not to do so. The people of Edinburgh lined the streets to support the campaign and applaud the Scottish soldiers. I was proud to march alongside them and to speak at the rally, along with my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart). While speakers from all parties came to the rally, not one Scottish Labour MP bothered to turn up or to stand up and be counted. I suspect that that will not go unnoticed and will not be forgotten or forgiven as we approach the UK general election, which is widely predicted to be held in May.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|