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Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): It is a great pleasure to contribute to a defence debate—the first since I joined the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I should like to put on record my gratitude and, I am sure, that of everyone who participated in it, to those who set up such an informative, varied and educational programme, which was also enjoyable.

We went to various Army establishments throughout the UK, from basic training in Bassingbourn to visiting the most senior officers in the British Army. We were all impressed with the enthusiasm, skill and quality of the
 
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people whom we met and their determination to play their part in ensuring that the British Army could deliver for the nation and that peace and stability was achieved throughout the globe.

As well as visiting establishments in the UK, we also visited Brunei and Kabul. We met the Green Howards in Kabul, where it was clear that the international force of which they were a part held their peacekeeping work in high esteem. In Brunei, we met a company of Gurkhas just returned from Kabul, and we went into the jungle with them.

It is obvious that the Gurkhas will remain a potent and able element in the British Army when it comes to jungle fighting. We were overjoyed to hear that they remained untouched by the reorganisation facing other infantry battalions and regiments. One Gurkha major told me that fighting in the jungle is wet but hot, whereas fighting in arctic conditions is cold but dry. However, Sennybridge in my constituency is both cold and wet, and one needs a high level of personal organisation to survive there.

I decided to enter the parliamentary scheme to which I referred earlier because there are various important Army establishments in my constituency, and I want to say a few words about them before I move on to the fate of the Welsh regiments. Indeed, 160 Brigade Wales is based in Brecon, and I want to pay tribute to Brigadier Ian Chalerton and his predecessor, Robert Aitken, who have done so much to build bridges between military and civilians in the area. It is in the interests of both communities that the brigade should be successful.

The most important establishment locally is the Sennybridge range—the Eppynt, as we call it. The facility had a very unhappy beginning, as people had to be moved out to allow the British Army to use the 34,000 acres there for training. Local people still talk to me about the farms and homes that they left behind, but things have moved on now. The facility's contribution to the local economy is well established, with more than 80 civilians working there. Unfortunately, they are no longer MOD civil servants, and now work for Landmarc Support Services. The TUPE reorganisation and the resulting transfer has gone moderately well, but some people are still worried about their pensions and the transfer of pension entitlement. I hope that the Minister, when he winds up, will say something about that.

I also want to pay tribute to the Eppynt site land managers. They put together a very effective scheme and at the same time maintained grazing rights for farmers in the surrounding area. They also worked to promote conservation locally, and a circular path call the Eppynt way is to be opened shortly. That will be a valued tourist facility in the area. As in other ranges maintained by the MOD, it is clear that an approach that involves people working together is achieving results.

The very important Derring Lines facility provides tactical training for junior officers and NCOs. I guess that almost every infantry NCO will have undertaken that training there at some time. A recent innovation is that 50 young cadets from Sandhurst will complete their officer training on the Sennybridge ranges rather than in Wiltshire, and I am sure that the test that they will
 
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undergo there will make them more than ready for the challenges that they will face in the Army proper. I also want to put on record my appreciation of how the company of Gurkhas permanently based there as a demonstration unit have integrated into the local community.

As the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan and other Welsh Members have said, there is a great deal of concern about the reorganisation of the Welsh regiments. The amalgamation might have been anticipated, and we appreciate that it did not touch the Welsh Guards. But the Royal Regiment of Wales and the Royal Welch Fusiliers feel that their ability to recruit and retain men may be affected by the new title.

Since I wrote to the Secretary of State on 12 January, he has agreed to meet a cross-party delegation of Welsh MPs, including the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), who has an interest in this matter. I have no wish to belittle the contribution that has been made by the Scottish regiments, which have done more than anybody could have asked of them, but I wish to note the contribution made by the Welsh regiments. The Royal Regiment of Wales was in Iraq from April 2003 to April 2004. The Royal Welch Fusiliers were in Iraq from April 2004 to October 2004. The Welsh Guards went to Iraq in October 2004 and will be there until April 2005, and the Royal Regiment of Wales will return to Iraq in April or May 2005 until October 2005, after only 12 months back in this country. The Queen's Dragoon Guards, often known as the Welsh cavalry, have also made a significant contribution, alongside the Black Watch, in areas north of Basra.

The issue is not only about tradition and crotchety old soldiers harking back to their day. It is about the future and the ability of the British Army to recruit satisfactorily in Wales. We ask the Secretary of State to consider the case that has been put forward that the names of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales be put in front of the new name of Royal Welsh Regiment. It would do a lot of good to relationships in Wales if, when the cross-party group meets the Secretary of State, he could reward us with some good news. That would ensure that once again the British Army was able to recruit the very finest young men and women from both north and south Wales.

5.32 pm

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): An encouraging number of hon. Members have taken part in the debate. I am sure that we all accept that the attention we give to the armed forces in the House of Commons is, inevitably, intermittent. However, the job done by the British armed forces is constant and around the clock. While we are fast asleep in bed tonight, they will still be working and defending our interests on the streets of Afghanistan, Northern Ireland and Basra.

This Government have placed unprecedented demands on our armed forces while pursuing a combination of policies that will weaken the traditions and capabilities on which the worldwide reputation of British soldiers and our armed forces is based. That reputation is sadly threatened at present by what I consider to be disgraceful and hysterical media coverage of one court martial in Germany. Of course, we are all shocked by the photographs that we have seen in the
 
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press of what happened at Camp Breadbasket, and the behaviour shown is absolutely unacceptable. However, three soldiers have been brought before a court martial—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman of the points made by Mr. Speaker at the start of this debate. There can be no reference to the individual cases.

Mr. Robathan: I have no intention of commenting on the individual cases, Madam Deputy Speaker, except to say that the disciplinary processes of the British Army have brought those soldiers there and we await the outcome and the verdict of the court martial. Those young men are innocent until proven guilty and that is why I think that the media coverage has been disgraceful and hysterical.

I was the chief of staff for the prisoner of war guard force in the first Gulf war, when the circumstances were very different. The problem we had with soldiers then was the fear that they would not be tough enough with the prisoners of war. We were worried that the guards might be overwhelmed if there was any form of rebellion, because they showed far too much sympathy for the prisoners of war, who had of course been fighting us only a few days earlier.

Today we debate this Government's policies on armed forces personnel. As Members of Parliament we have a duty to say what we believe to be right in the interests of our country and of our servicemen and women. We have a duty to question Government policies that are self-evidently not working. The Government have eroded public trust in their policy on Iraq and led people to distrust their intentions for our armed forces.

Before I proceed, I want to cover some of the points raised in the debate. Given the time restraints, I cannot comment on all the speeches. The Minister of State, as ever, made a robust speech. He took a few interventions. However, any speech lasting more than 30 minutes, plus a bit of time for interventions is rather long, and the Minister went on for 51 minutes. Perhaps he could raise the matter in his private office and ask his speechwriters to be a little more concise and less verbose.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) made an important point about electoral registration to which I want to return. The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) created some confusion on both sides of House about the history of regiments at Rorke's Drift. My son, who is 8, has a video of "Zulu"; I shall re-watch it and lend it to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman made a much more important point when he talked about the £80 million hangar being built at St. Athan. The Minister has been talking about waste; we can identify £80 million of waste at St. Athan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) made an excellent point about the lack of depth in the reserve, which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). I want my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) to know that I used to take parachute and free-fall courses at Brize Norton—[Interruption]—a long time ago. I know that Carterton has next to no
 
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facilities and that the armed forces housing is dreadful, so I was appalled to discover that it had not been renewed over the 20 years since I was last there.

I turn to the disgraceful cuts in the armed forces. The Government pretend that their manpower cuts are sensible, reasoned stages in an inexorable process towards a high-tech, 21st-century defence policy. Absolute rubbish. The manpower implications chapter of last summer's "Future Capabilities" White Paper airily begins:

Why is it inevitable? The document certainly does not go on to say so. I remind Ministers that the USA is currently increasing the number in its Army by more than 20,000 because it realises the needs for boots on the ground. Those "reductions" are, and always will be, cuts. They have taken place against a backdrop of undermanning in the armed forces and of hugely increased international commitments in a time of conflict. Technology cannot replace real men and women on the ground.

Advances in technology have permitted the Royal Navy to reduce the size of crews on its ships, but I want to give the House the comments of the First Sea Lord on that score. He said:

Personnel cuts mean that the fewer remaining sailors are required to spend more time at sea, which places increasing strains on their family life, making it increasingly difficult to stem the haemorrhaging of skilled personnel from the naval service.

The latest naval manning agency report reveals that the Royal Navy has a current personnel deficit of 6 per cent. It speaks of a

and says that the Royal Navy faces

That is before the current planned cuts of 1,500 personnel from the Navy's ranks.

As Lord Craig pointed out on Monday, we sent more ships to the Falklands in 1982 than we currently have left in the whole Royal Navy. The crews of HMS Chatham and HMS Diligence, who have been doing excellent work in Sri Lanka following the tsunami, know well that our traditional ability to give humanitarian assistance will be impaired by the fate of ships such as Diligence, our only forward repair ship, which is shortly destined to sail quietly into the pages of history when it is decommissioned in 2006. It will be followed shortly afterwards by six frigates and destroyers and many other ships.

In the Royal Air Force, 7,500 personnel are being axed, with all the implications for pilots, as well as boots on the ground—sentries and so on—and greater pressure on those who remain. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) described that as a hollowing out of the RAF.
 
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Although the cuts in the infantry battalions at a time of overstretch are absolute lunacy, which has been mentioned by various Members, the Army's trained establishment will be reduced by 6,500 by 2008. How can such cuts be justified? The Government are asking our forces to do more with fewer personnel—soldiering on the cheap. As Lord Guthrie warned only on Monday in the other place,

The Government's tour interval target for overseas deployment is still 24 months, but we heard last week that the Royal Highland Fusiliers are deploying back to Iraq, even though they were there back in June or July, so that does not make 24 months so far as I am concerned. We must have more troops to fulfil the huge number of tasks that the Government keep piling on our troops.

I should like to turn briefly to the reserves, to which a couple of my hon. Friends referred. The purpose of having reserves and reservists in all three services is so obvious that it should not need spelling out, but the men and women of our reserve forces currently provide 20 per cent. of our ground forces in Iraq. The fact that they are being used means that they are no longer in reserve. My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport raised this issue. Let us suppose that the current situation were to escalate, that the problems in Northern Ireland were to flare up again—as the Minister will know, that is very possible—and that there was some unforeseen conflagration, where are the reserves in all three services that every military strategist would always say are a fundamental necessity?

The Government have made it clear that the Territorial Army will play an integral role in all our future military operations. In the light of that, what are the Government doing to enable the reserves to meet the demands placed on them? Members of the TA have been sacked from their civilian jobs while they have been serving in Iraq. How can the Government expect members of the TA to join and serve overseas if they have to worry that they will be unable to support themselves and their families when they return home? Furthermore, from speaking to members of the TA, I am told that officers and non-commissioned officers in particular are unwilling to remain in the TA, especially when they have done one tour in Iraq, because their reserve service threatens their civilian careers.

Almost 140,000 service voters were registered in England and Wales in 2002, but the following year that figure had fallen by 65 per cent. to 49,000—similar falls have taken place across the country—as a result of the Representation of the People Act 2000. In a response to the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall, the Under-Secretary said that the situation was not as bad as it seemed. I hope that he will address that issue when he stands up to speak in a minute or two, because we owe it to those who are risking their lives for this country to ensure that every effort is made so that they have the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights and, indeed, to comment on the Government's policies.

Will the Under-Secretary give a commitment that all members of the armed forces at home and abroad will be given the opportunity to register themselves and their
 
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families in time for a May general election? It is not good enough to witter on about Defence Council instructions, of which there are thousands each year. A simple instruction, perhaps a DCI, needs to go down the chain of command that every soldier, sailor and airman is to be given a service voter registration form within the next month. When the Under-Secretary rises to defend himself on this matter, I hope that he will tell us that that will happen. Incidentally, he wants to try to visit the MOD website, where it is almost impossible to find out how servicemen might register to vote.

Finally, I should like to turn to the operation in Iraq—where we are, of course, the junior partner—and to echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). The Daily Telegraph reports today that the Government are trying to get President Bush to produce a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. That is very sensible. We must ask what is our long-term strategy in Iraq. How long will it go on?

As someone who used to write essays on this at staff college, I should like to ask why we have ignored the lessons that we learned so painfully over the years in Malaya, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. In particular, why have we ignored the lessons on counter-insurgency that were summed up by Sir Robert Thompson's five principles following Malaya? Those basic principles should be followed even though the operation is American-led, but they have not been followed.

If the operation is part of a war on terror in which we are a junior partner, what is the long-term strategy for the war and what are the next steps? Will we broaden the war to other countries, whether they are referred to as outposts of terrorism or instability? Will the Under-Secretary tell the House the road down which we are proceeding? The armed forces, hon. Members and the general public want to know exactly the long-term aim of the Government's policy on the war on terror and Iraq.

5.45 pm


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