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Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Like many colleagues in the House today, I thought long and hard before deciding to contribute to the debate. With the rising toll of deaths in the terrible tragedy this morning, it was difficult to decide whether to speak. I understand that constituents of mine are involved. Perhaps we should all think about our constituents today.
Unlike some Members, I did not see this afternoon as an opportunity to destroy the morale of our armed forces but to work with Ministers in explaining to them some of the concerns and problems that I experienced personally when I visited our troops during the most recent Gulf war and subsequently in the last few weeks before the general election. In the light of the tone of the debate, or most of it, I do not want to attack the Government over what has gone wrong or what has gone right. I want to highlight some of the problems that troops in the field made me aware of.
It may not be a politically correct term, but I was a boy soldier. I joined the armed forces at 16, and after one year was promoted to guardsman, at which level I stayed for the rest of my military career. I am proud to be the voice of the lower ranks in the House.
Just before the general election, I was with the brilliant Scots Guards in al-Amarah in Iraq. I served with the Grenadier Guards, and the Scots Guards is nearly as good a regiment. In my time, the Guards formed a very self-contained unit, with its own medics, paras and signallers. It was very proud of its ability to deploy fully and integrally by itself.
I was enormously proud to see the Royal Gibraltar Regiment serving with the Scots Guards in al-Amarah. The people from Gibraltar can be very proud of their work, but I had to ask the colonel in charge why the Scots Guards had to deploy with other detachments. He told me that the regiment was no longer able to deploy on its own and that it now had to work with other units. There is a severe shortage of guardsmen and especially of experienced NCOs. The Secretary of State must address that problem, to which I shall return later.
As I walked around the camp, I noticed the fantastic Warrior armoured vehicles, of which the Scots Guards are very proud. As we know, they have saved an awful lot of lives, but it was disturbing to learn that every vehicle had to be taken out of operation on the regiment's return to Germany at the end of the tour of
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duty. That was because the new Bowman radio system, for which we waited for what seemed like a decade, does not fit into the Warrior's turret. That is why all the vehicles had to be adapted, and could not be used while the adaptation was carried out.
I cannot believe that that was not foreseen. The Bowman equipment is only a little box. Earlier, the Secretary of State used the phrase "not rocket science";. It is not rocket science to realise that a little box needs a little hole, but this little hole was too little. That was demoralising for the very brave troops trying to do their job in the field.
As for accommodation, it was hard to remember that we are in the 21st century. Our troops were deployed with troops from all over the world and accommodated in very nice tents whose air conditioning does not always work. When that happens, troops open both ends of the tent and let the wind blow through. In the middle of a desert, the British Army has to live in tents: just 400 yards up the road, the American armed forces have deployable pods with air conditioning, showers and other facilities.
Mike Penning: I agree, but it does not always work. It did not work very well when I was there. The British troops told me that the best air conditioning is achieved by opening both ends of the tent and hoping that God blows really hard.
I accept that operational problems occur, but this is the 21st century. The American pods were brought in by contractors. When I was in Germany in the 1970s, the Americans came off exercises and went for showers in massive articulated lorries. We stood and watched, as proud as punch and smelling like anything because we had not had a shower for nearly two weeks.
I accept that that is how the British Army works, and it is why we have the best soldiers in the world. However, on such a long-term deployment as the one in Iraq, it cannot be right that the problem with the tent that I have set out should have occurred.
When I was in the military, we were all very proud of the NAAFI, which has done a wonderful job of looking after our troops for many years. I asked the guys in al-Amarah how much they used the NAAFI shop there. They told me that they tried not to use it at all, because the locals sold goods such as CDs, batteriesor even drinkmore cheaply. I know that a parliamentary question on this matter was tabled before the Secretary of State came to office, but why are the goods that we sell to our troops more expensive than the ones that they can obtain privately from local sources? It is ridiculous. The NAAFI is there not to rip off our troops, but to serve them in the field.
Probably the biggest bugbear in the British Army since the time that I joined in 1974 and still today is the personal webbing and kit of a soldier in the field. We had the debacle of the SA80 and whether it would be refurbished or not. The new SA80 A2 is a damn good weapon. We accept that. The troops said to me, "The first one was a heap of rubbish, sir. This one actually works." That is fantastic news, but we should have got it right at the start. There were other issues, such as whether the guys out there had proper food, loo rolls and so on.
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When I returned to Iraq just before the general election, we still had troops in olive green webbing in the middle of a desert. "Why?", I asked the commanding officer. "The webbing hasn't come through, sir." Then I commented to the commanding officer that a lot of the webbing and equipment the soldiers were wearing was not Army issue. I asked why that was. When I served in the Guards, I could not even put a pair of bootlaces into my boots without my sergeant major saying, "That's not issue, lad. You're not having it in there." When I asked the commanding officer in Iraq what was going on, he replied, "Our decision is now, sir, if the soldiers can buy it and are willing to buy it, and it's better than what they get on issue, we'll let them wear it."
I was astounded. The Guards, of all the regiments, would never have let that happen. The reason it is happening is that the kit that the taxpayer is buying and that we are procuring for our troops is not suitable for use. We need a full review. I know the Minister disagrees, but we need a review of personal kit. Before the election, I met a mother whose son had just joined the Royal Engineers. She had spent £1,000 out of her own money buying kit for him. The average sum spent, the soldiers in Iraq told me, was £750. That cannot be right. Taxpayers' money is being spent, yet these guys and girls are still going off and buying equipment.
The units that I was with in Iraq were men-only units. I then went to the field hospital, where I was told that everything was fine except that there was a slight shortage of nurses. I suggested that lots of nurses must have been called up through the Territorial Army. "We've called up all we can, Mr. Penning," they said, "but we are still desperately short of nurses." I asked how they were filling the gap. "Well, Mr. Penning, I mustn't tell you this, but we are using a company called Frontier Medical. That's an agency. We have agency nurses here in al-Amarah, supporting our troops in the field." I praise the agency nurses for having the guts and determination to go out there, but they are on £600 a day. Our junior troops do not earn £300 a week. There is something wrong with such an imbalance.
Another imbalance was alluded to in earlier comments. Some of our troops are leaving as soon as they return to the UK We must ask ourselves why they are leaving. Is it because their time is up and they have done their servicetheir three, six or nine years? No. Most of them are leaving by purchasing. They are going before their commanding officer and asking to purchase their discharge from the armed forces. Why are senior NCOs leaving the armed forces after six, seven, eight or nine years? The answer is that they are going back to Iraq, Minister. They are going back to be part of the security services out there because they can earn in a day what our guys are earning in a fortnight. That must be wrong. We must assess why that is happening.
One reason why there are so many security guards out there is that we do not have enough troops to supply. I shall give an example. When I was in Baghdad, I was kindly put up at the ambassador's residence. We were met and taken around brilliantly by plainclothes Royal Military Policesome of the best trained soldiers I have ever worked with. They were fantastic. The ambassador's residence is guarded by private security companies. The embassy in Baghdad is guarded by
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private security companies. When the Royal Military Police are asked, "Isn't it slightly embarrassing that you can't guard our ambassador in a conflict situation?", they say, "With what, sir? The Royal Military Police isn't big enough to do this any more."
I do not want to hark back to the days when the armed forces would not have fitted inside Wembley stadium, when it is eventually built. Now, the whole of the British Army would fit inside Wembley stadium once it is built. I do not want to hark back to the fact that we have tremendous problems with recruitment, even though it is plain why we have such problems. Our biggest problem is retention. The Minister knows that, as it has come up time and again. Our experienced servicemen are going back home. The Scots Guards have gone back to Munster. Even before they have left the area, it is known that most of the senior and middle-ranking NCOs will leave the armed forces. Something must be done to encourage them to stay. They joined the armed forces because they wanted to be in the armed forces, but they are being undermined while they are out there serving.
I may have spoken for slightly too long, and I apologise. Let me finally say that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) said something that worried me. I fearI am not saying this just because he is not presentthat his comments will probably have caused even more problems for morale in the armed forces. They are the last thing that our troops need to hear. What really worried me, though, was his saying that a 17-year-old soldier had been deployed to Iraq. I was a boy soldier, but could not be deployed even to Northern Ireland until I was 18. If what the hon. Gentleman said was incorrect, I hope that the Minister will let us know. Soldiers must be 18, and that is how it should be. Boy soldiers should not be deployed, and God forbid that they ever will be.
Young soldiers need to be trained. That helped me enormously to get on to the straight and narrow when I was a young man of 16. I am proud to have served, and I was proud to go and visit our troops. Nevertheless, I hope that the Minister will consider some of their problems and concerns, which I promised them I would raise in the House if I was elected.
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