Mr. Bone : I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend is aware that the Government recently changed the position of university air squadrons, which provide over 50 per cent. of pilots for the Royal Air Force. They have now stopped elementary flying training, at an alleged saving of £10,000 in total, yet it costs £1.8 million to train a fast-jet pilot. That change will discourage the recruitment that we need.
Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. He knows that my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), has repeatedly made the point that university air squadrons are a very good way not only to recruit pilots to the RAF but to train them. That is something that the Government fail to understand. They are driven by the Treasury, not by the realities.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con):
Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my concern at the haemorrhaging of special forces to the private security sector? Despite reassurances made by Ministers in
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the House some weeks ago that they were to make an announcement addressing those issues, no announcement has been forthcoming.
Mr. Ancram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I am sure that Ministers heard his remarks. I hope that they will in due course make such a statement. I, too, have read reports of the haemorrhaging that he describes.
At the same time, we are witnessing a dangerous fall-off in training, which is at the heart of the maintenance of effective armed forces. Reductions in training have a progressively damaging effect on fighting power and ethos. At the highest level it may take years to recover standards that have been lost. One cannot buy in experience. Being heavily committed to operations can off-set some of those disadvantages, particularly in respect of command training, but reducing activity levels for field force units that are not committed to operations is a self-inflicted wound.
"It should be of great concern that soldiers are now being deployed less well trained than they should be and less well trained than they have been in the past . . . Individual soldiers are less skilled than they were; training standards are too low; gunnery and field firing camps are cancelled; training between infantry, tanks, engineers and those parts of the Army that may have to co-operate and fight together rarely takes place."[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 2005; Vol. 668, c. 564.]
That is not an Opposition spokesman making an accusation across the Dispatch Box; it is a former Chief of the Defence Staff who knows what he is talking about. The Government should have the courage to listen to what they are being told by such men. What action are the Government taking to deal with recruitment, retention and training?
Mr. Ingram: The right hon. and learned Gentleman should wait and hear what my intervention is. Why does he always pray in aid former chiefs of staff, when sitting beside him is a spokesman who attacks the current chiefs of staff? Why does not the right hon. and learned Gentleman apologise for what the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) has said?
Mr. Ancram: I have known General Mike Jackson for a long time. He and I had our disagreements, as the House knows, about the disbandment of regiments this time last year, when the announcement was made in the House and I responded to it. But he is a man for whom I have the utmost respect, and I am sure that after he has retired we will be seeing even more of each other.
What action, I asked, are the Government taking to address the issues of recruitment, retention and training? None. This in the end is all about cuts. All this talk of making savings comes oddly from a Government who have wasted so much on a mismanaged procurement programme. Despite the launch of the smart procurement initiative in July 1998six and a half years agounder the mantra, "faster, cheaper,
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better", there has been little evidence of success. The National Audit Office major project report of 2004 showed little evidence of project performance improving, finding that the MOD's 20 largest projects were 144 months behind schedule and more than 6 per cent. over budget. That is hardly faster, cheaper and better. I fear that the soon-to-be-published major project report for 2005 will make equally disappointing reading.
Defence procurement policy remains in a chaotic state, with most of the vital new programmes still awaiting production contract signature. The aircraft carrier project, which we talked about on Monday, is a good example of this Government's incompetence. The Minister of State accused me on Monday of having attacked MOD officials because of the chaos in the programme. I did not; I talked about ministerial incompetence. Procurement decisions are taken by Ministers and they have to accept responsibility. In that project there is still total uncertainty as to when the carriers will enter service, whether they can be provided within budget and what involvement the French might have in the project. This is a shameful reflection of the mess into which the Government have got themselves on defence expenditure.
The greatest threat to our armed forces posed by this Government is what they are allowing to happen, or in some cases are actually doing, to morale. We all understand that morale is crucial to the health of our armed forces. Of course, Ministers and generals claim that morale is highthey always have and they always will. But that is not what I am hearing on the ground. The effects of overstretch and the equipment shortfall are part of the problem, but there is something more insidious, and I make no excuse for returning to the matter.
"There is considerable disquiet among some members of the forces and concern that, even when doing their perceived duty in an operational situation, they may become vulnerable to prosecution and will not always be backed up higher up the chain of command, where it may be claimed that the matter has been taken out of their hands."
"The Armed Forces are under legal siege and are being pushed in a direction that will see such an order being deemed as improper or legally unsound. They are being pushed by people schooled not in operations but only in political correctness. They are being pushed to a time when they will fail in an operation because the commanding officer's authority and his command chain has been compromised with tortuous rules not relevant to fighting and where his instinct to be daring and innovative is being buried under the threat of liabilities and hounded out by those who have no concept of what is required to fight and win."[Official Report, House of Lords, 14 July 2005; Vol. 673, c. 122636.]
Again, those are not my words but those of Lord Boyce, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, in the debate in the House of Lords on 14 July. The Government cannot pretend that those views do not matter. There is a consistency in the views of former Chiefs of the Defence Staff to which the Government must pay attention.
I am not suggesting that criminal misdemeanours should not be prosecutedof course, they should. However, if we send troops to fight on our behalf they must know that we recognise that a battlefield is not a
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court of law and that their ability to fight and winand, indeed, in some cases to survivemust not be compromised. Today more than ever they need that support from us.
John Reid: I have listened very carefully indeed to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is always judicious and sensitive in his remarks. In so far as he is appealing for us to protect, succour, support and sustain the morale of our armed forces in battle, I agree entirely. As for his remarks about the asymmetric nature of warfare, in which our soldiers are asked to play by civilised rules compared with the enemy, who is unconstrained by morality or rules, I agree entirely. However, where his remarks concern those further up the chain of commandremarks that will only be seen in the context of the accusation of his hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) of a lack of moral courage by the Chief of the General StaffI appeal to him, urge him to distance himself from that imputation. I hope that he will urge his hon. Friend to withdraw his remark, as its implications are unnecessary and it gets in the way of a frank, candid and supportive discussion for our soldiers. I want to do that as well, but I cannot do so when cases are under way, because the judicial system prevents my doing so. I hope, however, that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will distance himself from any criticism of the chiefs of staff, which is entirely separate from accusations against politicians who make those decisions.