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David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): It is my great privilege to represent the men and women of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers in the town of Monmouth. We can sleep a little better in our beds knowing that those men and women will go out and do battle on our behalf, as they have been doing. The regiment has distinguished itself since 1539, most recently in Iraq in Operation Telic. I was honoured to be invited to breakfast with them on the morning of their departure for Iraq, and I was very impressed with the level of commitment that those young men and women showed as they went off.

Although we have such fine men and women who are willing to serve our country, we are treating them in a monstrously unjust fashion. We are in the midst of a series of prosecutions that have been brought against soldiers serving in Iraq. Nobody in the Chamber or outside could support any indication of brutal treatment on the part of our Army, but some of the cases have clearly been brought on the basis of evidence which one judge described as weak and vague. That is not good enough.

Something similar is happening in Northern Ireland. Yesterday at Prime Minister's Question Time, it was telling that although the Prime Minister waxed eloquent about how proud he was of our troops in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Iraq, and rightly so, he failed to mention Northern Ireland. For the past 30 years, the men and women of our armed forces have faced incredible danger in Northern Ireland. They went out there to protect civilians, Protestant and Catholic alike, and they did so against an enemy who wore no uniform, who struck without warning and whose favoured method of attack was to blow up innocent civilians with bombs.

It is possible that the reticence of our Prime Minister stems from the fact that his Government are announcing a policy that seems to amount to little more than a "Get out of Jail Free" card for IRA terrorists. That would be bad enough, but what makes matters worse is that at the same time as we grant a pardon to IRA terrorists, we are setting up an inquiry to examine the actions of every soldier who served in Northern Ireland. That is a disgrace and an insult to the 760 or so men and women who lost their lives serving in the Province and doing an extremely difficult job. When we asked the Leader of the House about the matter last week, he said that one sometimes had to make difficult decisions. There is absolutely nothing difficult about appeasing terror. The difficult decision is to stand up to terrorists, and I am glad to say that many Ministers have done so over the past few years.

I am proud to have done my bit in a very small way—I served in the Territorial Army—but Salisbury plain was the nearest that I got to a battlefield. Some Conservative Members have been on a battlefield, and I cannot imagine what it is like. If the bullets, bombs and bodies were all around me, the last thing that I would
 
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want to think about as I was defending myself would be the prospect of being dragged in front of the courts by the very people who had given me a gun and a uniform and put me into a dangerous situation. I would not appreciate the "It's not me guv" attitude of those Ministers who have tried to make out that the matter has nothing to do with them.

I am proud to have played a small part in our armed forces, and I am very proud of what they have done, but I am utterly ashamed of how they are being treated. It is high time that the Government started to think about the loyalty, duty and commitment that our armed forces have always given to the nation, and began returning it.

5.16 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I, too, had a brief career in the Territorial Army, serving from 1984 to 1993 in the Oxford university Officer Training Corps, the Honourable Artillery Company and other regiments. My constituents would not want this debate to pass without my making a small contribution to emphasise their concern about the degree of overstretch in the British armed forces, which has reached intolerable levels and is placing an intolerable strain on those who serve our country.

I pay tribute to the local cadet forces in my constituency, who do a marvellous job training young people in the ways of the Army, Navy and Air Force. At the other end of the scale, I pay tribute to those former soldiers, sailors and airmen who now serve their local communities through the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and other organisations.

We currently face a global threat that we have never faced before, and I find it incredible that numbers are at their lowest ever level in the TA's 98-year history. The TA represents the most cost-effective way to rebuild our armed forces, because by and large one does not need to house and accommodate those who serve in the TA. One also gets far more bang for one's buck with the TA, because most of the time that members spend training with the TA is spent on exercise. Rather than having the lowest ever numbers in the TA, the Government should introduce proposals to secure the greatest ever numbers in the TA, because it would be the most cost-effective way to deliver the defence needs of our nation.

The proudest moment of my so far brief time as a Member of this House was to lay wreaths on behalf of local residents at the Remembrance day services in Desborough, Rothwell and Kettering last weekend. It was a great honour and brought home to me the fact that all the names of those local residents who, sadly, are listed on those war memorials are evidence that if this House gets its defence policy wrong, far too many of our citizens end up paying the ultimate price.

5.19 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone). This is the first time that some of us who have worn uniform have been able to discuss defence in general terms in this House, and I pay tribute to all hon. Members who have participated for praising the armed forces appropriately.
 
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It is interesting to note that our military forces are the last corner of Britain that new Labour has found it hard to change. If one goes into any barracks, sergeants' mess or officers' mess, one will see the same levels of discipline and commitment and the same standard of training as one would have found more than 100 years ago. One would probably also find the same numbers of tattoos in the soldiers barracks and the same war stories being told in the sergeants' quarters, and as many labradors in the officers' mess.

It is ironic how well something can work when a Government leave it alone. The forces have been able to maintain a collective discipline and responsibility that has resisted political upheavals. All Governments should be grateful for that. The democracy that we enjoy today is thanks to the military of yesterday and the continuing capability and commitment of the forces today. That is why we are able to sit on the world's top table and to have an important place in NATO, the G8, the United Nations and the Commonwealth. The commitment that is shown by our armed forces is not necessarily matched by that shown by the Government. We are serving in more than 40 operations in more than 20 countries, but our forces are deeply overstretched, woefully undermanned and dangerously ill-equipped—at a time when, as many hon. Members have pointed out, we are living in an increasingly dangerous world. The result is low morale and a failure to meet recruitment targets.

There is much that the Government can do, including on recruitment. Recruitment is harder today as a result of falling birth rates, more people going into further education, and people's lack of direct exposure to the armed forces, whether in a military family or by seeing people in uniform. Today's iPod generation, as they are being called, have very different expectations from those of previous generations. The solution is to expose people to the military environment at a much earlier age.

I pay tribute to the combined cadet force and the sea cadets, among others, which are important sources of recruitment. I recently visited the sea cadets in Bournemouth, and unfortunately found that they are woefully underfunded and looking for a new location in which to house themselves. Yet they provide huge opportunities for people from deprived backgrounds and eventually help in recruiting people into the armed forces. As we heard, the university air squadron provides 56 per cent. of our pilots. If we remove their ability to train in aeroplanes until they go to Cranwell, we are again denying ourselves a huge and important source of potential officers. I would not have joined the Army had I not gone through the officer training corps at university.

It is astonishing that at a time of increased threats and more commitments, famous battalions are losing their names. We are losing four battalions outright, and at the stroke of a pen 19 regiments are to go. The Royal Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment is to merge with the Devon and Dorset Regiment, which is to merge with the Light Infantry. I understand, although the Minister is yet to make the announcement, that they are all to be merged with my own regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, to form five rifle regiments. As for the loss of the Parachute Battalion, which is the biggest feeder into the special forces, I do not understand the logic of that at all.
 
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Many tributes have been paid to the Territorial Army, which is at its lowest level in terms of numbers since 1907. It is unacceptable that it should have about 41,000 personnel but in fact has only 35,000, yet the Government seem content to do little about it.

As if cutting manpower were not enough, the real scandal concerns equipment. This is where it is interesting to have been a soldier and now to be in this House and able to look at how much is being spent and whether it is being spent wisely. We are talking about basic kit—the basic requirements that enable the soldier, sailor or pilot to do their job.

The Eurofighter is £1.5 billion over budget and 16 months late. It is supposed to be replacing the Jaguar and the Tornado, but its introduction is slipping again and again—even though we are about to get rid of the Jaguar fleet in its entirety. The tale of the Sea Harrier jump jet is equally sad. It is supposed to be replaced by the joint strike fighter, but I am worried about that, especially as the Americans are now saying that they are going to make budget cuts. Can the Minister clarify what will happen if such budget cuts threaten the entire project?

We do not appear to have a timetabled strategy for dealing with our aeroplanes. Even worse, we have problems with the aircraft carrier. The wranglings over the bid were appalling and we are now not even sure of the entry date. There is a litany of problems with other equipment, including the Apache helicopter, which was brought to the United Kingdom in 2001. We lack trained pilots and the helicopters were not declared operational until 2004. The aircraft weapons did not work and pilots could not communicate with ground troops. It was also £4 billion over budget.

The same applied to the Chinook helicopters. Cockpit avionics prevented them from flying apart in cloudless skies. Those helicopters were £260 million over budget. Seventy Navy Lynx helicopters were grounded because of long-running safety problems. There were also problems with Tornado bombers, which cost £7 million each. Serious computer glitches occurred when they were introduced. When the C-130J transport planes—the replacement for the ageing Hercules system—were brought in, they were not operational. The Parachute Regiment could not even jump out of the back.


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