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Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The Clansman radio system was introduced in the 1970s and we are still using it today. We must be the only large-scale western Army that uses a non-encrypted radio system. Only now are the Royal Marines replacing it with Bowman radios.
Mark Pritchard: Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Bowman radio does not fit into Land Rovers and that they currently have to be put on to trailers behind the vehicles so that they can be taken on operations?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, which is an indictment of the project. I learned from
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going out with the Marines recently that, on a weekend exercise, they need to take approximately 32 batteries to keep the radios going. Clearly, many questions need to be asked about the project, especially since it has taken 30 years to devise a replacement for the Clansman system. Of course, that was supposed to be solved by the smart acquisition systema new process for dealing with procurement. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) commented earlier, perhaps from a sedentary position, rather than being faster, cheaper and better, it was "slower, dearer and worser"I believe that those were his words. It is time to take our military needs seriously and invest properly in the equipment.
I should like to consider many other issues, which have already been raised, and with which the Government need to deal. They include closing RAF bases, the duplicity of the relationship between NATO and the EU, and the standard of NATO training as we go for the first time in Afghanistan from a peacekeeping to a war-fighting role. The hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) also mentioned the nuclear deterrent.
Much more needs to be debated. We had the biggest shake-up in July 2004, when we needed more forces, yet the Government reduced our strength. The Government are keen to praise our armed forces but not fully to finance them. They are keen to commit them to battle but not properly to equip them. It is a good job that we focus our energies in most of our operations on hearts and minds. If we had to do it any other way, we would not have the equipment. Every soldier, sailor and airman has the right to ask whether money is being well spent by the Government. I do not believe that the Government's words are matched by their actions. We are rightly proud of our armed forces, but we should be less proud of the Government's record.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Defence in the United Kingdom is a fairly topical subject given the bombings in July, terrorism in the UK and so on, so one has to ask why the Labour Benches are so empty. Why are so few Labour Members of Parliament interested in the subject? That is in contrast to Conservative Membersthe best part of a dozen Conservative Back Benchers are presentyet only a Parliamentary Private Secretary and one solitary Labour Back Bencher are here. Not one new Member of Parliament in the Labour party has participated in the debate. The five Labour Members who spoke were highly or pretty critical of the Government. It must be lonely for the Under-Secretary on Treasury Bench; the bluster from the Secretary of State and the Minister of State is no substitute for good defence policy.I want to pay tribute to the excellent speech made by the shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who has given long service to our party, this Parliament and the country over a number of years.
A great many Membersthe hon. Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle), for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), for Telford (David Wright), for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot)raised the question of a full-scale
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debate and consultation on the future of the nuclear deterrent. We know, because the Government have told us, that a decision will be made in this Parliament about a replacement for Trident. The Government should, as the Conservatives did in the 1970s when Trident was being discussed, publish papers stating the facts and the arguments for and against, so that we can have an informed debate.
The hon. Member for Telford and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire both spoke of the increasing detachment of the armed forces from local communities. That has an impact on recruitment, about which many Members have spoken, so I again question the breaking of local links through the provision of mega-regiments rather than regiments with local ties such as county regiments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) spoke at length about falling recruitment and retention in the Territorial Army. In a stunning indictment of recent Government policy, she described the TA as being in jeopardy. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) added to that from his great experience of the TA. He made a devastating attack on the Government, comparing the armed forces with an elastic band stretched to breaking point.
I am sorry to praise the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith), because I know that he will not appreciate it, but he was again a fierce critic of decisions in relation to DARA. He described cuts for cuts' sake and said that the decisions stink of cutting costs. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), a member of the Defence Committee, spoke with great authority on FRES and other procurement problemshardly a tremendous endorsement of Government policy.
As for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), I, too, liked the conservation part of the report in relation to training errors. He was the only person really to congratulate the Governmenton MOD policy on looking after Salisbury plain. As a young man lying on Salisbury plain in the middle of the night, I remember watching badgers through a night sight, and it was great fun[Interruption.] Badger watching has a different meaning in the Conservative party than in the Labour party. He then criticised the Government over the failure to address the threat of MANPADS and the failure to trust the people.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) again criticised the Government over the education of forces children and about the TA. In particular, he asked the interesting question: when will we have the statement on the future Army structure?
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) spoke up for Shropshire and discussed Combat Stress, an excellent charity with which I have had dealings. He spoke of the Government letting down his constituents at Donnington and about national security. He spoke without notes, which is very impressive, and I can tell that he has been taking lessons from my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who always speaks without notes, too.
My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth spoke with great passion, and extremely well, about his TA experience, and particularly about the Government
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betraying soldiers in both Northern Ireland and Iraq. My hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) spoke from their different military experiences. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East spoke particularly about difficulties of recruitment, procurement failures, Government cuts and policy failures.
What concerns me more than anything elseit also concerns the armed forcesis the attitude of the Labour Government to their loyal soldiers, sailors and airmen. We should not be too surprised at that attitude. We heard from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes about the Chancellor of the Exchequer's attitude to spending money on the armed forces. I want to give the House two examples that illustrate, I regret to say, the contempt in which some members of the Government and the Labour party hold the armed forces. I do not wish to be nice to the Secretary of State, but I exempt him from these criticisms as I know that they do not apply to him. I believe that they do not apply to his Ministers either, although I have not yet heard their views in the same detail as I have heard his. I believe that the Secretary of State is a great friend of the armed forces and it is a pity that he has to implement the cuts that were announced before he took his post.
While serving as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during Christmas 1999, Peter Mandelsonas I understand it, a pretty close confidant of the Prime Ministerreferred to members of the Household Division as "chinless wonders". At the time, three of the five footguards battalions were on operations in Northern Ireland. I was in a footguards battalion and served in Northern Ireland. If I thought that "Uncle Peter", as he is apparently called in the Prime Minister's household, were no longer welcome in No. 10, I would be happier, but I suspect that he remains a close friend and confidant. More recently in 2003, the Deputy Prime Minister insulted our armed forces by saying, "All soldiers are boneheads." That rather contrasts with what the Minister of State said about how much he respected our forces. It was an unworthy comment, but I suggest that it is revealing of how many in the Labour party's hierarchy view the armed forces.
My right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Secretary of State mentioned several of the real problems that are dogging the armed forces, including declining recruitment and retention, notwithstanding the fact that, as I understand it, 7 per cent. of the Army is now recruited outside the UK from the Commonwealth. My right hon. and learned Friend and several other hon. Friends referred to the increasing haemorrhage of soldiers from the Territorial Army. Until the present Government came to office, such soldiers had never been used on operations outside general war to the extent that they have been in Iraq.
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I would like to highlight other issues that are making the Army, and the armed forces in general, deeply suspicious of the Government. As I said on Monday, I fear that they are undermining the loyalty and trust that should exist both ways between our armed forces personnel and their political commanders. When he sums up, will the Minister comment on the following extract from an article in Monday's The Daily Telegraph? I know that he probably does not read that newspaper, but if it were a quote from The Guardian[Interruption.] I am delighted to hear that the Secretary of State reads The Daily Telegraph. The article states:
In a reference to press reports, he wrote: 'The media at the moment is giving our military discipline system a bit of a hammering and is also asking . . . whether our officers behaved to the highest standards.'"
I do not know him andI hasten to add for the Secretary of State's benefitI am not criticising him one way or the other, but we require an answer about whether that is true. Was there a policy of investigating officers to get them to face a court martial? I have already raised earlier today the question of the Attorney-General's political involvement in decisions. Perhaps the Minister will tell me that the Government did not encourage that policy.
As we have already heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth, these courts martial are harming the morale of people who, whether they be soldiers or their commanders, are operating in incredibly difficult circumstances. I can assure the House that all soldiers understand that if they wilfully abuse Iraqis or others, or if they wilfully misbehave or commit criminal acts, they should expect to be punished. I hope, however, that everyone understands that sitting in a nice office in Whitehall or, indeed, in the Chamber of the House of Commons and talking about these matters is very different from being on the streets of Iraq, where temperatures may be as high as 58oC and troops may be wearing heavy body armour, sweating like the proverbial, knowing that some people around them have weapons and are trying to kill them.
My second point leads on directly from that and relates to the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth mentioned. Will the Minister tell me what representations he has received from senior officers about that shameful Bill? Can he confirm that it is the case that British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland, who were obeying orders from senior officers directed by the Government at the time, may be prosecuted under the Bill on exactly the same conditions as the terrorists they were trying to deter? Would the soldiers and SAS personnel involved in the Loughgall incident in 1987 be caught by this Bill? The Minister will recall that the European Court of Justiceit might have been the European Court of Human Rights; he will put me rightfound
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that the terrorists involved in that incident were unlawfully killed, and that as a result, compensation was paid to their relations.
I would be very grateful if the Minister commented on those issues. I can assure him that soldiers will not wish to engage the enemythe primary purpose of infantrymen and most other soldiersif they are likely to face prosecution. It cannot be right to treat public servants acting under orders in the same way as terrorists committing crimes in this country. These are the issues that are harming the armed forces' long-term morale. As I said, I do not believe that the Secretary of State is party to them, so let him stand up and say what he thinks about them. It is important that he do so.
Many other issues have been raised and I shall not cover them in detail, but the cut in the number of infantry battalions as part of the Army restructuring is, to put it mildly, perverse, coming as it does when the Army is so busy around the world. It cannot make sense to reduce the number of infantry battalions by four. Perhaps the Minister will tell us where the troops for Afghanistan will come from, because it is not immediately apparent. In view of the question from the hon. Member for Colchester, he might also tell us when the disbandments and reorganisation will take place. I understand that they have been put off because our troops are so busy. On infantry reorganisation, is the Minister absolutely sure that ending the arms plot will make the infantry operate better and be more usable?
Has the Minister considered the following important point, which several soldiers have raised with me? Currently, our battalions have experience in depth. They contain people who have served in armoured infantry in Germany and Iraq, and who have done basic foot-soldiering and peacekeeping in Northern Ireland. Such people have the gamut of experience, but given the direction in which this reorganisation is going, we risk taking away that depth of experience and the military expertise that we currently enjoy. My concern is that we will get a less flexible, less usable infantry under this reorganisation.
I come briefly to the Royal Navy. In discussing how the Government have been treating our armed forces, it needs to be pointed out that we are reducing the frigate and destroyer fleet from 32 to 25. In fact, in a couple of years' time there will be even fewer. Some ships have yet to come into fleet service. This is a dire situation. The Chief of the Naval Staff and First Sea Lord, Sir Alan West, said that he believes that 30 is the minimum number that we can make do with.
In many ways, today is a rather sad day. This debate has been largely interesting and well attendedcertainly by Conservative Members, if not by Labour Membersbut it has raised more questions than it has answered. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of them when he replies.
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