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Des Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reinforcing my point. I am also grateful to him for acknowledging that the House has had decades of experience of balancing its responsibility to hold the Government to account with that of ensuring that the troops whom we send to carry out dangerous functions are protected and not exposed to vulnerability through public debate. There are ways of doing that, and those who have had private briefings or conversations with me outside the Chamber will know that I am open to sharing the relevant information. It is not secret. The more I share it with people whom I can trust to keep it confidential, the more safe we can make our troops on the ground. I am entirely open to any devices or procedures
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that allow us to exercise proper accountability and to hold proper debate, and that allow me to draw on the resource of skills and experience that many people in the House have on these matters.

It might not be obvious to anyone listening, but this is not a debate about operations. However, it is entirely appropriate, in a debate about supporting our armed forces, to remind ourselves of the dangers of allowing the impression to be created that our forces are not clear about what they are being sent to do, when in fact the opposite is the case.

The second thing that we owe to all our servicemen and women on operations is to provide them with the equipment and protection to do their jobs safely and effectively. Of course that protection will never be absolute. Soldiering is an inherently dangerous business. As I have said, we send our forces to do the job in Iraq and Afghanistan because they are dangerous places. But we must do the best we can to give our people the protection that they need. We must relentlessly improve our equipment and technology to counter the evolving threat.

In response to that evolving threat, we have developed and brought into service two new body armour systems in the past two years: Kestrel for top-cover sentries, and Osprey for general use. Osprey is a world-leading system that has been developed and delivered in a very short time. It will further reduce the risk of life-threatening injuries from terrorist attack and is being issued to all personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The same applies to the protection on our vehicles. I know hon. Members are very concerned about that, after recent tragic incidents, and rightly so. The threat from improvised explosive devices—IEDs—has been evolving over the past two years, and possibly much longer. Indeed, we have some experience of the evolution of such devices in Northern Ireland. Responding to that has been one of our highest priorities. In the past two years alone, we have spent £120 million on improving force protection for our ground forces in Iraq, including electronic counter measures for Snatch Land Rovers and other vehicles. We continue to invest in further research on IEDs in collaboration with the USA, and we are determined to maintain our world-leading capability in that area.

Improved armour is also part of the solution, and I assure hon. Members that additional armoured options will become available to commanders over the next year. A new patrol vehicle, Vector, will enter service in Afghanistan in 2007. We have already upgraded the protection on Warrior, Saxon and the CVR(T), and we are currently upgrading it on the FV430 vehicle. I have also directed an urgent review of what could be done now to give commanders further options.

However, Snatch Land Rovers will continue to be an important option. The Army’s approach to its role in Iraq and broadly in Afghanistan—although not on certain tasks—requires a low profile and a highly mobile patrol vehicle that allows troops to engage with local people. As people will have seen from their television screens, paratroopers in Afghanistan prefer to walk the streets of towns there with soft hats on. That is not our decision, but a decision made by their commanders in the light of what they are trying to do. It is clear from the pictures relayed back in recent days that that engagement
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works in a substantial part of the area for which they have taken responsibility. Larger and significantly heavier vehicles, such as Warrior, might be better armoured, but they are not always suitable for the lower profile and less intimidating manner in which the Army often prefers to operate. That, in turn, feeds into the security of our forces, because their relationship with the people with whom they work is an important component of security.

We must remember, however, that equipment—armour and other counter measures—is only one element of protection. According to the experts who have advised me continuously over past weeks, it is only about a third of the story. The rest is down to intelligence gathering, surveillance and proactive operations to disrupt and capture insurgents, and to the tactics that our troops adopt to minimise the risks of successful attack. I am told by experienced commanders that they sometimes choose not to be in a vehicle at all but to walk the streets, which is much safer than being cooped up in a vehicle and provides a degree of flexibility.

That is another reminder of why training—the next subject that I want to cover today—is so important. Our armed forces are trained to the exacting standards required both for high-intensity modern warfare and to operate in the complex operational environment of modern peace support operations. Commentators sometimes talk about “peacemaking”, “peace enforcement” and “peacekeeping” as though they were mutually exclusive operations that followed sequentially. In practice, they can often happen all at the same time, sometimes in the same community, and sometimes just a few miles apart. Our forces need to train for that, and I firmly believe that they are the best in the world at managing that complex environment—carrying out military tasks but also supporting wider development and foreign policy objectives. That is why we invest so much time and so many resources in training our people to ensure that they are fully able to do the jobs that we ask them to do.

The House will understand the challenge inherent in military training—taking young people from everyday life, often without qualifications, and turning them in a matter of months into skilled soldiers, sailors or airmen who are able to survive on the battlefield. Much has already been done to improve service training and the welfare of our trainees. However, the Deepcut review identified a number of areas where we must further improve. As we said in our response published last month, we intend to use that review as a blueprint for further action.

We are also looking to improve our training system more widely. The defence training review will ensure that training is delivered in a modern training environment, suitable to modern living. I am aware that the review will affect the constituencies of many hon. Members. I hope that the House will understand that delivering effective training to the armed forces will be paramount in the decisions that we must take over the coming months. Meeting the operational demands of today, delivering training for the future and giving our people time to recuperate and spend time with their families has always been a challenge, and it is a more significant one at present. Senior military commanders advise me, however, that underusing highly trained troops is as bad for morale as overusing them. However, we need to strike a balance between deploying people to do the job
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for which they joined up, training and allowing them to spend time with their families.

To help to get that balance right, we have what we call “harmony guidelines” for the amount of time that service personnel spend away from their families and the intervals that units should enjoy between operational tours. For example, around 18 per cent. of the Army are currently deployed on operations—a figure with which the Army is comfortable. Only 4 per cent. of the RAF, 1 per cent. of the Royal Navy and 15 per cent. of the Army currently exceed harmony guidelines, but, as ever, overall statistics are not the whole story. We must pay attention to the stress on those who exceed the guidelines, who include infantry and key enablers such as communications and logistics specialists. We keep our manning under constant review and take appropriate measures to avoid overstretch, which include the fundamental restructuring in which all three services are engaged to adjust their force elements to meet the operational requirements of the 21st century.

Mark Pritchard: Given that there are 2,500 people at RAF Cosford in Shropshire anxiously awaiting the outcome of the defence training review, has a clear date been set for the decision to be made?

Des Browne: I pay credit to the hon. Gentleman—and if it does not do him a disservice, he can report that back to his constituents if he wishes—because I was here at business questions when he also raised that matter; clearly it is of some importance to him. Given the approaches made to me by those who represent parts of the country that might benefit from the outcome of the training review, he will understand that his interest is shared by a number of right hon. and hon. Members.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP) rose—

Chris Bryant rose—

Des Browne: If the hon. Gentlemen wait for my answer to the question, they might not need to intervene.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) asks whether a more precise date is available than that previously put in the public domain. The answer to that, at this stage, is no. We are still collating, consulting and bringing together the information. We have set ourselves the target of concluding this part of the process by about the end of this year. I have no reason to believe that we will not meet that target, but I cannot be any more precise than that.

Pete Wishart: The Secretary of State has been generous in taking interventions. In relation to the Deepcut review, what progress has been made in implementing Nicholas Blake’s recommendations? Does he have any further comment about the creation of an independent ombudsman, which was a key recommendation of Nicholas Blake, on which the Government have been prevaricating?

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, as it gives me the opportunity to say that we have made significant progress in relation to the review conducted by Nicholas Blake QC, to whom I have not yet had the opportunity to express my gratitude. I do so now in relation to the significant work that he did to
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help us to draw a line under that set of circumstances, although I accept that no such line will ever be drawn for those who were most tragically affected. I express my condolences now to those who have suffered. We have made significant progress. Many of the recommendations have already been acted on, and a substantial number will be implemented when the Armed Forces Bill becomes law. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to have a more detailed line-by-line account, he should contact me after the debate, and I would be happy to provide that.

Chris Bryant: The Secretary of State probably now knows what direction my question will take. Following the earlier point, many of us in south Wales hope that the defence training review will lead in the direction of St. Athan. Will he clarify that ensuring that the best training is available for our armed forces, rather than any political considerations, will be paramount in the decision?

Des Browne: I think all Members agree with that. Certainly it is the principal focus of the Ministry of Defence.

We work hard to recruit and retain sufficient capable and motivated armed forces, in the context of a strong economy that provides increasing opportunities and more and more young people taking up the chance of further education. I can see the jobcentre from my constituency offices. I realise that I must apologise for the amount of time that I spend in my constituency, although I must say that being castigated for being in his constituency is not the worst thing that ever happens to a constituency Member—but I have dealt with that issue already, and I genuinely regret that I was not here on Monday. The point is that the number of people recruited through my local jobcentre reflects the state of the economy in my part of the world much more than anything else.

Our forces require some 18,000 new recruits annually. Over the last two years we have met 96 per cent. of that target. We have taken steps to sustain and improve recruitment in specific shortage areas through, for example, recruiting bounties in the infantry and the Royal Artillery. Retention, too, is generally satisfactory. Each year some 19,000 people leave our forces, around 10 per cent. of the total number. People leave, of course, for a variety of unavoidable reasons, such as retirement, injury and, regrettably, illness. We focus our retention efforts on those who choose to leave, and there have been no significant trends in that direction in any of the three services over the past three years.

Although we should never be complacent about our ability to recruit and retain the people who constitute our greatest asset, I do not believe that accusations of a manning crisis are justified by the facts; nor has anything that I have heard or seen given me any reason to doubt that the quality of our people is every bit as good as it ever was.

David Wright rose—

Des Browne: I do not intend to give way again, because I am conscious that it is not just my time that is being taken up. Others will wish to speak. [Interruption.] As I am now being told that we have got all day, and invited by a Back Bencher to give way, I will do so.

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David Wright: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Will he take another look at some of the issues relating to localisation of recruitment? One of the results of the breakdown of regimental links with counties is that people may not feel the loyalty to all parts of the armed forces that they used to feel. We have also stopped naming much of our battle fleet after counties with which they have connections: for instance, we no longer have an HMS Shropshire. Perhaps we ought to have an HMS Shropshire, so that we can develop links between our counties and our services. That is incredibly important.

Des Browne: With respect, I think we have just launched an HMS Clyde.

At the weekend, when I visited the Somme battlefield, I spent a good deal of time in the cemeteries. I was struck by the number of Army names on the gravestones of whose existence I had not known, and which had disappeared from the lexicon of the British Army decades ago.

Patrick Mercer: That is sad.

Des Browne: But what also struck me was the fact that throughout the 20th century the Army had been a changing institution. Some of those names have passed into history. I do not have a sense that change has been to the detriment of the Army, because it can still be described as one of the best military institutions in the world, if not the best. It might have some competition from other services in the United Kingdom, but that is where the competition comes from.

Like the other services, the Army has been able to adjust to changes as they have happened—and as I have learnt more about the history of our services, I have realised that they have been happening for quite some time. I suspect that there were debates like this, and crisis was predicted, every time they did happen. However, I acknowledge the importance of enabling people to serve in a way that allows them to identify with a particular group recruited from a particular part of the country, and I will think about the extent to which we are able to do that in the context of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright).

Our armed forces rightly expect the best possible standards of medical care. We recognise that the aftercare of a few people, regular and reservist, returning from operations has sometimes fallen short of that ideal. Any such case is one too many, and we are viewing the position afresh to ensure that those people have the support that they deserve. In May, we announced a new post-operational mental health care programme for reservists demobilised since 2003 in response to an independent study by King’s college London, funded by the MOD. The study found that there was no evidence so far of a repetition of the “Gulf war syndrome” illness that was reported as a result of the 1991 Gulf war, and to that extent there has been progress, but it did find a higher incidence of mental health indicators among reservists than among regulars. There was a complicated explanation of the possible cause, related to support structures and a return either to the Army or to civilian life. There is a new programme to tackle the issues, which will be introduced later in the year.

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Service families have an important voice, and we listen to what they say. Our servicemen and women cannot give of their best on operations if they are worried about things at home. I am particularly grateful to the family federations from the different services for helping us to identify and address the key issues that affect families most. One of the major concerns is accommodation. Ensuring that our service personnel and their families have the accommodation that they need and deserve is a top priority. I admit that it has been a problem, but we have several initiatives under way to get things back on track. For example, project SLAM—single living accommodation modernisation—is being applied throughout England, Wales and Scotland. The first five-year contract, valued at about £0.5 billion, was awarded in 2002, and since then more than 5,500 bed spaces have been completed. The number will rise to 9,000 by 2008.

For service families, we have found the money to improve about twice as many houses as we had planned to improve in 2005-06, managing to complete around 1,200 upgrades against a target of 600. However, there much more to be done. A regional housing prime contract for all repairs and maintenance was introduced first in Scotland, and has led to improved standards of work and responsiveness, with much higher levels of satisfaction for families. There have been teething troubles with the more recent prime contract in England and Wales. While the strategy is right, its implementation so far has just not been good enough. My Department has given a commitment that that will be sorted out, and it will be sorted out.

There will come a time when—having worked so hard, served us so well and done so many things to contribute to the country and to making the world a safer place—our servicemen and women prepare to return to civilian life. As soon as they leave, they become veterans. Although we often associate veterans with the world wars, more than half a million former members of our armed forces are still of working age. Those veterans may have served in the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans or even closer to home.

As part of our youth agenda, we have run educational programmes to help younger people in particular to understand what our veterans have achieved, and—equally important—to reinforce the qualities of service, courage and selflessness that they represent. We are also expanding cadet activities for young people. Last year there were some 130,000 cadets, and 23,000 adult volunteers supporting them. This is the largest voluntary youth organisation in the United Kingdom, and it helps young people to become confident and responsible members of the community. We want to give more young people the opportunity to benefit.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East, announced last week that we would pilot an expansion of the combined cadet force in six state schools. I am pleased to announce that among them will be the schools run by the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Federation in Bromley in Kent and New Cross in south London. We expect to announce the other participants soon. I hope that following those pilots—and that is what they were—we will see the establishment of CCF units in a much wider range of state schools than at present.

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