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I cannot end my speech without also paying tribute to our civilian work force, and the crucial contribution to defence made by more than 80,000 civilian employees at home and abroad. Civilians play a vital and loyal role in the delivery of defence capability in the context of almost every aspect of our work. They deploy with our forces in operational theatres, both to advise military commanders and to manage associated infrastructure. They man the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service, and are central to the key area of acquisition and maintenance of equipment used by our armed forces.

Hon. Members will be aware of the announcement earlier this week of important changes in this area, which responded to the recent report on defence procurement that was commissioned following the publication of the defence industrial strategy last December. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the armed forces will cover those changes in more detail in his summing up, responding to the contributions of hon. Members, but may I say that the aim behind them is clear? Our armed forces deserve the best equipment and support that we can give them.

In today’s world, technology changes very quickly and the needs of our armed forces change with it. Our management and civilian structures must change too, and I know that the changes will have a significant impact on a loyal work force who have made a consistent contribution to defence, supporting personnel deployed on the front line. I can assure the House that we will work to mitigate the consequences, but I have no doubt that systematic change of that nature is necessary if we are to achieve our objective of supporting the front line even better in future.

We have much to be proud of in the United Kingdom, especially in our armed forces. We owe a great debt to the men and women currently serving in uniform and the civilians who support them. They will, in turn, take their place among the veterans of yesterday, whom we have all been honouring in this year of moving anniversaries. I take the role of Defence Secretary with the utmost seriousness, as I recognise that it is my job to honour our people, support them and represent them. It is a tremendous privilege so to do.

1.30 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Let me begin by paying tribute to all our servicemen and women who make this country’s armed forces among the very best in the world. Let me pay tribute, in particular, to all those who have been killed or injured in active service on our behalf in Iraq and Afghanistan while they were attempting to bring stability and security for people who long to have what we in this country too often take for granted. I pay tribute to all our servicemen and women who are presently toiling in dreadful conditions of heat and dust, making those missions sustainable.

Let me also pay tribute to all those service families who make huge sacrifices over many years to enable the smooth functioning of service life. It is a great pity that the public in general are so unaware of the contribution that service families make to the quality of our military capability. Not all our heroes are in uniform and I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), who is no longer in his place, that we
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should take every opportunity to educate the public about the security role played by our troops, by our service families and, as the Secretary of State has said, by civilians, who all contribute hugely to our successes.

Of course, our forces cannot be sustained by our words of admiration alone. It has been pointed out in previous debates that this year—and despite the talk about record investment—we are spending just 2.2 per cent. of our gross domestic product on defence, which is the lowest proportion of our national income spent on defence in any year since 1930. The significance lies not in the figure itself, but in the fact that we have more and more operational commitments overseas, while we have lost more than 10,000 servicemen from the Army, 10,000 from the Navy and more than 10,000 from the Royal Air Force since 1997.

The Secretary of State is correct that retention in the armed forces is broadly good, but recruitment levels show no sign of improvement. Recruitment to the Army has fallen by a quarter in just two years, to the Navy also by a quarter and to the RAF by a shocking two thirds. Since 1997, the establishment size of the infantry alone has fallen by half from 16,000 and, in reality, its strength is a further 15 per cent. lower than that in any case. According to the Army’s own figures, out of 43 battalions, only the Royal Gurkha Rifles is up to strength as of May 2006. The 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers and the 1st Staffordshire Regiment are as many as 150 under strength.

It is not even an argument to say that we can rely on the reserves, because since 1997, the Territorial Army has shrunk from 56,000 to 32,000. As the National Audit Office’s recent report on reserves makes clear, all volunteer reserves are below strength and the situation is worsening. My own experience of reserve forces is that they perform an important role with great professionalism and are admired by the regulars, but the NAO report is a cause of worry to those who have read it. It states:

and that reservist officers

That takes on increased importance because we are using reserves, as the Secretary of State said, in present operations.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is making some important points about the Territorial Army. Will he comment on a suggestion put to me in respect of the 104th Regiment, Royal Artillery, headquartered in Newport? A regular commanding officer, an adjutant, a regular sergeant-major and everyone in the regiment seems to believe that regulars providing command and leadership are important to a strong Territorial regiment. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Dr. Fox: Anything we can do to improve the quality of those serving in this country’s name should be looked at favourably and I am sure that the Secretary of State and Ministers were listening to the hon. Gentleman with the same interest that I was. If we can get a greater interface between the regulars and the reservists, and if it improves the quality of the troops we send into action, it should be welcomed.

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Mr. Gray: Just to counter that point slightly, some regiments are commanded by Territorial officers and they are absolutely first class. My own regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company, is a case in point. We should not let lie the idea that that regular commanders are necessarily better, although they may be in some cases.

Dr. Fox: I bow to my hon. Friend’s experience. It is fair to have a score draw and say that there is superb leadership in both the reserves and the regulars, which is something that the House can be generally proud of.

An inevitable consequence of the trends that I set out on recruitment and our increased commitment is the problem of morale. Premature voluntary outflow is inexorably rising, particularly in the RAF. Recent surveys in the Army have revealed problems with morale, showing that 47 per cent. of soldiers and 40 per cent. of officers were thinking of leaving the Army within a year. At the heart of the discontent is the overstretch caused by recruitment and retention problems allied to the high level of commitment.

The current level of defence expenditure is supposed to provide for, at most, no more than one small-scale operation and two medium-scale operations at any one time. Yet the NAO military readiness report in June 2005 highlighted the fact that the armed forces operated consistently over the planned level of activity during 2002, 2003 and 2004. The NAO highlighted concerns about its impact on the armed forces, saying:

With regards to the Army, the recommended harmony guideline for intervals between tours is 24 months. That is what the balance, to which the Secretary of State referred, was supposed to be. Yet the Ministry of Defence’s annual report for 2004-05 states that the average tour interval for infantry units is 21 months and the average tour interval for Royal Artillery units is 19 months. The report stated that there were specialist troops experiencing significantly worse tour intervals and that certain elements of the Army have tour intervals of less than one year. For example, the Queen’s Royal Lancers had only 12 months between a tour of duty in Kosovo and a tour of duty in Iraq. I spoke to soldiers in Iraq last week, who expected a gap of only eight months between their deployment there and subsequent deployment to Afghanistan. That is not acceptable. It is not a reasonable balance and it puts far too much pressure on our armed forces and their families.

The divorce rate in the armed forces is increasing and concerns are being expressed about the quality of service children’s education. I look forward to reading the Defence Committee’s report on that issue, to be published at the end of this month, with very great interest.

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There are other welfare issues, which the Secretary of State touched on. Accommodation is still a serious matter for many service families, particularly those serving overseas. The Defence Committee’s report of last year, on future capabilities, noted the following:

Those concerns were borne out by a reply to a written question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), which showed that a quarter of service properties in Cyprus and half those in Gibraltar were classified as grade 4—that is, the worst possible.

There are also shortages in the medical services. The worst shortfalls in the strengths of the Army’s various corps were all in the medical sphere. As at 1 December 2005, the Royal Army Medical Corps was 86 per cent. under strength, the Royal Army Dental Corps was 89 per cent. under strength, and Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps was 78 per cent. under strength. There are problems with medical reservists getting the experience that they require, and overstretch and undermanning are depriving them of the training time needed to acquire skills pre-deployment.

Let me, for the sake of balance, say this about the medical services. When our servicemen and women are injured in Iraq, for example, they get the very best possible medical care. I visited the field hospital at Shaiba logistics base last week, and it reminded me, for the very first time, why I practised medicine. The quality of medical care there, which is patient-focused and—dare I say it?—not target or administration-focused, is one that most doctors in this country would love to return to. I was deeply impressed by the ratio of staff, and by the quality of care provided in what is a very difficult environment. There is also far better access to investigative procedures than we might get as NHS patients. It is also worth pointing out that the base has not had a single case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

Des Browne: I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I merely want to take this opportunity to associate myself entirely with what he has just said about the hospital facilities at the Shaiba logistics base. I visited it just weeks before he did and was very impressed by the quality not just of the infrastructure, but, principally, of the people there and their dedication to the job.

Dr. Fox: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that intervention. While I was there, I had a “Newsnight” camera with me, and, given that we have reached a point of agreement, I should perhaps take this opportunity to point out that it would be nice if “Newsnight” showed some of the good things that are happening in Iraq, and not simply the bad.

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War wounds may be obvious from the moment of arrival at a field hospital, but illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder might arise years later, in response to some unknown trigger. Indeed, it should be realised by the wider world that PTSD is not the only form of mental illness that the ex-service community faces. They are like any other part of the population: one in five of them will suffer from some sort of mental illness during their lives.

The health and social care advisory council has already stated that it believes that the NHS is unable to deal with the military population’s mental health needs. One in 10 of those aero-evacuated from Iraq were brought out because of a mental health problem. Some 1,300 who served in Iraq between January 2003 and September 2005 have been identified as having a mental health problem. But what about those who suffer in obscurity? As Combat Stress’s most recent annual report states, it takes an average of 14 years post-discharge for an individual in need of help to approach that organisation; only one in 10 are referred by a doctor. Many would have been helped by early intervention, but all too many have already reached the end of the road before they seek the help that they need.

For all those reasons, it astounds me that, when it comes to considering compensatory pensions for those injured on active service, a serious disabling mental health condition is treated no differently financially from the loss of part of one limb. Yet the impact on an individual’s ability to work and to continue with their normal life is strikingly different. I urge Ministers to examine the issues of compensation and mental health in the armed forces as a matter of urgency.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con) rose—

Mark Pritchard rose—

Dr. Fox: I am spoilt for choice. I give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark).

Mr. Newmark: Does my hon. Friend realise that the knock-on effect of this lack of psychiatric care is that 20 to 25 per cent. of homeless people on the streets of London are people who were in the armed forces?

Dr. Fox: I have made the point that the level of mental health care for those in the armed forces needs to be looked at. What my hon. Friend describes is a wider problem. Mental health is the Cinderella service in health care provision, and Members in all parts of the House need to find a way to raise its importance as an issue. The quality of care that we provide to those with a mental illness is one way that we can measure how civilised we are as a society, and I am afraid that we fail rather badly in that regard.

Mark Pritchard: Does my hon. Friend agree with the Combat Stress facility in Newport, Shropshire, which suggests that without early intervention in cases of post-traumatic stress, it develops into post-traumatic stress disorder, which can last for many years? There is evidence in Shropshire to support that point of view. There are people in the Audley Court facility who served in the Falkland Islands who are still suffering from PTSD.

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Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend makes an important point that I should like to augment. One reason why we have poor mental health outcomes in this country is that there tends to be late presentation of a whole range of mental health problems. One reason for late presentation is that a hugely out-of-date stigma is still attached to mental illness. That is a societal question that we need to tackle. We need to ensure that we not only have the necessary facilities, but that people are not afraid to admit that they have such an illness, and that they therefore seek help at an appropriate time. That would improve outcomes, which have been unacceptable for many years, if not centuries.

Last week, I had the honour of visiting some of our troops in Basra. Having had that experience, I am happy to say that the attitude of our forces serving there is still extremely positive. It can never be said often enough what a superb job they are doing in such difficult conditions. Indeed, as I said earlier, it would do no harm for the media occasionally to refer to the good news emanating from Basra, rather than referring unremittingly to the bad. In particular, it was a source of huge irritation to many of our servicemen and women that nothing was ever reported about the work that they are doing to improve the sewerage and electricity infrastructure, along with all the other good work that is being undertaken.

Our media should understand that if, in reporting only bad news, they cause a drop in the morale of not only our servicemen and women but their families, their anti-war agenda could risk affecting events, rather than simply reporting them. The Secretary of State reiterated earlier the point that I made the other day about Members of this House having to worry about the language that we use in discussing conflicts. Similarly, the media have a duty to report not only the bad things, but the good things that our troops are doing for the people of Iraq in respect of reconstruction and the security improvements that are being brought about in many parts of that country. That said, we all accept that the picture is still very mixed.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the media are trying to create the stories, rather than reporting them?

Dr. Fox: There is a real risk that, in trying to feed the 24-hour news cycle, truth is the first casualty. That is probably truer of the media now than it was before, given the appetite for news. If there is to be reporting, it should be balanced. Of course there are casualties and fatalities and dangers for our troops, but good things are also happening on the ground.

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