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The morale of our troops is generally good. The Secretary of State mentioned the possible problems with morale if we under-deploy our forces, because our soldiers want to soldier—that is what they have been trained for. Getting the balance right is difficult. Our soldiers work in terrible conditions. I was out on a patrol in 50° C in body armour, in a Snatch Land Rover without air conditioning, and it was a horrendous way to do any job. Yet our troops do it with professionalism and, almost, without complaint. Standing here in an air-conditioned House of Commons, we would do well to remember the terrible physical conditions in which soldiers sometimes have to carry out the work that has
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been given to them. They live with the risk of improvised explosive devices—IEDs—and explosively formed projectiles, and problems continue with inter-Shi’a militia violence and Sunni-Shi’a violence in Basra. Inevitably, we sustain casualties, but, as I said earlier, at least we have the best medical care for our forces, and we should pay tribute to the medical staff who provide it.

We should also, now and again, consider the upside of the interaction with the Iraqis. There is no doubt that it is not entirely a happy picture. One serviceman who had been on several deployments to Iraq told me that the relationship with the Iraqi people had gone from welcome to consent to tolerance. It is a difficult trend, but when I was out with our troops in a market town, in soft hats despite the fact that there had been previous mortar attacks on them, there was a reservoir of appreciation from ordinary Iraqi people, who understood that the troops were there for their benefit. To me, it was a source of great pride that, notwithstanding the risk, our troops were willing to go out in soft hats, because they understood that the battle for hearts and minds was an important part of what was happening.

We are contributing to future security with the improvements in training for the Iraqi army, which has come on in leaps and bounds and is now taking on increasing duties in the maintenance of security. However, the Iraqi police force is still unable to assist in the way that we would like and that increases the security risk to our troops. I hope that the appointment of the Iraqi Prime Minister’s security co-ordinator in Basra will improve the outlook, reduce the level of Shi’a militia violence and enable our troops to continue the work that they are doing so bravely in an improved security environment.

On our second major deployment, in Afghanistan, I make no apologies for repeating what I said earlier this week. We cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan. That “we” is not the United Kingdom, but the international community. If we fail in Afghanistan, NATO’s reputation and cohesion are on the line. It will be almost impossible for us to get those who are reluctant to take part in the reconstruction mission to operate in the area again if we fail in Afghanistan. It would embolden our enemies and increase the risk of terrorist attacks in the UK and the rest of Europe. If we fail, we will betray the Afghan people, to whom we promised so much, and to whom a stable and secure state means everything.

The price of succeeding in Afghanistan will be high. It may be higher than many of us thought at the outset. But the price of failure would be intolerable. If we do not confront al-Qaeda and the forces of terror at the Afghan-Pakistan border, there is an increased risk that we will have to confront them at home. Those who think that there is an easy solution in disengaging from what is happening in Afghanistan do not understand the full security implications for their constituents if we fail to deal with the problems that we face there.

The Government have two duties—to maximise the chance of success of the mission and to minimise the risk to our troops. It is true that the security situation is not what we intended or expected. The initial belief
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was that Operation Enduring Freedom would entail a reduction in terrorist activity and allow the NATO mission for reconstruction to be conducted in a more secure environment. Instead, we have recently seen an increase in terrorist activity. All missions need to be re-examined constantly. It is not whether we carry out the mission, but how it is undertaken that needs to be reviewed. There are 30-odd countries taking part in the NATO mission, but there are more than 70 caveats that limit what they can achieve.

Some NATO countries have made very small contributions. The Secretary of State said that many of them could do tasks that we could not do and that we could all play a part, but the actual numbers being deployed are interesting. The UK has sent 5,700, Austria four, Denmark 106, Ireland seven, Luxembourg 10, Poland three, Portugal 166 and Switzerland four. It does not seem to me that all those countries are pulling their weight equally. Some countries are there in considerable numbers, such as Canada with 2,300 and Italy with more than 2,000, but the burden of the mission is not being shouldered equally by all those who are supposed to be taking part.

We also now face a potential substantial reduction in US troops. I hope that the Minister of State, when he winds up, will say whether we are considering an early merger of Operation Enduring Freedom and the international security assistance force mission as the best way to achieve what we want to do in conditions of the best possible security. Are we asking all that we should of our NATO partners? They need to understand the stakes and make a full commitment, including sending combat troops if required. The Defence Committee has said:

There needs to be a proper balance in what we are all doing in the Afghan mission.

We are all rightly proud of all our armed forces, their courage, dedication and professionalism. But we will have to decide whether to increase our resources to match our commitments, or reduce our commitments to match our resources. We cannot continue indefinitely with the level of overstretch that we now have. The quality and morale of our forces are at risk. Government, Parliament and the country as a whole need to decide what our priorities really are. We can either shape the future or be shaped by it. I hope that our history and experience will convince us that opting out is not the route to peace and security in the future.

1.58 pm

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome this wide-ranging debate, which focuses on the men and women serving in our armed forces. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am filled with admiration for those who serve our country in the most difficult and dangerous places. As we have seen in recent days, some pay the ultimate price for their service to our country and to freedom.

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I take the view that we should do everything possible to demonstrate how much we value our servicemen and women. I was delighted, therefore, that on 16 May the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), demonstrated the Government’s continued commitment to the welfare of our servicemen and women during their service and beyond. We have a continuing duty of care to our ex-servicemen and women as much as we do to those still serving. My hon. Friend’s statement gave details of the research programme carried out by King’s College on the health and wellbeing of personnel who served in the Gulf war and in Operation Telic. I am also pleased that the comprehensive physical and mental health care service already offered to mobilised reservists will be extended and enhanced to provide post-operational mental health care for recently demobilised reservists. As a result of the initiative, any reservist demobilised since January 2003 who has concerns about mental health will be able to get assessment and support. That is to be welcomed, and I pay particular tribute to the work of Defence Medical Services in that regard. I hope that the MOD will continue to look at the possibility of providing the same ongoing care to recently demobilised regulars as well as reservists.

We have already heard in this debate about many of the issues affecting the armed forces, and I am sure that other hon. Members will add to the list in their contributions. However, I want to concentrate on one or two key areas, and especially on matters relating to veterans.

Last year’s veterans awareness week was a great success, and led to us holding veterans day on 27 June this year, with events all over the country. I hope that the process will continue and that each year the British people will find new and innovative ways to celebrate the contribution that veterans make to our society.

The veterans badge has proved immensely popular, and is now being awarded to those who served in the Suez conflict. Only the other day, I presented veterans badges to members of the south Wales branch of the Royal British Legion, and I saw the great pride that they and their families displayed on receiving and wearing them.

The badge was not my initiative, but as a Minister I shared in the glory. I received a great many letters that said that the badge was a wonderful idea. People appreciate and value it greatly, and more than 250,000 have been awarded. It is a unique way for the country to show its appreciation for our veterans, and to thank them.

It is important that we celebrate and raise awareness of the achievements and contributions of our veterans, both at home and abroad, but we can do more. I want to refer to one matter in particular this afternoon.

It was heartening to see that the contribution of our veterans is being recognised abroad, with the award of the Pinjat Jasa medal by the Malaysian Government. I welcome the decision by Her Majesty the Queen to grant permission for the 35,000 veterans who took part in operations in Malaya to receive the PJM, but I am concerned that they have not been granted permission to wear it. In a written statement on 31 January, the then Minister for Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), who is now Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, said:

However, the statement went on to say that permission to wear the PJM was not given because:


The decision to forgo the “double-medalling” and five-year rules so that the PJM could be awarded in the first place, but then to use the same rules to deny veterans the opportunity to wear it, is both confusing and mystifying. Most people would think that fairness and common sense dictate that our veterans, having been given permission to accept the PJM, should be allowed to wear it. However, my mother used to say to me when I was growing up, “Son, you will find out in life that sense is not that common.” I think that that is true in respect of the PJM.

Further complicating the decision is the fact that the Commonwealth Governments in Australia and New Zealand have advised Her Majesty the Queen to grant unrestricted use of the PJM and allow their veterans to accept and wear the medal on all occasions. The ethos behind the first veterans day was to thank all the veterans who had served in our armed forces. In presenting the PJM, the Malaysian Government are thanking the 35,000 veterans who served in operations in that country. It seems decidedly odd that, although we in this country thank our veterans for their service and celebrate their achievements, veterans of the Malaysian operations are unable to wear the PJM. It is for that reason that I fully support the campaign to enable those who served in Malaya to wear the medal. I know that the veterans have petitioned Her Majesty the Queen on the matter, although she is not to be blamed for the decision. In our constitutional monarchy, the sovereign acts on the advice of Ministers and others—in this case the honours committee.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who has responsibility for veterans, will be their champion. I know that he is determined to be, but I hope that he will press those who advise the Queen to review the situation. I should be grateful if he said that he was prepared to do so.

Veterans day is a time for celebration, but it also highlights the support and advice available to veterans from official and voluntary sources, in particular the role played by the ex-service organisations. I am pleased that the MOD has completed its review of its veterans strategy, which was launched in March 2003.

The strategy seeks to provide excellent preparation for the transition of service personnel back into civilian life. It offers advice and support to veterans who need that, and ensures that we as a nation recognise and understand the contributions to our society that our veterans have made. It also gives the MOD the opportunity to work more closely with a host of veterans organisations, such as the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress.

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All the organisations involved have a fine record of serving our veterans, but the MOD could do more to help. In March, when I was still a Minister, I launched a pilot advertising campaign to promote the Veterans Agency freephone helpline—0800 169 2277. I believe that the agency does a fantastic job in advising veterans on many matters, but I was told that day that veterans are often unaware of the excellent service offered by the helpline. I hope that the MOD will take heed of that, and roll out an advertising campaign across the country, so that the Veterans Agency becomes as well known as the BBC, ITV or any of this country’s great institutions and organisations.

It has often been said that our treatment of veterans has a major impact on our ability to recruit in the future, and that has been touched on in the debate already. To maintain operational capability, the British armed forces need to attract new recruits each year. There are fewer military establishments now, and families have little or no experience of national service. That makes it difficult for young people to identify the armed forces as a career option.

The cadet forces give young people an excellent introduction to service life and help them to build confidence and self-esteem, providing an excellent fit and support for our country’s wider respect agenda. I pay tribute to the cadets, and their instructors, for the fantastic job that they do.

On 27 June, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced that funding would be provided for a pilot scheme that introduces new combined cadet forces in six state schools. The scheme lasts for three years, and I hope that it will be such a success that more secondary schools across the country will want to participate.

When I was a Minister, I had the honour to meet the entire service family—from cadets to reservists, and from serving personnel and their families to veterans. I never ceased to be amazed at their fortitude, resilience and, above all, their humour in the most difficult circumstances.

I well remember 7/7. As part of veterans awareness week, I was due to go to St. James’s park to meet RAF prisoners of war. I wondered how many would get there, but my God lots of them certainly managed it. I talked to one couple: the man was in a wheelchair, and his wife had pushed him from a hotel in west London. There was no public transport, but they were determined to be present. Another chap in his 80s said that he had got to Victoria station that morning to find that there were no buses or taxis. He said, “They locked me up in Germany for four years but that didn’t stop me, so the terrorists won’t either.” That shows the determination of a generation to whom we owe a tremendous debt.

This country does well when it comes to recognising and supporting our veterans, but we can do much more. I am sure that the aspiration and determination to continue to honour this country’s veterans is shared on both sides of the House. As I said to some school children recently, “If you value freedom, thank a veteran.” We owe them a huge debt.

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2.9 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) not only on what he said today but on his time as a Minister. I thank him for his support for the armed forces and for his responses to issues that I raised with him.

It is a special honour and privilege to be a Member of Parliament for a garrison town. Although my tributes today are given generally to all sectors of Her Majesty’s armed forces both at home and overseas, I hope I shall be forgiven if I make special mention of those from the Colchester garrison. Many of them are currently serving in Afghanistan, and although we still await details of the soldier who was killed yesterday we know that he was a member of 3rd Para battle group and the sixth person to have lost his life over the past three or four weeks. I fear that he is a member of 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment.

Last month, the Prime Minister paid tribute to an officer from 3rd Para who had been killed in Afghanistan and the whole House joined in those tributes, as indeed we have for others who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. The week before that officer was killed, I attended a memorial service at the garrison church in Colchester for two members of 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment who had been killed in Iraq. Troops from Colchester have served in both those conflicts and lives have been lost. I pay tribute to them and to the wider Army family.

As the Secretary of State said in his speech, members of Her Majesty’s armed forces are operating in 15 countries, of which two—Afghanistan and Iraq—are in the headlines. I will try not to move too far into operational matters because the debate is about armed forces personnel, so I shall try to concentrate my remarks on retention and recruitment and getting a fair, or fairer, deal for the armed forces.

I draw the attention of the House to the answer to a parliamentary question I tabled last month. Between 9 and 10 per cent. of the British Army are not British citizens. Citizens of 57 countries currently serve in the British Army. Alphabetically, they range from 75 Australians to 565 Zimbabweans. There are 1,995 soldiers from Fiji, 660 from Ghana, 975 from Jamaica, 720 from South Africa, 225 from St. Lucia and 280 from St. Vincent.

I want to mention especially the island of St. Helena, population 4,000, which has 20 soldiers in the British Army. It provides our Army with more people per head of population than any other part of the world. I draw attention to early-day motion 2403, because next year is the 25th anniversary of the Falklands war. Citizens of St Helena have been denied the award of the south Atlantic medal, even though the island is in the south Atlantic and its citizens volunteered to support the British Government in the recovery of the Falklands islands. They served on RMS St. Helena, but because the vessel was not inside the exclusion zone long enough, they did not qualify for the medal for operational reasons. I hope that the Government, perhaps through the medals committee, can find a way to rectify that slight. Those people volunteered when this country called on them to serve Queen and country; the least we can do is award them the medal to which most fair-minded people would think they were entitled.

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