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6 July 2006 : Column 1027

The defence White Paper proposed key changes to cope with this country’s commitments at home and overseas, which then predated Iraq and Afghanistan. Since the White Paper, there have been reductions in manpower requirements, recruitment and retention difficulties and increased demands on our armed forces. Those are challenges, to put it kindly. Some of us refer to overstretch and some to additional commitments, but the MOD should look again at the White Paper in the light of what has happened since it was published.

The size of the Army was deliberately reduced, but full recruitment has still not been achieved, despite that reduction. There have also been reductions in the personnel of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. In the light of current commitments and developments, we need to consider whether the size of Her Majesty’s armed forces is sufficient for today’s demands.

Recruitment from civilian life to UK regular forces has dropped substantially. As I indicated, between 9 and 10 per cent. of the British Army is not British. Constituents serving in the Army have told me that they would like to be British. I am thinking particularly of a Fijian solider who is proud to serve in the British Army—but, as he says, he would be even prouder if he could be British in the British Army. However, he cannot apply to become a British citizen without first leaving the Army. I appreciate that the issue is not for the MOD to resolve, but I hope that in a spirit of joined-up government other arms of the Government will find a way to enable people who are prepared to risk their lives for this country to become British citizens.

We need to look at retention and recruitment in equal measure. With that in mind, I was interested to hear about the housing issues raised by Opposition Front Benchers. Many of us recall that part of the root cause of the housing problem for married personnel was the sale by the last Government of family housing to Annington Homes at a ridiculously low price. Last year, for example, Annington sold 40 family houses, which previously belonged to the MOD, at a gross profit per dwelling of £100,000—a gross profit of £4 million. The company owns hundreds of similar homes and has demolished former MOD houses to create building sites on which it has built new houses. It is making a financial killing.

There is a case for the National Audit Office, or for the Select Committee on Defence or somebody in the Government or Government agencies, to look again at that privatisation and its consequences, because while Annington Homes was selling off allegedly surplus properties, the MOD—as was confirmed in a written answer last week—is renting between 50 and 60 family houses from the private sector in a town where there is a housing crisis. It is extraordinary that empty Army houses are being sold by their private owner, Annington Homes, which is making a financial killing, while the MOD is having to rent houses from the private sector because it does not have enough accommodation in a town with a housing crisis. That shows a lack of joined-up thinking.

The Minister has confirmed that there is much to be done to improve the quality of the housing stock for married families. I am delighted, however, by the assurance that the new Colchester garrison will have sufficient single persons’ accommodation. I hope that that turns out to be true, and I look forward to the release of the other private rented houses to the public sector, so that the 50 families in the private sector will be housed.

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Council tax is another issue that, if dealt with, would help to create a climate in which we respect soldiers and encourage them to remain in the Army. While they reside in this country, we would expect them to pay council tax, but it is absurd that, when they are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they are still required to pay council tax. A private citizen who is sent to prison is exempt from council tax, yet we expect soldiers sent to Afghanistan and Iraq to pay council tax.

Many children of military personnel attend schools that are predominantly occupied by the children of service families. I am advised that the figure can be as high as 100 per cent. in some parts of the country. Although the percentages for the five schools in the Colchester garrison area are anything up to 80 or 85 per cent, they do not quite hit 100 per cent. Detailed surveys have been carried out into the associated turbulence factor.

I am delighted that the Defence Committee is reviewing defence schools. Although those schools are the responsibility of the local education authority, they are predominantly filled by the children of military personnel. Again, to return to the concept of joined-up government, although the Ministry of Defence has very good education support people—I pay tribute to them—I feel that it and the Department for Education and Skills need to take due note that factors exist in schools attended by large numbers of children from service families that do not exist in other state schools.

I am reminded that the then Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), visited Colchester a couple of years ago and assured the chairmen and head teachers of the Army schools there that additional funding would be provided. They are still waiting for the cheque. It has not materialised. That is of considerable concern.

Like all three right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken so far, I pay tribute to the welfare and support services provided to military families and individual soldiers. Whether those services come from the Ministry of Defence itself or the voluntary sector, I am always impressed by the fantastic support that our military personnel receive from the family support groups and everyone else. It is quite remarkable, particularly at times of conflict when the whole community seems to rally round and provide support.

I also pay tribute to the civilian work force. However, the Government’s enthusiasm for privatising and outsourcing does not give much encouragement that the MOD understands the importance of loyalty to the work force. I urge the Minister to reflect on whether the MOD’s policy of continuing to go down the privatisation and outsourcing route is necessarily the right one.

Shortages in covering certain trades—the Royal Engineers, the Royal Signals, the Intelligence Corps and the Army medical services—have been alluded to. In the case of the Army medical services, I am sure that the Minister will observe that there is a continued inheritance from decisions made upwards of 10 years ago. Nevertheless, the shortages have yet to be addressed. I should like to put it on record that we recognise that men and women who are deployed, particularly overseas, deserve the highest quality of medical care that our country can provide. That care is provided by the doctors and others
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in Defence Medical Services and reserve services, and it is right that we mention the reserve forces, because we rely as much on the volunteers and TA support as we do on full-time military medical people.

Unfortunately, to date, the announcement of this year’s pay award for armed forces doctors is still awaited. I understand that, over the past year, the British Medical Association’s armed forces committee has worked closely with the Defence Medical Services directorate to provide matching evidence to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. That evidence was based on hard data comparing what can be earned by consultants in the NHS and by their military counterparts.

I understand that a 6.6 per cent. uplift in pay for armed forces doctors is required in addition to the Doctors and Dentists Review Body pay award of 2.2 per cent. to help to close the significant gap between the NHS and earnings in Defence Medical Services. There are fears that, unless the pay scales are brought closer together, many of those doctors, who are the military’s deployable medical experts, will resign from the armed forces to go into significantly better paid NHS posts, where they will not suffer from the added turbulence of repeated deployments. Military reservists who are ordinary consultants and general practitioners give up a substantial amount of time and, in some cases, earnings to serve their country, and their contribution to operations is crucial. I hope that that aspect will be dealt with.

I am aware that many other hon. Members wish to participate in the debate, and I shall conclude by saying that, although we all value our armed forces, the Government need to look again at whether the reduction in numbers in the Army, Air Force and Navy is correct in the light of new commitments and new risks around the world. The Government should consider whether those numbers should be increased, alongside the need to keep on the pressure in respect of some of the aspects that I have mentioned, so that married personnel feel more comfortable in remaining with Her Majesty’s armed forces, rather than leaving them, and we all have a part to play in recruitment.

I certainly take on board the point that, because of contractions, the footprint of the armed forces in the United Kingdom is getting smaller and smaller. Although garrison towns such as Colchester are seeing a growth in the Territorial Army, there are many parts of the country where the TA no longer exists. Perhaps for wider public consumption we need to have more military outposts in the United Kingdom so that people can more readily identify with the armed forces.

2.29 pm

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): First, I would like to associate myself with the condolences expressed to the families and friends of the young solider who was killed yesterday, and to those of all our servicemen and women who have died over the decades to keep this country in freedom, to preserve free speech and to help us to have the standard of living that we have today. They have more than fulfilled their need to defend their country and should be recognised as having done so.

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I also congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). It is seldom that we hear an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman who has obviously looked at his portfolio and who conducts himself in a proper manner to defend not only this House but the party that he represents. His conduct in mentioning our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was exemplary. It is a pleasure to follow him.

I would like to start by talking about our veterans, following the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who eloquently explained why our veterans have done such a good job and why they should be recognised by this country. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for coming to my constituency, where 220 veterans, plus families and friends, turned up for an event during veterans week. He was our honoured guest speaker. I also thank BAE Systems, which I will mention again later, which helped to sponsor the event. In particular, I want to mention the cadets from the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force who turned up and looked after my veterans so ably. I think that they got more than a little enjoyment from listening to the stories that they were told about the escapades of some of the gentlemen and ladies during the second world war. They had an excellent day, as did the veterans. I have gratefully received a number of letters thanking me for the day. We had a good sing-song and went over all the songs of the war days—some of which I did not know. It was an excellent day and it was a good way to recognise those who had put their lives in harm’s way to protect those of us who were born after the war.

Earlier this week, when people once again raised the subject of an extra bank holiday, I thought to myself, “We have recognised veterans. We had veterans week last year and veterans day just the other week. If colleagues and friends want an extra bank holiday, rather than make it a nationalist type of day, why don’t we have a day off to celebrate those who put their lives on the line for their country?” Let us have a veterans day when we can properly recognise and celebrate what those people did for the country. That would be a much better way of showing support and would mean that we had a day off when we could remember members of our own families who put their lives on the line and died. That would be much better than having a bank holiday for St. Andrew’s day, St. George’s day or St. David’s day. That would be a much better way of making it a national day.

That brings me on to another subject relating to our armed forces personnel who lay down their lives. It does not matter what country they come from. Whether they come from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England, it does not matter one jot. They are not second-class soldiers. I believe that we in this House should not be second class either. We have just as much right to defend those people in the House as they have to defend us. I deplore people’s attitude in trying to downgrade Members of this House.

I will move on to talk about the important matter of equipment for our armed forces. It will not surprise my right hon. Friend the Minister that I wish to talk about shipbuilding and, in particular, the Navy. I thank him once again for the work that he, his Department and others did to achieve the orders for the Type 45s, which are being built in my constituency as I speak. However, there is a question mark over the building of the seventh and eighth Type 45s.

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Let me give hon. Members a little more insight into the Type 45s. They will defend the two new carriers that we are about to build. My informants in the Royal Navy tell me that four Type 45s are needed to defend a carrier because the Type 45s corner the carrier to cover the area all round it. As we are to have two carriers, it suggests that we will need eight Type 45s to do the job, so will my right hon. Friend tell me what is happening with Nos. 7 and 8? Our servicemen and women serving on ships deserve the best protection that they can have, so if the Royal Navy is correct and it needs those ships, I hope that my right hon. Friend will come forth with something that will make me and other hon. Members feel a lot better.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I warmly endorse everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. To set his point in context, would he like to remind the House that there were originally supposed to have been 12 Type 45s in the programme?

John Robertson: I had not forgotten that, but I was trying to be party conscious and help my right hon. Friend the Minister. However, it would be nice if we got the other four as well, especially because at the moment the Scotstoun yard, which is the larger of the two yards on the Clyde, seems to be sending most of its workers over to Govan, which is where the steel cutting is done, because that is where most of the work is taking place at present. It is only once the fitting starts that we will get the work back in my constituency. I am sure that the local hostelries and shops will be happy when the fitting work starts to appear on the Clyde, which I am told will happen by the end of the year.

We have been especially quiet about the military afloat reach and sustainability project. We need either several new ships, or to upgrade or renovate a number of ships, so will my right hon. Friend the Minister give us an update on what is happening? The project is especially important to some of our smaller yards, such as Ferguson’s in Port Glasgow, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). The yard is desperate for orders, and some of the smaller ships covered by the MARS project would be ideal for it.

We must ensure that Afghanistan and Iraq have security forces who are equipped and trained for the job in hand. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister give me an update on what is happening with the training of security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan? I read somewhere that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had said that he expected that over the next 12 to 18 months, the democratically-elected Iraqi Government and their security forces might take responsibility for security. May I deduce from that that the start of the withdrawal of our troops could coincide with that time period? I will be interested to hear whether that is on the agenda. I appreciate that, for security reasons, one does not tell one’s enemy when one’s troops are being withdrawn, but as the local Iraqi troops grow to sufficient numbers, I would expect the number of our troops to decrease, albeit not necessarily by the same extent.

May I raise a subject that I have raised in the debate on pensions for armed forces personnel and in other defence debates? My participation in the armed forces
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parliamentary scheme brought me into close contact with members of the armed forces and their lifestyle, so I was particularly pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) that the morale of our troops is high. From reading media reports, however, one would think that they were holding their heads, a handkerchief in their hand, wondering what was going to happen to them. One would not think that their morale was high, they were doing a good job, or were successfully training the Iraqi security forces. It is important that we congratulate them on doing such a good job, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring on saying so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has alluded to the subject, but it is unusual for the shadow Secretary of State to agree with him. It would be useful if we remembered that agreement in other debates, as it is important to give credit where credit is due.

A couple of years ago, we discussed the issue of soldiers who leave the armed forces, and it was drawn to my attention that 10 per cent. of soldiers who leave the services fail to find a job and are unemployed. I thought that it was deplorable that people who had served the nation could not find a job, and were not given extra help to do so. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister of State say whether the figure is still 10 per cent., or whether it is lower or higher? What extra things have been done in the past few years to ensure that our servicemen are assisted in their return to civil society? What has been done to ensure that they find a job and are helped to find accommodation and to return to the area where they came from?

I have made a number of points that my right hon. Friend probably did not expect me to make, but I hope that I have provided the House with food for thought. I congratulate the Government on providing us with an opportunity to debate this important issue, but I wish that it could have been debated when many more Members were in the House. I see that, once again, the nationalists are missing. That is not unusual—they miss many important debates—but I should like their absence to be put on the record. Although they are the first to mount campaigns, particularly in Scotland, on regiments, the closure of airfields and so on, they could not even be bothered to turn up to our debate.

2.43 pm

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): May I warmly endorse the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), with whom I entirely agree? I am conscious that the subject of our debate is personnel, but I should like to say something later about Afghanistan and Iraq. However, in the spirit of our debate, I endorse the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who spoke with great conviction and clarity, both today and after Monday’s statement. I welcome, too, the Secretary of State’s contribution. I am sorry that he is not here, because I wanted to tell him that I was robust about his absence from the House earlier this week. I have nothing personal against him—in fact, I like him very much—but I think that absence from the Chamber during a statement is disrespectful to the House of Commons and extremely disrespectful to the armed forces. If one is within striking distance of the House, one should attend. I believe the Secretary of State should have been present, although
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his hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State made a very good fist of it in his place. I wanted to explain why I expressed myself in the manner that I did.

I start from first principles. The armed services exist to engage in war, to fight to achieve an end and to triumph over adversaries who will seek to exploit any weaknesses, particularly in our people’s will to win. It is that function which distinguishes them fundamentally from all others—from society in general, from large businesses and from any other public body. The armed forces must be prepared to engage in battle where the consequences of winning or losing are profound to the nation and to the individual. That is ultimately what society pays them to do and what society expects from them.

In the light of that, I express my wholehearted sorrow, as have many on both sides of the House, at the loss of another brave British soldier. I do so to his family and friends with all my heart. I pay a profound tribute to our armed forces—the men and women of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring and the Secretary of State did, to their families, who have to put up with a great deal and who, by keeping the home fires burning, do so much more than is ever appreciated. I also pay a particular tribute to the men and women of the reserve forces, almost 14,500 of whom have served in Iraq with the greatest distinction.

I welcome the announcement by Lord Drayson about the intention to merge parts of the Defence Logistics Organisation and the Defence Procurement Agency. That was part of the Conservative programme at the last election, it is what we would have done, had we come to power, and it is the right thing to do. As the Secretary of State said, it is not being done for fun. It is part of the process of improving the delivery of the most important equipment to servicemen and women in the field. I am clear that that is the right way to proceed with a currently unsatisfactory bureaucracy.

I am extremely anxious to hear that the MOD has been warned by the Treasury to expect a cut of more than £1 billion in the defence budget. Even by the standards of the Treasury’s baleful and contemptible record on defence, that is a cardinal act of folly and it says nothing for the Chancellor’s worthless assurances given at the Mansion house about supporting our armed forces at home and abroad.

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