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There is a view that the Government take the armed forces for granted. I do not accuse the Minister of State for the armed forces of that in the least, but generally the armed forces are taken for granted. It is not possible for the Government to go on saying how much they value our armed forces, when at the same time they are being starved of financial resources to enable them to carry out the commitments laid upon them by the Government. It was always taken as read that the Government would honour their pledge to fund the strategic defence review fully. At the time my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and others sought and received assurances that the strategic defence review would be fully funded, but that has never been done. The most important warning that I can give the Government is that many servicemen and women whom I talk to feel that they are indeed being
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taken for granted, and that their quality, efficiency and effectiveness are appreciated only at moments of high drama and crisis. I am afraid to say that there is, indeed, an element of that around. The process started rather well, but under relentless, continuous, baleful pressure from the Treasury, the Government have reverted to underfunding, the consequence of which is that the armed forces need a substantial injection of extra funds over the next few years if they are to carry out their current level of commitments.

I warn the Minister of State that if undermanning and overstretch continue, things will start to go wrong in the military field, and the Government will not be able to take for granted the almost guaranteed success and effectiveness from the armed forces that we have come to expect. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and their families now recognise that the Government are not matching their personal commitment by way of financial support to the defence budget, which will have to be put right.

I want to mention some very particular points. I want the Minister, if he would be so kind, to examine with care how we deploy our troops out of this country. The standard of service provided by the Royal Air Force is not nearly good enough. My noble Friend Lord Astor raised the matter in the Lords last week, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has raised it with the Chief of the Air Staff. It is frankly inexcusable—I repeat inexcusable—that soldiers going to and from active duty should be treated in such a deplorable and casual manner. There is a form of insanity in the MOD that seems to permit that to happen.

Why should soldiers, who have been carefully vetted and highly trained and who are on their way to operational duties in extremely dangerous parts of the world, have to turn up at RAF Brize Norton 12 hours before they take off? It is absolutely absurd. How is it possible that young men and women, who, having completed the most arduous tours, may be back on brief periods of leave, should find themselves having to sit around Basra airport, sometimes for several days, in gross conditions and with inadequate facilities when they have a confirmed flight, simply because there is no seat for them? It is unacceptable, and the Minister has it in his power to fix the matter, which is what he needs to do.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that important point, which I raised with the Chief of the Air Staff when he addressed the all-party Royal Air Force group earlier this week. The Chief of the Air Staff is fully seized of the concerns which my hon. Friend has rightly expressed. I hope that Ministers will give the Royal Air Force the necessary encouragement to bring about the changes that my hon. Friend rightly seeks.

Mr. Soames: My hon. Friend is right. He knows a great deal about the matter, and I confirmed with him this morning that my comments are correct. The problem is damaging for morale; it is thoughtless and feckless, and the Minister needs to get a grip on it immediately. Attitudes need to be changed, particularly in the Royal Air Force, in the most urgent and profound way, and I have no doubt that my right hon. and hon. Friends want to see a serious improvement.

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I want to turn to the tricky question of service housing, which has been raised by the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell)—who is never able to stay after he has spoken—and a number of other hon. Members. The Government have made some big improvements to service housing, which I applaud. I have visited Tidworth and think that some of the service accommodation is absolutely marvellous. It is unwise to expect young people to join up and live in the kind of accommodation that was used in the past, so the change is very good.

In the Lords last week, my noble Friend Lord Luke pointed out that too many British Army families still face housing problems at a time of increasing pressure. The Minister of State and I have wrestled with that intractable problem. My noble Friend quoted appositely from a speaker at the Army Families Federation conference:

This remains a very important matter in terms of retention and recruitment.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The hon. Gentleman knows that I have great respect for him. When he was armed forces Minister, what role did he play in the major sell-off of all those assets, did he resist it, and what did he think would be its legacy, which we inherited and are having to deal with?

Mr. Soames: As some of my hon. Friends know, I was anxious about that when it happened. We were in a position where we had to do it—there was no alternative in terms of money. [Interruption.] I am disappointed by the Minister’s reaction. I started by saying that I congratulate the Government on what they have achieved in service housing, and I am merely saying that it continues to be a problem. The sell-off to Annington Homes was inevitable, but I suspect that the consequences were not properly thought through. Even though the Government have made a big investment, things are not yet right, and a great deal more needs to be done.

Mr. Ingram: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soames: No, I will not, because the right hon. Gentleman chose to ignore the spirit in which I made my remarks, and I am not going to risk it again.

The Army is too small. The Navy has been desperately ill-served by the Government’s mad decision to cut the destroyer force by 20 per cent. a couple of years ago. The frigate is the workhorse of the fleet, and its deployability, reach and endurance is the absolute cornerstone of what I understand to be our defence policy and its expeditionary and global aspirations. The fact is that our force is spread too thinly. How can one ship sensibly manage to patrol the Caribbean, the west coast of Africa and the south Atlantic? The commitment of our joint helicopter operation is stretched almost to breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am afraid that it all comes down to
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a shortage of money and not enough kit. That is bad for the fighting effectiveness of the forces, bad for morale, and bad for training. One can only wonder, given the current pressure and intensity of operations, which is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, how tour intervals are to be managed, not only for the teeth arms but for the signals, logistics and medical services.

It is not well understood in this House that the people of our armed forces live under a very different code of rules and conduct from the rest of us. We heard earlier about the way in which the media report matters relating to defence. The press, barring one or two exceptions, are absolutely clueless about the armed forces. One of the most foolish things that the Government did was to get rid of the services public relations staff at the Ministry of Defence. That broke an invaluable chain of information and knowledge between the forces and a largely ignorant press. The media love to pretend that they are on the side of what they call our brave lads and then take every opportunity to shaft them. Other than the few remaining defence journalists, they have no idea how the armed forces work. That is very disappointing.

Sadly, few Members of this House take an constant interest in and are knowledgeable about the armed forces; most of them are probably here today. As the hon. Member for Glasgow, North-West said, the turnout for this debate on personnel in the armed forces, at a time when our armed forces have never been more committed and, in some places, in greater danger, is lamentable. It is a great pity that more hon. Members are not present. In the wider world, there is tremendous and profound misunderstanding and ignorance because of the reduction in the service footprint and the number of people who have served in the modern armed forces. As that number has contracted and as the geographic footprint has become smaller, there is less attachment to and understanding of what has gone on. That is not good for the armed forces or the country.

An extraordinarily high standard of personal conduct is required of our armed forces—exceptional respect for the law, teamwork, cohesion, trust and an astonishingly highly developed sense of duty, obligation and integrity. If the Minister has not already done so, I suggest that he read the guide to soldiers—“The Values and Standards of the British Army”. It should be much more widely distributed. The problem for us all is that those qualities are almost unique to the traditions and institutions of the British armed forces and are increasingly not only not understood by but wholly alien to many of our fellow citizens.

However, it is encouraging that the comradeship and team spirit, loyalty and patriotism—understated but devoted patriotism—and the emotional, intellectual and moral qualities, which lead those young men to put their lives on the line, are still hugely and widely admired whenever people stop for a moment to think about those matters.

It is therefore imperative that, despite the Government’s baleful politically correct bent, Ministers do not try to drag the armed forces into being a mirror image of the society that they serve. Ministers must be watchful that, for example, the capability and effectiveness of our forces are not seriously undermined by a lot of on-the-make
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lawyers. The Government will never understand, but although the armed forces have no right to be different, they need to be different. What has happened in the recent past in Iraq and is happening at the moment in Afghanistan is living proof that, for the young servicemen and women of today, the fundamental nature of war, and all that they have to train for, remains unchanged.

The young men in the 16th Air Assault Brigade, and all those who are supporting them, are taking part in a terrifying contest of wills, which can lead—and has led—inevitably to death, terror, bloodshed and destruction. Just as for the truly formidable previous generations of servicemen, combat will continue to represent the ultimate physical and mental challenge.

The House and the people of this wonderful country should be deeply proud of and grateful to those young men and women, who will encounter a combination of extreme danger in rapidly changing circumstances, amid conditions of chaos and uncertainty. Their skills, the quality of their leadership, their weapons and their equipment are being severely tested.

Such operations can be sustained and undertaken only by highly trained servicemen, motivated by enormous pride in their traditions and institutions, a depth of comradeship unimaginable to anyone who has never experienced it, an exceptional level of team spirit and, most important, the ethos of their service. Their loyalty and patriotism are magnificent, as are their enduring belief in British values and an unshakeable determination to defend them.

So let us be clear: even with our armed forces as grotesquely overstretched as they are, nothing should be allowed to interfere with the exceptional quality of training that our troops need and that gives them the confidence to remain as they always have been—unbeaten.

I do not know how many hon. Members have read the truly wonderful book, “Dusty Warriors”, by Brigadier Richard Holmes. He was the brigadier in charge of the Territorial Army at the Ministry of Defence, and he is an extremely distinguished military historian. The book is a history of the deployment to Iraq of the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. It was a rough but extremely distinguished deployment in which the regiment did brilliantly well. One of its young soldiers, Private Beharry, won the Victoria cross. I want to read two brief quotes from the book, because they are germane to a serviceman’s life today and to what we ask of those young men. In a debate on armed forces personnel, it is important to say these things.

The second quote comes from Colonel Matt Maer, who commanded the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. I shall quote what he said of the members of his battle group. I think that it is a wonderful thing to say and, my goodness, it shows the extraordinary skill and capabilities of the young men involved.

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That is an astonishing tribute to the young men of the British Army, who are, in our cause, conducting the most vital operations.

I come back to the point made by my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State that we cannot afford to get this wrong in Afghanistan, and we absolutely have to make sure that it works. The House needs to realise with great humility how extraordinarily lucky we are in this magnificent country to have such exceptional armed forces. At every level of command in all three services—and, indeed, throughout all ranks—they are truly formidable in their standards, both personally and professionally. In their teamwork and in their highly developed sense of cohesion, duty and obligation, they are an institution that forms a priceless asset for Great Britain in the pursuit of our aims and interests both at home and abroad. It is of enormous credit to the quality of the services’ leadership that, in a period of considerable upheaval, they have retained exceptional flexibility combined with great clarity of purpose and endeavour. They deserve our wholehearted support in every way that we can give it.

3.9 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): In this debate on armed forces personnel, it is important that we also remember the civilian personnel, who provide invaluable back-up and without whom we could not expect our front-line troops to operate. I would like to mention in particular the staff at Llangennech, who form part of the defence supply chain.

I want to make a few references to privatisation and ask a few relevant questions. Are we really getting value for money when we privatise our services? We all know that there has been waste and inefficiency in the past in many of our public services. However, the whole culture has changed in recent years—there is so much more evaluation, consideration of cost-effectiveness and questioning of what we do. Perhaps we need to think again about privatisation and consider what the public service can offer.

Staff in Llangennech have been at the forefront of evaluation work—improving their service, developing IT and making their service more cost-effective. Therefore, how do private organisations provide better value for money—supposedly—especially as they want to ensure a profit margin? Perhaps they cut down on management. The MOD, however, would still need management personnel to run the contracts for any privatisation. Perhaps private companies do less and have a tendency to cherry-pick profitable activities and to leave less profitable activities behind, skimp on them or not do them properly. Perhaps they have a tendency to work to minimum requirements or to offer lower wages, with subsequent difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff of the quality that we are used to in our current workforce in Llangennech.

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My concerns about privatisation are that it will not provide value for money and that there may be lapses in the quality of service, which will only be uncovered when it is too late. I welcome the Minister’s indication, however, that if the work is to be outsourced, the staff currently working in Llangennech would have the opportunity to form an appropriate organisation to bid for it. That is not an easy path to go down, however, as competing against big business and companies with whole departments dedicated to marketing and contract procurement can be very difficult.

The difficulty with bids and contracts is that some aspects are difficult to quantify—for example, the skills, expertise, loyalty and accuracy of the staff at Llangennech. Nothing is ever lost by them and appropriate requests are always met effectively and efficiently. Anyone who has not visited Llangennech would find it difficult to appreciate its facilities for storing publications and forms. One needs to imagine a storage facility as large as this Chamber, with steps that stretch up higher than the balcony, to about the level of the annunciator. You should imagine, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you are in a little chair, and that you are propelled along the floor to roughly where the Dispatch Box is, and then up in the air to the level of that balcony and beyond, just to collect some forms from the top shelf. The level of organisation is beyond belief, and that piece of equipment is unique and purpose-built for storing an enormous number of forms and publications—more than most of us can even imagine. Whoever plans to bid for that work in the private sector will have to think about how they could recreate such a facility.

The price quoted recently for taking over just one record at the facility in Llangennech—not running the service—is £4.5 million. If that figure is to be believed, and it relates to the work currently done by about a dozen staff, what figure would be put on the rest of the work done there, which involves some 200 staff?

All of us—even trade unions—can understand the need for restructuring, organisational change and efficiency savings. I am concerned, however, that we are not taking into account the tremendous quality of staff in Llangennech and the special facilities there. Will the Minister ensure that a really thorough appraisal is made of the potential to keep the staff and facilities at Llangennech as part of the MOD team? If that is not possible, and outsourcing is the chosen option, any bidding process should include a genuine appreciation of the quality of service that staff at Llangennech can guarantee to deliver.

3.14 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): We should think carefully about what was said by the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) about the difficulty of procuring some very complex services. She was right to say that we should value civilians in the public service and the Ministry of Defence, who provide extremely good value for money. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who himself paid tribute to our armed forces on behalf of the whole House, eloquently and passionately.

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