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6 July 2006 : Column 1046

Last Sunday, I was in the village of Fovant in Wiltshire at the annual drumhead service for the Fovant Badges Society. As we remembered the battle of the Somme, the Australian high commissioner reminded us of the part that Australia had played in the military history of our islands. In front of 34 Royal British Legion banners and about 300 veterans and their families, we sang our hearts out for the people who, on their way to and from the Somme, had carved in the chalk hillside their regimental badges, including the badge of the Anzacs.

That service brought home to me the continuity of military tradition in the county of Wiltshire. The memory goes much further back than the first world war and beyond the days when Salisbury plain was purchased by the War Department to be our primary training area: for 300 years, at 12 noon on the day after the poll, the Member of Parliament for Salisbury of the time has to ascend the balcony of the White Hart hotel in Salisbury and sing the marching song of the Wiltshire Regiment—[Hon. Members: “Sing it now.”] Sadly, I am not allowed to, although I should love to; I have successfully sung the song six times and look forward to doing so a seventh time, and who knows how many more.

The ceremony illustrates the relationship between the military and the agricultural communities from which it drew its forces. For 300 years, the old county regiment of Wiltshire has fought with the British Army all over the world. There is an ancient and tattered flag in the nave of Salisbury cathedral—the very flag that the Wiltshire Regiment took up the Potomac river to sack the White House. I remind my American friends of that and point out the flag with great pleasure— [Laughter.] They have a good chuckle, too.

We are talking about something much more important than mere history; it is living history. This is my first opportunity in a defence debate to recall with sorrow the passing into history of the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment. We lament its passing, and I echo the words of those who have said that the geographical representation of the British regiments is important to our traditions and that we are losing something by further amalgamations. I hope that we shall stop them before we become just like any other old army. I remember, too, the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, which still exists but only as a company and not as a proud regiment.

We have talked much today about the strength of the regular forces. I note that on 1 April 2006 the naval service had a shortfall between trained requirement and strength of about 1,300 people, which is a decrease of 600 from the previous year. The RAF was 600 under strength in April 2006, and shortfalls have been recorded in four of the last five years.

At the same time, the Army needed 1,200 trained personnel to reach its requirements, which is two thirds of the shortfall recorded in the previous year. That is a move in the right direction and I am very relieved about it. After the Secretary of State’s announcement on Monday about Project Hyperion and the other defence acquisition hub announcements, I look forward to hearing more about the proposal to create a new three-star command for recruitment and training, which will, I hope, make the Army even more effective in that respect than it is already.

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I offer some praise and comfort in respect of recruitment in very difficult days. It is always easy for the military to recruit when unemployment is very high. Of course, without the foundations laid by the previous Conservative Government, unemployment would not have fallen in the past nine years or so, but civilian staffing is also very important indeed, particularly in my constituency. The Secretary of State for Defence referred to the vital work of civilian staff. They are hugely important in my constituency, and they range from the defence scientists at Porton Down to the administrative grades in Land Command at Wilton.

I am not at all surprised that the Public and Commercial Services union has briefed very thoroughly, efficiently and accurately the Members of Parliament involved in the recent announcements. We need to remember that the number of civilian employees in the military has declined by 23 per cent. since 1997. I should say for the sake of accuracy that it has decreased by 45 per cent. since 1990, before that argument rears its head again. The civilian work force supporting the military has continually declined over the past 16 years, and we need to remember that when we are listening to the unions and others.

It is therefore very important that we consider the role of the civilian work force, and I wish to pass on my own very grateful thanks to all the scientific, industrial and administrative civil servants who work at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down—the constant butt of criticism and inaccurate reporting and sometimes of vicious and inaccurate comments, even from Members of Parliament, as happened quite recently. The way in which a Member attacked DSTL was disgraceful—its employees are the very people who provide the daily protection for our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are working hard at Porton Down to protect our service personnel.

I also think of all the military and civilian staff at Winterbourne Gunner and the way in which they are training the military. Indeed, every police force in the country receives its chemical, biological and radiological training at Winterbourne Gunner outside Salisbury.

QinetiQ at Boscombe Down is a huge success story involving the privatisation of part of the old Defence Evaluation and Research Agency into DSTL, which remains public sector, and QinetiQ. I opposed that change not just because well over 1,000 people in my constituency were involved, but because I thought that it was wrong. I thought that something that Margaret Thatcher refused to privatise was likely not to be sensibly privatisable, but it turns out to have proved successful. QinetiQ at Boscombe Down now employs not 1,200 people, but nearly 1,800 people, and it is a hugely successful enterprise that provides an important part of the infrastructure of defence in this country.

I should also like to mention—I am not the first Member to do so today—the importance of Defence Medical Services. Ever since I first served on the Defence Committee, back in 1995, I have been very concerned about what happened to Defence Medical Services. There was not a glorious transition. Nevertheless, we have what we have. Unfortunately, pay and salaries have dropped substantially. Negotiations are in progress as we speak, but a settlement should have been reached for the new uplifts in pay for armed forces doctors.

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Besides the regular doctors and consultants, I pay tribute to the reservists and Territorials who play an absolutely crucial part. This year, the district hospital in my constituency has had five consultants operating in theatre in Afghanistan and Iraq. They make an enormous contribution. They forgo quite a lot to do it, but their work is extremely important. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us some good news on progress in that respect in his winding-up speech.

I served on the Armed Forces Bill Committee earlier this year—my third such engagement with an Armed Forces Bill and, I hope, my last because we might not need another one now that we have a tri-service Act—so I should like to comment on the work of the Chaplain General’s Department. This is the first year in which the Army has provided for the spiritual welfare of men and women of faiths other than Christianity. I warmly welcome that and I am sure that it is a move in the right direction. I have seen Army chaplains at work in the field—in particular in the Balkans, but elsewhere too—and I have been hugely impressed by their professionalism and by the high regard in which they are held by the people in their charge. I wonder whether they are better out in theatre than perhaps they are sometimes in the garrison towns around Salisbury plain. I do not know.

What I do know, however, is that during the passage of the Armed Forces Bill, we took evidence from families whose young men had suffered from bullying and worse and it was distressing to hear that, to them, the padre was just another officer who could not really be trusted. That gets to the nub of the problem with Army chaplains: they have a duty of confidentiality in relation to the confessional, but they also have a duty of confidentiality to the chain of command. I wonder whether that circle can ever be squared. It might be slightly easier in the Royal Navy, where a chaplain is not an officer. I do not know.

Mr. Gray: May I correct my hon. Friend slightly? He is quite right that, in the Royal Navy, chaplains—my father was one—do not wear a badge of rank, but that does not mean that they are not officers. They bear the same rank as the person to whom they are speaking, so when they are speaking to a rating, they are themselves ratings. That is an important point.

Robert Key: That is crucial. It is a fascinating point and one that I would like to take up. Tomorrow, I will travel to York to the General Synod of the Church of England. It is interesting that the Chaplain General’s Department is fully accredited to the General Synod of the Church of England and will be represented there. I can see some interesting discussions taking place.

I would like to say a few words about the Royal Military Police, who are hardly ever mentioned, except when things go wrong. I first came across the Royal Military Police in my constituency. Then, as now, five different police forces—most of them military of different colours and badges and so on—were operating in my constituency. The Royal Military Police were always around in their vehicles. Late on a Saturday night, if there was a spot of bother in the garrison towns at closing time, Wiltshire constabulary put a quick call through to the RMP and suddenly everyone calmed down and disappeared very quickly indeed, because the
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disciplinary procedure is quite different. Someone who is picked up by Wiltshire constabulary is in the cells overnight, rapped over the knuckles by the magistrates and let out the next morning; someone who is caught by the RMP is up on charges in front of the commanding officer the next morning and is fined £700. That is a no-brainer.

I next met the RMP when I was in Sarajevo, Banja Luka and elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. We had close protection squads from the RMP looking after us. They were very dangerous days. I was full of admiration then—and now—for the work that they do. The strange thing is that, in battle, the RMP are always right out there at the front. They are in front of the armour and the artillery, staking out the forward route in their Land Rovers and so on. They are very lightly armoured, if at all, and they have no protection from mines, small arms or artillery. I know that that is being addressed. I have raised the matter before with the Minister of State. We know that there is a new stream of Panther vehicles coming to the Army later. However, what bothers me is that, in a parliamentary question, I asked who was going to get those vehicles first, and the answer was the training regiments. That is fine, but no mention was made of the RMP. I thought that we were talking about what was meant to be a front-line reconnaissance vehicle.

Mark Pritchard: Does my hon. Friend agree that, although it is important that those vehicles come on stream as soon as possible, it is equally important that there is forward planning by the Ministry of Defence when it comes to the training on those vehicles, so that there is no gap between training and deployment?

Robert Key: Yes, that is a natural consequence. I am sure that the Minister will have taken that on board.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): On the Panthers, which are feeding through soon, is my hon. Friend aware that the theatres and situations in which they can be used are limited? They were preferred to the RG-31s, which are much more flexible, have performed extremely well in Iraq and are used by the Canadians in Kandahar province.

Robert Key: I am well aware of both that and my hon. Friend’s advocacy of the RG-31s.

Ann Winterton: They are cheaper and better.

Robert Key: Well, fine, someone must have evaluated them along the line. In any event, those out in the front with the Royal Military Police should have these vehicles, or some equivalent.

When peacekeeping, as we are seeing in Iraq, the RMP has the most difficult task of gathering evidence in terribly difficult circumstances. The special investigation branch has to go out in dangerous circumstances in inadequate vehicles. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me and say that the Royal Military Police will indeed have an early choice of the use of the vehicles for their vital tasks both in battle and in peacetime work.

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I wonder what it is about the Royal Military Police, but the way in which other people in the military perceive its members is generally not very flattering, with a lot of references to coppers and so on. There is probably just old-fashioned, time-expired snobbery towards the “coppers”. Talking of rank, can the Minister tell me why there has never been a Royal Military Police officer above the rank of two star? That is fascinating? Again, talking of rank, my colleagues on the Defence Committee and I wonder why no woman in the Army has ever exceeded the rank of brigadier. I suppose that there is a glass ceiling.

There was an announcement earlier this week about Project Hyperion, which is crucial to my constituency. I am talking about the future of 1,700 people who are being moved from Upavon, which is in the constituency of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), and Wilton, which is in my constituency, to south Andover. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) thus has the good fortune of receiving those people in his constituency, but it will be very much our loss.

HQ Land Command and the Adjutant-General’s department are being amalgamated, which is sensible. As in every other service, it makes good sense for the Army to have one headquarters. However, it is not as simple as that. We are talking about disruption to the lives of a lot of loyal civilian workers in the military. In fact, there will be 200 civilian job losses and about 100 military redeployments.

The process marks the end of a long and historic association. Owing to the generosity of the then Earl of Pembroke, Southern Command took over Wilton House in the dark days of 1940. It was in the famous double cube room of Wilton House that Generals Montgomery and Eisenhower planned the Normandy landings and the liberation of France and Europe. While the Army was there, it acquired land from the Wilton estate and built the Erskine barracks on the other side of the A36. That site is now the headquarters of the largest budget holder in the British Army, and there is a work force of 1,300 on that site alone. The fortunes of the military and civilian communities are intertwined economically and socially. We have married quarters at both Bulbridge, which is south of Wilton, and Erskine barracks itself.

I was grateful to the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, for writing to me on 3 July to fill in the statement of the Secretary of State. He said that no future defence use had been identified for the Wilton or Upavon sites, but:

That prompts some questions.

First, when will Ministers be able to rule out a further defence use? Sensible, rational planning is needed for a new future for the site, which is strategically important because it is on the railway and the A36. What is the relationship with Project Allenby? Will we be told at the last minute that the draw-down for Germany, the pressures of Project Allenby, the rebuilding of the military estate and the move from Aldershot towards Wiltshire will mean that extra accommodation is needed for the military?
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That uncertainty should be ended as soon as possible. Who owns the site anyway? For two years, I have pursued the question of Crichel Down rules, which always come back to haunt us. The personnel who work at Land Command do not know whether they own the site. It is hugely important to decide whether the land will revert to the estate or whether the Treasury will sell it off.

We are delighted that the married quarters are to be retained, but what does that mean? Addington Homes owns the Erskine married quarters, but I do not know whether it owns Bulbridge. Civilians and military personnel have been consulted, and the Secretary of State has reinforced the importance of doing that. At both national and local level, the trade unions will be consulted, which is welcome. So far, however, the county council and the district council, which is the planning authority, have not been consulted. More importantly, the people of Wilton and their elected representatives on Wilton town council have not been consulted.

The town of Wilton is a proud and ancient community that pre-dates the city of Salisbury and gave its name to the county of Wiltshire. It has recognised the role of thousands of armed forces personnel for nearly 70 years, so the Ministry of Defence should not think for a moment that Wilton does not care about that momentous decision. On the contrary—the people of Wilton care passionately about their relationship with the military, the land that it has occupied for all those years and the married quarters that the town will continue to host. I hope that a team from Defence Estates or the most appropriate agency will meet the local authorities, particularly Wilton town council, to ensure that their voice is heard. That site must remain in the ownership of the local community, emotionally if not legally.

We must consider the security of armed forces personnel before they move to south Andover. The interface between the Home Office constabulary, Wiltshire police and the service police is crucial for both armed forces personnel and civilians. The patrolling of the married quarters estates at Bulbridge and Erskine barracks was undertaken by the Ministry of Defence police, but they have already moved from Erskine barracks to Tidworth on Salisbury plain. The military guard, the familiar Army security control vehicles and the Royal Military Police are all part of a sensitive security network that shields hundreds of armed forces personnel and the local community. We would therefore like to know more about the proposals. The leader of the district council has set up a taskforce on behalf of the planning authority, and I very much hope that there will be a matching commitment by the Ministry of Defence to work with the local community.

Finally, may I simply reiterate the admiration that I share with many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House for the work of armed forces personnel, whether they are in theatre at the sharp end or are in the background providing the infrastructure to allow the country’s soldiers, sailors and airmen to do their magnificent work on our behalf around the world? We can be proud of their role, and very proud, too, of all the civilians who support them.

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