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6 July 2006 : Column 1052
4.3 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I am always diffident about taking part in defence debates, as I have not served in the armed services, although I have relatively recent connections with the forces. My husband was a national service officer, and our elder son was a regular officer in the same regiment—the 14th/20th King’s Hussars. As we speak, his second son is at a combined cadet force camp on Dartmoor, so perhaps there will be a third generation in the armed services in due course.

At the outset of my brief contribution, may I pay tribute to all our armed service personnel, who are the very best services in the world and serve with great distinction and valour? May I extend my deepest sympathies to families who have been bereaved, some very recently indeed?

It is an obvious thing to say but also true that without people who are prepared to join the Army, Navy and Air Force to serve our country, we would have no armed forces. One of the key problems being faced is the important issue of recruitment and retention, which has been mentioned in the debate. We are frequently told by Ministers that because the United Kingdom has enjoyed a successful economy for some time, difficulties in recruiting have been exacerbated. The only answer that the MOD has come up with to date to seek to solve the problem is to pour massive amounts of money into recruitment in the hope of attracting sufficient personnel for the future.

However, we all are aware that money is getting tight and the Chancellor will probably not be too keen on providing more, in spite of the United Kingdom’s many and ongoing military commitments in various theatres. I believe that the problem is far more deeply rooted than just competition in the employment market place. The unemployment figures are beginning to creep up nationally, so in a relatively short time that reason will, perhaps, no longer be valid.

We should cast our minds back to December 1998 during the negotiations on the St. Malo agreement. It was at that time that the Prime Minister decided that the UK would not join the euro. In all matters relating to the European Union, there can never be a straight decision. There is always a trade-off—that is, a price to be paid. In this instance, the UK conceded and agreed that our forces would be integrated into a European Union defence force.

From that time onwards, the Ministry of Defence did not quite know in what direction it would have to commit our armed forces in the future. Would the first priority be to serve the interests of the UK, or to co-operate with the European Union or with the United States of America, or a combination of all three? If the MOD did not know in which direction it was meant to be going, how could members of the armed services second-guess the future? Subsequently, the problems have been exacerbated because the UK is engaged in conflicts in which our troops are committed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It has been well understood that, moving on from the former cold war scenario, changes would have to be introduced and the concept of the future Army structure came to light with its objective of strengthening the medium sector. It is crystal clear that we are without a
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whole category of vehicles suitable for counter-insurgency work, and this lack has been shown in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The focus and direction of policy has been to prioritise the future rapid effect system, which is an integral part of the European Union rapid reaction force, but which realistically will not be in operation until possibly as late as 2020. Moreover, the whole project falls into a world of fantasy in which the total package requires airlift, electronics, future technology and state of the art communication at a projected overall cost of £6 billion initially, which ballooned almost overnight to £14 billion.

Those sums are all beyond our financial means and are almost just a wish list, but these plans have resulted in us taking our eye off the ball. Rather than concentrating on what is needed now and for the immediate future to enable our armed forces to meet the challenges of fighting insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan—insurgents who are highly mobile and armed with cheap but deadly weaponry—we are left in a virtual vacuum. We are expecting our forces to operate Snatch 1 armoured Land Rovers from Northern Ireland, which are clapped out and always overheating and breaking down. The No. 2s are just about acceptable, with a little life left in them yet, while the No. 3s are very few on the ground.

The problem is that we are forced to use these old vehicles because there is no alternative, and because of ongoing long-term commitments the MOD is now virtually broke. We heard a little earlier in the debate that there are to be further cuts of at least £1 billion. The Chancellor has judged that there are more important things on which to spend taxpayers’ money, so is it any wonder that the strength of our armed forces is under pressure—by “strength”, I mean the number of personnel who are currently serving in the armed services? The answer that the Government have arrived at is to keep moving the establishment—the number of service personnel who are actually needed to fulfil our present commitments—downwards. By that neat mechanism of fiddling the figures, the MOD can claim that we are “nearly up to strength”.

I have still not been able to acquire the reserve forces figures, which were due to be published on 1 April this year, in spite of my tabling more than one written parliamentary question. The present figures are 15 months old, which makes one wonder what is going on in the MOD. If I may make a suggestion, it is much better to publish and be damned rather than to make people think that it is sheer administrative incompetence, or that the Government are trying to keep the truth from hon. Members and from the public who have an interest in these matters. If the figures are not provided before the recess, one can only assume that they are being deliberately withheld.

Recruitment of the Territorial Army and the regulars is now being merged, which will, in my view, be disastrous if it is not handled professionally and with a great deal of thought and planning. The recruiting teams will have to be made to understand that they are dealing with two completely different animals. The regulars operate in what might be described as a military bubble, but the TA personnel are, first and foremost, civilians and come from a totally different background and experience, although they have a considerable amount to offer the armed services.

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While our armed forces are placing their lives on the line each and every day on behalf of us all, which they are now doing in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, it is essential that the Government, through the MOD and Parliament, concentrate on providing what is necessary for the present and for the immediate future. The Prime Minister has spent too much time placing European Union integrationist policy first, rather than ensuring that present day servicemen and women have appropriate and adequate resources and equipment.

If we do not provide our forces with the best that money can buy, rather than some of the present outdated equipment, which is hardly fit for purpose, will it be any surprise if we cannot recruit or retain sufficient high-calibre personnel? By spending too much time and energy on the future creation of forces which will eventually be totally integrated within the European Union rapid defence force, the Prime Minister and his Chancellor have sold the pass and limited the choices for the future.

Many commentators believe that the Army of today is being starved of resources in order to feed a fantasy army of the future. I hope that they will be proved wrong, and I trust that the MOD will provide the appropriate equipment for our armed services to allow them to perform their valuable and vital duties.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind hon. Members that there is a limited amount of time left for this debate. If more hon. Members are to catch my eye, brief contributions would be helpful.

4.13 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) started her remarks modestly by being self-deprecating about her knowledge of defence, which she belied by the depth of knowledge and detail in her speech. Hon. Members will have been astonished to hear that someone so young could possibly be married to someone who did national service. I am glad that the cavalry arrived in time to hear the best part of her speech.

As always happens on these occasions, today’s debate consists of three main strands. First, all hon. Members—this is probably true of all hon. Members throughout history—have been unanimous in paying tribute to the courage, professionalism, discipline and dedication of our armed services, both in times of peace and in times of war, which is the case at the moment in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The job that they do is not a job that many of us sitting in this air-conditioned Chamber would willingly do, although some of us sometimes pretend otherwise, and we pay tribute to all that they do and to the support provided by their families. That is an enormously important strand in this annual personnel debate.

The second strand that recurs in these debates concerns the kit and equipment with which our armed forces are sent to war. There are always discussions about whether there is enough body armour, whether there are enough bullets, and whether the equipment could be improved in one way or another. For my part,
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I am proud that 9 Supply Regiment, the Royal Logistics Corps is based in my constituency; it does an outstanding job of ensuring that equipment gets to troops on the front line. However, improvements could be made in the computer systems that enable it to get that equipment through to the boys on the front line. During Telic 1, for example, a significant amount of equipment, particularly body armour, was stored at Umm Qasr but should have been issued. Nevertheless, we should be proud of the fact that the British armed services have the highest standards of equipment issued to any armed services anywhere in the world. Of course, it could always be improved or used more effectively. It is also true that soldiers will always go out and purchase their own equipment. Before any deployment or operation, the boys will go out and buy their own stuff, but that is not to say that the stuff that they have is not first class. It is worth paying tribute to the quality of the equipment supplied to them.

I have particular concerns about the foam flame retardant that is being fitted to the wing tanks of the Hercules fleet. Having heard in this House only last week that the first plane will be completed by August, I understand that that has slipped at least to September and possibly to October. I do not want the Minister to give away any secrets that would help our enemy, but I hope that he will take on board the fact that the community around Lyneham in my constituency is desperately keen that that retardant should be fitted as soon as possible. Leaving aside such details, broadly speaking the equipment with which our troops go to war is first class.

The third strand—the one that has most preoccupied us and is perhaps the most important at a time like this—is the question of whether the things that we are asking our armed services to do are matched by the numbers of people and the quality of the equipment that they are given to do them with. In that context, I am glad that this debate follows our debate on defence policy a couple of Thursdays ago. What are our armed services for? Are we always going to support the United States in everything that it does? Are we to go around the world as a kind of world police force? Are we engaged in home defence and crisis management on our own shores? We have a whole variety of roles in the Balkans, the Falklands, Northern Ireland and Germany—the list goes on and on. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, we are being asked to do more and more. There seems to be a global strategic mission creep. The Government are very free about saying that we will do these things—“We must do something about it: let’s send some troops”—but less free with the supply of people to do them.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, because he has only just arrived, unlike those of us who have sat through the debate for the entire afternoon. We are short of time, and I want to allow some of my hon. Friends to speak.

During the Conservatives’ time in office, there was something called MARILYN, which stood for manning and recruitment in the lean years of the nineties. At that
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time, it was predicted that a drop-off in population numbers would prevent us from recruiting enough people into the armed services. Perhaps that should now become MARTINET—manning and recruitment in the now even more terrible years of the twenties. Some serious manning and recruitment problems are coming our way. With 103,000 Army personnel, we now have the smallest Army there has ever been. If that figure falls below 100,000, we will no longer able to call it an army in normal nomenclature. We have the smallest Army since the battle of Waterloo, yet it is being asked to do more and more. The same applies to the Royal Navy and the Air Force.

I am especially concerned about the Territorial Army and the reserve forces in general because they were significantly cut in the strategic defence review. At the time, it was said to be a good thing but we have subsequently discovered that we could not have carried out operations in Iraq or Afghanistan without our reserves. I suspect that current figures for the number of reserves available to us are probably substantially misleading. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton made an interesting point about that.

When a soldier returns after serving six or eight months in Iraq, it is unlikely that any other than the unemployed Territorial Army soldier will volunteer to go a second time. The nature of the TA soldier deployed on operations has changed significantly since the day when I had the honour of serving in the TA. I suspect that several people will return from operations overseas, remain a member of their regiment for a time—especially, I am ashamed to say, to collect their annual bounty, which provides important financial help—and move on. I therefore suspect that the number of people available to the services from the TA and the other reserve forces is significantly smaller than the figures suggest. The Government must, therefore, consider carefully how we can increase the number of soldiers, sailors and airmen in our reserves and how we can prevent that number from falling further.

If a truly fundamental strategic defence review were to take place again and we were to set out our purposes and how our armed forces would carry out those tasks, the number of servicemen available—from memory, it is 185,000 in the three services—would be too small. If we are to undertake the war against terror alongside the United States, the world’s policing and the homeland defence tasks that face us now, any sensible and dispassionate observer will say, “The number is too small.” The elastic is stretched to its limit. Can it be stretched further?

One former Prime Minister of our great nation told me that when he was Prime Minister he went to see the teachers and they listened to him, but, after a time, they told him to get lost. He visited the doctors and nurses and they, too, listened carefully, but again, after a time, they told him to get lost. Then he went to see the generals and, time and again, they turned to the right, saluted and got on with what they were told to do. All Prime Ministers and Governments increasingly love the military because the military carry out their instructions in a way that no other public servants do. In a sense, the trouble with the British forces is that they have a can-do mentality. No matter what they are asked to do, they will get on with it—and they have been doing that in spades in recent years.

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At what stage will British forces be asked to do too much? When will the elastic snap? Several of us are worried that, at this moment in our strategic outlook on life, we are very near to that point. I hate the thought that something might happen, around the world or onshore—let us suppose that, heaven forfend, three explosions take place in different towns simultaneously—and our armed forces have to say, “I’m sorry, Secretary of State, but we cannot do it.” I am horrified at the thought that a point may come in the history of our nation when that happens.

The debate is, therefore, important. It is vital that the Government—no one else can do it—consider carefully what they ask our armed forces to do and the resources that they give them to do it. My instinct tells me that they will conclude that the resources are woefully inadequate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer must face up to it and spend significantly more on our defences.

4.23 pm

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): I am grateful to be called to speak and happy to follow the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray). I apologise for not being present throughout the debate.

I want to bring to hon. Members’ attention a responsibility that the Ministry of Defence has shirked for too long—the Bevin boys, who were conscripted miners between 1943 and 1948. The Ministry’s responsibility is clear. Those men were conscripts, called up to serve their country, who, through luck or lack of it, ended up underground, mining coal to keep our war effort going. Let me explain the process whereby someone ended up as a Bevin boy. Every month, as conscription proceeded, Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, put in his bowler hat the numbers zero to nine and his secretary pulled out two numbers. Every conscript whose national registration number ended with those digits was posted to the mines. Those who refused to be posted were dealt with under the wartime emergency powers legislation, and often had to serve a jail sentence, as well as time down the pit on their release.

If it had not been for the process devised by Bevin, those conscripts would have served in our armed forces. The Ministry of Defence has rightly honoured armed forces veterans in recent years in an increasing number of ways, and it also has a responsibility to honour the Bevin boys.

Why was there a need for conscripted miners? The Government had allowed experienced coal miners to join the armed services, and to transfer from pit work to more highly paid jobs elsewhere in industry—and, with all due respect, who would not make that choice? It was hoped that the gaps in mining numbers would be taken up by the unemployed. However, by mid-1943, more than 36,000 miners had left the industry, many for better jobs, and the move by the Government to make the industry a reserved occupation was too little, too late. Coal production slumped dangerously low and, by the end of 1943, it was estimated that Britain had only three weeks’ supply in reserve. So, in December 1943, Bevin hatched his plan, and 48,000
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men ended up serving in the system until 1948—long after many of their military counterparts had been returned to civilian life. Bevin boys therefore assisted not only with our war effort, but in our reconstruction process.

The return to normality for the Bevin boys after their service was a return to nothing. Their pre-conscription employment was not protected, and there were no pensions for those injured during their service. Armed service conscripts were rightly allowed to keep their military uniform, given a demob suit and paid leave, and received war and campaign medals. They could also return to their pre-war employment. Not so the Bevin boys. So, in many ways, the Bevin boys suffered during their conscription and continued to suffer after the end of their national service. To my mind, the memory to them continues to suffer today.

Many of those young men wanted to do what they saw as their duty and fight the Nazi tyranny that was engulfing the world at that time. Many therefore felt that their status as Bevin boys was not given just recognition. Many Bevin boys were also subjected to a range of taunts, humiliating attacks and unpleasant behaviour. As they wore no uniform when off duty, they were often believed to be avoiding their military service, promoting suspicion that they were draft dodgers, deserters or even enemy agents. Many were regularly challenged by the police.

Those conscripts were not well looked after in the 1940s, and they are not well recognised 60 years later. It was not until the 50th anniversary of VE day and VJ day during May and August 1995 that they received any recognition at all. Speeches made by the Queen, the then Speaker of this House and the Prime Minister acknowledged their value in words, but now is the time for deeds, not words.

This is not a contest between those who served in our armed forces in that period—or, indeed, in any period—and the Bevin boys. It is about an overdue recognition that, without their effort, we might well not be having this debate today. I tabled early-day motion 1417 earlier this year, calling on the Government to recognise the Bevin boys officially with an award similar to that available to military veterans. I am very happy to tell the House that that motion has attracted 173 signatories, including members of all parties except, sadly, the Scottish National party, none of whose members is here today. I urge all Members who have yet to sign the motion to do so—even members of the SNP—to show their solidarity and support for those veterans of world war two.

I have already raised this matter in the House with the Prime Minister, and with the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), now the Minister for Europe, who informed the House that his constituency predecessor had been a Bevin boy. I have written to the Prime Minister twice, but I am still waiting for a formal reply. I have also written to the Ministry of Defence and Department of Trade and Industry, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank the present veterans Minister for his understanding approach. However, all the time the MOD is deliberating whether to acknowledge the Bevin boys, their numbers are falling. They are now old men, and some are very ill.

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