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I have had support on this matter from UK Coal, Scottish Coal, NUM Scotland and a host of other mining-related organisations, in addition to letters of support from families all round the UK. Those letters display something other than support; they display hope that the MOD will have the conviction to acknowledge the service of those conscripted veterans in a personal way, and that is what I believe the MOD has a moral obligation to do.

The Bevin Boys Association exists today to keep their memory alive and to fight for their cause. I pay tribute to Warwick Taylor for his commitment to the more than 1,800 men who are members of the association, and to my constituent, Fraser Neil, who was responsible for raising the issue with me in the first place.

Some Bevin boys are household names—Jimmy Savile, Eric Morecambe and Brian Rix, to name but a few. I must take the opportunity to applaud the Sunday Express, which has worked with me in the campaign for recognition of the Bevin boys’ effort. More than 1,000 readers have returned coupons to the Sunday Express calling for the Government to do the right thing, and that is what I call on the MOD to do today. I know that I mentioned that Jimmy Savile is a former Bevin boy, but I hope that we do not have to rely on Jim to fix it. The MOD should fix it, and the sooner the better.

4.30 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I, too, pay tribute to our armed forces throughout the world.

I also want to put on record my thanks to all military and civilian staff serving our armed forces in Shropshire. I pay tribute especially to the excellent work of the Army Base Repair Organisation. Earlier this year, the Government announced that ABRO was to close. I thank the Minister of State for rethinking that decision and giving ABRO a stay of execution, certainly for the next three years. I also pay tribute to the Defence Committee and its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), for highlighting in their Afghanistan inquiry the role that ABRO needs to play and is playing. I hope that the Minister might today throw a further lifeline to ABRO and say that, given the possible three-year deployment in Afghanistan, and the possibly longer commitment in Iraq, ABRO’s life will be extended beyond three years and into the next decade and beyond. I hope that we can be encouraged on that.

I also pay tribute to the Defence Logistics Organisation in my constituency and to all those who work at Sapphire house in the neighbouring constituency of Telford. Of course, the Minister will know that an announcement was made this week that might see 400 job losses at the DLO. Notwithstanding the points made on both sides of the House about whether the merger of the Defence Procurement Agency and the DLO is right or wrong—and I question whether it is right—one must ask whether the timing is right. The Secretary of State said earlier that the timing of any decision to change things can never be right. To return to the Afghanistan inquiry, one of the key reasons for the ABRO decision being changed was the timing of the troop deployment to Afghanistan, where vehicles suffered attrition due to rough terrain
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and needed to be repaired more frequently and quickly to be redeployed to the front line. The same logic applies to the DLO.

We have rightly paid tribute to our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but let us not forget those in Gibraltar, Cyprus, the Falkland Islands, Congo and many other places around the world. All those forces require logistical support. I therefore hope that the Government will rethink the decision about the DLO, as it rethought the decision about ABRO, which I put on record that I welcome. There is time to do so. There is no shame in the Government saying that they have concluded during the consultation that the timing is wrong, and that the principle of whether the DPA and DLO should be merged can be discussed later.

I may be in a minority among Conservative Members on this matter, but perhaps Parliament needs to debate at some point whether privatisation of our defence sector has gone too far. Do we now just want to outsource responsibility without establishing that output will be better than it is in the public sector? The public sector contains both military personnel and civilians who have served in the forces and have a military ethos—a public service ethos. Such people are often reluctant to go into the private sector, and not just for reasons to do with pay, terms and conditions and TUPE arguments about the protection of employment. They joined a military organisation because they wanted to be part of a military organisation.

That leads me to the defence training review and RAF Cosford. As I said here earlier today, unemployment in Shropshire rose by a whopping 30 per cent. between May 2005 and May 2006. With manufacturing outflow and the retail sector under threat in some of our market towns, there has never been a greater need to protect Shropshire’s defence sector, and that includes the 2,200 personnel, both military and civilian, at RAF Cosford. I hope that the review will be objective, measured and non-political, and will conclude that the experience, dedication and commitment required in defence training is best provided by the personnel at Cosford—and, indeed, throughout the west midlands technology corridor and supply chain, and in the aerospace cluster in Shropshire and surrounding counties.

I am proud that Combat Stress has a facility in my constituency. The staff at Audley court in Newport, Shropshire, do a marvellous job. I have been there several times, met staff and clients and listened to many of their stories, which are varied. The people there have been involved in different conflicts, some recent, some dating back to the Falklands, and some even dating back to the second world war. Those stories are extremely moving. It is absolutely right for the Government to consider improving mental health services for our armed forces personnel.

We know that without early intervention, post-traumatic stress becomes post-traumatic stress disorder, which is far harder and more costly to treat. I think that those who are currently in the armed forces receive the message that people with mental health problems are not being treated well, and that that lowers morale. I think it also causes people to wonder whether they should join up if our veterans are not treated properly.

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That in turn leads me to the issue of the joint forces payment agency and the Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency. A number of constituents have contacted me over the last few months about late payments, lost documents and redundancy settlements that have not been given to them in time. That has caused them real financial hardship. I hope the Minister will ensure that those agencies abide by their duties and fulfil their obligations to those who have served the country and Her Majesty’s armed forces over many years. It is absolutely right for them to be treated as well when they leave as when they arrived. Perhaps if they are treated better when they leave, more will join.

It strikes me as a tragic paradox that while our armed forces are fighting for democracy overseas, when in theatre they are unable to exercise their own democratic rights and vote over here. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurance that when the next general election comes along, everyone who serves in Her Majesty’s armed forces, whether military or civilian, will be given plenty of time to register their votes so that they can exercise their democratic rights and choose the Government whom they want to serve this country.

Some months ago, I raised the issue of the haemorrhaging of special forces personnel to private security companies. The then Secretary of State for Defence said that a statement on the matter, either written or oral, would be presented to the House. It may have passed me by, but I am not aware of any statement on how the Government are dealing with the ongoing haemorrhage of special forces, such as members of the Special Air Service, the Special Boat Squadron, the close protection trained Parachute Regiment and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) mentioned earlier, the Royal Military Police. Retention of such personnel is a problem and I hope that the Minister will give us some idea of how the Government are dealing with that important matter.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May I say to my hon. Friend that this does not involve only the elite groups that he mentioned? Experienced non-commissioned officers from the front-line infantry units are also leaving to join security companies. When I visited the Scots Guards in Amarah, the commanding officer told me that he was very worried that, when he returned to Germany, many of his senior NCOs would purchase their discharge and go back to Iraq to gain a massive increase in their salary, thus diminishing the regiment’s ability to train.

Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend makes a very good point, as he always does. He is absolutely right to say that not only are members of the elite regiments attracted to the private security sector, but people from the Guards and other infantry regiments are interested as well. That is absolutely understandable given the professionalism and training of Her Majesty’s armed services— [Interruption.] Yes, senior NCOs are particularly in demand by private security companies— and understandably so. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

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Expenditure is a thorny issue in this place, but I am a Back Bencher and I can speak freely, but with caution. Are the pay levels for our armed forces personnel right? I believe that I am right to say that UK armed forces are the only service personnel who have to pay tax on their income while serving in foreign fields. I hope that the Minister will look further into that and see whether some exemption or tax relief can be made for our armed forces while they are serving in foreign countries.

The cadet forces have already been mentioned and I declare an interest as president of Telford and Wrekin air cadets and as a former, albeit junior, air cadet in the Herefordshire squadron. I welcome the Government’s commitment to expand the cadet forces, but I note that it applies specifically to the combined cadet forces. That is fine, but I appeal to the Minister not to overlook the fine work of all the civilian and military voluntary staff of the Air Training Corps and our marvellous cadets throughout the country. Please do not overlook the Army Cadet Force and certainly do not overlook the marvellous work of the sea cadet corps. Many of these groups are struggling for funds. The Government are right in what they are doing, but it would be a shame if concentrating on the CCF meant that the Air Training Corps, the Army Cadet Force and the sea cadet corps lost out.

Mr. Gray: I think I am right in pointing to a strange anomaly whereby the sea cadets are not funded by the Ministry of Defence, but entirely charitably— [Interruption.] I note that the Under-Secretary is shaking his head and he will no doubt correct me if I am wrong, but it might be an occasion for the MOD to consider whether the sea cadets should be put on the same footing as the Army and air cadets.

Mark Pritchard: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. From memory, I believe that the current position is that the sea cadets have 60 per cent. funding from the Ministry of Defence and 40 per cent. charitable funding through the excellent work of the Sea Cadet Association. It is unique in receiving less money than the other cadet forces and perhaps has less access to facilities as a result of naval bases being on the coast while sea cadet units can be far inland, as in the case of landlocked Shropshire. I hope that the Government’s move towards supporting certain youth services and cadet forces does not lead to others being overlooked.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was mentioned earlier. I congratulate it on doing an excellent job, and I hope that the Government will ensure that it is looked after in any future spending review. It is absolutely right that our war graves be maintained, and that our fallen heroes are honoured in the way that befits their sacrifice. However, I hope that the Minister will ensure that the history of our wars continues to be taught in schools, and that there is not a slippage into political correctness. I hope that it is not decided that some of the sacrifices that have been made on our country’s behalf are too horrific for young people to hear about. I encourage the Minister to speak to his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills, and to see whether it and the MOD can co-operate to enable children to visit war graves in continental Europe. If that is too costly, perhaps they
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could visit places such as Brookwood, in Surrey, and war graves in Cambridgeshire and throughout the country. Indeed, they could even visit their own local first and second world war memorials.

Does the Minister know whether the Prime Minister has found time to visit the sick and injured personnel—if he has such knowledge, it has passed me by thus far—wounded in recent wars such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq? Many people would be very surprised to hear that the Prime Minister, notwithstanding his busy diary, had not found time to visit those personnel, given their sacrifice and the fact that it was pretty much the Prime Minister’s lead that resulted in our troops being sent to the front line. I should be interested to hear the Minister’s answer to that question.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to all colleagues present in the House today. This has been a good-spirited debate, and let us remember that we are all in this together. It is important that we succeed in both Iraq and Afghanistan —[Interruption.] Oh yes—we are all in this together. The personnel about whom we have spoken today deserve everything that we are able to give them in terms of kit and equipment, financial support and, most of all, moral and political support.

4.47 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Like my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), I begin with a tribute to the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Even when they are properly resourced—I hasten to add that I am still not convinced that they are—they work day in, day out in the most challenging circumstances imaginable.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence police in Weathersfield, in my constituency. Whether they are guarding the UK’s nuclear arsenal or other critical defence establishments, the MOD police do not live in the limelight. They stand apart from the other armed services, but, like those services, they are quietly efficient and utterly vital to this country’s interests. I mention the MOD police not only because they are headquartered in my constituency, but because I suspect that they are typical of much of this country’s defence establishment, in that they do an essential job that goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated.

In his contribution to the armed forces debate in another place last week, Lord Drayson was adamant that there was no public relations crisis facing the military. As evidence, he cited a MORI poll that confirmed that 80 per cent. of the population regard our armed forces as among the finest in the world. I have no doubt that they enjoy even greater support among the general public than that poll suggests, but my point is that, when most people think of the armed forces, they think, on the whole, of past services rendered. They are less quick to think of those who are on active service today, using sub-standard equipment, waiting hours or days for a flight home for deployment or worrying about their families living in inadequate accommodation back at home.

I congratulate the Government on instituting veterans day. It is right that we remember our veteran servicemen and women, but it is time that we placed greater emphasis on those serving today, and on the
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need to ensure that they will continue serving our country. We also need to look ahead and take action to ensure that generations of new recruits will want to follow them into the services. Recruitment relies on good public relations and, although I do not doubt the very high esteem in which the services continue to be held, we must admit that there is a difference between respecting an organisation and wanting to join it.

I was struck by the example of Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, who served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff during much of the great war. In 1919, he became the first man in the British Army to rise all the way from the rank of private to the rank of field marshal. But despite that conspicuously successful career, his working-class mother was horrified when he enlisted. He records her saying in his autobiography:

That late 19th-century distrust of the military is something to which we would not wish to return.

As we all know, steady recruitment is the lifeblood of all our services. It depends, in no small measure, on the families of potential recruits trusting that they will be looked after and not placed in unnecessary danger because of inadequate equipment or operational overstretch. The issue of trust is central to this debate because there are increasing signs that servicemen on active duty no longer trust that they will receive adequate support from the Government.

My father-in-law, Sir John Keegan, is a distinguished military historian, which, I must admit, is something of an advantage when it comes to preparation for a debate on the armed forces. As we are commemorating the 90th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, I would like to quote briefly from one of his books, “The Face of Battle”, which contains an analysis of that campaign from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers who fought in it. He says of the British Army of 1916 that

Some 90 years later, the essentials remain the same. The armed services are still trusting and that human quality sometimes does them a disservice. I hope that we do not have a military catastrophe in Iraq or in Afghanistan to shake the foundation of that trust, as happened on the Somme.

I have already said a little about recruitment, but the need for it would be minimised by focusing more on retention. There are many factors affecting retention but some of the most significant are easily identifiable and must be addressed. Indeed, I ask the Minister when he will give a commitment to serving soldiers that they will not be hauled through the civil courts for actions undertaken while on deployment and operating under the most difficult circumstances.

Another R is for reserves—also lacking, both in the strategic sense of having some ability to adapt to changing circumstances which require an increased commitment, but vital in enabling our forces to sustain their current level of commitment. What are the Government doing to tackle that overstretch? Several hon. Members have already asked that question.

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Overstretch should be a transient fault to be regretted and avoided wherever possible. But when overstretch becomes systemic, it is not really overstretch at all—it is underinvestment. If our armed forces are stretched too far they will lose their elasticity and ability to react quickly and decisively. Eventually, they will snap. For example, the 1st Battalion the Light Infantry is currently on its third tour of Iraq in three years, and there can be little incentive for the men in that battalion to remain in the Army. What are the Government doing to ensure that the interval target of 24 months between deployments is met for all our troops?

The lack of resources is the biggest threat to retention. The Government have reassured the House repeatedly that commanders in the field will be given what they need to succeed. I am not reassured, especially when Ministers quote senior commanders such as Lieutenant General David Richards, who said:

I am not reassured because it is hard to imagine a military officer admitting that he or his men are not up to the task in hand, however justified that might be by the lack of resources. Soldiers just get on with the job, whatever resources are at hand, but the persistent lack of resources is not the only problem facing the services.

The extended deployment of soldiers often interferes with another R—rehabilitation. Professor Guy Chapman was a young officer during the Somme campaign. He wrote:

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