Previous Section Index Home Page

Civilians take it for granted that their employers will offer them training, career management, counselling and a range of other services. In our cash-strapped armed services, those are the first things that are cut, and even medical care is now threatened. The net result has been that a tide of service personnel have left the forces as ill equipped to deal with civilian life as they were on active service.

Mr. Soames: I agree with much of what my hon. Friend is saying, although it is to the MOD’s credit that resettlement training in the Army is brilliant. However, does he agree that the big problem faced by people leaving the forces is that of adjusting to a civilian life?

Mr. Newmark: My hon. Friend brings me to my very point. The shameful statistic is that between one quarter and one fifth of rough sleepers have served in our armed forces. That is the point that I tried to make when I intervened earlier on my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox).

The Government’s duty of care to service personnel does not rest on a narrow legal definition, nor does it end when people leave the services. What are they doing to ensure that personnel receive more than just combat experience when they enlist?

My final R is retirement. It is the final stage of the through-life cost of service personnel—or, I should say, it is the final stage of the through-life duty owed to them by the Government. The Government must do more than honour veterans in spirit, or by giving them
6 July 2006 : Column 1066
a badge. Veterans deserve more than our intangible respect: they need continuing support, medical and psychiatric but financial too—by which I mean better pensions.

I have spoken briefly about the five Rs—recruitment, retention, resources, rehabilitation and retirement. Unless we address each of them, we will not have armed forces that are, to use the Government’s mantra, fit for purpose.

I conclude by quoting Lord Garden, who warned in the other place that a renewal of the duty of care owed to servicemen is needed urgently if we want to avoid finding ourselves

It seems that much of our equipment is not in fact all that shiny, but I urge the Minister to pay heed to the warning.

4.59 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) on an interesting and powerful speech. He covered some important issues. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) who covered myriad subjects, which broadened the debate and reflected the wide range of topics that we have talked about today.

My first point was to have been my congratulations to the Secretary of State on staying in the Chamber throughout the entire debate. Unfortunately, he has just sneaked off, but I am pleased that he could participate in much of the debate. I realise that he has many other commitments.

In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State said how proud we all are of what our armed forces do. He talked of their high reputation across the world. He then warned us to be careful when trying to analyse or quantify what our military are actually doing. I take heed of those words, but it is our duty in the House to make sure that we understand what is happening. The Army, Navy and Air Force do not have union representation to give voice to their concerns. There is no one they can run to, so it must be an objective of the House—certainly for those of us who have worn a uniform—to make sure that if our Government task our military anywhere in the world, there is correct scrutiny in this Chamber. Our loyalty to our armed forces should not be questioned if we raise awkward questions about them.

I turn to our commitments and our defence personnel. Sadly, there have been cuts of up to 40,000 in our armed forces since 1997. Since the Labour Government came to office, the Army is down by 9,000, the Navy is down by 10,000 and the RAF is down by 16,000. Sadly, it would now be possible to fit every member of the British Army into Wembley stadium—if it were ever finished. That is a sad indictment of the size of our forces. This year, spending will be 2.2 per cent. of gross domestic product—the smallest proportion of national wealth since 1930. We have more commitments and fewer people to do the job, which equals overstretch. As anybody in the military can tell us, experiencing overstretch and cost cuts at the same time leads to the demise of morale.


6 July 2006 : Column 1067

Many of our current operations around the world are with NATO, whether in IFOR, the implementation force or ISAF, the international security assistance force or others. NATO is the cornerstone of Europe’s protection and defence and has served us well for the past 50 years. The target is that all participating nations spend 3 per cent. of their GDP, but we are not doing so—nor are other countries. That illustrates the problems that we and other countries face at a time when we expect so much from our armed forces.

We are gaining experience, however. NATO forces went into Bosnia and Kosovo and they are now in Afghanistan. However, much co-ordination work remains to be done—whether in respect of equipment or troop operations. NATO is searching for a new role. During the cold war, its mission and its objectives were clear; today, things are not so clear. NATO was designed to defend Europe but it is now going to areas such as Afghanistan, into which one would not expect it to wander. Work could be done in Brussels to consider how ISAF and NATO-operated forces could be used not so much for peacekeeping but for the next step—reconstruction. NATO is an organised and effective body with a chain of command, but there is a limit to its involvement and Ministers in Brussels should consider such things.

I served in Bosnia and, when peace could be maintained, our troops did not simply carry out guard duties; we helped to rebuild schools. It was not part of our mission, but we decided that it was the right thing to do to help win over hearts and minds. Unfortunately, that is not happening in Afghanistan because it is not part of the remit—it would be almost a step too far.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred in his opening comments to the impressive number of countries involved in Afghanistan: 37 is the latest total—more than there are in NATO. However, the caveats for those forces—the limitations placed on them by their Governments—affect overall command and mean that their effectiveness is limited. There are varying rules of engagement that prevent soldiers from particular nations from going out on patrol, engaging with the enemy or even getting into a vehicle. That makes it difficult for the ISAF commander to mobilise his troops in a unified fashion.

On paper, 37 countries looks effective, but in fact there are only four soldiers from Austria, 10 from Luxembourg, four from Switzerland and 106 from Denmark. The numbers are small when we consider what those countries could be contributing and when compared with what Britain, the United States and other countries are doing. Again, I urge the Minister, when he goes to Brussels, to ask if they cannot contribute more troops, what they are actually contributing. The participation of 37 nations looks very impressive, but the reality is far different.

Mr. Gray: I agree with my hon. Friend to a degree, but does he accept that the central truth of all modern defence thinking is that there are only two main players in NATO—the United Kingdom and the United States—in terms both of defence spending and other capabilities? The notion that, somehow or other, we will persuade some of those very small European nations to play an important role in NATO operations
6 July 2006 : Column 1068
is pie in the sky. In fact, the future peace of the world depends on the US and the UK, together with France to a lesser degree, operating in concert.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes a valid point, but that is where we get into the detail, which is beyond the scope of the debate. For example, the huge shortage of heavy airlift could be easily covered by participating countries, but it is too late now. We should have been thinking about that five or 10 years ago. Countries such as Denmark could then say, “This will be our thing.” The Czech Republic went down that route and became nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialists. That is what it focused on. Poland has trained a lot of people to help with UN peacekeeping operations. That is the thing that it focused on. We could be doing that, but we need to get the heads around the table and review it. When we are on the battlefield in Afghanistan, it is too late to discover the limitations of the troops sent out there. That affects the rules of engagement that we are working under.

I reiterate the calls—we have heard them today, and they were acknowledged by the Minister—for more troops in Afghanistan. If we look at the map of Afghanistan and the areas that NATO is covering, we see that an entire province next to Helmand does not contain a single international soldier. That shows the desperate need for more participation, which is vital. I look forward to hearing the statement from the Secretary of State for Defence. I presume that it will come in the next few days. I hope that there is no delay, because lives are at risk in Afghanistan.

Turning to Afghanistan proper, there are few crises in the world today that are as complex. It has been wrecked by three decades of war and the organs of state are few and fragile. The nation’s authority is limited only to a few cities. In fact, it is too soon to call it a country. It is a patchwork quilt of ethnic groups, tribes and communities, thrown over a hostile and often barren land. That is the perfect existence for a nomad or a very small community, but also for a terrorist outfit as well, and it is a complete nightmare for those who are trying to go there to form an overall authority to link control.

In an effort to expand his authority, President Karzai has developed unholy alliances with all those who can enforce order in the provinces in return for turning a blind eye to their misdeeds, past and present. The biggest challenge for Afghanistan is the fact so many people have been corrupt, but we are now trying to make them turn over a new leaf. We talk about Helmand province’s governor as though he is somehow in direct communication with Kabul. Helmand is a long way from the regional headquarters of Kandahar, which is another country away from Kabul. They are so remote from each other that it is a monumental challenge to get any form of authority, even at local community level. The power bases are in the town halls and the local assemblies—the jirgas—and the local tribal centres.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I must remind the hon. Gentleman that this is not the appropriate debate in which to have an in-depth analysis of the strategic situation in Afghanistan. The debate is about armed forces personnel, and he must
6 July 2006 : Column 1069
relate his remarks directly to that. There might be other days when one can consider the strategic and political aspects of the Afghanistan situation.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful to you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given the effect that the situation is having on British personnel, I felt it relevant to bring it into the debate, but I understand your instructions and will endeavour to stay on the right side of your guidance.

Some 3,300 British troops—16 Air Assault Brigade—are based in Afghanistan, in Helmand province, and I want to analyse the thinking of those of us who were in the forces when the brigade was created. We are talking about a rapid reaction force that was put together. It packs a mighty punch, but it is designed to be lightly armoured. It now finds itself not only doing counter-insurgency work, but guarding villages halls, protected only by sandbags. That is improper. That is not the way in which 16 Air Assault Brigade was designed to be used.

We have heard a number of examples of British equipment that could be used. The Warrior tank was mentioned. The Canadians are using the Bison, which is a four-wheeled very tough armoured vehicle. It is much better than the Land Rover that we are currently using. The RG-31 is a South African vehicle designed to cater for being hit by or running over land mines. That is the sort of equipment that we need to be thinking about. I hope that, when the Secretary of State for Defence makes his announcement, he will consider the lessons that were learned in Bosnia. Once a general peace was created, we went out in Warrior tanks to do the guarding, which meant that if there were problems, we had something to protect us, rather than simply hiding behind sandbags, which, as we sadly saw at the weekend, is wholly inadequate. We need to review the strength of the forces in Afghanistan. Some 3,300 troops simply with Land Rovers and 12 helicopters is not enough. I will be grateful to hear what the Secretary of State has to say on that matter.

What is our mission in Afghanistan? Is it designed to deal with insurgency or to help with peacekeeping? Or is it more of a G5 task? Does it involve the building of schools and so forth? It has ended up being a mixture of all those things. There is nothing wrong with that in one sense, but our forces have to match each of those separate missions and at the moment that is not happening. That is why I believe that a review of what we have out there is so important.

I will not go into what is required in relation to the provincial reconstruction teams. I simply question who is actually in control of those teams. Do they eventually answer to the Secretary of State for Defence, the Foreign Office or the Department for International Development? There is an overlap and confusion of responsibility that will prevent us from making an impact.

The umbrella of security that our troops—our personnel—are trying to create there is fundamental, but we will succeed in Afghanistan only if the reconstruction operation is able to lift Afghanistan off its knees. Our troops will eventually leave. I hope that they will also eventually defeat the Taliban, but when they do, they
6 July 2006 : Column 1070
must make sure that there is not a vacuum left behind. If they do not do that, the Afghani tribes will continue what they are doing, we will leave, and then the Taliban will come back in a few years’ time. That is not what we want. There must be an infrastructure and a local economy. Afghanistan is a country that —[ Interruption. ] I can see Mr. Deputy Speaker moving, so I will move on to my conclusion.

I pay tribute to my local regiment, the Devon and Dorsets, which is now based in Basra, under the leadership of Colonel Chris Burtie. I am grateful to the Minister, who managed to organise a visit for me to see the regiment in Basra. Sadly—it is a sign of the times—I cannot really call the regiment the Devon and Dorsets any more. It is shortly to be merged with the Light Infantry and, before the dust has settled on that piece of paper, it is being merged with my own regiment, the Royal Green Jackets, to be called the Rifles. That is a huge transition. That has been a veneer for another slice off the size of our armed forces. It is something that we could well do without.

It is odd that we are seeing cuts in the infantry, because arguably the infantry in the Army is one of the main reasons why we have the international reputation that hon. Members have mentioned a number of times this afternoon. As I said, our military does not have a union. It does not have a voice with which to shout out and say, “I don’t like what I’m doing.” People end up voting with their feet if conditions get bad, which is why it is important that this Chamber scrutinises what is going on. That is reflected in the fact that, out of 43 battalions in the British Army, only one is fully manned. The other 42 are short of strength. The Territorial Army’s target figure from the Government is 41,000. Currently the figures stands at 35,000. We must examine the reasons why there is such a shortfall and try to correct it. I hope that the Secretary of State has received the clear message from the debate that our armed forces are overstretched and undermanned. The success of our overseas missions will suffer unless those problems are addressed.

5.14 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): We have had an excellent and wide-ranging debate.

I will start by referring to one of the first points that my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) addressed: the overall background of funding for the armed forces. He identified the fact that we are spending only 2.2 per cent. of gross domestic product on our armed forces, which is the lowest amount since 1930. It is interesting that in the other place yesterday, Lord Drayson admitted that

There was also an interesting exchange in the other place about whether defence expenditure had gone up in real terms. My noble Friend Lord King of Bridgwater noted that although there might have been an increase in expenditure in real terms, it has happened at a time of sustained increase in defence commitments. That is perhaps how we square the circle when some Labour Members point to an increase in resources, while many hon. Members on both sides of the House draw attention to areas of overstretch.
6 July 2006 : Column 1071
Although there have been real-terms increases in defence expenditure, despite the fact that it has fallen as a percentage of GDP, we are asking our armed forces to do more and more at the same time, which is why problems are arising.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring reminded us that the armed forces have been operating above the assumptions in the strategic defence review. Indeed, the National Audit Office military readiness report that was published in June 2005 highlighted the fact that the armed forces had been operating consistently over the planned level of activity during 2002, 2003 and 2004. That has continued, but it cannot continue for ever.

The Minister of State will know—if he does not, the Secretary of State, as the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will—that the Government will soon undertake their comprehensive spending review. Will the Minister tell us whether the Secretary of State is planning to conduct a new strategic defence review ahead of the comprehensive spending review? If not, will Ministers at least examine the assumptions that underlie what we ask our armed forces to do? Given the number of the years for which we have been operating above those assumptions and the fact that there is no sign that the dangerous world that we are in will change in the future, it would seem sensible to take account of the tempo at which we have been operating and ensure that the Chancellor delivers in his settlement for the next few years. The Chancellor is trying to create a reputation for himself as a friend of the armed forces, but he will be judged on that military settlement.

I was disturbed to note from several of my hon. Friends’ contributions that the Ministry of Defence has been warned to expect a less than generous settlement, although I hope that that will not prove to be the case. If anyone knows how to negotiate well with the Treasury, I am sure that it is the Secretary of State.

Des Browne indicated assent.

Mr. Harper: The Secretary of State confirms that my assumption is correct. I know that he will be content to be judged on the success, or otherwise, of those negotiations.

Several Conservative Members pointed out that we will have to make a clear choice by considering both the commitments that we are undertaking and the resources that we have. We must ensure that the resources match the commitments, and if we are not prepared to put the resources in place, we will have to reduce the commitments accordingly.

Mr. Gray: One of the most worrying rumours that is circulating in several areas of the defence force is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is planning to cut the manpower of the Army to some 80,000 in his forthcoming comprehensive spending review. That figure has been repeated to me from several sources. Although such a cut would be absurd, ridiculous and unworkable, we must remember that the Chancellor is a clever fellow and could come along at the time of the comprehensive spending review and say, “The figure of 80,000 was nonsensical and I am delighted to be able to announce to the House today that we are going to keep it at 90,000.” Would not that be even more worrying?


Next Section Index Home Page