Previous Section Index Home Page

30 Jan 2007 : Column 32WH—continued

30 Jan 2007 : Column 33WH

I refer again to regimental links. The Gordon Highlanders had an outreach centre in Aberdeen. A long-term commitment to maintaining those links with the community would be welcome. North-east Scotland has low unemployment and a high skills base in the oil industry, so recruitment is difficult for the armed forces. However, a presence and a profile that links them to the community gives them the chance to tap into skills and trades that would be extremely beneficial to our services.

The hon. Lady reinforced the message on training. When I was an RAF cadet at school, we were shown a powerful video for the RAF telling us that how well we did the training would decide whether we would do it for real. The more professional and effective our armed forces, the better the chance that the other side in a conflict will recognise that fact. As a result, we would not have to engage so often or deliver those forces. We must be willing to use our forces whenever necessary to protect the national interest, but the fact that they are highly trained and highly respected gives us an added edge in international negotiations and in our foreign policy.

I want to finish with the impression that I have of the Government’s failure to recognise what resources we have, how our foreign policy impacts on that and the fact that we need to feed back into our foreign policy only what we can deliver. We must therefore ensure that what we deliver is delivered well and thoroughly. Our armed forces provide an excellent service, but politically we have overstretched them and thus lost the focus on some of the key issues that we were trying to tackle. Again, it comes back to feedback from my visit to Pakistan.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman said that he was about to finish. I remind him that he has spoken for longer than the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who secured the debate.

Sir Robert Smith: I apologise. I will bring my remarks to a close with one last key point.

We went into Afghanistan to deal with a serious and dangerous threat to the world from terrorist training camps. The perception, and certainly the feedback I received as a result of going out to Pakistan, is that, having gone there to do a job, we allowed the American distraction of Iraq to take us away from that crucial goal—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. That does not relate to the future of the British Army. The hon. Gentleman is straying into foreign policy. We are not having a debate on that so he should conclude his remarks.

Sir Robert Smith: In conclusion, the future of the British Army is crucial to delivering foreign policy and that policy should in future effectively target the use of the Army to ensure that it is not overstretched.

11.30 am

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I was impressed by the ability of my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir
30 Jan 2007 : Column 34WH
Robert Smith) to speak for longer than the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas). He had only two pages of notes and I have to prepare much more than that to speak for that length of time. I appreciate his contribution to the debate and that of the hon. Member for Crosby—it was a thoughtful and detailed contribution. Her membership of the armed forces parliamentary scheme sounded attractive. I have, so far, resisted the temptation to join, but I will take her recommendations on board and may consider joining in order to learn first hand exactly what our armed forces face around the world.

I congratulate the Ministry of Defence on the veterans badge, which has already been mentioned. I have been running a campaign to raise awareness of the badge for just two weeks in Fife and we have already attracted more than 100 applications for the scheme. That means that we are able to recognise those who are often unsung heroes and who make significant contributions to our country. It is a small recognition for the valued contribution that they make.

I will talk mainly about overstretch, but will also cover other issues. Despite denials from the Ministry of Defence, it is clear that our armed forces in general and the Army in particular are overstretched. The National Audit Office says that our armed forces are about 5,000 below strength, which is about 2.8 per cent. That has roughly been the case during the past five years as the armed forces have been operating above predicted deployment levels. During the past five years, some 14.5 per cent. of soldiers have been sent on missions more frequently than recommended by harmony guidelines. Medical services have been the worst hit, with reservists filling 66 per cent. of vacant accident and emergency department and intensive therapy nurses posts.

Figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency show that approximately 14,500 personnel left the Army in 2006. Many left before their period of engagement was up. They blamed too many deployments and the impact on their families. The retention crisis has led to some of our most skilled and experienced soldiers quitting the Army. Shorter gaps between tours of duty, and concerns about kit, and pay and allowances are starting to hit morale and put further pressure on service families. Those factors contribute to poor retention levels.

The Defence Committee has said that personnel shortages are creating a “clear danger” and that the military will be unable to maintain its commitments in the near future. With major deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans, and forces working in a total of 28 countries—already alluded to earlier in this debate—the Committee found that the services were operating

We have heard much about General Sir Richard Dannatt, but it is worth considering that in saying that relations between the armed forces and the Government could be undermined if current levels of commitment were maintained, he said that he was

Adrian Weale from the British Armed Forces Federation said that defence funding was based on assumptions made in the late 1990s. He said:

30 Jan 2007 : Column 35WH

by which he means Iraq and Afghanistan—

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his considered words. Does he agree that the situation faced by the Army at the moment arises only from the fact that the threat to this country and globally has changed shape over time? The armed forces were set up for traditional major wars, but the situation is now very different. Many of the problems experienced by the armed forces are associated with shifting from one scenario to a very different scenario. With time, as we settle into that scenario, some of the current problems will diminish because there will be the experience to better manage the situation.

Willie Rennie: There is much in what the hon. Lady says, but we fundamentally disagree about whether we should have intervened in Iraq and whether that has led to overstretch in the Army. We believe that we should have focused on Afghanistan—I know that I am straying into foreign affairs territory here—rather than kicking in the door in Iraq. That would have allowed us to live within our means and capability.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. I must bring the hon. Gentleman back to the debate, which is on the future of the British Army.

Willie Rennie: On the points raised earlier, I too have had members of the armed forces raising concerns about one moment being in store and the next minute finding themselves on the front line. I would like to get to the bottom of this issue and find out what level of training they are getting. I welcome the Minister’s contribution on that.

What are the consequences of this overstretch? According to an MOD survey, one in five soldiers want to quit the Army at the earliest opportunity, with many blaming overstretch. More than half often think about quitting and more than a third blamed operational commitment and overstretch. A rising number of soldiers are no longer given the full recommended rest periods between operations, and only 30 per cent. of ordinary soldiers who responded to the survey were satisfied with the notice given for extra duties. Almost three out of five rated their work load as high or very high, and only 31 per cent. felt valued, with nearly one out of four saying that their morale was low or very low.

I am pleased that the Government have acknowledged that more needs to be done to improve housing for the armed forces, but I am disappointed that it took the intervention of the Adjutant-General, Lieutenant-General Freddie Viggers, who condemned cramped and decaying living quarters in barracks. He said that

30 Jan 2007 : Column 36WH

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman should not set hares running when there is no substance—I do not know if that is the proper use of that expression. The problems referred to by Lieutenant-General Viggers had already been recognised, which is why we invested £700 million last year in housing and are making a £5 billion investment over the next 10 years. There is an historical issue relating to accommodation; the issue was not started by recent comments. I ask the hon. Gentleman to be accurate in analysing the issue and not to set hares running—or release dogs into the street which we will never catch. The issue has been addressed over a number of years and is not of recent vintage. We have adopted a progressive programme for sorting it out.

Willie Rennie: I recognise that and am grateful to the Minister for his intervention. However, I am afraid that the world only found out to the present extent because of the intervention of Lieutenant-General Viggers, although I recognise that the Government have made significant investment in that area.

Figures obtained by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) have already been alluded to, but with a slightly different presentation. Those figures revealed that one in 10 soldiers in the British Army are from abroad. Citizens from 57 countries are recruited to compensate for falling numbers of young Britons signing up. It is a welcome step that our Army is appealing to countries and citizens of other parts of the world. However, that sends out an underlying message that we cannot recruit from within and have to rely on foreign troops. For about 150 years, the United Kingdom has recruited Gurkha soldiers from Nepal to serve in their own Gurkha regiments. About 3,000 are currently serving. However, there are nearly 6,700 soldiers from 57 other countries, as I mentioned. Fiji leads the way, with almost 2,000.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Of course, the hon. Gentleman must understand the reason the British Army recruits so many Fijians. This is an extremely important issue. It is in order that the Army can beat the Royal Navy at rugby.

Willie Rennie: That makes it all right, then. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

I will now deal briefly with teacher reservists in Scotland. A constituent recently approached me. She was concerned that she was not allowed to take part in training because she was a primary school teacher and was not allowed to take time off during term time. The guidelines for that stretch back to 1995. Although I recognise that it is a devolved issue, I would welcome the Minister’s scrutiny in this area, because my constituent has not been able to take part in the essential training. This is about the naval reserves, not the Army, but I am sure that it affects the Territorial Army as well. Bizarrely, teachers are allowed time off for a range of duties. They are allowed to serve as councillors, justices of the peace and so on, and to serve on the river purification board, which no longer exists in Scotland, so we need a review of the guidelines to ensure that reservists, who provide an essential service for our armed forces, are given the necessary time off to do the training.

30 Jan 2007 : Column 37WH

As we are approaching election time, I want briefly to deal with the issue of independence, which I know is close to the Minister’s heart. I would like to know whether he has conducted any scrutiny of the policy for separating Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom and what effect that would have on the British Army. Like him, I believe that Scotland is better within the UK and that an independent Scottish defence force would not have the recognition throughout the world that our British Army currently has. If we put any of that under threat, things would be the poorer not only for those serving in the Army, but for the whole UK. I would therefore welcome hearing the Minister’s views on that issue.

Finally, I want to touch briefly on the war in Iraq because I believe that that is fundamental to the problem with recruitment—

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman’s remarks must be in the context of the British Army.

Willie Rennie: They certainly are. The Liberal Democrats opposed the war in Iraq and we are disappointed that so many members of the coalition forces have lost their lives in Iraq. We believe that that has contributed significantly to the problems with recruitment and retention in the armed forces and, in particular, in the Army. I am talking about problems to do with not having the right kit or the right equipment and the demoralising impact that failing to have the desired effect in Iraq is obviously having on our armed forces.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: That may be the hon. Gentleman’s impression, but when I visit careers offices I find that the war has not necessarily had that effect. If people go to the recruitment office up in the north-west, they will find that the number of expressions of interest has gone up as a result of the war. It is an absolute fact that many young people join the Army because they want the experience of defending their country. That is what they are going for, and Iraq offers a very real possibility of doing that.

Willie Rennie: I understand that recruitment is reasonably healthy and the numbers have gone up, but retention is a fundamental problem. We are losing far too many people out the back end—roughly 14,500 in 2006, as I said. Certainly the feedback that I get on the streets is that one reason for the problem is our situation in Iraq and our intervention there.

I pay tribute to those who have lost their lives in Iraq in the service of their country. By invading Iraq, we created a moral obligation to support the country, and our armed forces had an important role in achieving that, but we must recognise that the commitment cannot be open-ended and that the current strategy is not succeeding. That is why the Liberal Democrats believe that it is time for us to go. We have reached the conclusion that our troops should—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Olner; that is my mobile phone.

Mr. Olner: Order. That is two mistakes that the hon. Gentleman has made. He has again strayed into a debate that took place in the Chamber last week and I do not intend to return to that. I call Mr. Gerald Howarth.

30 Jan 2007 : Column 38WH
11.45 am

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I follow on from what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) said and pay tribute to one of Britain’s greatest success stories, Her Majesty’s armed forces, and particularly, in the light of today’s debate, the British Army. I do not believe that there is an army in the world that can match ours.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on securing the debate. I am sorry that more hon. Members are not present, but I pay tribute to her because she is a tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. She has clearly benefited from it and proven to the House and, we hope, to a wider audience—she has certainly done so to the Minister, although he needs no confirmation of this—that the scheme is an extremely good organisation and helps to ensure that Members of Parliament who do not have experience of the armed forces are introduced to what is, as I said, one of Britain’s greatest success stories.

I shall not go through all the points that the hon. Lady raised, but she made two fundamental ones. The first was that the Falklands campaign illustrated the importance of being prepared to fight for one’s country, territory and interests. We must never forget that that is what our armed forces are for. Having come straight from a meeting with Baroness Thatcher and just discussed these issues, I can reinforce that remark.

The hon. Lady’s second point was about Sierra Leone. That is a very different operation, but it is one in which the British Army is conducting itself magnificently. It illustrates the extraordinary versatility of Britain’s Army and particularly those who come from less privileged backgrounds. Some people come from very difficult home backgrounds and poorer parts of society, and it is a tribute to the British Army that it manages to train them and turn them into such stalwart citizens who are both brave and versatile. In theatres such as Sierra Leone, they are winning hearts and minds, as they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is an enormous tribute to them.

As Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on defence, but also as one who has the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, the home of the British Army, I have to say that this is a wonderful opportunity for me not only to extol the virtues of the British Army, but to highlight some of the difficulties. May I say to the Minister, who has been in post even longer than I have, that if I do highlight the difficulties, I do so because it is part of the constitutional duty of the Opposition to hold the Government to account? Much is being done that I am sure is good. New equipment is coming on board, and the Minister mentioned accommodation, but there are real problems. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife illustrated some of those.

General Sir Richard Dannatt’s first intervention when he became Chief of the General Staff was to say:

Next Section Index Home Page