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30 Jan 2007 : Column 45WH—continued

It was a Minister in the other place, Lord Davies of Oldham, who said that that was merely a contribution to the debate. I say to the Minister that this is not knockabout stuff. If the Prime Minister’s words did not mean that the armed forces were sent the message, “We are going to increase expenditure,” what did they mean?

Mr. Ingram: I have read the comments made by my colleague in another place, and knockabout is a word that I could use to good effect in describing them. The Prime Minister’s speech was more than a contribution; it was a substantial analysis of where we stand. We are not here to consider that speech, which covered matters beyond the future of the British Army, but it put the armed forces into context. The Prime Minister talked about public opinion, politics and where Her Majesty’s armed forces sit. He also mentioned the need to invest in our nation’s warfighting capabilities to pursue our foreign policy. The sharp end of that is the British Army.

There are people who do not believe that we should be a warfighting nation, including some in the House and perhaps in the other place. I think that they are wrong, because that represents where we best position ourselves and where we have historically and traditionally given great effect at momentous times in world history. We are doing that in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and who knows where we will do it tomorrow? The Prime Minister set out a variety of security threats and challenges that we face and where the armed forces sit in relation to them. Much of what he said is what we have been addressing in the Ministry of Defence since the strategic defence review.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for admitting that the Conservatives failed in government to address what was coming after the end of the cold war. The downsizing and the changes that took place were not well structured. The Conservatives did not analyse what the needs of the future would be. They immediately reduced defence expenditure dramatically so that they could invest it in trying to win the forthcoming elections.

Mr. Howarth rose—

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Mr. Ingram: I shall give way in a moment on that point, but I do not agree with the analysis with which the hon. Gentleman closed his speech.

The incoming Labour Government considered where the armed forces should be positioned and how best they should be structured. That was an intensive programme, driven directly by the armed forces themselves. They knew that they had to get themselves better structured and positioned. On the back of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was clear that more needed to be done. There was not a full review, but more consideration needed to be given to how to structure the armed forces, particularly the Army.

We considered the new technology that was coming in, which changed the relationship between the various services and how they could fight interdependently and flexibly, meeting new challenges and a different type of threat and enemy. All that had to be included in the examination process. Such a process will always be complicated while we are engaged in heavy commitments such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Other countries where we are engaged have been mentioned, and it is interesting that people forget about Northern Ireland. Only a few years ago we had more troops committed there than to Iraq and Afghanistan put together. We have transformed Northern Ireland: when I was the Northern Ireland Office Minister with responsibility for security, we had about 15,000 troops committed. Some were on rear bases, but that was the total commitment, the vast bulk of which came from the Army.

The peace process was required for a lot of reasons, one of which was the heavy resource commitment. We had been there for far too long and there was another, better way of doing it. We could never have solved the problem militarily, yet we had a large commitment. As of next year, we will have a commitment of 5,000 troops—not for the peace process, although a measure of support will be given to the civilian authorities, but overall. That is a major transformation and it has reduced pressure.

Two parts of our re-examination were called future Army structure and future infantry structure. The future Army structure represents a complete overhaul of how we brigade the British Army. Virtually every Army unit establishment was subject to examination, and will be in the months and years ahead. Some 10,000 posts will be redistributed, which will reshape and restructure the Army and is intended to get a better balance between heavy, medium and light capabilities. We inherited an imbalance: the enemy and threat had changed, so we had to change accordingly. That required re-roling and people doing tasks other than those that they thought they would do when they entered the armed forces. We were committed to one objective: maintaining the high quality and standard of Her Majesty’s armed forces.

A previous Secretary of State, now the Minister for Europe, commented on the matter on 16 December 2004, saying:

In April last year, a new special forces support group was also formed to work alongside special forces tackling the terrorism that we face globally. I have visited a support group and spoken to those deployed in Afghanistan. I cite those examples because they are never recognised as part of the process of substantial change that we have seen. That process has been driven by a military imperative to get things right, and there has been political and financial support for it.

Mr. Howarth: I entirely endorse that point, and the Minister is absolutely right, but we need to introduce changes to meet the circumstances of today, not the limbo in which we found ourselves in 1989, following the fall of the Berlin wall. It is absolutely right to do that, but the Minister’s problem is that he is still operating with an Army of less than 100,000. As far as I can work out, we would have to go back pretty well to the time of Wellington to find an Army as small as that. That is where the problem lies—not with the new units that the Minister is creating, which I applaud, but with the reduction in the Army below the critical 100,000 level.

Mr. Ingram: Let us look at the figures. The hon. Gentleman said that trained strength was 101,300 in 1997. It dropped to 100,900 the following year and to below 100,000 the year after that. In terms of the figure being below 100,000 and the reference to 1935, therefore, he is wrong. The current figures are marginally below the 1999 level. Interestingly, however, recruitment grew at the height of the Iraq controversy, when there were massive demonstrations in this country.

In 2004 and 2005, the figure went up to 102,400. That tells us something that is probably hard to analyse—recruitment went up against the trend, but we are now having recruiting difficulties. Tempo is unquestionably part of the issue, but people tend to forget the strength of the economy. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) mentioned the strength of the Scottish economy and his own region. It is difficult to recruit from a particular cohort when the economy is strong, and especially when the demographics and all the higher and further education opportunities open to young people, which were not there before, are working against us.

That is what this debate is about, and if people can find a solution to that problem, they should tell us. A lot of effort is being put into working towards the best conclusion. We offer young people immense opportunities not only in the Army, but in the armed forces, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby mentioned the educational opportunities. We market and advertise the opportunities that the armed forces provide so that people are aware of them. Sometimes those recruiting campaigns work, but sometimes they do not. We are no different from any other major organisation that is trying to reach a market and attract people in.

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What militates against our efforts is people arguing that the British armed forces are underfunded, ill equipped, badly treated and badly looked after. There may be some underlying truth in terms of issues needing to be addressed, but no wonder we find it difficult to recruit when debates such as this present a picture of complete negativity, rather than highlighting the positive attractions for young people. That is why we are putting so much effort into our recruiting strategy and trying to lift the quality of the debate as best we can.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: That is an interesting point. We have certainly seen that situation in the north-west, and particularly in Liverpool, which is a big recruiting area for young soldiers, although the economy and job opportunities have gone through the ceiling, which means that the Army is not as attractive as it was. However, I take my right hon. Friend back to my earlier point that the Army has made strong attempts to ensure that any qualification it gives has equivalent civilian accreditation. Many individuals were locked into the Army because their experience could not be marketed outside it, but that barrier has now gone. That means that they can gain fantastic opportunities and then say, “Where can I best use them?” That is quite an important factor, and I applaud the fact that we have taken those steps, but it does create retention problems.

Mr. Ingram: It is probably a no-win situation. Not every young person who comes into the armed forces because of the opportunities that they offer—they are not all 16 or 17-year-olds, and some are a bit more mature—is focused on training and education, and some come in to do what they want to do with the Royal Marines or the Army, but they are all given every opportunity. I agree that that raises an issue, in that we are making people employable who were not employable before.

I talked to RAF personnel at Kinloss yesterday, and several of them were looking at openings in the outside world. As a nation, we have give them that opportunity. Some would have taken it as a result of their own choice, but many will now be able to do so because we have provided the resources—the hundreds of millions that we pour into the education of our personnel.

I want now to touch on equipment because we hear so much about equipment problems—indeed, that is all we are ever told about. When the issue arises, Defence Ministers try to take those who make such comments through the argument. Let me give a good example of what applies to the Army today and what will apply into the future. Four years ago, an eight-man fire team would have had roughly three SA80s; one light support weapon; an individual Mk 6 helmet, webbing and Bergen; enhanced combat body armour; the old Clansman; a light anti-tank weapon; an individual weapon sight; and a 51 mm mortar. Now, such a team has a light support weapon; a light machine gun; an underslung grenade launcher; thermal imaging sights; the Mk 6A helmet, which is an improved defensive aid; all-round Osprey body armour, which has saved lives; the interim light anti-tank weapon; the Bowman personal role radio; head-mounted night-vision sights;
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a long-range image intensifier; and an automatic lightweight grenade launcher and a 60 mm mortar in support.

All those developments have taken place because of the theatre in which we find ourselves. That is what is happening on the procurement of equipment, and it is the same with armoured vehicles. I am really surprised that the hon. Member for Aldershot criticises what we are doing and says that we should do more. What more can we do, other than procure the numbers that we need and ask industry to supply us, which it is doing to a considerable extent? All that will place the Army in a better position in the years ahead.

Let us just consider one fact: equipment valued at more than £10 billion has been delivered to the armed forces in the past three years. When people say that equipment is not being supplied to provide for force protection and wider capabilities, they are simply wrong. If they want more defence expenditure, let me hear where they want less expenditure. I shall advocate more expenditure as part of a spending Department’s approach with the Treasury—it is our job to do that—but let those who want more for defence say where they want a reduction. In health? In education?

The issue is part of our covenant with the British people, and the Prime Minister set it out in his argument. Have we got the balance right? The argument is now out there, and the Prime Minister certainly made more than a contribution—his was a powerful examination of where we stand as a nation and what we need to do against unknown threats and enemies. However, we must get ourselves in the best position. I welcome this debate, and we should have more such debates, but I just wish that more hon. Members would participate in them.

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Young Carers

12.30 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Young carers are children and young people under 18 who help to look after a family member who is disabled or physically or mentally ill, or who has a substance misuse problem. Helping out around the house is a normal part of growing up, but young carers regularly carry out significant or substantial caring tasks and assume a level of responsibility that is inappropriate to their age. Caring can involve physical or emotional care, or taking responsibility for someone’s safety or well-being. Many young carers spend a lot of time doing household chores or looking after younger siblings, in addition to helping a sick or disabled parent with tasks such as administering medication—often without training or support—helping someone to get up and dressed, or helping someone to use the bathroom. Some young carers help parents to look after a disabled sibling.

The last census, in 2001, found 175,000 young carers in the United Kingdom. Of those, 18,000 children, aged between five and 15, provided 20 hours of care or more a week. That is nearly three hours a day. Nearly 9,000 provided at least 50 hours—more than seven hours a day. However, it is generally accepted that there are many unrecorded and unrecognised cases. The culture of secrecy is strong among young carers and their families, and many young carers are invisible to the agencies that are there to help them. Perhaps that is because of fear that if social services become involved the family will be broken up. Local research has suggested that there may be up to 30 young carers in a large secondary school. Government estimates show 250,000 young people living with parental substance misuse, and the latest research by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children suggests that 4 per cent. of children will be young carers at some point during their childhoods. Fifty-seven per cent. of known young carers are girls and 43 per cent. are boys.

Last year, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I attended the annual young carers festival at Fairthorne manor in Hampshire, and I was approached, after the formal question and answer session, by a group of young girls. They were very challenging. What they said was, basically, “All you politicians ever do is talk, but nothing ever changes for us.” I came away with an even deeper commitment to try to make a difference to their lives. I felt quite ashamed, to be honest.

The types of issues that young carers consistently raise include comments such as the following: it is

Another comment is:

Other comments include:

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This is another:

Each young carer has different needs, and so does the person whom they are caring for, but being a young carer has heavy costs, such as being unable to do the sorts of things that other children do; taking on much more responsibility than other children, which sometimes leads to emotional and stress problems and clearly affects school attendance and performance; and even experiencing bullying at school. As one young carer said:

I was pleased to be able to raise issues affecting young carers throughout the passage of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and to have a meeting with the Minister for Schools. I should like to welcome some great improvements: the revised Department for Education and Skills guidance for schools on promoting attendance for vulnerable and at-risk groups, which includes an updated section on young carers, and the draft school transport guidance, which sets out the rights of disabled parents to free school transport to get their children to school. I think that I also wish to welcome the commitment in “Our health, our care, our say” to improving things for young carers, but I look forward to seeing the details.

Something else that is greatly to be welcomed is DFES funding for the young carers initiative at the Children’s Society, which is developing principles of practice for professionals who come into contact with young carers. Funding for many other initiatives and projects that support young carers in a variety of ways is welcome, too, and I hope that the funds will be continued for many successful projects, and not suddenly chopped off.

Nevertheless, there is much more that needs to be done for the particularly vulnerable group of young carers. Research by Barnardo’s showed that on average each young carer had spent four years looking after a relative or parent before they received any support. I would start by requesting that every school had a named young carers lead in line with DFES guidance. I should have liked that to be a duty, as it is in the case of looked-after children. It is very sad that we have not moved further on that point. Most young carers are not known as such by school staff, so being a young carer can be a hidden cause of poor attendance, under-achievement and bullying, and many young carers drop out of school or achieve no qualifications. Poor attendance by a young carer should not be equated with truancy or attract punitive measures. Appropriate
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support is needed. Teachers are generally not aware of the support services, if any, in their school or the wider community.

There should be a young carers champion in every local authority. Some local authorities include such a role, which allows them to knit together the work of children’s and adults’ services at a strategic and practitioner level. It is vital that every authority mentions young carers in its children and young people’s plans. In his recent report on statutory children and young people’s plans the Children’s Commissioner for England calls young carers

and goes on to say:

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