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Out there in the labour market, one can earn more than that. In my constituency, where there is practically zero unemployment, one wonders what attracts people to the armed forces. Everyone must recognise that the MOD will be competing in an increasingly tight labour market.

Following on from that, many of those whom one would recruit as private soldiers at 18 will have left school at 16. It seems to me that there are two years that go gash there. One hears commanding officers having to explain that many of those recruited need to work to improve their educational standards, and our armed forces are obviously becoming increasingly technical, so why do we not recruit at 17? I appreciate that recruits cannot fight at that age, but we used to have a good junior leader scheme from which half of those recruited became lance-corporals and corporals.

Why does the MOD not recruit younger people, and use that first year on education and training, and getting guys up to standard, so that when they reach their 18th birthday they already have a head start? Otherwise the danger for the MOD is that those who might want to join the armed forces will have left school at 16, taken up other employment and become involved in other jobs and will be lost to the armed forces. That is particularly so if they have taken up employment that pays them as much as, if not more than, they are likely to earn in the Army.

I know of a good place where the Army could set up a new education school, and I hope that the Minister will agree. I know that the MOD is thinking about having super-garrisons. Bicester in my constituency—as the name suggests, it was a Roman garrison—became a garrison for the British Army at the time of the first world war. It had a huge footprint because it was built to resist Zeppelin attacks. It was thought that if the Zeppelins managed to hit one part of the depot they would not hit the others. It covers a huge area.

It has some enormous hangers and storage sheds, which must be among the wonders of the world. In one of them—it is an incredible sight, and I am sure that the Minister will have seen it—is the Bowman conversion for the new radio system. The set-up includes classrooms, and it is like going into a university. When the Bowman training at Bicester is over, I hope that the Army will find another good purpose for it. I believe that it would be an ideal place for a super-garrison, where apprentices and young soldiers, both men and women, could be trained. It would ensure that they found their trades at the earliest possible opportunity.

The point is that we should be recruiting earlier. We should use the time to enhance people’s education and training in trades and skills, particularly if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire says, they have less time for training or to acquire skills because they are being deployed so frequently.

My next point is about housing. My hon. Friend made the point that families will be pretty disillusioned if the quality of housing is not good. Ambrosden in my constituency is a large village just outside Bicester that once had within its borders almost a village of MOD housing. A road that goes through Ambrosden once had MOD housing on both sides. Some time ago, the Ministry sold off the housing on one side of the road to
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Annersley Housing, which then sold it on to the private sector. In other words, it is now owner-occupied; people have done up their houses, refurbished them and remodelled them. On the other side of the road, the housing is traditional; I do not say this in a pejorative sense, but it is bog-standard MOD married quarters, in which little has been invested. It is pretty depressing.

I speak for the Army because I do not have so much experience of the Navy or the Air Force. It needs to recognise that if it wishes to retain soldiers it must also retain their wives and families. And the wives and families will stay only if married quarters are of a good standard; they do not want to think that they are being prejudiced by having to live in sub-standard accommodation.

There is a further issue. I have seen the problem in my constituency, but I do not pretend to have the answer. Twenty or 30 years ago, a staff sergeant or warrant officer leaving the Army with a gratuity could probably put a deposit on a home. It is now difficult for people leaving the armed forces to get on to the housing ladder. I do not know the answer, but it behoves us to ensure that the quality of housing while in the armed forces is good and that when people leave the services they have access to social housing should it be needed. I hope that the Minister can give us an undertaking that whichever defence estate is involved, it is giving active consideration to upgrading married accommodation.

The third point that I wish to raise was not mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire. It is something that I genuinely do not understand. Anyone who has had any involvement or connection with the Army or the armed forces knows that the regimental system works to look after those in the regiment. It has always done so because most regiments rightly see themselves as a family so I genuinely do not understand why barely a week goes by without a surfeit of articles in the press about soldiers being neglected.

Last week’s edition of The Week magazine included the headline “Wounded soldiers: a shameful neglect”. The Mail on Sunday of 18 March carried an article headlined “Soldiers wait years for MOD payouts”. Sub-headlines in that article included “Government admits 7,000 wounded soldiers have not received their war pensions—many more are not even told of their entitlement”; “I may never have kids, but I’ve had no money”; and “I thought I’d die. Now I can’t afford hot water”. The Sunday Times of the same date had the headline “MoD ‘deserts’ teen soldiers scarred by Iraq”. It is a litany of neglect. It must have a corrosive effect.

As my hon. Friend said, parents are loth to support their children if they express a wish to join the armed forces. I genuinely do not understand why that is. If there is a system in place or if unit welfare officers are available, I do not understand how people can get lost in the system. One of the lessons that we should have learned from the first Gulf war is that it cannot be beyond the wit of man and officialdom to ensure that every wounded, injured or discharged soldier leaving our armed forces has some dedicated support, even if it comes through the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association or other organisations, to ensure that people are not left alone. What is coming through many of these stories is that people being discharged from the Army feel that they have been left on their own. I cannot believe that our uniformed institutions should get so much bad press. It must have a corrosive effect on
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recruitment. That is apart from the fact that each story is a matter of concern in itself—I am sure that the hon. Members who represent the individual soldiers affected will seek to raise those concerns in Adjournment debates if they feel it appropriate. The situation reflects badly on the Army and on its duty of care.

My final point is on access to military personnel. The armed forces are in a changing world, and each and every member of them is an elector. Serving soldiers are our electors. Yet, curiously, it is easier for me to get through to a closed convent than to serving personnel. If I want to go and see serving soldiers—my electors—in their garrison, including in Bicester garrison, I have to write to the Minister of State to ask permission.

I do not wish to tease anyone, but that situation might well go back to the days when half the Labour party were rabid members of CND, and Lord Heseltine was concerned that if they were allowed into barracks and garrisons they would cause mayhem by demonstrating and chaining themselves up. However, time has moved on. We should ensure that all soldiers are on the electoral roll where they live. I understand that the position has now been changed so that, if they register, their registration counts for three years rather than one. Nevertheless, there is a difference between Members of Parliament visiting installations—regiments per se—to talk about operational issues, deployment and so forth, and Members of Parliament visiting soldiers’ quarters and married quarters, and having contact with soldiers as electors. The latter type of visit gives us confidence that we as MPs have first-hand information about what is causing concern in the military and about what is good.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire said, what soldiers tell us is often good. When I went to Afghanistan last year with the armed forces parliamentary scheme—along with a detachment of Labour MPs whom the Chief Whip had clearly wished to lose for the purposes of a key vote—we took time out to ask soldiers what they thought of their kit. Every one of them said, “We like our kit. We no longer have to buy any other kit.” Coming from Bicester, where the Defence Clothing and Textiles Agency is located, I was genuinely glad to hear that. Soldiers are candid—they are up front in saying what is good and bad. At the beginning of the 21st century we should have new protocols for Members to have access to and contact with those of their electors who are members of the armed forces.

Allow me to summarise my four points. First, we should be recruiting earlier and training younger. Bicester should be a super-garrison because it would be an ideal location for an army education centre—not least when Bowman training goes. My second point was about housing. Thirdly, I just do not understand why so many soldiers who leave the armed forces, or who are wounded or injured, feel neglected. Finally, MPs should have much better access to soldiers who are their electors.

10.4 am

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to take part in the debate, albeit briefly. I congratulate the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing it—the subject is important and I agree almost entirely with the content of his speech, which was a good one. I agree also with much of what was said by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry).

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The final point made by the hon. Member for Banbury was about access to service personnel and establishments. It is the constitutional right of every US Congressman to visit any military establishment and speak to any military personnel, not just in the United States but anywhere in the world where US forces are serving. I am not necessarily suggesting that we adopt that practice in its entirety, but that right is an important one, because it allows legislators to gain access and to know exactly what the issues are in the three services.

I should like to speak briefly on an important subject that I believe crucially affects recruitment and retention—the recruitment and retention of ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom’s armed forces, which is a matter of concern. I approach that issue from the perspective of the pressure caused by the scale of the current operational tempo, and the fact that the armed forces are stretched as opposed to overstretched.

One has to be a little bit careful with the figures, but it is utterly unacceptable that there is an ethnic minority population of roughly 10 per cent., or just less than that, in today’s United Kingdom, yet the current figure for the recruitment of ethnic minority military personnel in the three services is 4.9 per cent. Sadly, there are also indications that such recruitment is in decline.

Since 1997, the Government have taken a number of welcome initiatives to address the problem. Between 1997 and 2001, there was early success in increasing recruitment among ethnic minorities, but those welcome efforts have clearly not succeeded in the longer term. There is a problem in the UK armed forces that involves barriers to recruiting from ethnic minorities.

The situation of our closest ally, the United States of America, is completely different. Again, we need to be careful with the statistics, because there are varying versions. However, even on the most conservative estimate, it can be argued that the ethnic minority population of the US, excluding Hispanics, is between 10 and 12 per cent. At the same time, that population’s recruitment into the armed forces in the US averages between 15 and 18 per cent. So not only does the US achieve the objective of being colour blind, and of recruiting at least the same proportion of people from ethnic minorities as in the community, it recruits half as many again. We should be doing the same for the simple reason that ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom, as in north America, tend for a host of cultural and historical reasons to live in areas where recruitment to the forces occurs at a much higher level. We should be attracting more people from ethnic minorities into the armed forces, but we are not.

For socio-economic reasons, ethnic minorities invariably find themselves in less favoured positions in society, and I know from personal experience that the military offers people a wonderful opportunity—often a second chance—to pursue a career and make a life for themselves. It is wrong that our military clearly does not offer that opportunity to ethnic minorities.

The hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire was right to refer to the situation of the Muslim community. There is a particular problem relating to the Muslim community, because the levels of recruitment of members of that community to the three services are almost statistically insignificant. In the United States of America, however, members of the Muslim population are recruited to the armed forces at a level that reflects the size of that population within the country at large.

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The same applies to Afro-Caribbean recruits. We struggle desperately in this country to be able to recruit enough Afro-Caribbean service personnel. In the United States of America, however, members of the Afro-Caribbean community are recruited very successfully. Moreover, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff in the United States of America, General Colin Powell, was of Afro-Caribbean origin. I state here today quite openly and categorically that that would be impossible in today’s forces in this country, because of the bars to recruitment. We must do something about that. Ten years after the Government’s gallant but, I have to say, failed attempt to address the problem, we can no longer afford to ignore it, given the pressure that our armed forces are under.

Our total military personnel establishment is just over 200,000, of whom fewer than 10,000 come from ethnic minorities. If we recruited at a level that reflected the proportion of people from ethnic minorities who live in the community, we would have at least another 10,000 personnel to draw on. If we recruited at the same level as the United States of America, we would have another 10,000.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful argument. In his analysis of the issue, which he has obviously taken a great deal of trouble over, what are the barriers in the British armed forces that the Government have failed to remove? Why does he think that we have not been as successful as the United States of America?

John Smith: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because it is the very one on which I shall finish. I do not think; I know what the barrier is. As an ex-serving airman myself, it saddens me to say this, but there is no doubt in my mind that the single largest barrier to recruitment within our armed forces is institutional racism. It has to be, because there is no other explanation. We are talking about a uniformed disciplined service, structured by authority. We should be able to break down any barriers that exist in the service. Why have the Americans achieved that and why have we failed? Quite simply, the Americans, back in the 1960s, took positive action. They said, “It is unacceptable that we do not give the ethnic minority communities access to our armed forces.” I am not saying that individuals in our armed forces are racists. I have no knowledge of that. I am saying that the armed forces are by definition, de facto, institutionally racist and it is about time that Parliament did something about that.

10.14 am

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): I hope that, over the next few minutes, I do not betray the fact that I had no intention of speaking when I came into this Chamber. Having listened to the debate, and as one of, I think, just two Members of Parliament who still wear a uniform, I think that it would be remiss of me not to make a contribution.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) on securing the debate, which has been excellent. I shall make three brief points, if I may. First, I shall touch on operational welfare. Secondly,
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I shall touch on an area that has not been mentioned at all, which is recruitment and retention in the Territorial Army. Thirdly, I shall add to the debate on the recruitment of people from ethnic minorities.

As hon. Members realise, I had the honour to spend last summer in Afghanistan, fighting alongside our soldiers, and it was a fascinating experience, but I took home with me, among other things, the genuine concerns held by our soldiers and servicemen about the extent of their welfare package. To be fair to the Government, the welfare package for people on operations has improved in recent years. I had served twice before on operations—in Kosovo in 1999 and in Bosnia in 2002—and there is no doubt that over the years the welfare package has improved. I remember having to queue for 40 minutes in Kosovo to get on to the single Ptarmigan telephone in Pristina to ring home for my 10 minutes once a month. That was a thoroughly depressing experience.

There are still great areas in which we can make improvements, and telephones are one. It was quite depressing to find in Kabul that although we are now issued with a 20-minute phonecard, soldiers could buy what is called a banana card from the German PX or post exchange, which would allow them to make limitless phone calls home for a very low price—£2 or £3. Soldiers used that system rather than the issued card. It says a lot that when soldiers looked at the Ptarmigan card, they said, “Well, this is a waste of time. I’m going to use a banana card.” There were also complaints that those in the platoon houses were having to pay up to five times more to buy the extra units for the mobile satellite phones than they were for the landline, so ironically the closer people were to the front line, the more expensive it was for them to phone home. That was fundamentally wrong.

I have touched before in the House on my experiences of the air bridge and I do not intend to go over that ground again, but it is right to say that one of the things that we owe to our troops is to ensure that they receive their full rest and relaxation entitlement. I am sure that the Ministry of Defence would argue that R and R is not an entitlement but a privilege, but I would argue the opposite. If we send our troops on operations for six months, the very least that they can expect is their 15 days off. More importantly, when they get their 15 days off and they are due to come home, they should not have to lose three days of their time off because, for one reason or another, the air bridge is failing. That means, apart from anything else, that it is simply impossible for people to plan time off with their families when they come back from an operational tour. If they have no guarantee of getting back home on a certain day, they simply cannot book a holiday. That was a major bone of contention and I am pleased that the Government seem to be tackling it; I give them credit for that.

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