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My mind goes back to the situation in Portsmouth naval base 25 years ago. It was one of desperation, of job cuts, of Navy reductions, and of ships being laid up and scrapped. The perpetrator of those problems, the then Secretary of State, John Nott, was infamous in Portsmouth for what he had done, because a matter of months after the cuts started to be implemented, the work force were brought back, as were the ships, many of which were on their way out of service. They were reconditioned very quickly and brought back into service. It is a great tribute both to service personnel and to the work force in naval bases throughout the country that we were able to achieve what we did in the Falklands. It was through the dedication of the civilian personnel who put so much effort into the work, many of whom sailed on the ships, and left them at various
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points on the way down to the south Atlantic, that we were able to achieve the success that we did.

It is a tribute to all of our armed forces that so many Members have spoken in this debate with great eloquence and authority about the commitment that the members of the armed forces show all the time. The nation appreciates their work, dedication and commitment, and the way in which they carry out their duties, and nobody should take that away from them. I have yet to meet anyone who has been to Afghanistan, Iraq, or anywhere else where our armed forces work who says that there is a morale problem. There manifestly is not. When our armed forces are on active service, wherever they are, morale is not the issue. There is disappointment sometimes that equipment is late, or that other units receive equipment that they need before them, and so on, but those things are normal. No one should ever try to diminish the true fighting spirit of those men and women, and say that there is a morale problem among the country’s fighting forces.

I should like to speak, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) did, briefly about the naval base and the consequences of any proposed changes. I do not want to go over issues that have already been raised, but the future of the Royal Navy is irreversibly linked to the future of Portsmouth as the home of the Royal Navy. In an announcement this week, the First Sea Lord said how important Portsmouth was as the future home of the carriers. That led people to believe that by the end of this week—perhaps even today—the Minister might announce the signing of the contracts for the carriers. We lived in hope. Our local newspaper optimistically believed that it was about to happen, and that the signal for that was the statement by the First Sea Lord. We were glad, however, that the Navy’s serving sailors were determined that Portsmouth should be retained as a naval base.

There are other issues, however, affecting the Navy. Hon. Members have discussed the future of training, and in an intervention, the Minister discussed what is going to happen at St. Athan, which will have repercussions on the demise of HMS Collingwood, HMS Salton and Whale Island and affect the Greater Portsmouth area. Four constituencies—Portsmouth, North; Portsmouth, South; Gosport; and Fareham—will be dramatically affected by those repercussions. We still have not had any indication at all, however, about what will happen to those large pieces of real estate or to the enormous number of civilian staff who work at those bases, many of whom cannot move several hundred miles to St. Athan. We are entitled to ask whether we will have answers to those questions, and whether we will have them in time for people to reorganise their lives. Many people who can move have young children, and if we care about our armed forces personnel and the civilians who support them, we must give them credit they deserve, and provide them with straight answers to those questions. Hence the fact that there is still frustration in the naval base, as the final decision seems to be further and further from being taken. In all honesty, the loyalty and dedication of those people are worthy of a straight answer as soon as possible.

Many Members have discussed married quarters. Despite the best efforts of the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who made
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that decision—he suggested that it was one of his last decisions as the then Armed Forces Minister to sell off those houses—if we had the money that Annington has made on the sale of the land and property that it acquired from us, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) said, at rip-off prices, we would be able improve 25 per cent. more of the service accommodation than we have been able to improve so far. That is the proportion of profit and gain that Annington has made at the taxpayer’s expense.

There are still many years to go before we catch up, and we must recognise that the state of our married quarters has been a disgrace. I am delighted that a great deal has happened, and I have to say that over the past five years, there has been an enormous improvement. One need only go into the single service accommodation in Portsmouth to see the amazing transformation from the ghastly mess in which young service personnel were forced to live to accommodation that is much better both in quality and the way in which it is serviced. We must recognise that transformation. I was delighted that, in response to my intervention, the Minister of State recognised that there is a need to train the trainers, and make sure that the duty of care to the young men and women who join our armed forces is addressed properly by the people who carry out those exercises. Of all the things that dismayed me in those very difficult meetings with the parents of the young people who died at Deepcut and of others who died around the country, I was most dismayed by the criticism of the trainers and the way in which that they took it upon themselves to dish out abuse in one form or another—not all them, by any means, but many of them did so.

One of the criticisms that came from the Army itself was about the calibre of those trainers and the lack of training of the trainers. That goes back to the people in the recruiting offices. Once again, to his credit, the Minister of State recognised that and said that the way in which we draw people into the armed forces and take them on at the initial stage will be open to greater scrutiny.

I am full of admiration for the way in which our armed forces have turned around young men and women who had hopeless lives ahead of them. Given the opportunity of joining our armed forces, they have been transformed not only into first-class citizens, but into first-class service personnel. The best education they ever got, they tell me when I meet them, was the one they got when they joined one of our armed forces. I am proud of that. Sadly, though, some still get into our armed forces who should never have been allowed to join. That is not a criticism of them—it is a criticism of the system that did not check thoroughly enough the medical background or the suitability of some young men and women to join our armed forces. I am delighted that more care and attention will be paid to that. I welcome the Minister’s remarks on the matter this afternoon.

On retention, we have learned many lessons over the past 10 years. We have learned that certain categories of staff, such as fast jet pilots, skilled divers in the Navy and aircraft fitters in the Air Force, have skills that are readily marketable out there in civilian life and that we must prepare packages to retain them. As the Minister
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has said on more than one occasion, we must make the right judgments. It is not just about getting the pay scales right. We must offer breaks in service to members of our armed forces who can easily market their skills elsewhere. After the country has invested so much money in them, I want us to retain those people. I am sure that we are developing the necessary techniques.

Several speakers have mentioned veterans. Let us consider the plight of the Gurkhas. A few years from now, they will celebrate 200 years of service to this country, yet 22,000 Gurkhas who retired before 1997 receive inadequate pensions and have no right to settle in the UK. Whenever the subject of the treatment of the Gurkhas and their pensions is raised, there is universal support for them. As a Parliament and a nation, we should not deny them what most people believe they are morally entitled to, which is no more and no less than any of us would expect.

I hope the debate today has demonstrated to Ministers and the Ministry of Defence that there is not one parliamentarian who does not hold the armed forces in high esteem. All of us believe that they do a first-class job and that they need the appropriate service, such as equipment, back-up in civilian life and support for their families. The duty of care extends from the time they join to way after they leave. Many Members have spoken about the difficulties that service personnel experience when they leave. Some have housing problems, others have health problems, and some end up in prison.

One thing surprises me time and again when I meet young men and women who have returned from active service. They have been in situations that they may never have expected to encounter, when they were close to or involved in the killing of other human beings in a war situation. Some do not express their fears and concerns when they are with their unit or when they are with their families, but they express them to their friends. Very few are equipped to deal with that. Sadly, local GPs cannot deal with it. Some former members of the armed forces find it extremely difficult to come to terms with what they have experienced over those months and, in some cases because of more than one tour, years on active service, when they have seen things that none of us would wish on them. We must find a way of giving those young men and women support before they go, to give them a better understanding of what to expect and the traumas they might experience, and after they come back.

With all that said, I have nothing but admiration for the way in which the armed forces Minister robustly presented his case. Above all else, both sides appreciate the fact that he has never shirked his share of responsibility, and I do not think that the House should either. We should ensure that we resource our armed forces fairly and properly.

5.10 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I shall be brief because I know that two of my hon. Friends are keen to speak before the winding-up speeches.

It has been a wide-ranging and well informed debate. When one thinks of these debates, one thinks slightly of groundhog day, of a fly buzzing quietly in the corner
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and the same old defence people turning up and saying the same things. Today has been a remarkably well informed and interesting debate, involving a variety of people who have tested one particular thesis. The thesis is that there is some kind of contract or covenant between the nation and our armed services. In each of our different ways, we have tried in the debate to assess the degree to which the covenant between the Government or the nation has been fulfilled on our side. As Lieutenant-General Freddie Viggers has said, the issue is about

After all, all of us in the House must acknowledge that what they do for us is not something that we could possibly contemplate doing, or at least not at our advanced stage in life.

The covenant between the nation and the armed services seems to be multi-faceted. It covers the whole question of resources in general. I wish that I could stand here and say that I was confident that an incoming Conservative Government would give the resources that I would like them to give to the armed services, but the issue involves the resources that Governments of any complexion give to the armed services.

Part of that involves manpower. Is it right that we have an Army of about 100,000 people, the smallest since Waterloo? Can a tiny Army of that kind do the things that the Prime Minister and the Government are asking it to do? Can we live with 18 ships in the Royal Navy doing the work of at least 30? Can we live with the deep cuts that have been made to the Royal Air Force? I speak with feeling on that latter issue, because of the upcoming closure of the base at RAF Lyneham in my constituency.

Can we do what we are supposed to be doing given the inadequacies of the equipment? We have heard about the tragedies of the deaths of servicemen because they did not have body armour or had the wrong kind of body armour or other equipment.

Can we really ask our people to go to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere and do awful tasks under difficult circumstances if they know that 46 per cent. of their families are at home living in substandard accommodation? I acknowledge the fact that a lot of money has been spent recently on improving housing, and I welcome that very much. However, some 46,000 armed service homes are still substandard. That will not do.

If we ask our boys on the front line what concerns them, they do not talk about the fact that there are not enough of them or that they have not got the right equipment. As someone has just said, by and large, their morale is extremely high. The thing that they talk to us about is what is happening at home. They are deeply concerned by the fact that their families live in conditions that they would not have to live in if they were in civilian life.

People often come to my surgery in Chippenham and they might say, “I’m a mechanic in the Royal Army Service Corps and I’m getting £14,000 a year. I’m sent abroad for six or eight months of the year and my wife lives in terrible conditions at home. If I left the Army and became a mechanic in Chippenham, I would get
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£25,000 or £30,000 a year and I’d be at home all the year round. Why shouldn’t I do that?” That is a very difficult question to answer.

Why should a fully trained private soldier in the British Army get something like £14,000 or £15,000 a year? A fully trained nurse gets about £18,000 a year and a fully trained police constable gets something of the order of £24,000 a year. Are we as a nation fulfilling our side of the covenant by putting people up in poor accommodation and paying them badly? I suspect that we are not.

I shall touch on a few other points very briefly. Spending of 2.2 per cent. of GDP is the lowest since 1930. An Army of 100,000 is the smallest since Waterloo, and the Territorial Army is the smallest it has been since it was founded in 1906, but it is being asked to do so much more than it ever has been. As General Sir Michael Rose said:

Admiral Sir Alan West said:

to which several hon. Members have referred so passionately today. We simply do not have the resources required to do those jobs; we are breaching the resources covenant as we are breaching the housing and welfare covenant. We are not doing all the things that we should be doing for our people. I am not blaming the Government, or saying that if we were in government it would necessarily be different. We as a nation are not fulfilling the covenant, and it is vital that we should find ways of doing precisely that.

No hon. Gentleman or hon. Lady in the House today would foresee any diminution in the amount that we do in the years to come. It is likely that we will ask our services to carry out more and more operations, perhaps in different parts of the world, in increasingly difficult circumstances. If so, I ask the Minister to take away from the debate this message, if no other. For goodness’ sake, please try to remember the important covenant between us as a nation and our armed services. Give the services what they need to do the job and give the families at home what they need to be proud of their men and women out in the front doing the work that they have to do.

5.16 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): I do not usually contribute to defence debates, and I have learned an awful lot by listening to the debate today. One must certainly be a little careful with so many experts in the Chamber.

The fact that the military footprint in society is smaller than it has ever been is a sign of the success of the post-war settlement, of NATO, and of our friends, the United States. It is probably a good thing. I am a little wary of simply talking about percentages of gross domestic product. The true power of the United States is based on the fact that it has a very large and successful economy. Ultimately, whether we can project British power, and provide the necessary tools and
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equipment and pay our servicemen, depends on the success of the British economy; that must be a key issue.

I decided to contribute briefly to the debate having been out canvassing in Hamworthy in Poole last week, when I had a few discussions with the Royal Marines who are based there. We are immensely proud of Royal Marines Hamworthy. It is the home of the Special Boat Squadron and other special units who have made a great contribution to the defence of our country and to the war on terror. For the third time in the 10 years for which I have been an MP, the base is being reviewed. Fortunately, at the end of these reviews there is usually more investment, and even if forces are moved out other units are moved in. We in Poole hope that it will remain a base and that the important contribution that the Royal Marines make to the local community will continue, for all the reasons that we heard from other Members who spoke about their local bases. People become settled in communities, their spouses get jobs, and they wish to remain. As it happens, Poole is a nice place to live and to bring up one’s children.

I want to talk principally about the concerns about medical services that several Royal Marines raised on the doorstep. Clearly, someone who is going to go into an area of danger hopes to have the best possible support if they get wounded or injured. There are general concerns about medical support—we have debated them in this House—but two or three Marines put to me their specific concerns about mental health services. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said that about 12 per cent. of Iraq veterans have psychological problems. Nowadays, there is greater understanding of the psychological difficulties that troops encounter when they come back to this country. The Marines told me that they did not feel that they were getting support in this area. They recounted several stories about colleagues who had done very valuable jobs. I heard about the case of somebody who directed artillery and saved many lives as a result, but on one occasion, because of false intelligence, had directed it on to some civilians and children. He suffered psychological problems. When he returned to the UK, he was not met at the airport and had to take a taxi. He had been through a catalogue of difficulties and then a prolonged period of home leave. It is important to get things right.

Earlier, we heard that the Government had put £4 million into a contract with the Priory. The local Marines asked whether that was the most appropriate action to take. The Priory is good at alcohol addiction, bulimia and so on, but I question whether it is the most appropriate place for the special problems of those who have been traumatised in battle. I am not an expert on the matter but I hope that Ministers will reflect on whether we are giving adequate support to those who experience trauma.

Another matter that local families who have sadly lost relatives raised with me is the length of time for the inquests of those who are flown back. I appreciate that the subject is complex and difficult and I have raised it with the Secretary of State in the past. I know that bringing the bodies to Brize Norton so that the Oxfordshire coroner dealt with them created a backlog
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and that, once an inquest is opened, it cannot be moved, even if it is immediately adjourned. I welcome the fact that some of the bodies are being brought back through Lyneham, where the Wiltshire coroner can deal with the inquests.

The point that was made earlier about resources is important. I hope that the Minister will take the matter up with the Department for Constitutional Affairs and ascertain whether more resources can be provided. The families have not only suffered the shock of losing a relative but they sometimes have to wait for two or three years for an inquest before they can get on with their lives and put things behind them.

Mr. Ingram: I reiterate what I said earlier. We are actively considering the matter to find the best solution. Coroners have to be family friendly and we are trying to find the best, rounded approach. We are considering resources and the number of coroners, trying to get the inquests close to where the families are and ensuring that the sort of support that we put in is reflected in inquest hearings.

Mr. Syms: I welcome the Minister’s helpful intervention. There is a problem—I am glad that the Government are examining it and I hope that we can speed up the process.

I have made, briefly, the points that I wanted to stress. I appreciate that mental health services are the Cinderella of the NHS, but there is a problem for those who serve abroad and need support. I told the Marines to whom I spoke that I would raise the matter before Ministers. I hope that they will reflect on how we can further improve support for our brave men and women who serve on the front line.

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