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The same survey found that one in five soldiers want to quit 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. That is why figures from the Defence Analytical Services Agency show that approximately 14,500 left the Army in 2006. Many left before their period of engagement was up. The retention crisis has led to some of our most skilled and experienced soldiers quitting the armed forces. I acknowledge that recruitment
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levels are okay and tend to meet the targets that have been set. However, the structure is like a big leaking tank—no matter how much one puts in the top, it simply pours out at the bottom.

Overstretch effectively breeds overstretch. The more our forces are asked to do, the more they want to leave early. The more personnel leave early, the greater the overstretch, and so on. We must break that vicious circle if we are to maintain the high standards and worldwide reputation of our armed forces.

I want to outline more examples that show that our forces are being degraded. Ministers will have read reports that show that the Army is so short-staffed that military bandsmen have been put on standby to replace infantry battalions guarding Cyprus. Fifty musicians from the Welsh Guards will be the first band scheduled to go to Cyprus, followed by the Grenadier Guards and the Rifles. The first deployment is expected in January next year. One musician said:

Members of the armed forces have raised concerns with me about being in the storeroom one moment and finding themselves on the front line in Iraq the next. They were led to believe that they would not undertake front-line duties, only to find themselves thrust forward to conduct patrols and raids, even though they did not have appropriate training to fulfil such dangerous roles. I have asked the armed forces Minister to explain that in a previous debate and through parliamentary questions. So far, despite persistence, I have not received a satisfactory answer. Perhaps the Under-Secretary can enlighten us in his summing up.

It is unacceptable that, with an ethnic minority population of just under 10 per cent. in the United Kingdom, the current figure for the recruitment of ethnic minority military personnel in the three services is just below 5 per cent. That is half the proportion of the ethnic minority population in the UK. All the services missed the target for UK ethnic minority intake in 2005-06, but the RAF and the Royal Navy did especially badly, despite the fact that the Ministry of Defence said that it would take action in the past year. I acknowledge that the Army is managing to achieve its recruitment targets for black and ethnic minority recruits, but the Navy and Air Force are well short.

Other countries, such as the USA and Canada, which adopt proactive recruitment policies, invariably have a higher proportion of ethnic minority recruits. In the US army, three times the proportion of recruits are from ethnic minority groups compared with the US population as a whole. Recruitment from our own ethnic minorities could be even worse, with recruitment from overseas masking the genuine problems in the UK. Figures that my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) obtained reveal 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 in other parts of the world, but that also sends a message that we are failing to connect with our ethnic minority communities in the UK.

To revert to my original point about ethnic minority recruitment, I am extremely concerned about the position,
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especially in the Navy and the RAF, but also in the Army because its apparent success may be due purely to overseas recruitment. Action is obviously required, which is why I was particularly pleased to see and take part in an exhibition earlier this week. It was called “We Were There”, it was run by the Ministry of Defence and it took place upstairs in the House.

The exhibition highlighted the little-known contribution of the ethnic minorities to our armed forces over the last 250 years. Let us take the example of Indra Lal Roy, who was attacked by German Fokker aircraft in the first world war. His plane was shot down in flames during the engagement, and he was posthumously awarded the distinguished flying cross. Another example is Regimental Sergeant-Major Khamis Juma, who was twice wounded during his service between 1905 and 1945. He received nine different medals.

The UK has a great tradition of recruitment from ethnic minority communities, which should be recognised by all. Those brave men whom I have highlighted and many more should be used as role models—I am sure that the Ministry of Defence would want to do exactly that—to promote the ethnic minorities and encourage them to join the armed forces.

I want to mention briefly a constituency issue that I have had to deal with. A primary school teacher recently approached me. She is a naval reservist down at Rosyth and she was concerned about being prevented from taking part in what she considered to be essential training. We investigated the issue and looked back into the guidelines that stretch all the way back to 1945. I recognise that the issue of primary school teachers in education is a devolved matter, but I would welcome the Minister’s intervention.

My constituent has not been able to participate in this essential training. Under the guidelines, teachers are somewhat bizarrely allowed time off during the school term for a variety of different purposes—including to attend the river purification board, which no longer exists in Scotland. We really need to look further into those guidelines. My constituent views this training as essential, but the education department did not want to release her from her duties. I have been trying to press upon that education department the real value of taking part in such training, whether it be for the Territorial Army or the Royal Naval Reserve. Excellent training is provided and the education department should recognise it. As I said, I would welcome the Minister’s intervention in this matter.

Let me deal now with mental health. Last week, along with the Defence Committee, I visited Combat Stress, which has been mentioned several times in the debate. We also had the opportunity during that visit to meet ex-servicemen who were receiving care from Combat Stress. Many of them were there for post-traumatic stress disorder. Combat Stress provides a service that is well appreciated for what it is—a first-class service provided in a military-friendly environment, which is almost unique in the UK. Combat Stress has three centres, but it only touches the surface of the problem. It has high waiting times and there is a long waiting list, even for those who know about the service, but I believe that awareness among ex-servicemen is very low. That problem of awareness has to be addressed, especially among primary care health professionals, who are often unaware that this specialist service is available.

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We are now seeing earlier presentations of these problems. Between 2001 and 2007, the average age of Combat Stress patients has fallen from 64 to 44—a drop of 20 years in just six years. In that same time frame, the percentage of women has increased from 1 per cent. to 4 per cent. From the Falklands war, there have been 400 cases over 25 years, but from Iraq there have already been 140 cases in three years. There is a great need for an expansion in the service. I am aware that the Government are taking great steps to try to deal with the problem, but I hope that they will take even greater and more urgent steps. With increased coverage of post-traumatic stress disorder in recent months, we are likely to see a huge increase in demand, as I mentioned earlier. We need quick and significant action to deal with the problem.

Awareness of Combat Stress needs to be improved among nurses, doctors and other health professionals, especially those working in primary care. Two ex-servicemen from my constituency approached me last year about their frustration at the lack of support they received for what turned out to be PTSD. They said that their GP had provided little advice or support, and that it was only after they found out about Combat Stress that things began to happen. Awareness of Combat Stress among primary care health practitioners really must improve.

Entitled ex-servicemen pay for their treatment through their war pension, which covers 100 per cent. of the cost of six weeks’ treatment. About 60 per cent. of Combat Stress funds are generated in this way, leaving 40 per cent. to be raised through charitable fundraising. If an ex-serviceman cannot access his war pension, or requires more than six weeks’ treatment, the costs are covered by Combat Stress.

Ex-servicemen resent having to rely on charity for something that they believe should be paid for by the Government. They already feel as though they have been dumped, ignored and neglected by the armed forces, and they now feel extremely bitter that they have to rely on charity. I urge the Government to consider new ways of funding Combat Stress, other than through the war pension, which is not a satisfactory method of funding.

Finally, I want to make a plea. I can see some benefit in channelling money for mental health services for ex-servicemen through the NHS, as it might provide the connection that they need between the general NHS, Combat Stress and the MOD. I am worried, however, that if we rely solely on the NHS to fund Combat Stress, it might not be given the same priority. Local NHS departments face huge pressures and conflicting demands, and I do not believe as they would give Combat Stress the same priority as the MOD does. I am extremely concerned that going down a new funding route for Combat Stress might have the effect of de-prioritising the organisation, and I would encourage the Minister to consider that point.

4.11 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this important debate, and an honour to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline
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and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who made a powerful speech about the importance of dealing with combat stress and the pressures being placed on bands. I served in Cyprus, and I appreciate the importance of the strategic role that it plays. I am saddened that we are now having to man the forts there with regimental bands, important though the service that they provide is.

It is also sad that we have had only two Back-Bench speeches from Labour Members, compared with about six from the Opposition. I hope that that is a reflection more of the fact that changes will soon be taking place on the Government Benches than of the importance that Labour Members place on military matters.

I am pleased to be able to participate in the debate, not least because my own regiment—the 4th Battalion the Rifles—is now based in Basra, in Iraq. On behalf of the House, I should like to wish Colonel Sanders and the battalion a safe tour of duty and a safe return to the United Kingdom.

The Minister of State began by saying, rather defensively, that Britain could cope with its commitment. That sums up the difference between the Conservative and Labour approaches to the armed forces. We feel that there is an element of overstretch in our armed forces, that they are over-committed and that we are asking too much of a force whose size is ever diminishing. The Government continue to state that we have the right sized Army, Navy and Air Force for today, and that we are managing our commitments well. I would like to illustrate why we are struggling to cope by brutally examining how the size, the funding and the commitments have changed over the past 10 years.

The Navy has shrunk by about 9,000 personnel. The frigate and destroyer fleet has been reduced from 35 to 25, and the number of our submarines has been reduced from 12 to eight. Another six ships are about to be mothballed, and a cloud is hanging over one of our major naval bases. Indeed, reference has been made to our naval force being smaller than that of Belgium. I do not understand the Government’s wanting to close naval bases. Circumstances and threats change; what would happen if there were a requirement to increase our naval power? Where would we put the ships that were required, if we had got rid of a naval base such as Portsmouth? It would be difficult to rebuild such an important strategic location.

There is also a question mark over the aircraft carriers. We have been given no indication of when we will see the two replacements. We have heard many announcements about how great the T45 is. It is indeed an amazing ship, but the fact is that there are fewer T45s than T22s, or the T42s that they are intended to replace. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), one ship can only be in one place at any one time.

We have seen a reduction in Army personnel since 1997. There were 101,300 then; now there are only 99,400. It would be possible to fit every member of the British Army into Wembley stadium, should anyone wish to do so. That is a sad reflection of the size of our armed forces in view of the weight at which we continue to punch and the respect that we continue to command across the world. We are now down to 36 battalions, we have seen regiments disappear and the time between tours of operational duties has been reduced, giving soldiers less of that critical time to be spent with their
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families before being redeployed. We now have a smaller Army than Italy, Germany or France, although, as we all know—we do far more than any one of them, or, indeed, all three put together.

I am afraid that the position in the RAF is no different. We have seen the closure of a number of bases, including those at Lyneham and Coltishall, and a reduction in fast jet training hours. There are now huge capability gaps: our ability to deal with circumstances and threats is being reduced because we no longer have the aeroplanes in the skies. The Sea Harriers used to be based on our aircraft carriers. They are quite distinctive, because their radar capacity allows the sea fleet to see further over the horizon than the new T45, or indeed the carriers themselves. Taking the Sea Harriers out of service puts our surface ships under threat as never before. The Jaguars are also being removed from service. We do not have the Typhoons, and the F-35—the joint strike fighter aircraft—has not even been built yet, although it is supposed to be replacing the Sea Harriers. We are struggling with other aircraft too, including Nimrods. That capability gap is becoming bigger and bigger, yet we see no evidence of any attempt to expedite the replacement process.

As if that were not bad enough, manning has been reduced by around 9,000. I saw the impact of that when I visited the Falkland Islands recently on HMS Chatham, another ship that is, sadly, destined to be mothballed. I spoke to various RAF and naval personnel, and it was clear that they were being asked to do more. The frequency of their operations was greater than ever before. They used to be posted back to the United Kingdom to perform various light duties that allowed them to spend time with their families, perhaps looking after a naval base or helping to run an air base. Those duties have now been outsourced, and as a result many more demands are placed on all soldiers, sailors and airmen in operational environments.

I intervened on the Minister of State earlier to make a point about recruitment and retention. It is clear that more personnel are leaving the armed forces than joining them. There is a haemorrhaging of strength, to the tune of about 1,500 a year. That is unsustainable, particularly given the number of commitments in which we are involved. The Minister has been forced to reduce the target size of the three main armed forces, which allows him to announce that we are meeting percentage targets of around 97, 96 and 95 per cent. for the respective forces. Moving the goalposts so that he can tell the House that the targets are being met is a rather unsubtle and disruptive way of trying to prove that he is meeting requirements.

In reality, we are losing experienced personnel. The people who are leaving the armed forces are the corporals and the sergeants, those with valuable experience, and we need to do more to try and retain them. I acknowledge the importance of initiatives that have been mentioned today, some of them connected with remuneration, but I still believe that we could do much more. I think that Members on both sides of the House agree that the present circumstances are different from those of 10, 15 and 50 years ago. The armed forces face stiffer competition in recruitment and retention because of the jobs that are now available in the private sector. Money is also an issue.

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Our armed forces are both smaller and busier. The Prime Minister said aboard HMS Albion on 17 January that the defence budget has remained fairly constant if the funds that have been put forward for Iraq and Afghanistan are included. That amounts to a shocking admission that we are having to pay for those huge operations out of existing defence budgets. That is wrong; it did not happen in the Falklands, and it should not happen in Afghanistan and Iraq. The consequence is that in order to pay for these two large operational commitments other budgets are continuously salami-sliced.

I hope that the new Prime Minister will take account of the many voices expressing continued concern about various aspects of our armed forces. General Sir Mike Jackson, in his Dimbleby lecture, attacked the pay and conditions and the medical support for our troops. General Rose has also commented that our armed forces are inadequately equipped, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq. The most damning indictment has come from Admiral Sir Alan West, former head of the Navy. He has condemned what is happening to our armed forces and he said:

General Dannatt has also subtly raised significant concerns about the size of our armed forces. He said that we were only just able to cope in Iraq. I think that he was then sat on by various Ministers and others in the armed forces to make sure that he was not too vocal in expressing his views. However, he did let the cat out of the bag by saying that there were concerns and explaining the impact of our commitments in Iraq on all the other activities that we are undertaking.

This debate is timely, as all the European Union Foreign Ministers are meeting at the European summit. As if our armed forces did not have enough to do under their current UK and NATO commitments, there is also a push to introduce ever more responsibilities under the EU umbrella. I would be grateful if the Minister explained what the situation is in relation to the constitution and committing our military personnel to what I term double-hatting by providing troops to the 60,000-strong force created by the EU to serve as a rapid reaction corps.

I disagree with that proposal. It stems from an agreement that came out of the St. Malo summit in 1998, which was supposed to focus on Africa but which ended up committing the EU in this way:

That was a deliberate attempt to create something outside the NATO umbrella: the document goes on to say that the force would be a

That led on to the Berlin-plus agreement, giving the EU access to NATO assets. In addition to claiming those assets, it asks generals and commanders and their units to double-hat by being in two places at once, which simply cannot be done.

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