Previous Section Index Home Page

The second option, of course, is to attract the logistics battalion and the signals battalion returning from Germany under the Borona operation. Some colleagues have spoken of their concerns about very large garrisons, but there is a distinction between super-garrisons and mega-garrisons. Should option
16 Oct 2007 : Column 789
No. 1 not be taken up, I would be content for Cosford to be made into an Army super-garrison. However, it is important that there should be clarity and that a decision should be made soon, in order that my constituents, schools, businesses, suppliers and the personnel working at the base can plan for their futures.

Time is short, so I shall conclude by saying that I welcome a softening of the Government’s position on the Defence Logistics Organisation at Sapphire House. I hope that they are rethinking relocating 400 to 500 staff to Bristol, because many of those people are unable or unwilling to move. It is right that the Defence Logistics Organisation should remain at Sapphire House in Shropshire, because that makes sense, and fits in with the other Defence Logistics Organisation staff at MOD Donnington in my constituency and with the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency. The Government made an excellent and brave decision, following the Defence Committee’s inquiry into Afghanistan, in saying that the Army Base Repair Organisation would not lose 880 jobs. Since then that decision has proved right, because ABRO is recruiting people for another 150 jobs, as a result of attrition on vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Shropshire has a proud heritage and history in serving Her Majesty’s armed forces. I hope that the Government will pay back the county, by giving a secure future to Cosford, to the DLO and to ABRO and DSDA.

9.23 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). I enjoyed his general strategic overview, as well as his specific points about the DNA and defence attachés. I hope that the Minister will have answers to those questions at his fingertips when he replies. I declare an interest as a medical officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, and I am in receipt of a naval pension. We have heard 14 Back-Bench speeches today, all of which had merit, even if in some cases one had to dig a little deep to find it.

Ministers can surely be in no doubt that the military covenant has been broken. I appreciate the caveat that the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) entered with regard to Scotland, but the Royal British Legion has felt it necessary to mount its “Honour the covenant” campaign this autumn, while a completely new organisation, the British Armed Forces Federation, was created this summer to lobby for a better deal for the service community. Unofficial forces websites have sprung up. I draw the Minister’s attention particularly to the Army Rumour Service website—better known, if you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by its acronym ARRSE—which provides a free and frank window on the views of an increasingly dischuffed service population.

In 25 years of service in the armed forces, I can never remember anything quite like this. It is important to acknowledge, however, that there have been times in our history when our troops have not been given the respect to which they are surely entitled. Rudyard
16 Oct 2007 : Column 790
Kipling described the plight of Tommy Atkins. Although Kipling’s Tommy emerged in the 1890s, he is chiefly associated with our engagement in total war in two obvious fights for national survival. His descendants are involved in conflicts that are much more discretionary, and that do not command the support of the British public in anything like the same way.

In my view, that means that the Government owe more than ever to today’s men and women who are putting their lives on the line in pursuit of their foreign policy. That is all the more reason for disappointment at the attitude adopted by Ministers, captured perfectly by Mrs. Diane Dernie, mother of Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, who said of injured servicemen:

Meanwhile, Ben, even after Ministers have been shamed by public outcry into doubling his payment, faces a bleak future. No doubt the Minister will crow about guaranteed income payments, but on close examination those appear frugal, and for junior soldiers unrepresentative of potential future earnings. I am sorry if I detected a scoff from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence—he criticised me earlier in a rather crude intervention, if I may say so—but that is certainly the view of the service community. If he doubts that, I suggest that he look at the website to which I referred.

It is difficult to see Labour’s armed forces compensation scheme as anything other than a second-rate deal, which is inferior in important respects to elements of the preceding war pension scheme, imperfect though that undoubtedly was, and which uniquely attempts to swim against the tide of society’s prevailing compensation culture. The formulaic way in which compensation is pegged ignores the fact that a broken body is so much more than the sum of constituent injuries. It addresses quality of life forgone in the most bludgeonly way imaginable and is untenable.

The Royal British Legion is correct to point out, as we have, that the vast majority of personnel will simply not benefit from the changes announced on the hoof last week, and that the changes will not benefit those with a single devastating injury of the sort sustained by Lance Corporal Martin Edwards. As the Minister’s announcement was, admittedly, by way of launching a consultation, I hope that he will listen to those with the best interests of servicemen at heart before finalising his plans; I say that in all sincerity. So far, those plans have been chaotic. We understood initially that an increase in retrospective payments was “highly unlikely”. If that were so, people injured in Operation Telic I to IV would have found themselves at a financial disadvantage compared with people hurt post-April 2005. Clearly, that would be a nonsense, and we understand that the MOD has been obliged to change tack.

The United States is often held out as the exemplar in delivering the military covenant. I simply do not know why America lauds servicemen in a way that we do not. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) touched on some of the possible reasons. I am realistic enough to appreciate that the attitudinal differences between our two countries mean that our servicemen will not be patriotically ushered to the front of queues
16 Oct 2007 : Column 791
or showered with cinema tickets. But the strand of care for those who have given extraordinary service, embodied in the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration, and extended this year in the inauguration of the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors, is indicative of our best friend’s far more generous interpretation of the military covenant. I hope that the Minister will say what lessons he has learned from the US and how he intends to implement best practice here.

Our armed forces are a mirror of the society from which they are drawn, yet increasingly their deal looks second-rate. What are they to make of compensation for the most severe battlefield injuries, reluctantly increased by Ministers to £285,000, against nearly £500,000 for an RAF typist with repetitive strain injury of the thumb?

Derek Twigg: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Murrison: No, I will not. I do not have enough time.

How do Ministers think soldiers feel when they see civil servants receiving an extra £100,000 a year to serve in dangerous places, and all they can aspire to is a bit of extra pay in lieu of tax that they have paid?

Des Browne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Murrison: I will give way to the Secretary of State.

Des Browne: I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to the debate. The issue of the false comparison, which he has parroted again, has already been dealt with. It is clear from the way in which he is winding up the debate that he is reading a speech that he prepared long before the debate, rather than responding to the debate. It would have been helpful if he had paid attention to the issue when it was addressed earlier and the false comparison was explained.

Dr. Murrison: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his intervention, but it does not move us much further forward. I seriously suggest that he listen to the British Armed Forces Federation and the Royal British Legion, and look at their websites. He should listen to them, not to me.

I have to say that I am not surprised that the Royal British Legion thinks ill of an Administration whose armed forces compensation scheme is designed to shift the burden of proof in the MOD’s favour, to narrow eligibility criteria and to impose onerous time restrictions on claimants. That is precisely what the scheme has done. I know Ministers mean well—I do not doubt that—but these are hardly the actions of Ministers who are falling over themselves to fulfil their side of the military covenant. In one of the most thoughtful contributions of the day, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) called defence the Cinderella of public services, and I fear that he is correct.

A number of Members mentioned housing. When I was a practising doctor I had a fair amount to do with military public health, but I never thought that as a Member of Parliament I would visit barracks that were infested with cockroaches. One young man said to me,
16 Oct 2007 : Column 792
“I do not have to put up with cockroaches when I am at my mum’s house, so I do not see why I should have to do so when I am living in barracks.” What messages do conditions like that send to the men and women whom Ministers say they value so highly?

Mr. Kevan Jones: Where is the barracks?

Dr. Murrison: It is Battlesbury barracks in Warminster. The hon. Gentleman may wish to pay it a visit.

Half the MOD’s bed spaces are classed as poor, and the National Audit Office reckons that it will take years to put the position right. These are hardly homes fit for heroes. Yet, as the NAO has revealed, £13.5 million in planned maintenance and repairs scheduled for 2006-07 had to be deferred because of budgetary complaints—a point that appears to have been lost on the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). Students in college halls of residence and their parents would be appalled at the conditions that barracks dwellers must routinely endure, but barracks, unlike halls of residence, are closed institutions. What the public do not see, Ministers apparently do not worry about.

Given the job of work that our troops do, I have to ask whether we have our priorities right. It is surely right for our military to be able to rely on married quarters of at least the standard that they might expect if their landlord were a housing association or a local authority.

Derek Twigg: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Murrison: No, I will not.

On resettlement, personnel seeking social housing must not be disadvantaged by their peripatetic careers, as they are currently. I believe that that point was made by the hon. Member for Midlothian.

The hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) described at first hand his experience of married quarters. My experience was slightly different: we at least had indoor sanitation.

My experience of health care at the point of wounding in theatre at roles 1 and 2 has been fairly positive. It is important for our troops to know that they will be well looked after, but we should not seek to cover up the concerns of highly experienced and respected professionals such as Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Parker of the Royal Army Medical Corps, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon who has presented us with a picture of military medicine in Afghanistan that is not rosy. His view is that medical evacuation, basic supplies in military hospitals and medical imaging in theatre are inadequate. I hope Ministers agree that the way in which they provide for our injured lies at the very heart of our military covenant.

Over the weekend, the Army’s top brass were accused of failing to stand up for their people. Lieutenant-Colonel Parker has certainly stood up for those in his care, and as a doctor and as an officer he deserves great credit. His report cuts through the hierarchy that surrounds Ministers and demands their critical appraisal. I hope that Ministers have satisfied
16 Oct 2007 : Column 793
themselves that any shortcomings identified by him have now been remedied, and that in so doing they have not been content simply to accept any old flannel from the general staff.

In the last month alone 145 injured soldiers have been repatriated for treatment, yet we learn that because our UK military hospitals have now closed, soldiers are being nursed not with their comrades but alongside civilians. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury mentioned that point. The Minister must say whether that is because they have complex medical needs that demand tertiary and higher specialist medical care—which is fine—or because the new medical managed arrangements supported in all parts of the House are inadequate.

My chief concern, however, is not about care in theatre—or role 3 back home at Selly Oak or in the wider NHS. My chief concern is not about health care at all; instead, it is about care, by which I mean what happens when a person is done with Selly Oak and begins to face the future with a broken body or broken mind. The announcement by Ministers of more cash for combat stress was welcome, but the fact that it was such a sudden and substantial injection more than four years after the start of Operation Telic calls into question the foresight of an MOD that has meanwhile been happy to preside over the serious erosion of uniformed military psychiatry.

The right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) talked in his discussion of finance about Labour being on the brink of fantasy—to borrow his words—in the 1980s. He also looked forward to aircraft carriers and FRES—the future rapid effect system—as did the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick). I shall say more about that if I have time. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) discussed defence equipment in her inimitable, robust and highly thoughtful fashion. The hon. Member for Dundee, East (Stewart Hosie) also touched briefly on defence procurement. The right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) talked about Afghanistan and its flourishing poppy crop, as did the hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry)—if I may say so without embarrassing her, in what was a most thoughtful contribution.

Despite the debt it owes to our reserve forces, it appears that the Labour party continues to conflate the Territorial Army with the Home Guard. If anyone doubts that, they should take a look at the Home Secretary’s unworthy line at the expense of the TA while playing to the gallery in Bournemouth last month. I have written to the right hon. Lady and invited her to come to the House and explain herself and apologise. I regret to have to say that, to date, she has been silent on that. Words mean what words say, and we as politicians should understand that full well. At a time when this Government’s foreign policy is so heavily reliant on the TA, it behoves Ministers to choose their words carefully.

The Defence Analytical Services Agency tells us that our volunteer reserves stand at 36,000, down from 46,000 in April 2000, yet in Iraq and Afghanistan they have been employed as never before. Given their battle-proven capabilities, it seems to me that the only
16 Oct 2007 : Column 794
reason for cutting the TA is a failure to demonstrate cost-effectiveness. Therefore, during the summer I asked how much the TA costs. We learned on Tuesday how difficult it is to pin Ministers down on defence costs, but in this instance it appears that they simply do not have a clue. The Minister stated to me in a letter dated 1 September:

He is utterly right that I am surprised, because he is saying that his axemen have been hacking away at the TA without having any idea about savings that might be achieved, or whether consequential costs would need to be borne elsewhere. How can we possibly secure maximum advantage for the cash available if we have no handle on relative costings?

Given that the Minister of State has no idea about the cost drivers within his own Department, it is hardly surprising that he cannot give timelines for procurement—as was painfully obviously apparent in his contribution last Tuesday. Without timelines, all the commitments made last week and in the July statement are no more than aspirations. That, along with the failure of defence spending—at 1.5 per cent.—to keep pace with defence-related inflation and no commensurate fall in operational tempo, means that, as the Royal United Service Institute pointed out last week, an overly optimistic comprehensive spending review is likely to be followed by defence strategic guidance for the next 10 years that will disappoint those of us eagerly anticipating carriers, FRES and attack aircraft. That is all the more reason for a proper strategic defence review. I am pleased to note that the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) appears to agree with us on that—much as it pains me to have much in common with the Liberal Democrats. It seems to me that not only are the Government looking to my party to set the agenda, but the Liberal Democrats are at it as well.

9.39 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): This has been a wide-ranging debate. I have always been aware of the level of expertise in the House on these issues, and I want to thank everybody for their contributions. It will not be possible for me to respond to every issue that was raised, but I will try to deal with as many as I can.

Next Section Index Home Page