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3.44 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce), many of whose comments will bear much closer interest and much further address by both Houses.

I want to talk about a subject that goes to the very heart of the military covenant. It is a subject that has been hinted at by the Ministers and Liberal Democrat Members who are present, but which is rarely mentioned for the evil that it is, red in tooth and claw, and for the damage that it does, particularly to the Army. Bearing in mind the former service of my colleagues on the Front Bench, my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), I will concentrate most of my comments on the Army, but some if not all of them will apply to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. I wish to talk about the evil of undermanning, principally inside the Army, and the vast damage that it is doing to the covenant as we understand it.

We are told that the Army is 3,000 men under strength. That is complete and utter nonsense. It is more like 10,000 men under strength, and it is rapidly approaching a position where battalions, brigades and regiments are incapable of operating in the field and where units are deploying on operations at a non-combat-effective strength, as I shall illustrate in a moment. Why do we not hear about that in more detail? The reason is that, with respect, it is only anoraks such as me who have been deeply involved in this stuff in the past who understand it—I do not mean to sound like an old sweat, but there we are. Also, we do not hear from the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, because they were responsible for a drama that occurred several years ago, which has now turned into a crisis that is likely to bring units to their knees, if it has not done so already.

Some 18 months ago, the 1st Battalion the Staffordshire Regiment, now scrapped and turned into something call the Mercian Regiment—excuse the curl of my lip—deployed to Iraq one rifle company strong, with another company that was capable of driving and manning its Warrior armoured vehicles. That was all: the unit was not combat-effective when it deployed.

We recently heard of some regrettable deaths in action in a unit that rejoices in the name of the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, but which we will more properly call the 19th of Foot, the Green Howards or the North Riding. The unit is meant to be 600 strong—that is its peace establishment—but it is not. It is 100 men under strength already, in peace time. When the unit deployed to Helmand in Afghanistan, it left 100 men who were unfit for operations back in its barracks. The unit left behind another 200 men to man the barracks in England. From personal experience, I
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know that that will involve compassionate cases, people on career courses and, in fairness, people who are recruiting. A unit of 500 therefore went into the field 200 strong. The unit had 100 reinforcements from the Territorial Army—God bless them—and 200 reinforcements from the rest of the regular Army.

If I asked the Ministers present what the tour gap would be for the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, they would probably come up with a reasonable figure of, let us say, 12 to 15 months. What they will not know—this is no fault of theirs; I hold them both in the highest regard—is where those regular reinforcements will have come from or what the tour gap will be for those guys who are now out in Afghanistan, because it will not be recorded. I understand that. The point is that those young men who are out there as regular Army reinforcements with the 2nd Yorkshires will get almost no tour gap at all. I shall describe the effect of that later. What is also interesting—I ask the Ministers please to listen to this—is that there are no battle casualty replacements beyond the pool of 17-year-olds who will turn 18 while the battalion is in Afghanistan.

When the commanding officer of my former regiment, which used to be called the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters before it too was scrapped, started to suffer fatalities among—mercifully in a way, although that is quite the wrong word to use—private soldiers, lance-corporals and the like, he went to the system and asked for battle casualty replacements. The system said “You have some 17-year-olds who are about to turn 18. Physician, heal thyself.” He was able to do that. Then senior officers began to be killed. He went to the system and said “Could I please have a new sergeant and a new captain?” I mentioned Captain Sean Dolan the other day at Prime Minister’s questions.

The answer came back, “You have 17-year-olds who are about to turn into 18-year-olds.” The commanding officer said “No, I do not want recruits out of the depot aged 18 who, God bless them, are only combat infantrymen. I want hardened, trained sergeants, captains and the like.” The system said to him “Phone a friend. Get hold of your mates. See whether they can provide another captain or another sergeant for you.” He ended up robbing Peter to pay Paul—going to units in theatre asking BCRs to come forward. If my grandfather had experienced that at Passchendaele or my father at Anzio, they would have laughed at a system that had reached such a parlous state.

What are the implications? As I have said, on paper the Army is 3,000 under strength. As for the reality—which I illustrated with the figures for the 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment—I reckon that about 10,000 men are under strength or combat-ineffective. On top of that, the Government in their wisdom have decided to disband three battalions. I say to Ministers “Please, let us get this sorted out.” If there are more battalions than there is manpower to man them, let us get rid of the very expensive senior non-commissioned officers and the like. Let us try to rationalise the manpower that we have. Let us turn that into effective units. But we cannot have cadre-strength units deploying on operations when they are not ready to fight.

We should roundly condemn the efforts of the Ministry of Defence, and in particular the recruiting agencies in the Army. Recruiting is clearly but an
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adjunct of the manpower equation, which consists first of recruiting, secondly of retention of recruits during training, and thirdly of retention of serving soldiers. The MOD must get a grip. It is perfectly possible to recruit. Believe me, I have done it, in a recruiting famine—admittedly a few years ago, but when the economy was in considerably better shape than it is now. Along with others, I produced a battalion that was 100 men over strength. It can be done. I will not listen to the excuses of—with respect—the Scots in particular, who say that it is impossible to recruit in Scotland. If it can be done in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire to the level that we achieved, it can be done anywhere. At present, with the armed forces’ reputations never higher and with the economy, sadly, rapidly deteriorating and all the implications that that carries, it is a disgrace that we see no recruiting parties in the constituency of Newark. There are kids there who are gagging to get into uniform.

How does this impinge on the military covenant? I think it is very simple. If you do not have enough blokes, the nasty bits come around too often, and when the nasty bits come around too often, the blokes leave. They do not leave because they want to; ‘er indoors makes them go because she is fed up with living in Tidworth, which has rotten schools and rotten housing and is a million miles from Nottingham where mam is with the kids, back in St Ann’s or somewhere similar. She cannot see her family, and her husband is not just away, but away and in serious danger. Then he comes back and cannot go on his career course because there is no time. That means that he cannot be promoted and cannot pick up the extra money that would come with promotion, and she exercises not unreasonable but wholly irresistible pressure on that young man to leave the Army. As a result, we lose the services of the most important, best-trained and most gallant men whom we have.

Undermanning, which is a function of poor recruiting, poor retention in training and appalling retention in the units, is crippling the Army. I urge Ministers to consider the position carefully, and to put their personal energy and determination into rattling the cages of incompetents in the MOD and trying to sort this out before it becomes a real crisis.

3.54 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the debate. I recognise the hard work done by the Royal British Legion, but I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) that some of its campaigning has been a bit misguided. I think that it has been hijacked by certain people for particular reasons. The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who referred not to honouring the covenant but to the broken covenant, is a good example. However, the most disgraceful example that I have seen in the past few weeks is the pamphlet produced by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), published by Conservative Way Forward, which uses the poppy symbol as a way of blaming the Government for people’s deaths in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

I wish to say a few words about the campaign and military issues to do with medical services. I am proud to be a member of the Defence Committee, and I can
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say that in the inquiry that we are currently undertaking we are coming across only good news stories on the military services. On armed forces compensation, the criticisms coming from the Conservative Front Bench would have more credibility if they had also been made when the relevant Bill was passing through the House, but they were not. I served on the Committee that dealt with that Bill, and I can say that it was this Government who brought in lump sum payments for the first time for wounded servicemen and women. All the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) did in terms of the report to the Defence Committee was oppose my suggestion that unmarried partners should benefit from pension entitlements, arguing that it would be immoral for them to receive such payments.

I know time is short, but I wish finally to comment on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk about the former defence chiefs. I agree with everything he said, and let me add that I think some of them have selective memory loss. On the “Today” programme on 14 July 2004, Lord Boyce said about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor:

have had a

That is in stark contrast to what Lord Boyce is saying now. Former defence chiefs sometimes need to be reminded of their earlier comments when they make statements in the other place.

3.56 pm

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I am sorry that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who is a colleague of mine on the Defence Committee, did not have more time in which to speak; I am sure he will make up for that at future meetings of the Committee. I also want to apologise for not being present for the start of the debate. I missed what I am sure was an excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). I noticed, however, that the Chamber calmed down once he had left; things were much more stable when he went for his cup of tea.

I did not hear an apology from the Conservative Front Bench for the Annington Homes fiasco during their contribution, which was churlish and full of animosity. I presume there was slight embarrassment that the Conservatives did not call this debate, as they perhaps did not regard it as being of sufficient priority to the Conservative party. I am pleased that we have called it, however, because it is an important debate.

Dr. Murrison: Where was the hon. Gentleman on the last occasion we had an opportunity in Government time to debate defence, which was on 16 October, and where was he on Monday night when we discussed the mental health problems that face our servicemen and veterans?

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Willie Rennie: I can provide a full copy of my diary if the hon. Gentleman wishes, as I am sure he would follow it in great detail. I attend the vast majority of defence debates in this House. I take a great interest in defence matters, as I do on the Defence Committee itself, so I will take no lessons from the Conservative party on these issues.

There have been some great contributions. The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton) talked about his experience with the Glencorse barracks and the families and education and housing. My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) talked about his experience on the Defence Committee and passionately discussed housing, which has been a common theme of many contributions. The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden) talked about priority treatment for veterans and the Veterans Agency. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) made a good speech in which he talked about the breakdown in the relationship between Ministers and the senior military. The hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) talked about his expertise in the military and the contribution that people such as he can make to the House. He also criticised the former defence chiefs. The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) talked about the Army being under strength by about 10,000 and said that we needed to recruit more people to the armed forces. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) talked about the British Legion campaign in slightly less glowing terms than others have done.

I want to pay tribute to the armed forces, which are among the best in the world—indeed, they may be the best. Two of my constituents, Captain John McDermid and Private Scott Kennedy, have passed away within the past year, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our thoughts to their families and friends.

There is no doubt that the armed forces are overstretched. The National Audit Office says that they are 7,000 below strength. We have heard another figure of 10,000 in relation to the Army alone. For at least the past five years the forces have been operating above predicted deployment levels. One in six soldiers is on missions more frequently than the harmony guidelines rule. Health professionals are the worst hit, and reservists fill far too many of the posts. The situation is so desperate that the forces are scraping around for volunteers. Military bandsmen have been put on standby to replace infantry battalions, and storemen from Faslane are being asked to do front-line duties in Iraq. Even Members of the Scottish Parliament are now in the frame for action. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) will soon be asked to serve next. I am sure that he sees himself as the He-Man on the front line in Helmand, but, as happens in this House, he will probably not even bother to turn up.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): One positive thing that is going through the Scottish Parliament in relation to today’s debate is the Member’s Bill to allow the fatal accident inquiries for Scottish soldiers who have died abroad to be followed through in Scotland. If the Bill were passed, it would reduce the wait involved,
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both for Scottish families and families south of the border. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a sensible way forward?

Willie Rennie: My hon. Friend raises a good point, and I was going to address that subject later. I would like to hear an update from the Minister about the negotiations that have taken place with the Scottish Administration about the possibility of managing to get the Bill through so that we can relieve some of the pressure down south.

The planning assumptions set up in the strategic defence review in 1998 did not allow for two major deployments, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the same time. With overstretch and under-resourcing we are in danger of abusing the good will of the armed forces and turning the can-do ethos into a make-do muddle. I am sure that many people agree that the Iraq campaign was a huge mistake in its own right. It had not only a massive impact on our reputation on the world stage, but an equally damaging effect on our armed forces because of overstretch. The number of attacks reduced in Basra as a result of our withdrawal from Basra palace, and the logical conclusion is to withdraw from Iraq altogether. We also have serious doubts about 2,500 personnel being the minimum force protection that is required from next spring. The Minister for the Armed Forces referred earlier in the year to a figure of 5,000. I have two questions for that Minister. Are we relying on the Iraqi forces to protect our forces in Iraq? Will the Minister respond to claims that a deal has been done with General Mohan to free Mahdi army prisoners in return for relief from the attacks on our forces?

Numerous hon. Members have talked about housing. Despite protestations from the Government, single living accommodation is in a terrible state—almost half that accommodation is of the lowest standard—and many officers and soldiers say that it is a significant reason for leaving the armed forces. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has highlighted the reduction of about 14,000 bed spaces in respect of modernisation between 2001 and 2007. During that time, the MOD delivered £2.2 billion in asset sales to the Treasury. The Government say that they have a 10-year plan, but the former Deputy Prime Minister had a 10-year plan for transportation, and look what happened to that.

Health has come up as an issue on numerous occasions. The Defence Committee has conducted an inquiry into that very subject. The difficulties are not at the acute end, but at the mental health and primary care ends. The issue is about the relationship between primary care and secondary care, but the one between primary care and the military is also the difficulty. We should perhaps look more into creating those links so that people do not fall between the stools.

We have covered the issue of inquests, and I would like to see some progress in Scottish authorities being allowed to take part in dealing with casualties from theatre.

What are the consequences of difficulties with housing, health and overstretch? The result is that personnel are disillusioned. In a recent survey, three in 10 said that they did not feel valued, and one in four said that morale was very low or low. There are
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retention difficulties, with 5,000 leaving the forces in the last year, one in five wanting to quit and more than half thinking about it. Crucially, a third blamed overstretch.

The Government have made grand pronouncements about the care of our armed forces. They feign disgust when the generals speak out and they say that the armed forces, unlike Oliver, never ask for more. But there is a mismatch between the rhetoric and the reality—on shoddy housing, overstretched personnel, bereaved families waiting for months and years for answers, over-used and faulty equipment, and paltry compensation. The Government are failing our armed forces who, for their gallantry, bravery and selflessness in service of their country, deserve so much more. I urge the Government to concede that those dangerous radicals, the Royal British Legion, may have a point and honour the covenant.

4.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): It has been an interesting debate. I pay tribute to our armed forces and their families. Our armed forces are the most outstanding in the world, and I have had the privilege of meeting them in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as around the UK and elsewhere. They never cease to amaze and impress me with what they do. Their families give them so much support and deal with so many issues.

I also thank those who support our armed forces. The debate today relates to the Royal British Legion covenant, but I include ex-service organisations and charities, such as the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association—SSAFA—which has done an outstanding job in terms of housing at Headley Court and helping to refurbish the accommodation at Selly Oak. The Royal British Legion has done an excellent job in working with the homeless, with the Compass project and with ex-service personnel in prison. Other wonderful organisations include BLESMA, the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association, which does an amazing job with amputees. There are also the regimental organisations and benevolent funds, as well as the families federations, which provide tremendous support for service families.

We are now doing more than ever to support our armed forces and their families, and I shall set out some of the reasons why I believe that to be the case. I welcome the Royal British Legion campaign, because it gives us the chance to have this debate and set out what more we are doing, and can do, and to listen to what other people are saying. I spoke with the Royal British Legion before it announced the campaign, and it recognised that the Government have done a lot to improve the support for and treatment of our armed forces and their families. It recognises that, but of course it wants us to do more. We have announced a Command Paper, which will consider what we have done and what we need to do across the Ministry of Defence, the armed forces and the whole Government to support our armed forces and their families. I welcome that, because it will do a lot of good work. It will report in the spring and provide an important benchmark for what we have done and what we will do in the future.

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