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10 Jan 2008 : Column 596

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentions Faslane and he brings up an interesting point in Liberal Democrat policy. The fleet of submarines there are nuclear powered, and the Liberal Democrats seem to support the presence of naval personnel on those submarines, yet they are not keen to support nuclear energy on the ground. Why is it not good for the citizens of Britain to be near a nuclear power station, but it is okay for our naval personnel to be operating on a nuclear-powered submarine?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are debating armed forces personnel, and I would not want the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) to be diverted too far from that topic.

Willie Rennie: You may be reassured, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we will not be entertaining too much discussion on nuclear energy this afternoon. The hon. Gentleman wrongly conflates those two important issues. Serious considerations apply to both and to conflate the two is inappropriate.

We are also asking too much of our reserve forces. Just before Christmas, I visited HMS Scotia in Rosyth for its Christmas carol concert; some of the Royal Naval Reserve forces are going out to Basra airbase to man Phalanx guns to protect it. Reserve forces members are now regularly being asked to go to the front line, but that was never envisaged when they first joined. It puts huge strain not only on them but on their employers and families. It is unsustainable to continue to ask the reserves to contribute too much to the front line.

The real reason why we are at this state of play is due to the decision in 2003 to invade Iraq. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) talked about overstretch, but in 2003 I do not remember him opposing the war in Iraq that has led to that overstretch.

Mr. Ellwood: I am testing the hon. Gentleman’s patience, but I am pleased that he has given way because he is now, perhaps inadvertently, misleading the House. Our concern about Iraq relates to what has happened since the initial invasion and the management of the peacekeeping. That should not be confused with the initial invasion. We Conservatives are very concerned that the Army is still there in large numbers because the peacekeeping operation and nation building have been such a failure.

Willie Rennie: That is a slight extrapolation from what is the case. We are overstretched because we are in Iraq. In the 1998 strategic defence review it was envisaged that we would be able to operate only on one major front. The decision in 2003 led to two major fronts—Afghanistan and Iraq. That is why we are in this situation today.

Mr. Ellwood indicated dissent.

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, but that is the reality.

Mr. Ellwood rose—

Willie Rennie: I will give the hon. Gentleman one more chance.

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Mr. Ellwood: I am afraid that, with respect, the hon. Gentleman is showing his ignorance about what the military are expected to do. They provide an umbrella of security, but the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other agencies need to build the governance and infrastructures. That has not happened in Iraq and that is why our military forces have been there for such a long time. I am afraid that they are now receiving the brunt because of the ineptitude of those Departments.

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman is fabricating a rather contorted argument. We are in Iraq because the Conservatives and the Government agreed to go there. That is why we are overstretched. Making up some elongated story involving DFID and so on does not reflect the reality.

I return to the issue of minimum force protection. When I visited Iraq last year with the rest of the Defence Committee, we were told that the minimum force protection required for the south-east would be 4,500 to 5,000. A month later, the Minister for the Armed Forces came before the Committee and said roughly the same. However, when last year the Prime Minister told the House that he had decided to withdraw 2,500 troops as of the spring, suddenly the minimum force required was 2,500. We have been told that the jobs required in Basra have changed. However, a minimum force is a minimum force, no matter what the jobs are.

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the spate of thefts from Basra airbase and associated issues involving the security of our personnel. I should be interested to hear, perhaps privately, from the Secretary of State what is being done to deal with that and whether it has anything to do with the fact that our force numbers may be too low even to guard the airbase.

Willie Rennie: The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point, and I hope that the Secretary of State will deal with it, on a private basis.

Ministers shook their heads when we talked about minimum force protection, but when we visited the airbase last year they were adamant that 4,500 was the minimum that would be required just for protection purposes, not to conduct many more operations beyond that. How has that figure suddenly changed to 2,500? Are we now relying on the Iraqi forces for our protection? If so, the House has a right to know. If not, we need a more detailed explanation as to the reason for the sudden reduction. It is clear that we have been part of the problem in southern Iraq and that we should withdraw from there. It used to be that 90 per cent. of attacks were on our forces in the south, but the number of attacks fell dramatically when we withdrew from Basra palace in the heart of Basra city. It is therefore clear that we should get out of Basra and out of Iraq altogether.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s details on some of the progress that has been made on inquests, but it is still embarrassing, and a travesty for the families, that it has taken far too long to conduct them—months, sometimes years. So far, the system has been unable to cope. Will the Minister give a wee bit
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more detail about what further progress he hopes to make in the next year? Have discussions with the Scottish Government led to any results? If some of the inquests or fatal accident inquiries were conducted in Scotland, that would relieve some of the pressure in England.

On housing, more than half of armed forces single living accommodation has been independently assessed as substandard. That is a significant reason for many officers and soldiers leaving the forces. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has determined that 14,000 bed spaces have been lost since 2001, yet during that period £2.2 billion worth of asset sales has gone from the MOD to the Treasury. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for providing more details on the £5 billion figure, which has now grown to £8 billion or so. Unfortunately, however, some spinning went on previously as to what that money was. It was presented as new money—extra investment in housing—when in fact much of it was going on rent and maintenance. It would be helpful to have a wee bit more clarity on some of the figures as previously presented. As Ministers have said, the basic problem is that we are relying on the legacy that was left to us by the Conservative party, which sold off MOD housing to Annington Homes—the most disgraceful waste of money and resources that there has ever been. The Conservatives should say less on this subject in future because their record warrants some scrutiny.

Progress has been made on health, as I have seen for myself through the Defence Committee. Defence Medical Services does a good job. The Selly Oak facility is first class, providing excellent, quality care for our armed forces in a military-led environment. I would like there to be a move further towards a military-only environment; I think the Minister said that more military nurses are being recruited.

Mr. Holloway: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a pity that the additional assistance and changes within Defence Medical Services seem to have come only when there has been a great big hoo-hah in the press, and not to have been driven by the Government? People working internally in this area say that that rather mystifies them.

Willie Rennie: I am sure that the Secretary of State, having gone through the agony of the past year, will be keen to make this investment sustainable, and that we will see long-term benefits.

There are other improvements at Chilwell, Headley Court and the regional rehabilitation centres, but concerns remain about investment in Combat Stress. There has been some, but there needs to be more. There is also concern that the NHS will fund Combat Stress and veterans’ health care after this period of investment. There must be improved connections between the NHS and the military, because the NHS does not understand many of the problems that the military face in terms of primary care.

I understand that the Priory Group contract is coming up for renewal this year, and I would like the Government to consider whether the Priory Group is an appropriate body to provide health care for the armed forces, with regard to mental health. It is neither fish nor fowl. It is neither centralised nor military, but a
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regional, non-military environment. We have heard many times that serving soldiers need a military-only environment, but we need specialisms as well. I would like the Government to look at that area again and consider whether there is a better model that is both military and specialist.

Finally, I would like to conclude with some questions for the Minister. If we are serious about recruitment and filling the shortfall of 7,000 personnel in the armed forces, why is there no Government budget line to recruit those personnel? I questioned the permanent under-secretary in the Select Committee on Defence last year, and there was silence when we asked whether there was a budget to recruit those masses of people. There is no serious intention of recruiting. The Department is being realistic; it does not expect to recruit them, and as a result there is no budget line. I would like to hear some response from the Minister on that when he sums up. Finally, will the Minister explain when he believes that the Government will withdraw from Iraq?

4.16 pm

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I welcome this opportunity to take part in today’s debate, although it is a brief one. I must say that I think it is too brief. The House should set aside much more time to discuss armed forces personnel.

I intend to spend most of my contribution on a crucial aspect of personnel matters, which is the provision of first-class training, and I shall refer to the Government’s radical and courageous policies that will transform the entire phase 2 training programme in the armed forces. I begin by paying tribute to the role of our armed forces personnel. I have the honour and privilege of representing the special forces support unit at MOD St. Athan, and I am fortunate enough to receive frequent updates on the activities of our brave men and women on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much more time should be spent exposing what our soldiers are doing every day of the week—the sheer courage and bravery of the men and women on the front line.

Far from what we hear constantly about bad morale and so on, in the correspondence and e-mails that I receive I hear only positive comments: a commitment to and belief in what they are doing, and a willingness and desire to succeed. I believe that the Government’s record of looking after armed forces personnel is a good one. Do I think more could be done? You bet I do, but we have a reasonable track record. I do not base that on the facts and figures churned out by the Government, but on the comments I receive from my constituents who are serving on the front line.

We heard references to medical services. I have an e-mail that points out that in the opinion of one commander, our medical services are second to none in the world. In fact, one of his platoon commanders was shot on the front line in Helmand, and after his condition was stabilised, he was receiving intensive care within 23 hours, not in theatre, but in Selly Oak in Birmingham. There are numerous examples of the sort of treatment that they are receiving—it is the best in the world.

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We hear a lot about kit, and it is true that every commander in the field wants more kit. But the people who correspond with me say that the kit they have is the best it has ever been. Yes, they want more helicopters on the front line, but the kit is good, and it is improving. Let us not talk everything down.

I want to focus on training, because I believe that it holds the key to many issues that are raised about armed forces personnel, especially recruitment and retention. If we can offer our servicemen and women the best possible phase 2—technical—training in the world, we can recruit more easily and retain our forces better. In the Government’s announcement on 17 January last year on the defence training rationalisation programme, it was decided to do just that and transform the phase 2 training of non-commissioned officers and lower ranks throughout the Army, Navy and Air Force. That modern, state-of-the-art training would use new teaching methodologies and all the technologies that are available to train and educate our forces personnel, and be provided in a purpose-built, new-build project on a 600-acre site in St. Athan in my constituency. Our servicemen and women deserve nothing less.

The facilities will be outstanding and the training will be superb. I was pleased when my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary announced on 25 October that package 1—the provision of all aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical and electronic engineering and computer information and technology—was on course and on time. It was also announced that negotiations would continue about package 2 and would probably be extended because the military were not sure whether they could achieve the savings that they expected by combining the two packages under the Metrix consortium.

I was therefore interested when my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces made a written statement this week about the future of Deepcut barracks and the proposal to place the site in the local borough council’s core planning strategy, with a view to vacating it by 2013. I hope that my right hon. Friend can tell me in his winding-up speech whether that will have any bearing on the decisions, which we know are due in the near future, on package 2 of the defence training rationalisation programme, given the relocation of such a large facility and given that not many places in the country can accommodate it. Of course, St. Athan can. It was—and will be again—the largest military base in the United Kingdom.

The proposals as they stand will bring thousands of military personnel to my constituency. I was addressing a small community council in St. Athan, which will be directly affected, the other night. That small council is 120 per cent. behind the development and looking forward to welcoming the forces back to the constituency. At the height of activity in the camp, we had 17,000 military personnel at RAF St. Athan in the old days. We could approach such numbers in future if we make the right decision, combine the two packages and base the whole training programme on one site in the United Kingdom, which will offer young men and women a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous welcome to the armed forces.

The majority will take up phase 2—non-military training—shortly after being recruited into the forces. It is an old trick that the Americans used much better than us in the past to give recruits the best facilities,
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involvement and quality of life, which they can use to build their career in the services and—just as important—given the new nature of the training, when they leave the forces, because the skills will be used directly in civvy street.

However, we must get the project right. The infrastructure must be right because the project is so vast. Several aspects will be affected, but the most important are housing and transportation—surface access to the site, especially roads. I want to draw the Minister’s attention to a difficulty. The local planning authority in the Vale of Glamorgan is to accommodate the £16 billion project, which will create 5,500 direct new civilian jobs in my constituency. It must work in co-operation with the Ministry of Defence and the company providing the project, Metrix.

Unfortunately, the planning authority has failed in the draft local development plan that it published in December to recognise the scale of the project and the need to think strategically. The planning authority has not identified enough land banks for the new housing development. The pressure on housing will be enormous. The planning authority has also downgraded Llandow, another 500-acre former second world war airfield—a brownfield site—and failed to identify it as an area for housing that could accommodate the people coming into St. Athan for the new development. I also understand that the planning authority has not safeguarded land for direct access to the military training academy at St. Athan from the M4, which has to be done.

There is now a two-month consultation period, from January to March. I ask the Ministry of Defence to look into the issue—it is the customer in the project, which is a private finance initiative—and to make representations to the local planning authority, to ensure that it recognises the strategic importance of the success of the project.

4.26 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) on two of the comments that he made. First, he said that this debate is too short. The new topical debates, which have turned out to be simple re-launches of the Government’s current initiatives, do not seem to be a good idea, particularly when they take time out of armed forces debates, which tend to take place on Thursday afternoons. The second point on which I should like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman is the fact that his constituency will receive from Bordon in my constituency many people who work in mechanical engineering. He is lucky to have those people coming to his constituency. When they arrive, I hope to be invited to visit and see how they are getting along.

This is a short debate. Last week the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust produced a report suggesting that the Ministry of Defence was glamorising war. I do not think that it is doing that at all. The Minister was absolutely right to suggest that it is not in the Ministry of Defence’s interests to give, in any sense, a false idea of what people are going in for when they join the armed forces. However, it is also right to draw attention to the benefits of a career in the armed forces. In many
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respects, it is a fantastic career. One gets qualifications and finds a camaraderie that cannot be found in any other career. It is therefore right to pay tribute to the type of career that can be had in the armed forces, as well as to the extraordinary and wonderful men and women who take up that career.

It is also right to pay tribute to the families of our armed forces. We often think of the armed forces as they serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, but in many cases the real difficulty is faced by those who are left behind at home doing the worrying, but without the constant adrenalin and local support that the work of the armed forces involves. All that—the men and women of our armed forces, the careers that they provide and the quality that they generally produce—is now a part of what it means to be British and is a matter of national pride.

I should like to make another tiny point about national pride, part of which derives from military bands and the music that they play. They bring to an emotional head some of the strength of our military. I worry nowadays that our military bands are being reduced in number and that we have taken a financial approach to them, without appreciating the strength that they give to our armed forces. I hope, one of these days, to be able to persuade the Defence Select Committee to carry out an inquiry into our military bands because they are so important.

My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State referred to overstretch and the Secretary of State referred to stretch: it does not really matter which word is used, because the reality is what matters—and the reality is as follows. On the planning assumptions, our armed forces have now been operating above the levels for which they are resourced for seven of the last eight years—for every year since 2002. It is utterly unacceptable that that has gone on for so long. We can manage that sort of problem for a year or two—perhaps for a year or three—but continuing with it for so long is unacceptable. The Chief of the General Staff has said that

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