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That is also unacceptable.

The Ministry of Defence has a target—public service agreement target 3—to

That is not at all surprising, one would think. It seems a perfectly ordinary test; it is, actually, a crucial test for the armed forces of this country and of any country. However, according to the MOD in its most recent quarterly report:

It will therefore not be able to generate the forces that can be

That is deeply worrying.

Reductions in the commitments to Iraq and the Balkans are welcome in that regard. Some people expect us to be completely out of Iraq soon. I have to warn the Secretary of State that the Defence Committee had a meeting this morning with the United States House Armed Services
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Committee, which made it plain that for the US to remain in Iraq without substantial support from its closest friend, the UK, would not be well understood or received in America. We need to take that into account.

What of the harmony guidelines? The Army’s guidelines have been mentioned, but the RAF guidelines say:

However, that is routinely breached. RAF regiment field squadrons have an average tour interval of around 10 and a half months.

We met the Chinook crews, who are based at Odiham in my constituency, when we were in Afghanistan last year. They are flying all hours of the day and night—thank God, because of the critical work they do in support of our armed forces. Their tours are long, they get little time to rest, and they are flying in the most difficult conditions imaginable. Landing a Chinook in the dust of Afghanistan is a highly skilled task. People cannot see the ground because of the dust blowing up. At night, it is even harder, and people are probably being shot at, after having very little sleep. Luckily, our crews are the best in the business. They manage to cope with all that, but we must never take them for granted. We sent them there; they are doing all this for us. We must treat them right, pay them well, house them well, educate their children well, provide proper medical care and give them the very deep respect that they fully deserve.

I pay tribute to the Defence Select Committee, whose members work extremely hard at what they do. In recent months, we have completed reports on the defence education service, which is doing a good job in circumstances of great turbulence. On housing, we drew attention to our worry that it will take so long to get the standard of all defence housing up to an acceptable level. The Secretary of State made some perfectly fair points about that today. We are just concluding our inquiry on Defence Medical Services. Of course, we have some concerns. For example, there is a severe shortfall in some specific specialties, but we have found much in the Defence Medical Services that is excellent.

My final point concerns visits to our armed forces deployed abroad. The Secretary of State often visits them, as do other Defence Ministers, and I think that as a result they have a good understanding of the experiences that our forces are undergoing. The same cannot be said of the Ministers who make the financial decisions—the Ministers in the Treasury. I welcomed the Prime Minister’s recent visits to our troops, but while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer such visits were rare.

I hope that Treasury Ministers will arrange a programme of visits. If they do, they will be impressed. They will see a group of wonderful young men and women upholding the values of Britain, standing up for our interests and putting their lives on the line for us. When those Treasury Ministers see what is really going on, they will have a changed perspective when they return to the United Kingdom to negotiate with the MOD; and the MOD, our armed forces and our country will benefit accordingly.

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4.36 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): I want to touch on three Stafford experiences in my brief speech, and to draw from each of them a point of national significance.

Last year, the status of the military base at Stafford as RAF Stafford ended 59 years after it was established, and most of the uniformed personnel were moved to Wittering. In the run-up to those events, it looked very much as though the entire military presence in Stafford could come to an end, but as a result of the great public support for the military in Stafford and the constructive approach taken by me and by the local community in representations to Ministers about that how could be averted, the story today is entirely different. There is a very positive future for an Army-led base at Stafford—now MOD Stafford—and the Beacon barracks for the 22nd Signal Regiment, and the prospect of a secure and growing future as we give further consideration to the super-garrison approach to the basing of our military personnel.

That brings me to the first of my points of national significance. I should like to know Ministers’ thinking on super-garrisons. As I understand it, their development will coincide with, but is not dependent on, the return home from Germany of large numbers of our personnel, itself a significant event in the coming five years or so. Does the Minister agree that it will give components of our armed forces that will eventually be deployed and fight together an opportunity to train together as well, and to be deployed to the same places at the same times? Does he agree that of wider benefit to our military and their families is the fact that with super-garrisons will come greater stability in their home lives? They will know about the schools that their children will be able to attend, and it will be possible for them to buy homes in the area if they wish to do so.

This may not be so much a point in favour of super-garrisons, but I think it could be described as a point of national significance. I mentioned the survival and future prosperity of Stafford’s military base. The Minister at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), was extremely receptive to my arguments and those of a delegation that I took to see him several times. I want to record my grateful thanks to him for listening and for making a difference through the decisions that he made.

Let me give an example. At an early stage in the process, at a meeting at which I put the case to my right hon. Friend with a delegation from the Stafford community, we were faced with the prospect of 800 civilians losing their distribution and storage jobs at Stafford. My right hon. Friend decided to start early, along with the MOD’s human resources personnel and Jobcentre Plus, on the objective of guaranteeing people new jobs or help with finding jobs outside the civil service. If there are people with a low opinion of the MOD’s HR personnel, I ask them to reconsider. My impression was of a dedicated group of people making a very effective job of what was a very difficult exercise, with the result that of the 800 people who were to lose posts at Stafford, only two were made compulsorily redundant. I consider that an impressive performance.

My second experience involved the contribution of the civil servants at Stafford to Operation Telic back in 2003. I attended a very sad occasion in December 2007,
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when we marked the end of their work at Stafford’s base, but back in 2003 I saw with my own eyes the dedication of those people, working seven days a week on a short time scale to make sure that all the equipment the troops needed in Iraq got to Iraq in time for the start of the military action there. Although there were stories about lack of equipment in the right place at the right time—the most tragic event that we can all recall was that of Sergeant Steven Roberts, who gave up his body armour and was then shot and died—the subsequent National Audit Office report gave absolute credit to the people back in Stafford and around the UK for their part in getting the equipment there. The report spoke about twice the material getting to the region in half the time compared with the 1990 Gulf war; so the fault in people not getting equipment such as body armour and the right sized boots at the right time did not lie with people in Stafford. I recall that the NAO drew attention not only to the shortage of time for the whole operation because of the diplomatic efforts at the United Nations—something that might now be a constant pressure given the commitment to a vote in this House before committing troops in future—but to our country’s policy in terms of what we keep in store ready for such an eventuality and what we depend upon quick procurement for. That balance must be got right, and we must have robust procurement arrangements for the equipment that will be procured at short notice.

Another important issue that I want the Minister to say something about is the tracking of equipment in theatre and ensuring it gets to the right place in the battle theatre in time. A lot of work was done immediately after the NAO report on in-theatre tracking, and I wonder whether he can say anything new today about developments in technological solutions as well as in military training and practice.

Tony Baldry: The hon. Gentleman and I share, as it were, distribution depots, and it is sometimes forgotten just how many civilian staff work with great credit for the Ministry of Defence and that they have also been going through a period of turmoil. The demands placed on them from managing what are two large operations are phenomenal, and we should never forget the contribution of civilian staff in the MOD.

Mr. Kidney: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I pay tribute to those staff for their dedication to their duty and the pride that they feel—it is every bit as much as that of the uniformed armed forces—in serving their country.

The ultimate sacrifice that members of our armed forces make to this country is to give their lives. Back in 2003, we in Stafford had the experience of the death of young, brave Trooper David Clarke. We quickly knew—and this was confirmed at the inquest—that he was killed when his Challenger 2 tank was fired on by another British Challenger 2 tank. The point of national significance that I draw from that incident is the vital question of combat identification, and I have pursued that with Ministers in the years since 2003. Can the Minister say anything new about the work being done on that? As we deploy increasingly often
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with many international partners, it is important that we have approaches and solutions that are compatible with those of our partners. New technologies assist to some extent, but there is always the issue of human factors. Time and again, training and communication are what make the difference. I have talked of the tragic loss for Stafford of the loss of David Clarke’s life, but it is important that we learn the lessons of each individual incident.

We in this country can be proud that we have some of the best—and sometimes the best—armed forces in the world. That is because of a combination of their personal courage and commitment, the leadership that they have, the training and equipment that they get and the backing of our nation. I want to say how proud I am of our armed forces for what they do so often on our behalf and at our request. They serve the country superbly, and I admire the values that they hold and uphold. As a country, our support for them during their service, for their families, and when they are veterans is growing all the time. Long may that continue.

4.44 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) made a number of interesting points, particularly those relating to super-garrisons. I hope that the Minister will at least investigate that matter further.

I welcome this debate. It does not take me to suggest that Parliament has a special duty to look after service personnel and to honour the military covenant. That duty is born of the fact that Parliament, on behalf of the nation, has a moral duty to repay the dedication shown by our service personnel. In addition, because politicians ultimately decide on deployment, and as there is an absence of a union or any other representative organisation, Parliament has a direct role to play in the welfare of our service personnel. Despite that special duty, there is mounting evidence to suggest that this Government risk failing our service personnel.

Poor housing is perhaps a key example of that. Various statistics have been bandied about in this short debate. We have heard about the Public Accounts Committee’s suggestion that nearly half of all service accommodation is substandard. I think I am right in saying that a Select Committee on Defence report suggested that some accommodation was appalling. The Army’s own continuous attitude surveys suggest that half our troops believe that the maintenance of their accommodation is not what it should be, and senior figures have added their voice on this matter. General Sir Michael Rose has said:

It seems to me that the Government have forgotten the old first world war concept of “homes for heroes” when it comes to our troops. In fairness, their single living accommodation modernisation—SLAM—initiative has resulted in some additional funding, but the Public Accounts Committee made it clear that even at the current rate of improvement it would take 20 years for all the accommodation to be removed from the substandard category.

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As if to illustrate the point, I raised the issue of the accommodation at the Hounslow cavalry barracks with the Defence Secretary. The 2nd battalion of my regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, will be returning there from overseas deployment in the spring. The Minister will be aware that that accommodation was condemned in the 1960s, and that it has a reputation in the armed forces of being probably the worst accommodation. Most of the troops’ accommodation will be about 250 ft below the Heathrow flight path. The senior non-commissioned officers’ accommodation is the worst of all—the rooms are so narrow and small that one must close one’s door before one can open one’s locker. I welcome the Defence Secretary’s apparent acceptance of an invitation to visit the Hounslow cavalry barracks, because they are worthy of a visit. Although funds are being put into those barracks, by most accounts they are insufficient to deal with the deficiencies.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman made reference to the Defence Committee’s report on housing. We visited Hounslow barracks, and I sympathise with some of the points that he is making. Did he also read the report’s recommendations? They clearly state—I also said this earlier—that the answer to the appalling conditions at Hounslow is not just pumping money into that facility. The Ministry of Defence and, in particular, the Army, must take a strategic decision about what is needed in the capital area.

Mr. Baron: I do not disagree with that, but part of the problem has been the constraint on finances.

Mr. Kevan Jones indicated dissent.

Mr. Baron: Yes it has. Spending on the military has fallen from 2.9 to 2.5 per cent. of our gross domestic product —[Interruption.] I am not wrong. It has fallen by that amount during the past 10 years. That may not sound like a big percentage but it represents £5 billion in today’s money, which could put right a lot of what is wrong in the armed forces, certainly when it comes to service accommodation.

That leads me to the point about overstretch. I agree that many terms are used with regard to the concept of overstretch. The bottom line is that the armed forces receive about £5 billion less because of that decrease in spending as a percentage of GDP. That 0.4 per cent. drop in expenditure does not sound a lot, but that money would put right the Army’s 4,000 personnel deficit: it does not sound a lot, but it has a big knock-on effect on deployment. When the Chief of the General Staff visited Parliament and made a presentation—if I remember correctly, the Minister was there—he said that the time spent on deployment was normally around 20 per cent. of total time. At the moment, the Army is running at 37 per cent. and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) pointed out, that over-deployment has been going on since 2002. The Chief of the General Staff made the point that that cannot continue indefinitely and we are reaching breaking point.

Most recent figures show that most Army units now fail to meet the 24-month average interval between tours. That leaves units and individuals separated from their families for far too long, and training and recuperation inevitably suffer.

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We must also ensure that we supply our troops with the right equipment. Troops returning from theatre tell of life-threatening shortages of kit, including body armour, satellite phones, oil to prevent guns jamming and electronic equipment to detect roadside bombs—

[ Interruption.] I shall move on.

I should warn the Minister that the public take those failings very seriously. It is no credit to the Government that the Minister for Defence Equipment and Support announced that he was walking away from politics to drive racing cars on the very day that a coroner ruled that a shortage of kit cost Fusilier Gordon Gentle his life. That is not lost on the public.

The Defence Committee has highlighted the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan, and that is especially important in that region, because it has a knock-on effect in the strain put on crews, especially when they have to land in the conditions there at night. It also has an impact on our successes on the ground. One of my concerns about Afghanistan is that many of the victories that we are accomplishing now could become pyrrhic victories if we do not dominate the ground that we have won. It is no good taking towns if we cannot dominate the ground around them, and helicopters have a vital role to play in achieving that. If we eventually cede that ground to the Taliban, the victories will indeed be pyrrhic.

I welcome the rule changes to compensation claims, and I give the Government credit where it is due for those. It is right that service personnel can now claim for each injury. However, I would ask the Minister to address directly why the limit on compensation remains at £285,000, and will the Government and MOD do any work on that? To put the figure into context, Peterborough borough council spends some £285,000 on awarding compensation to those who trip over paving stones, and that is a useful comparison.

Given the litany of failings by the Government, I have to say, as an ex-serviceman, that it is bemusing to hear Ministers say that when they are visiting troops, they do not hear them grumble too much, so perhaps Opposition Members and the media exaggerate some of the concerns. That is the wrong approach. Partly because service personnel are taught not to complain, and partly because of their deference to the chain of command, they do not grumble. It is ludicrous to suggest that because nothing is said, all is well. It shows how out of touch Ministers risk appearing.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as I realise that we are near the end of his allotted time. Does he see how what he has just said contrasts with what the former Chiefs of the Defence Staff in the other place say? When they visit troops, all they hear is grumbling.

Mr. Baron: I am not sure that I heard the last part of that question.

Mr. Ellwood: It did not make sense, so don’t worry.

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