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Mr. Baron: I am not sure that the question made sense, but the bottom line is that Ministers are saying too often that they do not hear complaints when they visit troops. That is nonsense. As I have seen comrades pay the ultimate price on operation, it galls me when
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Ministers seem incapable of understanding the nature and substance of the armed forces commitment.

Service personnel will give 100 per cent. to their country. They will suffer conditions on the front line that some in this place would not believe in this world of human rights. They will not grumble; the British Tommy gets on with the job. That is why it is so important that Ministers listen to those at the top when they break silence. Lord Guthrie has talked about the services feeling as though they are being taken for granted. Admiral Lord Boyce accused the Prime Minister of treating the armed forces with contempt and disinterest. The Chief of the General Staff clearly said that the military covenant is out of kilter and that the troops are feeling devalued, angry and fatigued.

Let us be clear that it is regrettable when senior officers and retired senior officers think it necessary to speak out. It is not the way we do things in this country. However, it shows the scale of the problem. Those people are not seeking publicity. They are speaking out for those who do not have a union or a federation to speak out on their behalf and who will not and cannot strike. They are making the Government aware of problems as best they can, because Ministers will not listen in private. In many soldiers’ minds, the proof that the Government are not 100 per cent. committed to their interests is the part-time Secretary of State. Those on the Government Front Bench do not understand the strength of feeling. The wrong message is sent out.

Troops give 100 per cent. and expect 100 per cent. in return. The Defence Secretary has openly asked what more he should be doing, and enough has been said this afternoon to illustrate what needs be done and the issues that need to be dealt with: substandard housing, the fact that the Army is overstretched and the shortage of kit.

In conclusion, the fact that the Royal British Legion has felt obliged to mount a campaign about the military covenant along the lines of “We count on him; can they count on us?” illustrates the state of affairs. The Army is being asked to do too much with too few men and resources. The Secretary of State has admitted that the Government can do better. Let us hope that now is the time for action.

4.57 pm

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I have had the privilege of serving on the Select Committee on Defence for the past six years. I have seen men and women in our armed forces not only in this country but in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. I want to put on record my respect for them. The armed forces offer rewarding careers, mentioned by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, to many people who would not get such chances elsewhere. A lot of those people, at very tender ages, take on a huge amount of responsibility. If anybody wants some reinforcement in response to people who write off the youth of today, they should meet some of the young men and women in our armed forces.

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I am pleased that armed forces personnel, their families and how we treat members of our armed forces are high on the political agenda. The only thing that I ask is that the debate should be based on fact rather than fiction. The trend over the past few months in the media and in the House—an example was provided just now by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron)—is that if someone says something, it is deemed to be a fact. If someone stands up, for example, and says that there is a shortage of body armour in Iraq or Afghanistan, that is taken as a fact. Some of the problems in our armed forces are seen as having been pickled in aspic and it is believed that somehow nothing ever changes.

There has been a tremendous change in the equipment available in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have seen that, as have other members of the Defence Committee. If the hon. Member for Billericay thinks that members of the armed forces do not grumble to us when we go around bases, that could not be further from the truth. To be fair to the Chairman of the Committee, he insists that wherever we go, we should meet members of the armed forces away from senior officers. I can tell the House that they are not short of a range of issues and grumbles to raise. One must be selective, as some grumbles deserve to be taken up while others are the sort of moans expressed by people in any job. It is important to separate what needs to be investigated from ordinary, everyday dissatisfaction.

Mr. Baron: I said that I had heard Ministers say at the Dispatch Box that they do not hear grumbling from armed forces personnel, but I was not referring to members of the Defence Committee. Moreover, my remarks were not based on hearsay. I have looked at what the Public Accounts Committee has said about accommodation, for example, and at the Army’s own continuous assessment surveys.

Mr. Jones: I shall come on to accommodation in a moment, but I assure the House that armed forces personnel are not afraid of coming forward.

I welcome the commitment given by the Government to the Command Paper, as it is very important that all the threads to do with housing, medical welfare and other matters are drawn together. Another important aspect is how the MOD interacts with other Departments. The Defence Committee has worked on reports dealing with housing, education and medical services, and it is clear that the MOD is something of an island. It does not always work well with other Departments, and the Command Paper will have an important role to play in improving its performance in that respect.

The Command Paper also needs to spell out what should be provided by the MOD, and what by charities. I have great respect for the service charities, which do tremendous work on behalf of both serving and retired members of our armed forces. We need a grown-up debate so that we can decide what they should provide, and what the MOD should.

On the armed forces medical services, the Chairman of the Defence Committee said that we had been very impressed by what we had seen on our evidence-gathering trips, and I want to emphasise that the care being given to personnel—both in-theatre in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Selly Oak—is the best in this country and among
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the best in the world. That was recognised by the Surgeon General in the evidence that he gave to the Defence Committee, and it also accepted by General Dannett, who is a strong advocate of the Selly Oak facility. People need to look at the facts, and not at the media hype or some of the other, rather disgraceful claims that have been made.

I have been impressed by the dedication exhibited by both NHS and military staff in the hospitals that I have visited, but I went to the military-managed facility at Northallerton a few weeks ago. The previous Conservative Government quite rightly began the process of closing military hospitals: six were closed during their time in office, and anyone who suggests that we should return to that regime is talking nonsense. A proper throughput of people and expertise is needed if medical care is to attain the necessary standard.

Tony Baldry: The hon. Gentleman has said that there must be a balance between the work done by charities and the MOD. Does he agree that the MOD could surely have found in its budget the £5 million for a hydrotherapy pool and other facilities needed by the seriously wounded people in therapy and recuperation at Headley Court? That is a tiny amount, and it should have come from the MOD’s budget and not from charities.

Mr. Jones: I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman has fallen into a trap. When the Defence Committee visited Headley Court to gather evidence, people told us that the facilities to which he has referred were not the priority. It is fine if charities want to install a hydrotherapy pool as an addition to existing provision, but it is certainly not a priority for patients. We need to be careful about such matters, but that is why we need a debate about what the MOD should provide, and what charities should. Service charities have an important role to play, and they can provide some services for our armed forces far better than the Government can.

We cannot ignore the legacy of the previous Conservative Government or the way that they sold off Army houses but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) suggested, we also have a great opportunity in that regard. The replacement of the arms plot and super-garrisons allows us for the first time to talk about letting armed forces personnel get on the housing ladder. I am very pleased that the Government have taken that on board. I am also pleased that they have accepted the amendment to the Housing and Regeneration Bill that provides that people leaving the armed forces and returning to their home area will get priority for council housing.

The hon. Member for Billericay talked about Hounslow. The problem there is not money; it is that a strategic decision is needed on what accommodation the Army needs in London. As we highlighted in our report, that urgently needs to be assessed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the facilities in Hounslow are unacceptable, but no one would put money into a facility that might be closed a few years later. That indecision has led to the decline of the barracks.

Strides have been made in relation to military inquests, but I put it to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces that he should urge the Government to introduce the coroners Bill. That would remedy some of the delays and archaic systems operating in the coroners service, which would also help some military inquests. I
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am totally against feeding lawyers and giving them more money to represent families at inquests, because there is no role for the families there, but I would insist on the maximum support being given to families who attend inquests.

We have heard about the voice that armed forces personnel can have, which in the new media age is increasingly heard on the internet and in other forums where they can comment. I proposed adding to the Bill that became the Armed Forces Act 2006 a new clause that would have given legal recognition to an armed forces federation. I believe that an armed forces federation is long overdue in this country—not a trade union that would represent armed forces personnel, allow them to go on strike or do anything like that, but a body that would provide a voice for ordinary servicemen and women in the chain of command. I am not for one minute saying that such a body should be able to interfere in the chain of command; however, there is a problem with how far up the chain of command some of the legitimate complaints made by members of the armed forces have gone. Do they reach senior generals and Ministers? Such a federation would be important.

Finally, we should honour the men and women who have been injured or killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq and in other conflicts around the world. I pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for its “Honour The Brave” campaign and to Colonel Richard Kemp, who is leading the fight for a medal. The Secretary of State says it is up to the generals to decide on the awarding of medals, but such a medal, which is commonplace in other countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, is long overdue in this country. A medal should be awarded to men and women who lose their lives or are injured in service of their country. Two hundred and six Members of Parliament have now signed my early-day motion 95, and I urge any who have not to do so. I see that only a minority of Conservative MPs have signed it; again, I urge them to do so. We need some movement on the medal, because those people deserve such recognition.

I finish where I started by saying that we owe a great debt to the servicemen and women who are working on our behalf. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, I wish to mention the civilian personnel who work for the MOD, some of them in very dangerous parts of the world in support of the armed forces. They, too, should have our thanks for the work that they do on our behalf.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I do not want to slash the time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but only 26 minutes are left and five hon. Members still wish to speak. A degree of restraint on the part of hon. Members will help their colleagues.

5.9 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): I will try to adhere to your recommendation, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who made some important comments, particularly on the subject of inquests. It is bizarre that under our system, wherever the Hercules or C-17 lands, that is where the inquest has to take place. I encourage
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the powers that be to ensure that a Bill is expedited, so that we can remove that quirk in the system.

In this debate on armed forces personnel we have heard a lot about cuts to the size of our forces and reductions in budgets that have led to overstretch, and to pressures on members of our armed forces across the board. As we have heard, that has certainly led to challenges for recruitment and, more worryingly, for retention. Since 1997, the Army has been reduced by 9,000 people, the Navy by 10,000 and the RAF by 16,000. Those are colossal numbers, considering the expectations and burdens that we put on our armed forces personnel across the world.

I shall focus my attention on two issues. The first is the aftercare provided to service personnel once they have left the armed forces. We have rightly covered a range of issues, including welfare, equipment, and frequency of tours. Those are all important, but we have to remember what happens to a soldier when they have picked up their armed forces long service and good conduct medal after 16 years, or when they have taken an honourable decommission, and decided to go to civvy street. I pay tribute to the Royal British Legion and many of the veterans’ associations that look after our heroes once they have decided to take a role in civilian life. They play an important role, providing reunion opportunities, support, and the mechanisms and facilities that are needed to ensure that armed forces personnel make a healthy, informed transition from a military to a civilian environment.

After the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, it was horrifying to learn that more than 300 veterans of that conflict had committed suicide since returning—a statistic that will shock the House. That is more than were killed in action on the islands. It is an unacceptable figure. One would think that things would have changed, but a recent report in the British Medical Journal highlights some of the psychological disorders and concerns that affect Army personnel, particularly those who are in combat situations for a total of more than 13 months. They include post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological distress, multiple physical symptoms, and symptoms connected with alcohol problems.

I appreciate that much has changed since the 1980s and the Falklands conflict, but I was horrified to learn, in response to a written question that I asked the Defence Secretary, that 17 serving soldiers who served either in Iraq or Afghanistan have committed suicide. We are talking about Army personnel who were still in uniform. They had not even left the protection of the military family, but decided to take their own lives. I would hazard a guess that the total number of people who have committed suicide having served in those two areas of conflict is double that figure, because there are those who were not receiving the attention and security that the military environment can offer. I do not know the numbers, and I seriously urge the Minister to investigate and try to find out the number of suicides among those who served in those conflicts but who left and were civilians.

I am afraid that the US does not fare any better: 99 American soldiers have killed themselves since 2006. That is the highest suicide rate in 26 years. We have not touched on that issue before, and I hope that the
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Minister will heed our concerns. We have a duty of care, which I do not believe we are fulfilling. We have a responsibility that goes far beyond the battlefields and parade squares, and we have an obligation to look after our heroes long after they have hung up their uniforms.

My second theme is the changing role of our military. We had a little engagement on that subject with the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), the Liberal Democrat spokesman. It was interesting to hear the Foreign Secretary’s recent comments on the “Today” programme, in which he promised to prioritise the Government’s work on conflict prevention, and to work better with the armed forces. That is the stance of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Foreign Secretary also pledged greater integration and better co-operation with the Department for International Development.

I agreed with those sentiments, but I shall not hold my breath. I agreed with the comments of Sir Hilary Synnott, who is a respected commentator on Iraq. He has worked in the civil service and written and travelled extensively throughout Afghanistan and Iraq. He said:

Those are harsh words from somebody so respected and so knowledgeable about such matters.

I shall touch on our concerns. We had a statement from the Liberal Democrats pointing out that our military are still in Iraq, and I am sure they would say the same about Afghanistan. We should be more concerned about what happens underneath that umbrella of security. The only reason why our military personnel are in those two operational environments is that we have not been able to achieve the level of infrastructure and improvements to those countries that would allow the military to move from a war fighting capacity to a peacekeeping one. That is because we do not have a proper co-ordinated plan in either of those environments.

I visit Afghanistan frequently and I was in Iraq not long ago. In both cases, we went in not understanding what was expected of DFID and of the FCO. The only expectation was that our military were to go in and somehow kill the bad guys and make the place safe. Let us suppose that that happened, and that in Helmand province we reached an agreement with the Taliban that was put in place. We would then have to start infrastructure-building from scratch. It is not the military who do that. It should be done by a combination of DFID and the FCO with the United Nations and the European Union. That is not happening in any part of Afghanistan on the scale that it should.

That is the concern, and it applies to Iraq as well. There are conflicts in Basra between the Mahdi army and the other groups, and the only thing that links them is their hatred of the British, who are seen as hostile because we are no longer liberators but occupiers. That is a horrible thing to say about our British forces and the good work that they do— [Interruption.] I hear barracking from the Government Benches. Does the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) wish to intervene?

Mr. Joyce: I have not heard the hon. Gentleman mention armed services personnel for the past five minutes of what is now an eight-minute speech.

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Mr. Ellwood: Another bizarre intervention from the hon. Gentleman. Does he not understand that the reason why we are facing pressures on the budget and why people are leaving in droves is the work that they are expected to do? The reason why the work is so tough is that the people who are supposed to be working next door to them—DFID and the FCO—are not able to conclude their jobs in time.

When we go into a country, there is a small window of opportunity to win over hearts and minds, and we are failing miserably to do that. That is why five years after we went into Iraq and six years after we went into Afghanistan, we still cannot walk away with pride and say, “We are leaving a country that we can be proud of.” Those are the challenges that we face and the problems that everyone in the armed forces is complaining about. Any soldier or sailor I spoke to during my visit to Iraq had little to say about the rest of the civil service. They were frustrated in their work. They were trying to provide an element of security and they did not feel that their efforts were being matched.

I should be careful about what I say because individual members of those Departments work very hard, but the lack of leadership and co-ordination leads me to believe that it is time to review the work of the MOD, the FCO and DFID and create something new. DFID has passed its sell-by date in its nation-building work. We are doing a disservice to our armed forces and the personnel who operate and wear the uniform with such pride, because we are putting them in harm’s way. They are creating a level of security and we are not taking advantage of it.

This has been a fruitful debate. Our armed forces deserve so much more, and until there is better co-ordination, armed forces personnel will feel frustrated with the work that they try to perform.

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