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10 Jun 2008 : Column 32WH—continued

The Minister may be wondering why this Tory Back Bencher is being complimentary. Well, here it comes: the kit is all right, but there are not the men to use it. The single most important piece of kit is the man who carries the pike, the man who pushes the bayonet and the man who throws the hand grenade. They are men, because not many women are carrying out such trades.
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The finest car may have the best petrol and the most elaborate paintwork, but if it does not have a driver, it is useless as a vehicle.

Our Army in particular, the Royal Air Force to a lesser extent and the Royal Navy are in a parlous state in terms of those who do the fighting, the killing and the dying. I shall illustrate that by referring to 16 Air Assault Brigade, which has just deployed into Helmand. I could talk about all its battalions, but I shall concentrate on two of its Scottish battalions that have deployed. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5 Scots, has a paper strength, give or take, of 700. Its actual strength or deployed strength is 500. It has been able to go into the field with only 500 of the 700 bayonets that it should be taking to the Taliban. If that is examined in more detail, only about 350 Argylls have gone on operations with 5 Scots, with the rest being made up of reinforcements from the Royal Highland Fusiliers, 2 Scots, and other Army battalions. Even more worryingly, there is a hideous bill for the long-term sick in that battalion. Not only is it under-recruited and undermanned, it is also carrying a large number of soldiers who simply cannot deploy because they are long-term sick.

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Other problems are coming up. For example, on return from Helmand province recently, the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment had routine medical checks, and it seems that about 280 soldiers from that battalion will not be able to deploy again, because of the damage to their hearing that they suffered during the serious fighting this time last year.

Worryingly, if one asks an official question about the size of the Army, the answer comes back that it is supposed to be, give or take, 103,000 men strong. In truth, it is only marginally under strength by about 5,000, so let us say that on paper it has 98,000 men. However, the Minister is well aware that only about 50,000 are able to deploy. The rest have problems with compassionate issues, are not qualified, are still in training or are sick. That is not good enough.

The Minister fully understands that manning is made up of a three-part equation. The first part is recruiting; the second part—I do not mean to be patronising—is retention during training; and the third part is retention during service. If we ask how recruiting is going, the answer is, “Not bad. It is going very well.” If we then ask how many men are retained during training and we concentrate on combat arms and particularly the infantry, the Minister will find, if he does not know already, that between 35 and 40 per cent. of infantry recruits drop out during training. The next part of the equation is how many men—trained non-commissioned officers and senior private soldiers—are retained in service? I do not know the figures, but inability to retain trained personnel is a major problem.

Mr. Kevan Jones: If the Army is under the pressure that the hon. Gentleman is describing—the Defence Committee is compiling a report on retention and recruitment—and if we are looking not only for value for money, but to retain people, is it not time to review Army structure in the UK, so that we do not have a plethora of commands and soldiers carrying out activities that are not front-line commitments?

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Patrick Mercer: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I had dinner with a major-general the other day at his house in London. I had better not give his name. Two sergeants had been abstracted from a battalion on operations—one was a mortarman and the other belonged to the battalion’s mechanical transport platoon—to serve food dressed in little red monkey jackets, while the battalion was on operations against an enemy abroad. That cannot be right.

I roundly condemn the future infantry structure, for all sorts of different reasons. The only parts of the organisation with the curious name of the Mercian Regiment that are fully manned and recruited are battalion headquarters and the headquarter companies—with the greatest respect, the non-combatant side and officers and senior non-commissioned officers carrying the rank, the pensions, the pay, and so on. The bayonet power of those three battalions amounts to only just one and a bit battalions. Lieutenant-colonels and below neatly and comfortably carry on along their career paths, while the fighting manpower is flexed between the three battalions, almost like rent-a-mob, and does not receive the necessary tour gaps, rest and recuperation, training and so on.

The Minister has heard me talk about the matter—I am sure that he is extremely bored with the way in which I do so—but the Ministry of Defence is in denial, and I do not believe that Ministers are being told the correct story by people in the Ministry. For example, I appreciate that recruiting is only part of the manning equation, but if it is so important, if Headquarters Recruiting Group’s job is so crucial in getting the petrol into the Army engine and if a key player in that is the brigadier in charge of recruiting, why was he absent for eight months last year on a court martial? That really cannot be right. Such decisions are wrong, and I ask the Minister to dig beneath the surface of what he is being told by career-conscious and ambitious officers to find out what the truth is.

What used to be called the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment was 90 men over strength eight years ago when I left it; it is now almost 100 men under strength when conditions are easier than they were eight or nine years ago, the Army is in the public eye much more than then and the opportunities to recruit are better. The measure that is being discussed to relax recruiting boundaries will result in a free-for-all and to all intents and purposes the regimental system that we have had for 250 years will be finally stabbed to death. That is a serious error. If regiments have the word “Irish” in their name, they should be allowed to recruit in Ireland and to continue to take on Irish recruits. The 2nd Battalion the Mercian Regiment is now for ever forlornly stationed in Palace barracks, Holywood. Why on earth should it recruit Irishmen? That is what the Ministry of Defence is proposing, and if the Minister is not aware of that, I ask him to consider the matter in more detail. It is dangerous, insidious and a final blow to the regimental system.

I shall finish by saying that much of the kit has improved and that much of the detail that has gone wrong in the past is now much better, but above and beyond everything else, if we do not have the manpower to fight the wars that our Government and nation want to fight, it is not only unfair but immoral.

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11.59 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): First, on behalf of myself and my colleagues, I would like to give my condolences to the families of the three paratroopers. As hon. Members have said and as I am sure the Minister will repeat, all of our thoughts and prayers go to the families and friends of the three young men whose lives were cut short in such tragic circumstances while they were fighting on our behalf. We owe a big debt of gratitude to them and to the other 97 families who have been affected in similar ways by the fighting in Afghanistan. We also owe a debt of gratitude to those fighting in Iraq and those who have been injured and seen their lives change significantly. The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) should be congratulated on initiating this debate and on providing an opportunity to speak up for those people. The families of many of those affected by the issue have made many criticisms about equipment and have complained to the Defence Committee in order to try to bring home to Parliament the need for equipment failures to be considered.

I was going to interrupt the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), but he spent so much time talking about bayonet power that I was nervous to do so because I believe he was quite handy with a bayonet at one time. He was at full flow and I did not think he would take kindly to being interrupted by someone reminding him to get on with it and give us a chance to have our say. Bayonet power aside, I found the hon. Gentleman’s contribution extremely interesting. He is right: the biggest failure is not having the manpower—men and women; the most precious of all commodities—available to deliver what we expect from our armed forces. His figures need to be verified and the MOD needs to answer the points he made about an on-paper 700 strong battalion only being able to deploy 500 people, many of whom are from other units. More importantly, it is worrying that so many of a returning battalion are unfit for service in a similar circumstance in the future. If, for example, a third of the battalion is unavailable for combat because of sustained injuries, such as deafness, what does that do to the morale and effectiveness of the unit?

I have a great deal of time and affection for my colleague from the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones)—he smiles at that, but he knows that it is true. It is beyond me why he has never been looked at for further advancement, and I am sure many of his colleagues on the Defence Committee also share that view. He would make a useful contribution to dealing with this issue and would bring some straight thinking.

Mr. Kevan Jones: That’s me doomed.

Mr. Hancock: No. He knows, as well as I do, that the Defence Committee has never shirked from its responsibility of taking on the military in relation to equipment. We do not have in-service dates now because the MOD learned through Eurofighter, which had more in—service dates than Frank Sinatra had retirement and farewell concerts, that it cannot do so because they fail to materialise. One has only to look at the Committee’s most recent report on defence equipment for evidence of that. The report talks about the failure of in-service dates on nearly every project. In some instances, the in-service date has been shifted five or six times. Therefore, we do not now give in-service dates.

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The hon. Member for Congleton spoke well about understanding what is needed when fighting an insurgency. I agree with her entirely. The suggestion that we will fight some sort of conventional war in the future is long past its sell-by date. I do not think we will be in that position. The lessons from Iraq one and two, and from our experiences in Afghanistan are vitally important to understanding where we go in the future. That is why the military have to be more realistic about what they expect a Government to deliver. I do not sympathise with Ministers, but I can understand the predicament they are in. They are challenged time and again with repeated requests for different things and have to prioritise matters that the military themselves fail to prioritise and be clear about.

Again, I commend the Defence Committee’s report to hon. Members and to the whole House. Time and again, the report mentions the failure to have a clear perception of what is required and the fact that the spec of the equipment is continuously changed. There is also the issue of Abbey Wood and wanting to check the reliability of the design or structure of the product to the nth degree instead of looking at what is required and first of all seeing if it is available anywhere else in the world. There is a distinct reluctance on the part of the Ministry of Defence to look for something already tried and tested and take it off the shelf.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: indicated dissent.

Mr. Hancock: The Minister shakes his head. The hon. Member for North Durham who spoke earlier said that there has been a change. That change has been a long time coming. In the past, predecessors of the Minister have repeatedly spoken to the Committee and the House and have flatly refused to look at the off-the-shelf option. Bowman, and Clansman before it, are classic examples of the Government not wanting to buy products that are available, even though they do what they want them to.

Mr. Ainsworth: I shake my head now in 2008. I cannot shake my head in 2002 or 1999. Cougar was bought off the shelf and up-armoured to Mastiff. When it is needed, that is what we do.

Mr. Hancock: I welcome the Minister’s intervention. Of course, he cannot take responsibility for the past, but he shook his head too quickly because I was going to give the Government credit for the changes. Perhaps that is part of the problem.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Would the hon. Gentleman agree that although what the Minister says is correct, the default setting in the MOD means that even when something is bought off the shelf, an integrated project team still has to be put in place to look at how it has been evaluated. For example, the Minimi machine gun, which was purchased during early operations in Afghanistan, was welcomed, did a great job and everyone loved it. However, an evaluation was still set up afterwards.

Mr. Hancock: And the gun was nearly rejected. In the end, it had been dismantled and put together so many times it seemed the Government were trying to find fault with it. Because it had been used in operation we
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knew that it was the weapon required, yet every obstacle possible was put in the way of early deployment. Why? We do not know why.

I draw hon. Members’ attention to an old issue that we face time and again. In last night’s Evening Standard, there was a picture of five members of the Parachute Regiment on deployment in Helmand. It was interesting to look at their feet because no two of them have the same pair of boots and three of them have different webbing packs. Equipment is important. The hon. Member for Newark is correct: servicemen have seen a dramatic improvement in the provision of equipment. However, some issues still cause them concern and safety in vehicles is a classic problem. We have had the argument time and again about boots that do not work in the desert and I do not want to go over that. However, our service personnel still buy their own equipment because what they are issued with is not suitable for the conditions that they are in.

I would like to draw the attention of hon. Members to some of the things mentioned in today’s debate pack. An issue that has not been mentioned is that of vehicles enabling the treatment of injury and the cases of victims who need to be transported and worked on by medics. Space is confined and facilities for proper medical vehicles are lacking.

There is much to be said on the matter. I realise that time is short and that hon. Members want to hear the Minister respond, so on behalf of my colleagues and as a result of my experience on the Defence Committee, I would like to say that there are improvements on the way that will have a great effect—for example, the Mastiff and other changes that have occurred in vehicles. However, I share the view that the flexibility of the command to have a series of vehicles and choices is vital. I also share the view of those hon. Members who have said that it is no good settling for just one correct option—one has only to see the consequences of not having such an approach to realise that. I also agree with the hon. Member for Congleton: we have to deal with our colleagues who have failed to share the burden—not in the European Union, but in NATO. This is a NATO issue, not an EU issue. If it cannot share the fighting and dying, I hope that at some stage it can at least share the equipment. The fact that we had to buy helicopters from the Danes is once again a clear example of co-operation just not existing.

12.9 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Pope. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) in paying tribute to the members of 2 Para who have given their lives in the last few days. Those events demonstrate the commitment not only of that regiment, but of the British Army and the other two services.

It is very important that the people of this country understand that it is not only the British Army that is carrying out those acts of heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is very much a tri-service commitment. I should like to remind hon. Members that it was a female Royal Air Force Merlin helicopter pilot who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. She was flying into a hail of enemy fire to rescue wounded soldiers. It needs to be put on the record that the Royal Air Force is giving
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huge, dedicated service, as is the Royal Navy, not so much at sea but certainly in the form of the Royal Marine Commandos, whose own tour in Helmand province was extremely distinguished.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton on securing the debate and managing to get the defence groupies together. I can assure her that if an hour and a half today is not sufficient time—clearly, it is not—we can reprise the exercise next week. I offer her an invitation to come to the defence procurement debate on the Floor of the House next Thursday—I have pointed out to my Whip that that happens to be ladies day at Ascot, to which I was already committed and from which I have had to withdraw.

Ann Winterton: Sadly, I must turn down the invitation to take part next Thursday, for the simple reason that I shall be sitting in the seat in which Mr. Pope is sitting this afternoon.

Mr. Howarth: I can say on behalf of us all that that will be our loss. We hope that my hon. Friend will be able to extract herself from the seat of power here and come to the other debate to make a contribution, for she has made a very significant contribution not only today but repeatedly in the important matter of providing the correct defence equipment for our armed forces as they experience constant change in the threat that they face and the tactics of the enemy. Our responsibility as Members of Parliament—clearly, it falls most heavily on the shoulders of the Minister—is to ensure that our armed forces have the best equipment that we can give them.

The essential burden of my hon. Friend’s case was that we need more appropriate equipment, which needs to be better value for money than what is available at the moment. She also made the case about “next war-itis.” If she had been a clergyman, she would have said, “I take my text from one Robert Gates,” who made those remarks about the attitude of the military. I just warn her against being too zealous in going down the route of concentrating wholly and exclusively on the immediate, for we face a much more complex world now than that which we faced when the cold war was at its height and we could see exactly where the threat was coming from. The threat is now all around us. We know what the threat is from insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I would be very nervous about dismissing Mr. Putin’s intentions in building up his armed forces. Although I agree with my hon. Friend that it is unlikely that our shores face attack in the foreseeable future, it would be a foolish politician who decided to take the gamble that we could safely ignore consideration of, for example, renewal of our nuclear deterrent or, indeed, some of our other capabilities that will not be required in the immediate future.

Ann Winterton: I was not suggesting that.

Mr. Howarth: Not entirely, but my hon. Friend was suggesting that “next war-itis” was an issue that we should be concerned about. She is right, but clearly we face a more complex world than we did before.

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