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John Smith: In short, that is not the problem we face, because this situation does not occur in other countries. The largest ethnic group who could be recruited are the
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Afro-Caribbeans, and they do not have the same sort of pressures within their community. In the US, the other ethnic minority groups that we are talking about have the highest recruitment levels, so, clearly, this process is done differently in the US.

Mr. Jenkins: My hon. Friend has identified a problem, but he has not come up with a solution. Does he feel that the detachment between the military and certain sectors of our community who have no link with and no information about the military is down to schools who do not promote it? Might that be one of the problems? Is the problem that certain sectors of our society do not have the same information on how much they could benefit from a career in the forces?

John Smith: The growing gap, which is the whole point of my raising this topic, is reflected in the fact that some schools do put up barriers. The reason is that the armed forces are in danger of becoming increasingly isolated within society, and that is a medium to long-term problem. If we do not address it now, we will have problems in the future. It is unfortunate that this is the situation facing us, because it denies many young black men and women the opportunity to escape from some of our inner-city streets and have a second chance in life, in terms of both a career opportunity and training. In other countries, especially the USA, far from not their having that opportunity, it is the principal method used by black youth to get out of the inner-city ghettoes and make their way in life, against all the odds. We are denying our young black men and women the same opportunity.

Linda Gilroy: Does my hon. Friend agree that the cadets and reserves have a particular role to play in reaching out to those communities and giving people the opportunity to enter the armed services?

John Smith: I do, indeed, and that possibility should be explored further.

For 10 years those at senior levels of the Government and the military have tried to address this issue, but we have failed. The time has come to put in place within the armed forces—a disciplined, authoritarian, structured organisation—a command responsibility, as they have done in the United States, that recognises that command success will be determined by an ability to recruit from across the community.

Finally, I would like to raise a point about the 200 residents in my constituency who have just been billed for nearly £1,000 in water charges back-dated five years—this just before Christmas. They are predominantly low and modest-income families on the west camp at MOD St. Athan living in the former married quarters—they are now first-time buys for young families. Because of MOD bureaucracy, those people have received bills dating from five years ago that have landed on their doorsteps completely unexpectedly, and I hope that Ministers will waive those payments.

3.46 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (John Smith) who, as always, made an excellent speech.


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I welcome this debate. Although it can seem to some that such debates come along like buses—three at a time—this is in fact a perfect time as we have a new ministerial team. Earlier, I welcomed the arrival of the two new Under-Secretaries of State for Defence, the hon. Members for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) and for North Durham (Mr. Jones), but I did not welcome the Secretary of State’s arrival, which was an oversight. His arrival has been welcomed by the armed forces, because of his defence knowledge and constituency interest. His appointment is a very good thing. I also pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). From the beginning, when he was faced with the Lynx crash in Basra, which he handled with huge sensitivity, understanding and assiduity, he proved himself to be a good Secretary of State for Defence. We will miss him.

Several hon. Members wish to speak, and I have been treated with great indulgence by your calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker—because of my position, rather than my quality, I think—so I shall make only one point. I shall take a little time to make it, but probably not as much as half of the 12 minutes available to each of us.

In the United Kingdom, the defence world and Europe as a whole, there is a crisis of understanding about defence. People are talking from different viewpoints without listening to each other, or understanding or hearing what other people say. The armed forces say, “We need this piece of equipment. Other armed forces have it. For example, the Americans have had explosive suppressant foam in the wings of their aircraft since the 1960s. If you send us into battle without such equipment, you will put us at an unacceptable risk. We will therefore be faced with the choice of going in under-equipped or of saying no to the Armed Forces Minister. It is against our ethos and training to do that, so faced with the choice of being put at risk, or saying no, we are leaving the armed forces.” That is the position that our armed forces say that they find themselves in.

The Treasury says, “Well, what do you want? Do you want a completely unlimited budget? There is nobody—no individual, no Department—that has an unlimited budget. Do you want us, the Treasury, to make your choices for you? Obviously not, and frankly we would feel more accommodating towards you—you would be more persuasive—if you spent the money better that we do give you. We do not understand what the armed forces are asking for in this case.”

The industry says, “We would like to understand what the Ministry of Defence is doing, but for the last year at least there has been no real discussion between the Ministry of Defence and industry about what the Ministry is going to do. The Ministry of Defence has been told, first, that there is to be no bad news and, secondly, that there is to be no more money. Those two things are incompatible.”

The people of this country say, “We do not understand what you are doing in Afghanistan or Iraq. Although we think that on the whole the armed forces are badly treated, we do not want to pay more money to them if they are carrying out projects that we do not understand or support, particularly if that money is to come from our schools and hospitals in order to prop up a corrupt Government in some country that we have never been to. We do not understand what they are doing.”


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That crisis of understanding has to be addressed, and it has to be addressed by the new ministerial team. There are people who are to blame for having failed to inspire the public by what we are doing. There are Treasury people who are to blame for treating matters to do with the armed forces as financial, when they are inspirational. A military band cannot be treated as something that can be reduced to pounds, shillings or pence or that can be described in figures. It is a matter of inspiration, and for each band that is cut the military understands that fact but the Treasury does not.

The people are to blame, too, because they have forgotten what Pericles said in the Peloponnesian war—if they ever knew. He said that one cannot have happiness without freedom, and one cannot have freedom without courage. He probably said that in some language other than English, but it is crucial and necessary for the people to remember it as they look forward to demanding that a higher proportion of our gross domestic product should go to defence. It is quite wrong that we spend the lowest proportion of our GDP on defence that we have spent since the early 1930s. If we reduce defence spending to such a level, we invite war. It invites the contempt of our enemies and invites them to believe that we no longer believe in our own values. That is where we are.

It is for the ministerial team to inspire the country with a vision of what we are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, of why we are there and of why we need to support our armed forces. At the moment, that is not happening.

3.53 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I am delighted to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who has made the most remarkable speech that I have heard in a defence debate for a long time. I would only add that I, too, believe passionately that we should reconnect with our constituents to point out to them that even in these straitened times we need to recognise that our future prosperity, our standard of living and our quality of life all depend on recognising what our freedom stands for. If we are to continue to trade globally with the rest of the world, to import and export goods and services, and to do more than 90 per cent. of it by sea and only a tiny minority by air, we must, as a matter of necessity, still be able to project force around the globe.

We have reached a crossroads, as my right hon. Friend pointed out. We will either be a global force to be reckoned with, or we will not. If we are not, we will fall back on a group of countries that currently call themselves members of NATO, or perhaps on another relationship within the European Union. We cannot have it both ways: either we address the issue of the proportion of our national spending that goes on defence, and increase it—I would like to double it, as I have been saying for many years, to the distress of my party and the disbelief of the Labour party—or we will have to sit back and decline gently over the coming generations.

I believe passionately, however, that we do not really have a choice, because our people demand that their standard of living does not decline. Nor are they willing to see their ideas of what Britain is all about written off. Therefore, as my right hon. Friend so vividly explained, we must give them a vision and a far clearer explanation
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of what we are doing about defence in the world. We also have to explain that the goods and services that they buy in the shops depend, ultimately, on the freedom to trade globally, on keeping the sea lanes open, and on keeping the security of our shores under constant surveillance, using technology that they are not used to and cannot really understand. How many of our constituents are distressed by what they perceive as the decline of what used to be called Customs and Excise, now Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs? They say, “There aren’t any Customs cutters floating around our shores any more.” That is history; we now do things differently, and I have to accept that.

People are increasingly concerned about the way in which our defence policy, as applied to our personnel, does not provide the services that our constituents expect. The remarkable reaction right across the United Kingdom to Help for Heroes has made us all sit up and wonder why that extraordinary organisation, which I am proud to say originates from my constituency, has caught the imagination of the British people. It is because the British people have suddenly woken up, and say, “Well, we may not understand what the armed forces are doing, and we don’t like seeing on our television screens what they’re doing, and what is being done to them in Afghanistan, Iraq or many other parts of the world”—there are, in fact, some 4,000 different units of the British military all around the world—“but we recognise that when they come home, they should expect and receive better.”

That is why I am particularly anxious about how we treat returning service personnel, medically and mentally. I salute the progress that the Ministry of Defence has made in addressing those issues. The Defence Committee produced a report earlier this year on how we look after our service personnel and their families, medically. However, we need to go further. We have, of course, visited Headley Court and Combat Stress to see what they do, but there is something else that we need to do: we need to encourage Ministers to provide all the necessary resources, for example to the King’s Centre for Military Health Research of King’s college, London. It does incredibly good work, which it has been publishing since 2006. However, it still has a long way to go.

There is a remarkable project, which I hope Ministers will continue to support, called the trauma risk management, or TRiM, project for post-conflict trauma, depression and stress training. The system operates as a proactive peer group and mentoring and support system that helps people to identify when those in the services are at risk, and the symptoms that they should recognise. The allocated budget for all stress management training within all the armed forces stands at about £1 million a year, which is not nearly enough. It is easy for me to say that we must spend more, but this is a very important matter, and in view of the anxiety about it, expressed only today in the national press, I hope that Ministers will consider what should be done.

Another issue that we should take as part and parcel of the question of trying to ensure that the public understand more about what it means to serve in Her Majesty’s forces is how we treat them with regard to their right to vote. For many years we have been saying that Her Majesty’s forces do not have as high a level of
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voter registration as we think they should, and this month the Electoral Commission has described the way in which our forces are under-registered. It points out that only about two thirds of Her Majesty’s forces are registered to vote, and it is running campaigns, which I welcome. I hope that Ministers will be encouraged to work ever more closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that in the annual campaign that is beginning this month, through unit registration officers and Ministry of Defence publicity, no effort is spared to ensure that our service voters have the service that they deserve. It is also important to recognise that registering as an overseas voter is not always the answer. Rather the answer for all service personnel is to register as service voters because they need register only every three years instead of every year.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I understand that, unlike service personnel from other countries such as America, our service personnel do not have the opportunity to vote in a ballot box when they are serving overseas. They feel that having to vote by proxy means that they are effectively denied the democratic rights that those whom they are fighting alongside are granted. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government should look into what appears to be an injustice?

Robert Key: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has popped into our debate, which has been very important indeed. [Laughter.] Seriously, I am delighted that he is here. But it is not a question of how our service personnel vote, but of how they get on to the register. The voting that is recommended is by proxy. The Electoral Commission, the Ministry of Defence and my constituents in the armed services say that that is the best way. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman makes an important point.

Another matter on which I want, unashamedly, to press Ministers concerns the future of land forces headquarters. When it was mooted some years ago now that the Army should move its land headquarters from Erskine barracks in Wilton, which also happens to be in my constituency, to redundant buildings in Andover, there was much sucking of teeth, as the Minister would imagine. It was made plain from the start that the British Army land headquarters should be somewhere special, somewhere superb, somewhere that could be an expression of all that is best about the military tradition. Therefore, given that the headquarters land was in premises that had been taken over from the old southern command formed in the second world war and in buildings that were incrementally added to and are now pretty tatty, it was considered appropriate to move into new buildings—not over-the-top buildings; nothing approaching the grandeur and luxury of the Ministry of Defence main building; nothing like that for the people who do the fighting for our country, oh no. But there was at least the assurance that the new premises would be purpose built and appropriate. Not a bit of it. In a parliamentary answer last week, it was finally decided that the headquarters should be in the old buildings in Andover. They would be tarted up a bit with the odd lick of paint and bit of new carpeting here and there, no doubt, and that is fine, but it is a great disappointment. I share the Army’s disappointment at the way in which this aspiration for something visionary for the future of the headquarters is now no more.


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I should also like to draw the attention of the House to the problems that arise when military establishments are disposed of. That issue interfaces with domestic policy just as importantly as it does with defence policy. In the case of Erskine barracks, it means moving out 1,200 jobs and the military eventually vacating a large site, which will be sold. There is a disjunction between the Ministry of Defence and the civilian authorities. Only yesterday I spoke to officers in my planning authority who are working happily, closely and harmoniously with Ministry of Defence officials in what is called the Wilton taskforce, which is led by the Defence Estates. The problem is a lack of certainty and a fuzziness about the whole thing. Above all, Defence Estates has no consistent point of contact with the planning authority at a time when the planning authority is changing from a district council and county council to one unitary authority; I would have thought it in the interests of the Ministry of Defence that there should be continuity. At Defence Estates there is no consistent person with whom the planning officers can talk, at a time when they have to reinvent the existing local plan, which will expire, and when a process is in train for setting up a new plan.

Such issues do not sound like grand national defence policy but they are important to the morale of the people from all three services in Afghanistan, Iraq and all around the rest of the world. They need to know that we are at least looking after their domestic and administrative interests and ensuring that they can be proud of the offices in which they work and the services that we provide. In that way, they can be part of a democratic process that maintains their freedom and our freedom.

4.6 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): It is only three weeks since our last defence debate, during which the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), said that there was no equivocation about the Government’s commitment to Devonport. I make no apology for beginning with some local issues, although I want to take up some of the points made by the two previous speakers, with whom I have the honour of serving on the Defence Committee.

I suspect that in the coming weeks redundancies at Devonport Royal Dockyard will be announced. The redundancies have been spoken of for about three years. Given that the 24/7 media tend to accentuate every story by repeating it almost every quarter of an hour, sometimes for several days, the fact that the redundancies have been expected for such a long time has tended to make it sound as if they are happening over and again. Nevertheless, when they come, they will, of course, be a source of deep regret and play into the ongoing concerns of my constituents.

Earlier this afternoon, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and I discussed the death by a thousand cuts of Devonport naval base and dockyard with the regional Minister. [Interruption.] I see my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces sitting, as always, with great patience as he hears that such stories are ongoing. We know that Bulwark, Albion and Westminster will keep our workers in the dockyard busy for several years and that there was a
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huge £150 million investment to enable the important Astute submarine maintenance work in Devonport to continue.

There are, of course, peaks in the sort of work that is undertaken at our dockyard, and they are associated with the intense work on the submarines. Obviously, those peaks occur alongside the troughs in between. Filling those troughs is very important to the people who earn their living through this work. In recent weeks, Babcock Marine decided that it would no longer continue with work on some prestigious luxury boats that had been part of the in-fill work that kept the expert skills of the people who work on the submarines honed.

Yesterday, following my question at Prime Minister’s Question Time, I was pleased to hear the announcement about the £700-million vehicles programme, part of which will be for further purchases of the Jackal vehicle—a great success story that we have talked about in previous debates. The programme will not automatically come to Devonport, but I cannot imagine that anywhere else is as well positioned to compete for it. When we met my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces a few months ago, he assured us that he would press to obtain the clarity to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred when he said that he hoped soon to make some important procurement announcements.

There is often confusion between the roles of Devonport dockyard and the naval base. Of course, the prospects of both are closely tied together. Last week, I was pleased to be able to attend, as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, the staff course at Shrivenham defence academy, where for three days we discussed maritime policy and doctrine alongside officers who are on a year-long course preparatory to taking on their first command posts. That helped me to get a deeper and broader picture of the range of tasks and the flexibility of the role of the Royal Navy, and the centrality of amphibious warfare, for which we hope to become the centre of excellence in Devonport.

The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), who chairs the Defence Committee, referred to a crisis of understanding. One of the things that I gained a deeper understanding of was exactly what people mean when they refer to sea blindness and maritime blindness. That operates on several levels, one of which relates to the general public.

When our deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq are shown on television, they appear broadly to be land deployments to which the Navy is not at all central, so it ends up being sidelined. Nothing could be further from the truth, but that puts at risk its interests in relation to all the tensions involved in the defence budget. In Defence questions on Monday, I requested information about the number of Royal Navy personnel who are currently deployed in Afghanistan. The answer will probably come as quite a surprise.


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