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In the battle of arguments between land, air and sea forces for different procurement programmes, the Royal Navy is put in a peculiar position whereby the centrality of its role in our joint expeditionary force capabilities becomes lost. My experience last week suggests that all the platforms together, including the carriers and the amphibious vessels, are there to project, support and
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protect our armed forces—there could be nothing more central to what we need to do to meet the risks of today and tomorrow.

Various hon. Members referred to the future carrier, which will enhance that amphibious capability to project, support and protect as a central plank of the expeditionary force that we need to deal with uncertain future threats. Some have argued that we need a White Paper to bring all this together. In addition to the fact that that would delay things, which would be dangerous, I understand that the basic assumptions underpinning the last White Paper—the strategic defence review—have been reviewed and found to hold true. There is a case to clarify and update what the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire referred to as a crisis of understanding. I hope that some means of drawing on recent important studies can be found.

I want to mention two further issues. First, I acknowledge the work in the report of the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), on national recognition, and the Government response, which, among other things, confirms that we will have the first British armed forces and veterans day on 27 June next year. Work is ongoing to ensure that the day is in tune with national sentiment and to ensure that the scale and nature of the event do not unduly burden the armed forces, which is an important consideration.

Secondly, I particularly welcome the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, who this morning welcomed two remarkable veterans—two of the 50 veterans who have had life-size portraits painted by local artist Peter Blackler, telling the story from the first world war to the most recent deployments. I hope that a role can be found for that sort of project. I welcome the fact that prints of the two portraits are to be hung in the Ministry of Defence. Such projects, especially when they involve young people, are an important part of how we help our communities that are less familiar with the armed services than those represented by most of us here today to understand the role of yesterday’s and today’s armed forces, and the needs of veterans of more recent deployments.

I conclude with an issue arising from the Government’s response to the recent report of the Defence Committee on recruitment and retention. I was particularly disappointed by the Government’s response to our recommendation that they should, as soon as possible, carefully consider dealing with the differing retirement ages in the armed services, which has a particular effect on the senior ranks. Because people must have two years’ remaining service in order be able to apply for some positions, those who have an earlier retirement date—mostly Marines, some of whom have the most important experience from recent deployment—cannot apply for posts that are open to all services. That cannot be right. It is not sensible to deny individuals that opportunity, and it is not sensible for the MOD not to have the benefit of those senior officers’ experience.

4.18 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): This morning in Colchester there was a regimental service for 2 Para. The final members returned on Sunday, and tribute was
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paid to the nine members of the battalion, along with those attached to it—another four—who died. The 16 Air Assault Brigade suffered 32 deaths and 170 serious injuries. I know that the House will rejoice for those who returned and feel great sadness for those who did not.

I am concerned about the future of the British Army. To discover from parliamentary questions that 10 per cent. of the British Army is not British is worrying. At some point, we need to address the reason for young British men and women’s not joining Her Majesty’s armed forces in the numbers that we would wish. Clearly, it has something to do with the attraction—financial and otherwise—of the package, which needs re-examining. However, I heard at a function yesterday that 37 per cent. of recruits drop out before they can become fully fledged members of Her Majesty’s armed forces. That says something about the physical fitness, determination and aspirations of our young people. It is little wonder that there is a recruitment problem if many of those who join do not make it.

Let us consider retention. I pay tribute to the Government for the new barracks that have been provided in my constituency and elsewhere. I am not a fan of the private finance initiative, but Merville barracks, with their accommodation for the single soldier, are a great success. However, the accommodation for those in married quarters is deplorable. The Secretary of State mentioned investment—I believe that the figure was £8 billion—over the next few years. I seek clarification, but I am sure that a large chunk of that is rent for properties that the Ministry of Defence once owned and that the previous Government sold off at ludicrously low prices. In the past 10 years, the rent paid for properties that were once owned is less than what the Conservative Government got in capital receipts.

The story gets worse. I ask the Minister to confirm that the investment in married quarters is from the public purse to private properties, enhancing even further the value of houses that Annington Homes owns. When it sells them off, at a thumping great profit, the public purse has enhanced their value and increased that company’s profits. That cannot be right, and I hope that one day a Conservative Member will have the grace to admit that the public were ripped off in that privatisation and that our military families are suffering as a consequence. In my constituency, more than 200 Army houses stand empty, for which the public purse pays approximately £700,000 a year. That is a waste and an absolute disgrace.

For the married soldier, his children’s education is of the greatest importance. I urge the Government to examine closely the Defence Committee’s excellent recent report and to look back to the Adjournment debate that I secured on the subject almost a decade ago. The lessons that should have been learned then have still not been acted upon.

I congratulate the Government on today’s written statement on the inquests and on trying to speed up the process. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us a little more about the progress in the defence inquests unit. The written statement suggests that things are moving, but can the Minister give us any idea of when the process of tackling the backlog will be completed?

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) referred to the Gurkhas. In case hon. Members did not know, I can report that the Select Committee on Home
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Affairs will hold a special one-day hearing on Tuesday. I hope that the Committee will recommend that the Government follow both the spirit and the legal interpretation of the High Court decision, which is that Gurkhas who retired before 1997 should be allowed to live in this country should they so wish. The Government made the right move in allowing Gurkhas retiring after 1997 and thereafter to do so, so the principle has been accepted. One hopes that the Government will now go further and accept the spirit of that ruling. Also, there is a ten-minute Bill dealing with the issue before the House, which, I can modestly say, I introduced. I hope that the sentiments behind that Bill will find their way into the next Queen’s Speech.

I realise that many other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude. I, too, pay tribute to the Royal British Legion and all the other charities involved in providing additional help and encouragement. I passionately believe that we need that community involvement throughout the country, so that there is a feeling of ownership and a feeling that people have something to contribute. We are all wearing poppies as a visible sign of that. I have no more to add and I appreciate that others wish to speak, so I conclude on that point.

4.26 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): I too shall try to be brief, because I know that so many others wish to contribute to this reasonably wide-ranging defence debate.

In spite of the current economic difficulties, now is not the time to cut the military budget, especially when times are so uncertain and when the very stability of nations and the civilised western world is being called into question. With the recession and so much of the budget already committed for future military projects, even if we take into account yesterday’s very welcome news of the £700 million protected mobility project, my biggest fear is that the Army will lose out. Yet the Army is the very service with the hard-won experience and expertise that the UK needs most, if we bear in mind the commitments that the Government have made in committing our forces to two war zones.

I regret that I was unable to be present yesterday to listen to—or, even better, to contribute to—the debate in Westminster Hall on “Government strategy and objectives in Afghanistan”. Having read Hansard this morning, I support the contribution made to that debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who has first-hand experience of the problems faced there. I have made the point before that I do not believe that we will succeed in Afghanistan while security, reconstruction and development fall under two commands. The whole project should be under one command, preferably that of the Army, for success to be achieved. If the objective is not achieved, the overstretched and under-resourced military will be placed in an impossible position, with, I regret to say, further loss of life.

I have always given credit where credit is due to those responsible for transforming the equipment and fighting ability of the Army. As in the past, I commend those responsible for the introduction of the Talisman project, including the Buffalo mine-clearing vehicle. I first raised the issue in the House exactly three years ago, so it is
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gratifying to know that minds in the MOD have been changed in the meantime on the usefulness and life-saving potential of the Buffalo.

However, I was intrigued to read a report today by the director of equipment capability, who said:

the Mastiff, which we know about, the Buffalo, which I have mentioned, and the high-mobility engineer excavator, which I understand is to be built by JCB. However, what has happened to the Caterpillar DV104 armoured heavy wheeled tractors, 25 of which were procured at a cost of £14 million, but which are now being sold for less than £4.5 million? I believe that six of them were delivered as recently as 2001, and that they remain unused. I would have thought that those vehicles could be of some use to the Government in Afghanistan, for mine clearing, road building—you name it. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) mentioned that he would like to spend twice as much on defence—as, indeed, we all would—but we have to ask where the wastage is occurring, and whether that money would be better spent on the vehicles that our armed services now need.

One of the areas in which the Ministry of Defence is most uncommitted at present is the category of medium-weight vehicles. I appreciate that they are part of the FRES package, which was mentioned by the Chairman of the Select Committee earlier, and I admit to having been critical in the past about the original concept. However, the Mastiff and Ridgeback design, which involves blast deflection rather than blast absorption, must be supplemented by more vehicles of that type. The Army needs a medium-weight vehicle that is ready to combat the difficulties that it could face from disorder in parts of the world as a result of the present worldwide financial and economic difficulties, and the terrorist threat that might follow in its wake.

Another need crying out for urgent attention is the provision of helicopters. This has also been mentioned earlier in the debate. I appreciate that, with the recession and the need to reduce unemployment, it will be tempting for the Government to insist on a home-grown product. We should, however, never deny our forces the helicopter capability that they urgently need, and which can be purchased off the shelf, even second hand. There are helicopters available that already have a proven track record in theatre.

The Royal Navy will have its two carriers, although whether there will be any aircraft to go on them is another matter. It will also have the Type 45 destroyers and the Astute submarines. The Royal Air Force has its Eurofighter and, in future, it will have the A400M airlift aircraft. But where is the ring-fenced finance for the key element of the future Army structure, which was based on the medium-weight vehicle?

I mean no disrespect to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, which are both excellent in the roles that they undertake, when I say that it is the Army that is at present bearing the brunt of operations in two theatres, one of which is particularly difficult. I trust, therefore, that the Minister and Her Majesty’s Opposition will make an unequivocal commitment to seeing the future Army structure through, so that, at the very least, the Army has the ability to fulfil its present role, to respond whenever it is called upon to keep order and stability throughout the world, and to defend the best interests of the United Kingdom.

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In what we all recognise will be a tight military financial budget, the last thing that the nation would expect is for the Army proportionately to come near the bottom of the available funding league, while being expected to continue to carry the greatest burden. The British people know what sacrifices it has already made, and continues to make. They salute the courage and determination of our fighting forces, supported as they are by their families and friends, to whom we are also grateful.

4.33 pm

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): I have been so impressed by the brevity of some of the speeches I have heard today that it has rendered me almost unable to speak. Members will be relieved to hear, therefore, that I am going to throw away the speech that I had prepared and will just make a couple of points. We need to consider having some sort of defence policy, and I would have spoken about this at much greater length if my voice were not in this condition.

Before we pat ourselves on the back too much about Iraq, let us remember that the biggest single consequence of the invasion of that country is that, in the minds of hundreds of millions of people in the middle east, a crazed extremist called Osama bin Laden asserted that the Muslim umma was under attack by western countries that wanted to cause problems in the middle east. To my mind, our invasion of that country was completely unnecessary and, for hundreds of millions of people, it has given his words resonance. That is going to be the most lasting consequence of our engagement in Iraq.

We need also a defence policy that will stop us having another strategic failure after Iraq in Afghanistan. I went to Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and there is a considerable amount of disillusion about the situation there. At the moment, we are certainly not winning—and I could put it another way if the House wanted me to. Furthermore, by focusing almost exclusively on the military effect, we are in danger of losing what has become known as the global war on terror. The consequences of all that are enormously seriously.

I shall not bang on, but I should like to read what someone said in 1850 about Britain’s engagement in the first Afghan war; it applies equally to the whole global war on terror. John Kaye said:

4.36 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): It is an honour to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway). I am only sorry that his voice was failing him, because he was making a powerful argument. I look forward to the next opportunity to hear what he has to say in greater detail.

I am pleased to take part in the debate. Through the Minister of State, I want to give a warm welcome on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru to his new colleagues in the Ministry of Defence team. I
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also want to put on the record a genuine and warm tribute to the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). Those who understand Scottish politics know that it is a pretty competitive field between my party and his, not least because we won his seat last year in the Scottish Parliament elections. However, I always had a straight and helpful information flow in my relationship with him, which is important bearing in mind that I represent the largest group of service personnel in Scotland, with both RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth in the Moray constituency, and that there is a strong Army tradition with the Highlanders and other regiments such as the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. For that reason, it is not a surprise that the largest constituency veterans day event in 2008 was in Moray.

It is important to reflect on what the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), said about support for the troops. We should put it on the record, as the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) did, that support for our troops cuts across parties and our opinions on the operations on which they are sent. There are those of us who have passionately opposed the likes of the Iraq mission who will not avoid—nor would we ever seek to avoid—giving our unwavering support to our troops and the work that they do.

The four substantial issues that I want to raise are Iraq, Afghanistan, matters relating to veterans’ affairs and Trident. I had the good fortune last week to visit the Iraq mission in Basra and spent a lot of valuable time with the British armed forces there. I was briefed about their work. Having seen what I think is universally acknowledged to be a successful transitional operation involving UK military officers advising Iraqi opposite numbers in the 14th division, I am glad to be able to put it on the record that our armed forces are doing tremendous work. The more who know about it, the better. I am pleased to report back to those hon. Members who have not had the opportunity to go to Iraq to see the work of our armed forces that it is extremely effective. However, I left with one very big concern relating to civilian reconstruction.

Many people are working extremely hard in the provincial reconstruction teams, not least the local team leader Keith MacKiggan, who, with officers from the Royal Navy and colleagues from the Netherlands and elsewhere, is helping the municipal authorities—which, sadly, are extremely corrupt and ineffective—to re-establish key services such as water and electricity supply, sewerage, and rubbish disposal. It concerned me that one of the most senior officers briefing us, who had served around the world, described the living conditions in large parts of Basra city, notably al-Hayyaniyah, as the worst that he had experienced anywhere at any time. It concerns me—notwithstanding my wish to see UK armed forces withdrawn from Iraq as quickly as possible—that part of the UK legacy will unfortunately be a continuation of that intolerable situation. I would welcome anything that the ministerial team can do to encourage their colleagues in the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office to ensure that those problems are overcome.

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