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It can. That, in addition to the moral duty, is why we need to mitigate the effects as best we can. However, these are marvellous, impressive people who wish to serve their country and to develop the necessary skills to carry out operations. There has recently been an upturn in some of our recruiting potential, although we do not know whether this trend will continue with the economic problems. However, we must monitor the retention problem all the time because we need the skills of the type that the right hon. and learned Gentleman
talks about at corporal and sergeant level. The point at which people reach maturity and are giving their most is when we need to try to hang on to them.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much indeed for giving way, although he might not thank me now. Would it not have been easier to achieve the harmony guidelines if the Government had not cut four battalions from the infantry in 2004? In hindsight, was not that a bad decision? When will the Government address the under-recruitment and lack of retention that leads to the Royal Marines, for example, being 9.8 per cent. under-strength? Seven battalions in the infantry are 20 per cent. undermanned: the Scots Guards, 4 Scots, 2 Fusiliers, 2 and 3 Yorks, 1 Mercian and 40 Commando. If the Government addressed those problems, the pressure on individual infantry servicemen, who, due to that pressure, the Government now say are in a pinch-point trade, would not be so great.
Mr. Ainsworth: I know that the hon. Gentleman looks into these things and that he has talked to many people over a period of time. I also know his partys policy, although I do not know how it would pay for it. The policy changed recently from a position in which there was no guarantee of the spending to which we are committed, to one in which the Governments existing spending will be at least met.
I have spoken to the Chief of the General Staff about the exact point that the hon. Gentleman makes. He does not want additional battalions, but he wants the thickness of his existing force to be recovered, because moving people around to fill gaps and mitigate the imposition on individuals causes additional stretch. His main priority is recruiting to get back the strength of the individual battalions, not the three additional battalions about which the Opposition talk, which is not something that he would want as head of the Army.
Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one way of meeting harmony guidelines would be to minimise the number of armed forces personnel on operations? He accepts that when Tornado replaces Harrier, the uplift for ground personnel will be some 50 per cent. more than at the moment. However, will he reassure the House that the decision to replace Tornado with Harrier will not be made until Tornado meets its final operating capability and that that will be the driver, not the artificial internal planning date of 1 April 2009?
Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has made much of this and has said things in the House that he ought to think seriously about. The need to replace the Harrier force is, in large part, because of harmony considerations. He does not need to go into great detail; he just needs to apply a bit of logic to think about that. There are three Harrier squadrons and we roll them round
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. I know that the Minister is responding to an intervention, but before he goes too far down that road, I gently remind him that todays debate is about personnel, not equipment in detail.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. With the greatest respect, it will be impossible to conduct this debate if my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) cannot raise the issue of the impact of the roulement between aircraft types on pilots and ground staff. If the Minister is denied the opportunity to respond to that point, I venture to suggest that the public, let alone the armed forces, will not understand why we cannot debate those matters in the round, as they go to the heart of dealing with armed forces personnel.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I very much understand that point of order, and it is difficult to separate equipment from the members of the armed forces who use it, but this is a debate on armed forces personnel. Clearly, lack of equipment, or delayed introduction of equipment, can have an impact on armed forces morale. Passing reference to equipment is therefore in order, but extended discussion of particular projects is not. Defence equipment will be debated on another occasion.
Mr. Jenkin: On a separate point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not sure that the Leader of the House or the Government are aware of the points that you have made in your statement. Will you take all possible means to ensure that they understand the implications of what you have said, as we received advice from the Leader of the House, speaking at the Dispatch Box, on what we might discuss in this debate? Of course, you are the final arbiter of what we can discuss in any particular debate.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I understand the hon. Gentlemans point of order and, in this instance, the Chair is in a rather difficult position because of what has been said on another occasion, and is on the record. As far as todays debate is concerned, I am simply setting out the position, and it must be adhered to.
Mr. Ainsworth: I accept that ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I hope to be able to answer the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) while sticking to your strictures by majoring on the issue of people and the potential stretch on them, and not on the issue of equipment. I shall certainly try to do that.
Mr. Ainsworth: Let me try to answer the intervention to which I was responding before I allow another intervention; I was trying to respond to the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes. He has made a series of allegations about the reasons for replacing Joint Force Harrier with the Tornado GR4. There are three squadrons of Harrier; if they stay in Afghanistan, they become very Afghanistan-centred, and suffer skill fade in some of the areas in which we need them to be capable. We are rolling them around, so that they effectively have two periods in, one period out. They have been there since 2003. We have seven squadrons of Tornado. We are therefore far better able to give the Tornado people the required harmony protection, ensure a sustainable deployment, and enable the Tornado squadrons to maintain the other skills that we need them to have. That will enable the Harrier force to rejuvenate fully after such a long deployment in Afghanistan. That makes eminent sense to me.
The hon. Gentleman has been given information and has latched on to the fact that there was an internal deadline. He worried himself, and others, with the idea that we would deploy Tornado before it had the required capability, so that we could relieve that situation. We will not. We have to have internal deadlines to try to make things happen, to motivate Departments and to get things done in the most timely fashion. However, despite the harmony pressures on Joint Force Harrier, Ministers and the Chief of the Air Staff do not intend, and would not allow, the Tornado to go into theatre before it is up to spec and has full capability, in terms of protecting our troops on the ground. Having given the hon. Gentleman the assurance that Tornado will not go into theatre until then, I hope that we can finally put the matter to bed, and need not continue this debate any longer.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Recruitment has been mentioned a number of times. The Minister knows of my grave concern about deaths at Deepcut Army barracks in the past. In order to attract people to the Army, potential recruits have to be assured of their safety. Is there anything he can do to release the Devon and Cornwall police report into the Surrey polices treatment of the deaths? It is very important, very much in the public interest and very much in the interests of Army recruiting that we know what that report says and whether those individuals were murdered or not.
Mr. Ainsworth: The issue has gone on for some time. My predecessor explained the situation in the House. The Dhali-Blake process was put in place as a result of the case to try to make certain that we were doing all we could to provide the necessary protection for very young people, sometimes vulnerable people, who join our armed forces. Since I have been in post, I have tried to make sure that all those processes are as thorough as they can be. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman whether a police report, which is not in my ownership or in my gift, can be released. I know that there are continuing concerns and that some of the parents find it difficult to accept the situation, but I firmly believe that we have done what needed to be done to trywe could never be certainto mitigate the situation exposed at Deepcut.
Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con):
The Minister and I have spoken about the manning crisisI use the phrase advisedlythat faces the Army in particular at present.
I accept that recruiting figures look a lot better, but now that we are talking strictly about personnel matters, may I ask him to address the two terrible problems? One is the problem of infantry retention in training, where, as he knows, 35 per cent. of all those men who have been so carefully recruited consistently drop out of training. The other is the thorny problem, which is just beginning properly to emerge, of the number of long-term sick who continue to be held on strength, particularly in the combat arms. For instance, the Third Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery have nearly 22 per cent. of their personnel sick and undeployable.
Mr. Ainsworth: As the hon. Gentleman knows, those issues tax the Army and the Royal Marines, who seek to deal with similar issues all the time. The Army is trying desperately to drive down what it calls, in its imitable way, the breakage rate in training. I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman outside the Chamber. I am more than happy to pick his brains, and the Army is more than happy to accept any contribution that he or anyone else can make to try to improve that situation. The offer remains open for an ongoing conversation.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, many people are applying their brains to the problem. Nobody wants a 35 per cent. drop-out rate in the infantry, but people want hard, tough training that turns out recruits who are capable of surviving in the kind of environments in which we expect them to operate. It would do nobody any favours to soften that training in order to lower the drop-out rate. The result may well be personnel who are not properly equipped, and therefore casualties in theatre that could be avoided. Getting that balance right is enormously difficult. People are applying themselves. I know the hon. Gentleman thinks an awful lot about this issue, and I am more than happy to continue the conversation with him about whether he can make a contribution to it.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Minister mentions the justified criticism of the shortfall in some of the infantry battalions. Is he aware that the Royal Anglian regiment had a reception at the House of Commons this week, at which we were told that it is the best recruited infantry regiment in the British Army and is at full strength? Perhaps other regiments should look at what the Royal Anglians are doing, to see whether they can make up their shortfall in recruitment by following the Royal Anglians example.
Mr. Ainsworth: We should seek to spread best practice in the armed forces, as anywhere else. If the Royal Anglians are doing something from which people can learn, of course we need to see whether it is transferable to other units within the Army. I shall now make some progress, as I have allowed a lot of interventions.
In the past year, we have contributed to a transformation of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Our people have brought the Iraqi forces very close to the point at which they will no longer need our help and support. The plan was to enable Iraqis to take responsibility for Iraq. The armed forces have achieved that plan, and I salute them for it. I fully appreciate their frustration, articulated by the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Chief of the General Staff, at commentators who ignore both the price and the progress, and who seek to belittle those efforts. The armed forces have succeeded in their mission
and should be commended for doing so. Basra is a far better place now than when we found it, and the nation should be proud of our forces. Also important is the fact that as they leave Iraq, we will be able to reduce some of the stretch that we have had to deal with, and to improve our performance against the harmony guidelines.
Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan rightly provide the focus. However, we should not forget that our men and women are constantly deployed in the UK and all around the worldproviding our nuclear deterrent, countering piracy or narcotics, or contributing to better futures in places such as Sierra Leone. All that places a heavy burden on our soldiers, sailors and airmen and their families, and we are doing our best to support them properly.
The centrepiece is the unprecedented service personnel Command Paper. It sets out, for the first time ever, a range of commitments to the armed forces constituency from across the full range of Government services. To implement it, we are working closely with other Government Departments and in conjunction with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Executives. The Command Paper was drawn up in consultation with the chiefs of staff, the single services, the families federations and an external reference group including the service charities. I was delighted that the chief executive of the Royal British Legion joined the Chief of Defence Staff and me in launching the Command Paper in July. Indeed, the Royal British Legion claimed that the Command Paper means that the military covenant is now being honoured.
The Command Paper includes more than 40 specific commitments and is based on two key principles: first, the removal of disadvantage associated with service life; and secondly, where appropriate and especially for sacrifice, entitlement to special treatment. It covers compensation, medical support, education, housing and much more. As the Prime Minister announced last month, we have doubled the maximum lump sum available to the most seriously injured personnel to a new limit of £570,000 for the most serious injuries. That will mean that an additional £10 million will be paid to injured personnel who have already been awarded lump-sum payments. The lump sums are in addition to a tax-free, guaranteed income for life. Taken as a whole, the package can amount, in the most serious cases, to in excess of £1.5 million over a lifetime.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): As the Minister has said, the doubling of the compensation package is broadly welcomed by the Royal British Legion and others, but will he comment on two aspects of it? First, in the old days, the onus was on the Department to pay the war pension or prove that it should not be paid. Now, that has been reversed: the claimant has to prove that he deserves the pension. Secondly, there are five and 10-year time limits on claiming the pension. Should that not be lifted on the grounds that someone might realise that he is due compensation only long after his service?
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned an issue that has been raised with Ministers; the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), deals with it on an ongoing basis. We have a duty to ensure that
payments are made appropriately. We have therefore said repeatedly that if people who are concerned about this can give us evidence that this is causing a genuine problem to people who should be paid compensation under the scheme, we will address it. I remember my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), when he was Under-Secretary, saying that to veterans charities, as well. We want to ensure that those who are genuinely in need of and entitled to this compensation get it. If there is evidence that this is causing them a problem, let us see it and we will act.
Those who receive lump-sum compensations now have that payment disregarded from their means test for affordable housing. Our people and their families no longer slip down NHS waiting lists when obliged to move around the country; previous waiting time is now taken into account. Our wounded personnel require and deserve special support. The House will be aware of the world-class facilities at the defence medical rehabilitation centre at Headley Court. We have been working with the Help for Heroes charity to provide additional recreational facilities at Headley Court, and we are investing millions of pounds as our contribution to a joint project to provide a new gym and pool. This is in addition to the £24 million investment for upgraded wards, accommodation and prosthetic facilities. Moreover, the NHS in England has undertaken to ensure that the highest standard of prosthetic limbs provided to injured personnel is matched for life for veterans retiring from our armed services.
Most of our very seriously injured personnel from operations are treated in the UK at University of Birmingham foundation trust hospital at Selly Oak. I was delighted that last years all-party Defence Committee report concluded that Birminghams
clinical care for Servicemen and women seriously injured on operations is second to none.
I visited Selly Oak in December and saw first-hand the remarkable people there, including patients and staff. I was most struck by my military assistant meeting an old friend who was coping marvellously with the awful and perhaps unique distinction of having been repatriated to Selly Oak, courtesy of enemy action, twice: a marvellous man, very brave, recovering from his injuries second time around, and very appreciative of the care that he was receiving.
Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I entirely agree with the Minister. Those of us who have visited Selly Oak have nothing but praise for the people who work there and for the treatment that our wounded troops receive. On my last visit there, I met a battalion welfare officer and the commanding officers wife visiting wounded members of their unit, and it struck me that rear parties are the unsung heroes of operations. They told me about their experiences of having to inform wives and loved ones of serious injuries and deaths, and the horrendous job that that involves. That makes us understand that we have to be extremely grateful for the work that rear parties do and hope that they get all the support they may need in the difficult work they have to do.
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