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Mr. Bob Ainsworth: I have never sought to deny that our armed forces are stretched. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman seriously thinks that we can completely change the order of rest and recuperation without imposing additional stretch on other people in theatre. That has not been said to me by the Chief of the Defence Staff or anyone else. As I have said, I do not deny that the forces are stretched, but given the hon. Gentleman’s comments, one might believe that there is no such thing as post-operational tour leave. People are given leave after they return from operational theatre, and the hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that fact.

Dr. Murrison: I think that there is an element of confusion between post-operational tour leave and in-tour rest and recuperation. In that exchange of correspondence, we mostly debated in-tour rest and recuperation, and I think that the Chief of the Defence Staff was referring largely to that in his public remarks. I am sorry if the Chief of the Defence Staff does not speak privately to the Minister about his concerns and prefers to put his comments in the public domain, but he said what he said, and we happen to agree with him. While I absolutely accept that we do not live in an ideal world, overstretch is a reality, and I am afraid that that is a symptom of it.

There is a general feeling among members of the armed forces that the Government are not necessarily always on their side. That was picked up by our military covenant commission. The creation of the post of Director of Service Prosecutions and the appointment of a candidate with no obvious military experience and unknown sympathies did not help to deal with that perception, and I hope the Minister will accept that perception is very important indeed.

The Director of Service Prosecutions was hired last year and will assume his full duties in the autumn. We have discussed that delay in Committee, but perhaps the Minister will tell the House why there has been such a delay and what Mr. Houlder has been doing with his time. Hopefully he has been acquainting himself with the Army, Navy and Air Force, and attending to his single service duties.

Over Christmas, separate bilateral status of forces agreements were signed by Baghdad and the United States, the United Kingdom and NATO. A further SOFA with Australia was refused by Canberra. We have it on the very best authority that the NATO and US SOFAs are remarkably similar and give better protection to troops, including the 15 UK troops operating as part of the small NATO contingent in Iraq, than the UK SOFA. The message received by our men and women is that their Government are less exercised about them than the US or, indeed, NATO.

Ministers must act to ensure that our military does not suffer from the pervasive idea that personnel operating in the most difficult circumstances are backed by the Government only in so far as they provide a politically obliging backdrop. When things get tough, what are our people to think if Ministers’ first instinct is publicly to blame officers in the field, who traditionally cannot answer back? Nobody should be in any doubt about the damage that that sort of thing does to the morale of our fighting forces and I sincerely hope that lessons have been learned.

I recognise the national recognition study, in so far as it suggests the Government understand the need to inculcate the armed forces into the public imagination.
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The military covenant commission considered that in some depth and reflected the fact that the most important citizens as far as forming opinions are concerned are those currently at school. I wholeheartedly support the involvement of our armed forces in schools, as the Defence Committee appears to have done in its July 2008 report. I utterly condemn the suggestion by some teachers’ representatives—however veiled—that soldiers in schools are somehow sinister. The suggestion that these laudable public servants and first-rate role models should not be welcomed on to publicly owned and run premises is frankly obscene. It is no good Ministers singing the praises of the troops on the one hand and failing to condemn the prejudices of the left on the other.

In that spirit, I hope that the Government will wish to emulate the UK GI Bill unveiled by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) in September, which draws from the troops-to-teachers experience in the States. It addresses two needs, namely the need to facilitate the employment of people leaving the armed forces and the need for positive role models to whom children will relate. The Minister will know that I have in the past decried the disappearance of school visits teams in favour of the e-learning tool Defence Dynamics. In my view, interacting with an e-learning tool is no substitute for interacting with real people. What review has the Minister undertaken of the e-learning tool, which had its first anniversary in September? Have the overwhelming majority of packages been left to gather e-dust?

As the Minister suggested, nothing is more important to service families than the education of their children, yet authorities that have to cater for substantial numbers of service children find they are out of pocket because of the cost drivers that they bring. My own authority, Wiltshire, does the best it can to smooth that, but it is a challenge.

Mr. Jenkin: Before my hon. Friend leaves the question of troops to teachers, I commend the Bill proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) and the thrust of our party’s policy. May I convey my confidence that the MOD is taking up that challenge, and I hope that an example of that will be the co-operation that the MOD has already indicated that it will give to the new vocational college in Colchester?

Dr. Murrison: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, and I look forward to visiting Colchester at some point to see what is being established there. It sounds very imaginative.

As the military covenant commission heard, results for Army children are disappointing and could be a great deal better. I commend the Government for starting to gather figures on service children for the first time in January last year, but I press the Minister to ensure that that data are used to inform the new schools funding formula.

The biggest single issue impacting on personnel is overstretch. It is a bitter irony that some of our manning problems are being resolved by the recession. However, even the Chief of the Defence Staff, who is generally very helpful to Ministers, has pointed out that the current tempo cannot be sustained. Harmony guidelines are routinely breached and the continuous attitude survey
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makes it clear that separation and tour intervals are a major cause of dissatisfaction, along with the loss of skilled people. A recent report in the British Medical Journal makes the link between long deployments and mental illness. The Royal Logistics Corps tour interval is just 15 months and the last tour interval of 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards was just eight months before it went from Iraq to Afghanistan. It is not clear how the extension of tour intervals announced last week by CGS can be anything more than aspirational if the current tempo of operations is sustained.

It is difficult to see how last week’s announcement of restructuring and streamlining within the Army will address operational deficits caused by gaps in pinch point trades. In particular, it will still leave us short of submariners, helicopter aircrew, mechanics, force protection elements, gunners, firefighters, medics, intelligence staff, weapons system operators and so on. The trained strength of our reserves, without which current operations would be impossible, is appallingly low and on the slide. That will not be reversed by any amount of restructuring.

We await the outcome of the Government’s review of reserve forces in April, particularly in relation to their possible future role in the stabilisation and reconstruction tasks of the 21st century using civilian skills that arguably are under-utilised in the current force structure—a point made in the military covenant commission’s report. In the meantime, we are faced with a charismatic US President who is, no doubt, conducting a charm offensive with the Prime Minister aimed at securing a UK contribution to his post-election surge in Afghanistan. There has been no statement to date from Ministers, simply the suggestion from the Ministry of Defence that between 1,500 and 2,000 additional troops will be forthcoming. As ever in the planning of campaigns by this Government, it seems that a solution is offered before the problem is defined. I hope that Ministers will demand a rigorous business case before any additional UK troops are deployed and firm matching commitments from our allies. In particular, Ministers must secure the erasure of corrosive national caveats, both declared and undeclared.

The contribution of Europeans to ISAF was bumped at the Bucharest summit by the Bush Administration, which wanted to focus on the accession of Georgia and Ukraine. That emboldened President Saakashvili and contributed to the crisis in South Ossetia. Does the Minister agree that the agenda for NATO’s 60th-birthday summit in Strasbourg in April should not be blown off-course, and that it would be a catastrophe if those countries that have contributed disproportionately in treasure and braves to Afghanistan did not come away with a commitment from our allies to play their full and proper part in the joint venture?

Although my attempts to get to Afghanistan have to date been frustrated, I have been to Iraq, both operationally and as part of a parliamentary acquaint visit, and I have to say that in-theatre equipment overall has improved from a low base in 2003. But there are two “buts”—there are always “buts.” Firstly, there is an enduring shortage of fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters—especially Merlins—and armoured vehicles. The safety of our people is heavily dependent on them, and I hope the Minister will confirm that the draw-down in Iraq will result in the redeployment of airframes and appropriate vehicles to Afghanistan. I hope that we can expect an improved air bridge and the reversal of the trend towards longer trooping flight
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delays. It would be useful if the Minister could give a time frame for that and for the arrival in theatre of the extra hardware promised on 11 December.

The second “but” is that if hardware is being delivered to the front line, training is not. Much of the new kit is highly sophisticated and commanders dislike being faced with it for the first time in operational settings and not on Salisbury plain. The Chief of the General Staff referred to that in his Institute for Public Policy Research speech last week.

Training is increasingly squeezed as a result of the operational tempo. The Government are heavily committed to the defence training review, yet the business case is dependent on the realisation of surplus defence assets. Will the Minister comment on the extent to which the future of the St. Athan project is affected by the fall in estate values in the past 12 months? On the subject of falling estate values, will the Minister update the House on plans for the sale of Haslar? As he knows, we would review the use of the hospital so the timetable and the prospects of a sale are important to us, as well as to the armed forces and the people of Gosport.

Nothing has gripped the public imagination more than the poor state of service accommodation, which the Minister discussed. A year ago, Chelsea barracks was sold and we were told that the receipts would be hypothecated to improve housing. Indeed, the Minister, Baroness Taylor, said the money would be invested fully in service accommodation. Three months later, in March, the then Minister, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), told me that only about half the receipts would go on improving accommodation, and he gave me a spend-profile stretching out to 2011. Given the programme of economy-boosting public works that the Prime Minister has announced, why are the Government scaling back, rather than accelerating, their original plans for bringing service accommodation into the 21st century?

I very much appreciated the opportunity yesterday to discuss the Coroners and Justice Bill with the Minister for the Armed Forces and the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice). We must do all that we can to ensure that the coronial process is as helpful as possible to the service community, and in particular the bereaved, but I am surprised at the apparent readiness of Ministers to criticise coroners’ verdicts on the contribution made by inadequate kit to fatalities. From my own observation, I am convinced that military inquests are conducted rigorously and without favour. They are a learning opportunity for all who seek to reduce the risks run by our troops.

I hope the Minister will join me—although, perhaps, through gritted teeth—in paying tribute to the Wiltshire coroner, David Masters, who retires in April. He has done a great job, and his conduct of inquests has, from my own observation, been peerless, and I am confident that his work has improved the lot of service personnel.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman attempts, as he does in a number of areas, to paint a picture, which is far removed from reality, that the gap is yawning. I have repeatedly and genuinely—no gritted teeth are needed—praised the Wiltshire coroner, who has done a fabulous job. Yes, he has given us a hard time and made life uncomfortable for us from time to time, but from time to time we will fail to get to the bottom of issues with our internal inquiries and the independent coronial
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process is an important part of the process of learning the lessons. The Wiltshire coroner has been superb in that regard.

Dr. Murrison: I am sure that Mr. Masters will be pleased with the endorsement that the Minister has given from the Dispatch Box.

May I make a plea for the continued independence of the coronial service in respect of military inquests? I believe that there is no difference across the House on the matter, and it is the firm wish of the service community—the Minister and I discussed this yesterday—that the process should be independent of the military. In a similar vein, I urge him to resist the hiring of counsel by the Ministry of Defence at public expense in what is meant to be a non-adversarial setting. Families want to feel that they are operating on a level playing field.

I should like to finish on a positive note. The Royal British Legion poppy appeal in 2007 broke all records. I do not yet know the figures for 2008, but my own takings from rattling a tin outside Morrisons in Warminster as a member of the Warminster branch of the RBL were double last year’s. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) questions whether I said “Morrisons”—it is Morrisons not Murrisons; I am sorry to say that there is no relation between us. The level of support for the excellent charity Help for Heroes has perhaps surprised but certainly delighted us all. Our armed forces can take comfort in the fact that despite their engagement in two conflicts that are unpopular with the general public they are held in high esteem both at home and abroad, and we should be immensely proud of them.

4.2 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I usually like to say that it is a pleasure to follow the previous speaker, but I find it a little difficult to say that on this occasion, because the previous contribution was less balanced than is normal in a speech from a Front-Bench spokesperson, which is a pity. I say that not least because if the hon. Gentleman had done his sums at the appropriate time, he would have found that he was supported by the same number of Members on the Conservative Back Benches as our Front-Bench team are supported by Labour Back Benchers today. [Interruption.] I said that was the case at the time that he made his remark—we are here in equal numbers.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to questions. It is true that Labour Members, through their friendships with Ministers on the Front Benches, have many opportunities to ask questions informally, and Ministers are very generous in the visits that they pay to our constituencies, as well as to places represented by Conservative Members. I do not think that he was comparing like with like on that occasion. I could, of course, agree with his last remarks that he made, because we all want to pay tribute to the armed services.

Dr. Murrison rose—

Linda Gilroy: I shall give way once, for a short intervention, to someone from the Conservative Front-Bench team, who have a generous amount of time available to them.

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Dr. Murrison: The hon. Lady is terribly gracious. What I could have done, of course, was calculate the number of questions asked per MP. If I was going to be unpleasant, as she suggested I was, that is precisely what I would have done. Perhaps she would like to do that mental calculation—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps we now ought to get on with discussing armed forces personnel. I call Linda Gilroy.

Linda Gilroy: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I take note of your advice.

I want to pay tribute to the men and women—and to the families of those men and women—who have been serving in Helmand province in very large numbers since last September under the leadership of Plymouth-based 3 Commando Brigade and Brigadier Gordon Messenger. It is very important—this is something that we certainly share with those of us who stay for these debates—that the general public and some of our colleagues should understand why British forces are in Afghanistan and see the connection between security abroad and security at home.

That has never been more important than in this year, with the upcoming elections in Afghanistan. Recently, there was an 18-day assault on the Taliban by 3 Commando brigade in Operation Red Dagger. I commend, as I have so often done in the past, the reporting in our local newspaper by its defence correspondent, Tristan Nichols, who was embedded with 29 Commando and 42 Commando during the preparations for that remarkable operation. Red Dagger was named after the Plymouth-based 3 Commando brigade’s shoulder flashes and helped to restore security in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. Four vital insurgent bases were captured, meaning that ordinary Afghans can get on with their everyday lives and register for the presidential elections later this year. Brigadier Messenger said:

The British forces were standing shoulder to shoulder with Afghan colleagues and working to provide enduring security so that Governor Mangal can spread his governance across Helmand. They were also working, as we so often forget, with international forces. Danish and Estonian troops fought alongside the British and the Afghan national security forces. They fought in driving rain, slept in mud and were under constant risk of attack by an enemy who knew the ground. As they pushed forward, they cleared compounds and drove the Taliban before them.

Modern weapons were much in evidence, but so were more traditional methods. Troops carried lightweight ladders to scale the walls of enemy compounds, while the Black Knights of Kilo Company at one stage found themselves completely surrounded in a terrifying firefight outside the town of Zarghun Kalay. The discovery of a tonne of narcotics, including 400 kg of opium with a street value of £2 million, showed how the Taliban are funded by the drugs trade. Lieutenant Colonel Charlie Stickland, commanding officer of 42 Commando Group Royal Marines, said:

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