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29 Jan 2009 : Column 534

Sixthly, on human rights, it is important that soldiers are aware of their right to protection against bullying and ill-treatment. In the context of peacekeeping missions overseas, it is also important that they have an understanding of the areas they are going to. At my request, the Minister placed the curriculum and background notes for such training in the Library of the House, but I have to say that they are pretty meagre, with just two pages and only half a page of writing respectively. Will he think about entering into a dialogue with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to review these teaching materials?

Seventhly—I shall be brief, as I spoke in the debate on the Coroners and Justice Bill earlier this week—another important issue not raised so far today is that of testimony given at services inquiries. It may not be admissible before a coroner’s inquest and may not be disclosed to the jury. Will the Minister look into that issue?

We need to be reassured that our armed forces personnel have opportunities to make complaints and get them addressed if they are genuine. We also need to ensure that we have independent oversight of whatever system of complaints is put into effect. That will reassure existing armed forces personnel while also reassuring their families. I hope that it will also lead to improved recruitment and an improved career for our armed forces personnel.

5.4 pm

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): At the beginning of my brief contribution to the debate, I express my respect and admiration for the service and commitment of our armed forces and for their fortitude and that of their families. I also express my sympathy for loss of life and for those who have been wounded in mind or body.

Recruitment, retention and morale have already been raised, but I want to deal with an issue that has not been mentioned thus far in the debate. In this day and age of fast communication and almost instant media coverage, most people like to receive praise, encouragement and recognition for the duties that they undertake—in other words, for a job well done—and none more so than our troops on the front line. They have access to either internet or satellite connections, and—just like everyone else—they like to see their efforts reported by the media, or even promoted as achievements of which everyone in the United Kingdom can feel proud.

A year ago last December, I asked the Prime Minister a question about the lack of MOD media coverage following the taking of Musa Qala in Afghanistan a few days earlier. The answer that I received disappointed me, so I applied for and gained a Westminster Hall debate entitled “Military Operations (Information)”. During that debate, which took place exactly a year ago on 29 January 2008, I made the case that the MOD had completely failed to give clear leadership and to inspire others in its coverage of the military operations leading up to the taking of Musa Qala. As a result, family, friends and the British public were being kept in the dark, and the MOD had lost a wonderful opportunity to promote a great military success story.

We must face up to the fact that sections of the public are somewhat disenchanted with operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, so it is vitally important to win the information war and change minds here at home in
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the United Kingdom. The starting point in that process is gaining an understanding of the issues and difficulties faced in particular operations, thereby gaining an appreciation of the tremendous successes achieved by these brave and intrepid young soldiers.

Perhaps a more serious charge is that the lack of media reporting of young men and women putting their lives on the line in an extremely hostile environment might undermine the morale of our troops. Surely their efforts should have been fully recognised in the media. When we compare the lack of coverage that they received to the extended coverage that the conflict in Gaza has recently received in its virtual domination of the news, we can perhaps understand why some of our troops may feel that they serve in a forgotten Army.

Thankfully, the majority of the British public do not forget our troops, but we must never forget that we are at war, and the handling of news has a vital part to play in maintaining morale both at home and on operations. Families play an increasingly important role, not least in respect of retention. That role should be recognised and taken fully into consideration by the MOD. After all, it is not that information cannot be gleaned from other sources, such as the internet; it is just that the MOD is not serving as the first port of call for the provision of reliable information, which is what it should be doing. Its core philosophy should be to be first with the news and to give the definitive overview of the operation in question.

In the Westminster Hall debate, I also set out constructive solutions to the criticisms that I had made of the lack of coverage. A year later, however—the dates were almost identical—Operation Red Dagger took place, and absolutely nothing had changed. The first that we, the general public, knew that a month-long operation had been undertaken was when a report was published in The Sunday Times on 4 January this year. Only after that did the MOD’s website show a “one-slot story”, on the following day, 5 January.

It seems to me that the conclusion to be drawn, just as in the previous year, was that that operation was not particularly worthy of much news coverage. Yet—as was pointed out by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who is not in the Chamber at present—the objective of Operation Red Dagger was to secure from Taliban control ground around Lashkar Gar which we had previously been led to believe was under ISAF and Afghan control. What sort of message does that lack of information send to our troops? What sort of a media policy is that? It is almost as if the MOD media machine were seeking to diminish the support of the British public and to undermine soldiers’ morale, when it should be doing exactly the opposite.

Up to and during the Christmas period, we knew that something was afoot, because we heard about the number of deaths of service personnel, which was grim news for all of us back in the UK, but most especially for those who had a family member serving in Afghanistan. We had no knowledge of or information about what was going on, but it was obviously very tough for those on the front line. The MOD media machine performed in December 2008, as it had the previous year in December 2007, with almost total indifference. There was no narrative and no direction, and it did not show any imagination. If it is allowed to continue in that vein, public support
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may begin to wane and our troops may feel increasingly disillusioned and believe that they serve in a forgotten Army in a forgotten war in a forgotten land. In other words, we run the risk of defeat and disinterest being bred in our own backyard.

The only difference between these two operations undertaken just a year apart was that the rains came earlier in 2008 than in 2007 and our troops had to operate in appalling and even more testing conditions. But where was the media coverage of that operation? Where was the reporting of a job well done? One might get the impression that the MOD public relations team is failing to provide even adequate media coverage, both to improve the morale of our troops and to keep the British public onside. Or is it that they are actually instructed by the powers-that-be to place the minimum information into the public domain? That surely would be a mistaken philosophy in this day and age, and one that could do profound damage.

There will, of course, be those who disagree with me, but the history of both the Iraq and Afghanistan operations will eventually be written, and I doubt that it will make comfortable reading. The truth about operations in Iraq was never divulged at the outset to the public and Afghanistan is turning out to be the same. There is a great deal of catching up to do.

It is very unsatisfactory when the success of so many British servicemen and women, serving in such difficult theatres, is not even adequately reported by the organisation that sent them there in the first place. We can surely best honour our dead by ensuring that we recognise and extol the efforts of those who are charged with completing their task of gaining victory over the insurgents. The MOD should be playing its part in full to secure that objective. It should ensure that news coverage is as accurate, professional and as current as it can possibly be. It has a great deal of catching up to do.

5.13 pm

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): May I first put on record, as have other hon. Members, our thanks to our armed services for the fantastic job that they do in difficult and dangerous circumstances and to their families and friends who support them from afar and often do not know or cannot be told what their brothers, fathers, sisters, husbands and mates are actually doing for their country? It takes a very special person to join up, but it also takes some very special people at home to cope with the uncertainty and worry that a life linked to the armed forces can bring.

We have seen in the past 10 to 15 years a massive transformation in the role of our armed forces in terms of the type of action that they are required to take, the enemy that they have to deal with, the capability that they have to deliver on the ground and the equipment that they wear and use. We know about their ability to fight, but one of their key roles is in strengthening stability, as they are seeking to do in Afghanistan as well as responding to international emergencies. Our armed forces personnel are among the most flexible in the world, working as they do alongside staff in our Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, NGOs, civilians and of course forces from other nations. I have heard it said repeatedly that, given a choice, it is our Navy, Army and Air Force that others will choose to serve alongside.

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For too long, the contribution of our personnel was not fully understood by the wider public outside garrison towns, but that is changing. In Plymouth, to ensure that our lads and lasses are made aware of just how much we value what they do, like in many other towns and cities throughout the country, we will ensure that we welcome them back when they return from active service. Our lord mayor in Plymouth, Councillor Brian Vincent, is working to ensure there is a good civic response, not least because our lady mayoress has two relatives, including her son, who are currently serving.

That is why, from our perspective, the publication of the service personnel Command Paper, which set out 40 commitments for support to our servicemen and women and their families, was so important. I want to focus on some of those commitments, and I know from speaking to service personnel—some on active service in Afghanistan—and their families, who are my constituents, that they have been broadly welcomed. The Royal British Legion—I should declare and interest in that I am a member of the Crownhill branch—which I spoke to some months before the announcement, had been campaigning hard for the changes, as had the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association, which had been working on behalf of local lads who had lost one or more limbs while on active service and was seeking a significant increase in the compensation awards. Both organisations have subsequently expressed how pleased they are that the Government responded so positively.

Mitigating the impact of service life on families is important. People at my local schools tell of the difficulties that the children of service families can face, such as the major upheaval in their lives because of the constant moving from location to location. Schools in Plymouth are very good at offering support in those circumstances, and they respond swiftly and sensitively when we lose one of our own. However, I am sure that they agree that the proposals on the statutory schools admissions code, which should take effect later this year, and the provision for enhanced early years support will help to stabilise families and make children feel more secure.

Plymouth also has high rates of adult illiteracy, and some of that stems from people who leave the armed forces without qualifications and who often find it difficult to secure a job in the civilian sector. In turn, that can lead to street homelessness, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) has said, and to the risk of committing crime and of triggering mental health problems, which in some cases is certainly compounded by trauma in service—that concern has already been covered at length. We now understand a little better the nature of the mental health problems that service personnel can face. However, where that is linked not to combat stress but to an inability to move back into civilian life, education becomes increasingly important, and the opportunity for people while in service to improve a range of skills, including literacy and numeracy, is vital and makes a difference.

During a recent armed forces parliamentary scheme visit to Camp Bastion and Kandahar, I was extremely interested to meet some of those responsible for in-service training. We were told that there was a great deal of interest among personnel in getting the national vocational qualifications 1 and 2 not only for jobs when they leave the forces, but because the promotion process now requires them to have those basic skills. The additional
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entitlement to funding for further and higher education, which builds on the enhanced learning credits initiative, will mean that service-leavers with six years service could attain an A-level or equivalent free from tuition fees. Again, that is very welcome.

There are also options that have existed for many years for courses that lead to accreditation in areas of military relevance. We sometimes forget that the Ministry of Defence is Britain’s largest provider of education and training, offering some 7 million days to their men and women across the services and in the wider MOD. The recent announcements build on what was already on offer.

While the importance of upskilling our forces personnel is important, so, too, is ensuring that their needs are met in a range of other areas. Other hon. Members have spoken at length about equipment, and I have to say that the newspaper cuttings about life on board HMS Daring certainly lift the spirits. It is state of the art in terms of its capability, but it has also taken great regard for the needs of service personnel on board, providing a very high quality living and working space. In fact, what we heard in Afghanistan from all ranks—much to the surprise of some members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, I think—was that, in the main, they feel that the procurement process is working and that it is much more responsive. Indeed, one person told me that they had equipment coming out of their ears. I am sure that is a slight exaggeration, but it is indicative of the fact that people feel that they are now receiving what they need on the ground.

There is always room for improvement, and it is essential to listen to the needs of the front-line soldier, as they are the ones who have to fight in excess heat and cold and have to carry the equipment they use. I am pleased to see the Jackal, which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) has mentioned, in service. I recently visited the production line in Plymouth, and, interestingly, the manufacturers are already responding to proposals to change and tweak that particular vehicle, which have come from people who use it on the ground.

There is no doubt that our forces still feel stretched, and that feeds back to the public in the UK. The public and the families respond by wanting to support them by sending food, e-blueys and buddy boxes. In a recent letter to my local paper, a lady suggested that we should all send food parcels to our troops, because she felt that they were undernourished and came back from the theatres in which they were serving looking thin. I would like to tell her, on the record, that the food available in the mess and in the various outlets in which I ate, alongside hundreds of people from across our services and from other nations, in Afghanistan was superb. The range of options was immense, and the food was beautifully prepared. It is probably true that an army marches on its stomach, which is why breakfast ranged from a full English to toast, omelettes, cereals and fruit, and the lunches and dinners were made up of at least two substantial courses. Clearly troops in our forward posts have a more restricted diet, but that is inevitable, as they often have to carry their food supplies with them. I am not surprised, given the heat and the activity in Afghanistan and Iraq, that people return
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from those theatres looking a little slimmer, but I reassure the letter writer that that is certainly not because they are underfed.

We have to make it clear that our servicemen and women are greatly valued and that we offer them the support they need to carry out the tasks we, as a Government, set them. The Command Paper has reinforced that intention, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to highlight some of the areas where it will make a difference for my constituents and their families.

5.21 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I rise to speak briefly. That I shall be brief is partly because of the structure of these debates, which we ought collectively to consider reorganising—perhaps there is a message in this for the usual channels, the party managers and the business managers. At a time like this in our nation’s history, sticking a debate as important as this, on defence personnel, on late on a Thursday afternoon, albeit after a very worthy debate on the holocaust, on a one-line Whip, means that the least possible number of people attend and the least possible attention is given to it. We have all these Opposition day debates on Mondays and Tuesdays, but might it not be better to have a three-line Whip Opposition day debate on a Thursday afternoon and to hold a debate such as this on a Tuesday afternoon, when we can give it proper attention?

Given the lack of available time, I hope that the House will forgive me for focusing on two or three issues relating to my constituency, which none the less have broader interest with regard to the services elsewhere. I am proud of the fact that in addition to RAF Lyneham, which I shall discuss in a moment, my constituency is home to 9 Supply Regiment at Hullavington, which I believe is the largest battalion in the British Army; 21 Signal Regiment, which is an air support regiment at Colerne; and 10 Signal Regiment at Corsham, which has an important job to do on disarming roadside bombs. In addition, a multi-billion pound investment is taking place with regard to defence communications services at Corsham, so I probably encounter as wide a range of service personnel and issues as any hon. Member in the Chamber this afternoon.

Mr. Arbuthnot: So my hon. Friend really does not need the Chinooks, does he?

Mr. Gray: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for that, because I shall come back to precisely that point in a moment.

I also speak as chair of the all-party group on the Army, and I am delighted that it will be welcoming the returning brigade from Afghanistan on 23 February. It confirmed to me this afternoon that it intends to march into Parliament—with Mr. Speaker’s agreement, of course—arriving at the North Door of Westminster Hall, where I hope hon. Members will be to welcome the troops, and going thereafter to a reception on the Terrace. It is good that the all-party group is welcoming the returning troops and saying thank you to them; after all, we send them to these places, so it is right that we return the compliment.

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