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29 Jan 2009 : Column 540

I pay tribute, as I have done before in a similar vein in this House, to the good people of Wootton Bassett in my constituency, who, week in, week out and in the foulest of weathers, turn out in their hundreds up and down the High street to see the coffins, as they come back through RAF Lyneham, and stop for two minutes. It is the simplest of ceremonies, with no commands. There is nothing pompous or grand about it—just the people of Wootton Bassett and the surrounding areas paying their respects to those coffins. That has happened around 100 times now, and I join them as often as I can. I wish that other towns and villages would learn that lesson from Wootton Bassett—some are beginning to do so—and the way in which it pays its respects to our armed services and the contribution that they make to the defence of the realm.

In that context, it is through RAF Lyneham that the bodies are returned from both Iraq and Afghanistan. The ceremonies that are laid on at the base are superbly well done. However, under current plans, the Hercules fleet at RAF Lyneham will be moved to RAF Brize Norton in 2012, although the delays to the A400M, which might be quite serious, may mean some delay in that transfer. However, if it goes ahead the already too busy base at RAF Brize Norton would have the added task of the repatriation of those bodies. I fear that the narrow lanes around Carterton in Oxfordshire would not be as sensible a route as that around RAF Lyneham and Wootton Bassett.

There are some 750 civilians employed at RAF Lyneham and, if one takes into account their spouses and the associated people employed in the pubs, shops and schools supporting the base, it is obvious that if the base were to close it would be a catastrophe for the local economy. It must not be allowed to happen. Especially it must not be closed temporarily for some years while the MOD think of some other use for it. I have seen the vandals and wreckers move into RAF Wroughton when my party, when it was in government, wrongly closed the military hospital there. We should not have done that, because it was a wicked thing to do, but we did it and the site was vandalised for many years before finally being knocked down and used for other purposes. That must not be allowed to happen at RAF Lyneham.

I am glad to hear from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) that he has only one complaint a year about the noise from the Chinooks and that he is keen to keep them in his area. The good people of Lyneham would welcome them too if Project Belvedere, which is in its final stages of discussion at the MOD, reaches a conclusion. I am told that three of the four solutions would involve RAF Lyneham, and if the Joint Helicopter Command at RAF Odiham and other helicopters are brought there, I assure Ministers—I hope that they are listening carefully as I have taken wide soundings from the local area—that they would be welcome. There would of course be great concern about the noise and the environmental downsides of the helicopters, as opposed to the Hercules, which we all love, but I know from discussions with senior people in the RAF and the Army that it would be possible to work out flying protocols so that the helicopters would not unduly interfere with the lives of local people.

The people of my constituency would welcome the Joint Helicopter Command to RAF Lyneham with open arms, and I would make it my business to explain
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to any doubters that, while there might be some environmental downsides, having the helicopters would be vastly better than a new town, an extension of Heathrow airport or a prison. I hope that I speak for the bulk of my constituents—not all, because it will be a difficult and controversial decision—when I say that we look forward to the outcome of Project Belvedere and the Joint Helicopter Command coming to RAF Lyneham.

5.28 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): It is an especial privilege and honour to represent a garrison town. I pay tribute to 16 Air Assault Brigade, which undertook a gruelling tour of duty in Afghanistan last year. I visited British troops in Afghanistan twice last year, first as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, and then in the autumn to meet soldiers from Colchester, many of whom had suffered injuries. Sadly, there have also been several deaths.

Earlier, I praised the Royal Anglian Regiment, the regional regiment that Mr. Deputy Speaker and I are proud to say is—so we are told—the best recruited regiment in the Army. I pay tribute to them too. I also want to praise the MOD media people, who are doing a good job under difficult circumstances. I want to highlight the Kajaki dam exercise, in which all four battalions of the Parachute Regiment were engaged. It was an incredible achievement which received massive publicity, and I and others had the privilege of meeting many of those young men just one week after the culmination of that extraordinary exploit. I believe that it was the first time in 60 years that all battalions of the Parachute Regiment had been engaged on a single mission. In passing, we should praise the actor Ross Kemp and those who are doing so much with him to bring into our homes the real business of what is going on in Afghanistan. I assume that the MOD publicity people had some involvement in that.

The Royal British Legion, as we have heard, does a good job, as do many of the charitable and support organisations. I want to single out Veterans Aid, which is dealing with those former members of our armed forces who have fallen on really tough times. Perhaps more needs to be done with that.

I recognise the points made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) about the welcoming home process and the tributes being paid to those who have lost their lives. That is precisely how it is in the garrison town of Colchester. The welcome home parade was attended by the Secretary of State for Defence and a service was held for those who had returned safely and in recognition of those who, sadly, did not. On two occasions, the town came together for military funerals; the other soldiers who had lost their lives returned to their home towns and cities. I agree entirely that where there is a military presence, the civilian community comes together.

The House of Commons Library has put together a very useful debate pack. If people do not have it, I recommend it. It is a fantastic document. I praise the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for the introduction of national armed forces day. I shall come in a minute to my favourite subject, housing.

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Incidentally, I should have mentioned one point, about 16 Air Assault Brigade. I have had the pleasure of welcoming four separate groups to Parliament. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister, because he welcomed three of those groups to No. 10, invited them in and showed them round. It is often said that the Prime Minister is not interested, and it is not usually my job to praise him, but I praise him for taking time out to ensure that those young men—and a few young women, too—could have thanks given personally to them by the Prime Minister.

Back in the autumn, the Under-Secretary said:

He will know from his recent visit to Colchester that although the new Merville barracks is, I believe, the best military accommodation in the country for single personnel, the family accommodation still has a long way to go. With in excess of 200 empty dwellings, it does not represent good use of public assets. It is also not good use of public money to upgrade properties to enhance the value of privatised houses now owned by Annington Homes. I recognise that the previous Conservative Government were responsible for that, but surely the Government should find a way to ensure that money invested from the public purse in somebody else’s property is reflected in a buy-back, so that the value of the improvements and modernisation goes towards the repurchase price. Such a scheme to buy those properties back could use the same wonderful, very generous terms that the previous Government used in selling them.

Let me draw the attention of the House to the Defence Committee’s “Educating Service Children” report, to which I referred earlier. It would be inappropriate to go into long detail, but I merely draw attention to recommendation 5, which states:

I invite the Defence Committee to revisit that recommendation, and I invite the Ministry of Defence to consider whether decisions made this week square with that recommendation.

5.35 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): We have had a very good debate, if, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said, somewhat truncated. It is unfortunate that a debate on all those men and women—200,000 of our armed forces—should be curtailed to the extent that it has been, and I hope the usual channels on both sides will seek to find a way in which the House can debate more adequately these very important issues.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): On an Opposition day.

Mr. Howarth: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He may only just have become a Minister, having crossed the Floor, but he ought to understand that these matters are a responsibility of the Government in the first instance, and therefore I think that the whole House believes that it would have been better if we could have
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had a longer debate on these matters. Perhaps the Minister will at some point tell us when we will be able to discuss those grey metal, flat-topped 65,000-tonne displaced things, about which we are not allowed otherwise to speak today.

We have had some interesting speeches from Members on both sides. I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck), who were both on the armed forces parliamentary scheme visit with me in Afghanistan. They gave an excellent account of what has been going on there and reported faithfully how well our armed forces are performing in very difficult circumstances. Reference was made to the commanding officer of 42 Commando, Lieutenant Colonel Stickland, and I strongly endorse everything that was said about him. His card will be marked; he is going places. He is a very able officer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) was absolutely right when she pointed out, in a telling speech, the failure of the media properly to cover what is going on out there. The universal cry from our armed forces—soldiers, sailors and airmen—out in theatre is that only casualties get reported. They appreciate the fact that they are reported, but they would also appreciate it if the sort of commentary that was given on the Kajaki dam were greatly broadened to cover other areas where they are performing so well.

My hon. Friend made mention of the contribution that Ross Kemp has made, and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) endorsed that. I am afraid I was unable to attend the preview last week, but I have high hopes that many of our constituents will turn on their televisions on Sunday night to watch Ross Kemp on Sky, reporting as he did so well last time round.

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need the Ministry of Defence to look again at how it can improve access for journalists, and in a sense try to get the journalists to understand. I am not blaming the Department entirely, but I do think this is a real issue, and if the Department needs to redouble its efforts, I am sure that it will do so. As I think the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), knows, my experience with media ops in Aldershot has not been entirely happy, and I think that sometimes the media ops people are not operating in the best interests of what Ministers want.

Ann Winterton rose—

Linda Gilroy rose—

Mr. Howarth: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Ann Winterton: Briefly, the MOD should be driving the news agenda, not the other way round.

Mr. Howarth: Indeed. If possible it should do that, but as I have also said to my hon. Friend, there is a real responsibility on the media as well to step up to their responsibilities and the challenges that they face. Perhaps I might say to Ministers: putting people in uniform in charge again might be the answer, to ensure that they get the message across in the way that they are best able to do, as they are in uniform.

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Linda Gilroy: Following the edition of the “Helmand Herald” produced by the deputy editor of the Plymouth Herald—a voluntary initiative on her part—would the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that our local papers also have a role to play?

Mr. Howarth: Absolutely; I entirely endorse that. The Aldershot News does not exactly the same job, but— [ Interruption. ] I am hearing noises off about Colchester. I am sure that such a thing happens in garrison towns, but families throughout the land are contributing to a fantastic effort on behalf of our armed forces. Families who do not necessarily live in garrison towns need to be informed of what our brave men and women are doing in our name.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who represents my neighbouring constituency, made a strong case for the Chinooks to remain in Odiham. I am bound to say that I entirely endorse that point. I am sorry for my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire—bad luck—but there is a real problem when the Ministry of Defence is trying to compress our armed forces into an ever-reducing footprint across the land. We will have to address that problem when we come to office, which we hope will happen shortly.

The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that the nation owed a duty of care, and that will be accepted on both sides of the House. He also talked about the welcome increase in compensation, which was debated when we considered the Bill that became the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004. I am glad that the Government have at last responded to the public outcry. We must address the tendency of ex-service personnel to turn up in prison in ever-larger numbers. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) drew particular attention to post-traumatic stress disorder and the proposals that we hope to be able to implement to ensure that that is picked up. This nation faces a bow wave of problems to which it will, at some point, have to pay attention.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire referred to the JPA, about which I have also heard complaints. The Ministry of Defence, like other Government Departments, seems to have problems with IT, and the situation is causing the military great concern. I met someone at Odiham who had found that the system had taken £500 out of his account, although that happened some time ago. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham, will address the problem in his winding-up speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury set out the formidable challenges that must be met by the Ministry of Defence if it is to have any hope of maintaining our armed forces’ capability to fulfil the missions with which they are tasked. I am afraid that the greatest of those challenges is clearly resources. I hear that the Ministry of Defence is looking for savings of between £1 billion and £2 billion. Additionally, procurement costs must be rising due to the fall of the pound, so the Ministry is in a dire situation.

Nothing better exemplified the high tempo of operations to which personnel are subjected than when I had the privilege of presenting campaign medals just before Christmas to Royal Air Force personnel at RAF Odiham, which is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the
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Member for North-East Hampshire. RAF Odiham is the home of the Chinook helicopter force that forms the backbone of logistic movement and, most importantly, provides casualty evacuation in theatre in Afghanistan. A number of those receiving medals were young people who told me that they had done five tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. We need to salute these young men and women for what they are doing.

That was why I became worried when I read some remarks attributed to General Sir Richard Dannatt, who has been an outstanding commander. He was quoted by The Guardian—so Labour Members will have to take this as true—as saying:

That is a serious indictment, and it is little wonder that the armed forces are nearly 6,000 short and increasingly dependent on new Commonwealth personnel to backfill, as the hon. Member for North Devon pointed out. The most recent figures show that those personnel account for more than 7,000 of our forces’ current strength.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I ask my hon. Friend to comment on the announcement that Radio 4 has just made that the Ministry of Defence plans to put a 15 per cent. cap on the number of foreign nationals in the Royal Logistics Corps, the Royal Army Dental Corps and Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. I hope that the Minister will have time to comment on that, because it seems strange that the story should be on the BBC when there is a debate on armed forces personnel in the House of Commons today.

Mr. Howarth: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, because I have raised the issue before, and it has not been addressed by Ministers. If the news has been mentioned on the BBC, the House is entitled to be informed. I hope that the Minister will deal with that when he winds up.

The latest performance report by the Ministry of Defence shows that there are serious shortages across the board. Let me list one or two. There are just three Royal Navy Harrier instructors, against a requirement of seven. There is a 38 per cent. shortage of Merlin helicopter pilots, and there are just 95 Army bomb disposal corporals and sergeants, against a requirement of 222—a 57 per cent. shortfall. The RAF is short of 88 loadmasters, a trade critical to operations in the fields. We also know that only 85 per cent. of the armed forces are fully available and fit; 15 per cent. are not fit. The Government have a target of 90 per cent., and it is clearly not being met. My hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) drew attention to that.

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