|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): As an ex-service man--a volunteer--and someone who has long felt a great debt of gratitude to our armed forces for the opportunities that they gave me as a young man from a very traditional blue-collar, working-class background, it is a particular pleasure for me to speak in this debate on our armed forces personnel. After the earlier exchanges on magistrates courts, I am reluctant to go into too much detail, but I do wish to express my gratitude to the armed forces. Our services have given tens of thousands of British youngsters not only a second chance, but perhaps their first opportunity to develop self-respect, self- confidence and self-discipline. We should never lose sight of the forces crucial role in providing such an opportunity to very many people in our community.
Another reason why it is always a privilege to speak in defence debates is that I have one of the United Kingdom's largest military bases in my constituency--RAF St. Athan, which is certainly the largest Royal Air Force base. The base also has a very popular journal--the "Tathan"--which I recommend to all hon. Members.
RAF St. Athan provides employment for more than 4,000 service and civilian personnel, making it the biggest employer in my constituency. Hon. Members with the privilege of having a large military establishment in their constituency should always be mindful of the contributions that they make. RAF St. Athan contributes more than £50 million annually to the local economy, supports as many as 10,000 jobs in and out of the area, and plays a very valuable role in our community.
Another reason why I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate is that, with other hon. Members, I have the privilege of being a member of the United Kingdom's delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. The assembly gives us an opportunity to get direct, first-hand feedback and to see the respect in which all three of our forces are held around the world. Regardless of where in the world the assembly meets--but especially when we speak to military personnel from other countries--people from those countries express their respect for our armed forces. That respect is both an asset for the United Kingdom and a great tribute to our forces personnel.
Secondly, I should like to deal with the fact that morale in the forces underpins not only the problems of retention and recruitment, but the military's prospects. Morale is the key to our forces' success, and it should be given careful consideration.
Thirdly, I should like to address some issues that directly affect our services personnel and their families. As an hon. Member with a large military establishment in my constituency, I realise that, although those issues are not always thought to be serious, they are becoming more numerous and reflect the changes in our society.
Wherever the delegation goes, we hear references to the British military. Not long ago, we were in the United States marine corps base, at Camp Pendleton, and saw the latest fighting techniques being developed to deal with the new threats confronting the world. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) described our inability to predict future trouble spots, but that is precisely the problem--we cannot predict future trouble spots. The world and the security environment have changed so much in the past 10 years that we shall have to reconfigure our forces and other resources to deal with the unexpected, not with the old predictable threat across the iron curtain.
When I spoke to the US marines, I was most struck by the tributes that they paid to the British service men and women who had worked with them. They looked particularly to our special forces to learn how best to operate. It was not an isolated incident.
An all-nation, all-party group went to Turkey, to review the Turkish army's lead presidential regiments. What were their first comments to us? They wanted to recognise and pay tribute to the contributions made by the British forces. Many of their officers had trained alongside British personnel.
Perhaps the best example of the esteem in which our forces are held worldwide--from India and China to anywhere that one might care to mention--occurred two years ago, when I went with the delegation to Moscow. We had a morning off and were on Red square, outside Lenin's mausoleum--where people from across what is now the Russian Federation still come to queue up. Two cars pulled up, and four members of the Black Watch stepped out, in full dress uniform--presumably they had that Saturday morning off duty--carrying their pipes and dirks. They started to play their bagpipes.
We were in the heart of the old Soviet empire--outside the Kremlin, on Red square--but the Russian people immediately recognised the pipes and the Black Watch. Hundreds of them started drifting out of the queue to stand around our service men, to listen to them play. Spontaneously, they started clapping--much to the distress of the red guards guarding the tomb, who came over to try to stop that wonderful spectacle.
My experience on Red square showed me just what a great asset we have in our forces. As hon. Members have said in our defence debates, we have probably the best forces in the world, even if, sadly, they are now some of the smallest. But they are still the best. We should all recognise the role that they play for us, and the role played by the families who support them. The House should do whatever it can to continue offering support to all of them.
As a country, we should also recognise that our forces' professionalism and international recognition are not only a military, but a strategic and foreign policy asset for the United Kingdom. I sometimes think that we do not sufficiently exploit that great asset, although we should.
That is why it was disappointing to hear the hon. Member for Salisbury almost cast aside the strategic defence review. If there was something that needed to be done desperately when the Government came to power, it was to carry out a fundamental review of our military requirements for our armed forces' personnel.
It was becoming obvious that what our forces were doing was becoming increasingly irrelevant. There were understandable shortfalls, because nobody wanted to make the tough decisions about the reconfiguration of our forces to meet the new challenges. There were understandable misjudgments in terms of undermanning, the virtual absence of heavy lift and the collapse of the defence medical service. There were difficulties in terms of logistics for our forces in the field, and identifiable shortfalls were across the board. We could not maintain a large force in the front line because of the rundown. There was a 32 per cent. cut in real terms in defence expenditure at that time, so we will take no lessons from Conservative Members about defence spending.
Mr. Smith: We must provide services to meet our commitments throughout the world. This Government had the courage and vision to start to reconfigure those resources. We did that not to maintain the cold war warriors who were waiting for a Soviet invasion of western Europe--because that was what we were lumbered with. We needed a mobile force to react rapidly throughout the world to meet unpredictable problems, such as in Iraq and Kosovo.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): The hon. Gentleman, in a typically lively speech, is wanting to have it both ways. He suggests that the Conservatives cut too far during the cold war--a view with which I have some sympathy--but then says that it is justifiable to cut further. He should not try to have his cake and eat it.
Mr. Smith: I made no attempt to justify any further cuts. The Government have asked the military--as they have asked everyone else--for efficiency savings. The figure is 3 per cent. over three years, compared with a 32 per cent. cut in real terms during the Conservatives' period of office.
Huge efficiencies can be made. I spent a little time in the Ministry of Defence when the review was taking place and we discovered all sorts of amazing things. For example, we had hundreds of horses stabled somewhere--presumably serving some core activity for the modern infantry and cavalry in 1998, one which I could not work out. We had trains lying in stock in mothballs throughout the country. No one had carried out a serious audit of the assets of the military in this country, even though those assets were gigantic. Do not tell me that there was not a duty on any Government to establish that the taxpayer was getting value for money.
I do not support further cuts in the defence budget, precisely because we live in an unpredictable world. The world may become more volatile, although all hon. Members will have been delighted to see that North and South Korea sat down recently, hopefully to push for some diplomatic solutions to the problems in that part of the world. The defence budget should be reviewed continually with that in mind.
Nothing did more for the morale of the service men and women than the strategic defence review. The professionals knew when what they were doing was irrelevant in the world and when what they did was making sense. They can switch from policing the streets of Pristina to engaging in full-scale battle in the middle east. That flexibility is one of the great strengths of our forces.
There is no greater tribute we could pay to our armed forces than to give them a clear direction of what their policy tasks are throughout the world. We must provide them with the resources to do their job properly, and clear policy commitments are needed. That is not what we had in 1997, or anything like it. Unfortunately, the Conservative party could not take the tough decisions that were required at the end of the cold war. There was a peace dividend, and we had to see some decline in defence budgets, as we have seen throughout Europe--although I am concerned that some countries in Europe have cut too far, given the international commitments of NATO.
Under the Tories, there was death by a thousand cuts. They sliced a bit off here and there, but they did not sit back and ask what was required. Nothing did more to damage the morale of armed forces personnel than those last few years of Conservative Government. I say that not only as a politician who has the privilege of representing a military base, but as an ex-service man.
I am not the only ex-service man in the House--unfortunately, the numbers are declining--but that gives me an insight into the way in which our service men and women think. There is nothing more important for them than to know that what they do counts and works. That was not happening under the Conservatives.
We have seen big improvements in morale, and if we carry out the next, more difficult stage--the full implementation of the strategic defence review--there will be further improvements. There have been problems of slippage and many of the much-needed changes have not taken place. As the process continues, morale will increase greatly.
During our visit to the States, we came across some interesting research by the Rand corporation on overstretch and tours of duty. There is pressure on families, and we must tackle their problems which are unlike those of families in the community. However, the research did not establish a correlation between increased tours of duty and retention in the forces. In fact, there was an indication that the opposite was the case; that our service men and women were proud to serve this country as often as they could. That can often lift morale and increase pride. As my hon. Friend the Minister rightly said, we need to get the balance right.
I am concerned about the day-to-day problems faced by our service personnel. I fear that the bureaucracy of the MOD and the traditional military culture make it difficult to solve simple problems, because something is against the rules or does not fit in with how we have done things before.
Service life and outlook are changing. As a young service man, I married a service woman 30 years ago and we started a family. Our priorities were different from today's. The services reflect what is happening in society. It is nonsense to think that the moral code can be frozen in time. To have an effective moral code and standards in the military, we need to keep ahead of the game. That is the secret. We must keep up with society at large. Values in the military are dramatically different from what they were 30 years ago or, as I know from my father's generation, 30 years before that.
The challenge is to maintain high, though changing, standards. Service families, by and large, do not want to live in married quarters. Increasingly, they want to buy their own home and allow their families to be more and more independent and mix with civilian families. We must see that as a challenge, not a threat. Increasingly, they want their children to go to local schools, and we must help to facilitate that.
I get a little worried about cases in which it appears that the intransigence of the military prevents us from making progress. I have written to my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary about some of them. It is usually the wife or the mum--the head of the family in the home--and not the service man who comes to us.
Mrs. Bailey told me that her husband, Sergeant Bailey, at RAF St. Athan, volunteered to go on a final posting as a trainer in Brize Norton unaccompanied, which saves the force money. Their child had been supported at a day school for some time through the school fees scheme. At a critical point in the child's education, because of some RAF rule, the fact that Sergeant Bailey volunteered to go unaccompanied meant that the school fees were cut.
I know that the rule has been there for a long time, but it does not take account of the increasing trend of people wanting to settle outside married quarters. If we do not change, we will have even more trouble recruiting and retaining. We must focus on the detail of everyday family life.
Colette Howard, another service wife, chose to live in married quarters at RAF St. Athan. She was happy to move with her husband's postings and to set up home afresh every three or four years. The real source of the problem is the sale of MOD housing stock, which has been a minor disaster for service family life. She is now being moved from house to house within the married quarters at the station, presumably because of general policy decisions made in Whitehall. Havoc is being caused in the day-to-day life of service families.
There may be a temptation, in the wider debate, to dismiss such problems as trivial, but they could create difficulties in recruitment and retention. We have to tackle the smaller problems or we will lose more and more service families as values change.
I have had many opportunities to visit military establishments in my year at the Ministry of Defence and as a member of the NATO delegation. I remember reading that the Royal Marines had a problem with recruits, because they could not wear their boots. Half the youngsters had never worn a pair of shoes in their life: they had always worn trainers. Within a couple of days, the 17 and 18-year-olds were unable to walk. They could not even wear a pair of strong shoes.
It has been said that this country does not fully exploit the asset that we have. Alliances are changing, with the European defence identity complementing NATO, which is unquestionably the key alliance that has served us so well for so long. People sometimes make disparaging remarks about the changes. We were on the tail end of some disparaging remarks by the hon. Member for Salisbury when he went to Washington recently. I think that he did our forces and the country--as well as his party--a great disservice in the evidence that he gave to the Select Committee.
Our forces have the best reputation. They are the most professional and can undoubtedly make the best contribution. The best thing that we can do for our armed forces personnel is to ensure that during the debate about Europe we are at the forefront of developments, instead of being xenophobic and bashing anything to do with Europe because of internal party requirements. The British armed forces should be leading any developments that take place in Europe.