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2.59 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I associate myself with the Secretary of State's remarks concerning Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and her association with the armed forces, and with his commendation of all the members of the armed forces who played such an important role in the funeral on Tuesday. I watched it from the House, as I am sure many hon. Members did, and it was a remarkable ceremonial. Our forces performed their duty with great honour and dignity. They were a credit to the armed forces and this country, and indeed to the monarchy.

I thank the Secretary of State for the conversations that I have had with him over the past few days concerning Turkey and the deployment of 45 Commando in Operation Jacana. We welcome the news that Turkey is taking over. We understand the reasons for the slippage. We believe that it is better that the international security assistance force and Operation Jacana should be seen through to the end. It is important that the gains that have been made so far are secured.

Although I totally understand the need not in any way to give details of the rules of engagement, I hope that the Minister of State for the Armed Forces will assure the House when summing up that arrangements between our forces and the Pakistani forces for areas on both sides of the border will end as much as possible its crossing by al-Qaeda and Taliban rebels.

I enjoyed the speech of the Conservative defence spokesman, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin); it was very good. I was especially interested in his apparent lack of enthusiasm, compared with that of the leader of his party, on any action in Iraq. I read a pamphlet written by the Leader of the Opposition, "A Race Against Time", which states:

Mr. Jenkin: Of course there is no difference between me and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I agree with him that a regime change in Iraq is desirable—and the swifter the better. We support the Prime Minister; does the hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Keetch: I am very glad that there is no difference between the hon. Gentleman and the leader of his party. The Liberal Democrats have made our position absolutely clear. If there is to be any action against Iraq, it must be taken by the international community under proper United Nations authority—[Interruption.] Conservative Members should curtail their excitement over the validity of my speech. If there is real and definable evidence, of course we would not rule anything out, but we certainly do not have the apparent enthusiasm of some to commit our forces around the world willy-nilly.

I am glad to have this opportunity to debate armed forces personnel. Many facets of Britain's defence policy require debate in this Chamber, but it is surely of paramount importance that we discuss the men and

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women who put their lives on the line in the defence of this nation. Members of the armed forces are the greatest resource that we possess, not just for the defence of our nation but for the protection of the ideals that we hold so dear. As has been said by Members of all parties, we must look after them properly. I suggest that the care that we take in looking after our armed forces personnel is at the very heart of the problems that we are debating: overstretch, recruitment and retention.

I for one welcome the recruitment initiatives that the Government have already taken. If they help to bring the manning levels in the services back up to those required, they are to be supported. I fear, however, that it is simply not possible to solve the problems of undermanning with a few recruitment agency initiatives. Our armed forces require better conditions and a greater understanding of their modern needs and those of their families. We must remember that even a significant increase in the rate of recruitment to the armed forces cannot replace the years of experience that are lost every time a long-serving member leaves.

On 1 January this year, the shortfall in trained strength stood at 6,059 in the Army, 2,189 in the Royal Navy and 1,149 in the Royal Air Force. However, it is in the specialist areas which the Secretary of State mentioned that the problem is greatest. For example, critical shortages in the defence medical services have been well publicised. There is an 81 per cent. shortfall in deployable accredited surgeons and an 80 per cent. shortfall in deployable accredited anaesthetists. There are also dramatic shortages of nurses in the armed forces. There is a 95 per cent. shortfall in burns and plastics nurses and a 75 per cent. shortfall in accident and emergency nurses, and there are only about half the number of nurses required for general nursing duties.

It is of course the case, as the Secretary of State and the Minister of State would argue, that many of those shortages had already occurred by the time they came to power. The cuts made by the previous Conservative Administration certainly left a legacy, but I can reveal today as a result of responses to questions that I have asked that there is a tremendous gap in our reserve medical services as well.

Our reserve medical reserves are widely used to plug the gaps in the regular defence medical services. The regular Army has only three field hospitals, but such is the shortfall of trained staff that currently only one and a half field hospitals could be deployed using regular forces. To staff the three that would be required, reservists and ex-service personnel with what is known as recall liability would need to be added.

The Territorial Army is supposed to be able to provide 11 field hospitals to support the regular Army. The defence medical services strategy for the future, which was proudly launched in 1998, said:

I ask the Minister of State: where are those 2,000 extra personnel?

TA Army medical service manning is even more appalling than regular manning: 201 field hospital, for example, is 34 per cent. undermanned. It has a 90 per cent. shortfall in medical consultants. It has no radiology

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or pathology consultants, and no neurosurgical nurses either. 202 field hospital is 53 per cent. undermanned, with no anaesthetics consultants, no radiographers and no burns nurses.

Such figures make depressing reading. Current reservist manning would limit the Army to approximately only two of the 11 TA field hospitals that it is supposed to deploy. So—from a strategic defence review target of 14 deployable field hospitals, we could muster only five at a push. It is no wonder that the Army now relies on the medical services of our allies when we deploy overseas. It may not be long before these shortfalls mean that we have to say no to certain missions because we cannot provide the medical support that our troops require.

I invite the Minister to comment on the primary casualty receiving ships that were promised in the SDR. The DMS strategy for the future promised that two new ships with a capacity of 220 beds each would be available by 2005 and that they would be purchased under the private finance initiative. However, we are now told that the Chief of the Defence Staff has been advised that the in-service date for one of the ships has slipped from 2005 to 2007, and that the need for the second ship is

I should like the Minister to comment on when that will be announced, when the slippage will occur and when it will be reviewed. Can we be convinced that "operational analysis" is not simply Treasury-speak for financial analysis?

I welcome the quinquennial review of the medical services, but it is unfortunate that we should again have to remind the Secretary of State, Ministers and other hon. Members of the serious shortages in the defence medical services. However, it is not in that specialist element alone that there are shortages. We also have figures for REME—the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

The figures reveal, for example, that vehicle electricians—those men and women charged with the repair and modification of electrical components on most Army vehicles—are 34 per cent. undermanned. Mechanics are 23 per cent. under strength, and even armourers, who are responsible for inspecting many pieces of weaponry, are 21 per cent. under strength. Such shortages have a direct impact on our frontline capability.

All those figures are unacceptable, and everything possible must be done to remedy them, as I am sure everyone in this Chamber would agree. Such specific shortfalls when combined with overall shortfalls in manning will have a direct impact on the lives of ordinary members of the armed forces. They can mean that some soldiers will be used too much, and others even sometimes used too little, so the optimal interval between tours can slip dramatically.

The SDR suggested that our forces should have at least a 24-month interval between tours. But for the parachute regiment in 2000–01, that interval was only 18 months. In order to retain members of the armed forces we must ensure that undermanning does not have a negative impact on their lives and those of their families. I have commented before on the danger of developing two-tier armed forces—those units that are used a lot, such as the green berets and the red berets, and others that are not.

Unlike the Conservative party, which may not have been preparing its policies, the Liberal Democrats have recently published a strategic defence review.

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[Interruption.] That may produce some hilarity among Conservative Members, but I was pleased that the Secretary of State was able to thank me for the comments and to tell me that much of what we had come up with was Government thinking. It is incumbent on those parties that seek to be in government to have their own policies, not just to gripe at the Government of the day.

What was interesting about our proposals was that not only did we consider the kit required by our armed forces, but we spent a great deal of time considering conflict prevention, weapons control and peacekeeping, and policies related to our armed forces personnel. It is important that Oppositions should be ready to criticise the Government where necessary and to come up with proposals of their own.

We understand that factors affecting recruitment and retention are complicated. As the Secretary of State said, with unemployment low, the services must compete for recruits as never before. Careers outside the armed forces can be attractive to service personnel. In order to make service in the armed forces attractive to potential recruits, quality of life, security of employment, pay, pensions, housing and family issues are vital.

Other influences include the perceived status of service people within the larger community, recognition of service training and qualifications in civilian life, and opportunities for lifelong learning during service. Equipment that might be inadequate to the task and leave our personnel vulnerable, or which is late, will have a debilitating effect on morale and retention.

New proposals on service pensions have been put forward. At a time of morale and retention difficulty, any changes to the current arrangements will need to be handled with great care. Liberal Democrats would not support any measure which was perceived as worsening the pension arrangements for service personnel.

In our response to the new chapter, we have offered the Government a number of proposals to improve conditions for the armed forces. There should be a review of the pay formula used by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, and pay should recognise that service life is more dangerous and less stable and can restrict opportunities for partners to work, so we have suggested that the use of bonus systems should be investigated.

To improve on the learning forces initiative that is beginning to pay benefits, we have suggested that an upgraded individual learning account would give service personnel an entitlement to retraining and, when they leave, much greater opportunities for further and higher education.

Providing high quality unaccompanied and family quarters is also important and we would abolish the march in, march out arrangements for the handover of married quarters and replace them with new contract arrangements to prepare housing for new occupants.

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