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4.16 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): It is a privilege to follow the Chairman of the Defence Committee in a defence debate. He may find that I do not agree with everything he said, but he will find that I happen to agree with some of it.

Let me associate myself with the tributes paid by Front Benchers to the role of our armed forces in commemorating Her Majesty the Queen Mother. They did

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it superbly. I also pay tribute to the ex-military staff of the Palace of Westminster for all that they did to enable so many members of the public to convey their respects in person.

I served in the Territorial Army for some seven years. As an ex-Royal Anglian, I offer my condolences to the family of a young soldier from that regiment who recently lost his life in Afghanistan. I suspect that the whole House supports me in that.

I wish to raise two specific issues relating to defence personnel. The first is the use of personnel by the Territorial Army; the second concerns overstretch in the regular forces, particularly the Regular Army.

The Government's strategic defence review reoriented Britain's armed forces towards an essentially expeditionary strategy. Commenting on the military situation in the aftermath of the cold war and on the rationale behind the SDR, the then Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson—now Lord Robertson—said:

However, the events of 11 September showed graphically that the war could still come to us or our allies, perhaps in ways we had least expected. In the light of those events, the recent new chapter of the SDR asked for suggestions on, inter alia, how the reserve forces might be able to contribute to the new scenario following the attack on the twin towers.

I believe that TA personnel could play an important role in defending the country against terrorist attack. That does not just mean manpower for the static guarding of sites. I do not think that the TA would want to be solely assigned to that, and I see that the Minister agrees. In fact, it goes much wider.

Let us envisage for a moment the rather unpalatable scenario of a concerted asymmetric attack on the United Kingdom, in which a considerable number of civilians were killed or injured by attacks on public buildings and transport networks through the use of chemical and/or biological weapons. In the event of such an attack, and the media hysteria that would inevitably result, there would be a pressing need for large numbers of trained troops to give protection and reassurance to the civilian population to allow some semblance of normality to continue. The Regular Army is too small to provide such protection on its own; besides, it will always be partially deployed overseas—for reasons that have already been thoroughly discussed this afternoon.

Mr. Swayne: Does my hon. Friend recall the Brave Defender exercises that took place once every two years during the late 1980s and which rehearsed with both Regular and Territorial Army forces the very scenario that he described?

Mr. Francois: I certainly do remember that. I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I also recall that the Territorial Army performed admirably in those exercises.

In the type of scenario that I outlined—unpalatable though it may be to think about—a revamped and retrained Territorial Army could help to fill the gap as regards the lack of manpower. It could provide units specifically trained to deal with homeland security and to give first aid to chemical and biological casualties.

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I urge Ministers actively to consider the possibility of bringing back several of the infantry battalions that were culled during the SDR and optimising them for such tasks. In addition, given the inherent flexibility of military units, other elements of the TA, such as those with basic nuclear, biological and chemical training, could also have utility, without detracting from their other specialist roles—for example, as engineers or signallers.

To put things bluntly, if a concerted attack was launched on the civilian population of the United Kingdom, we should need many more trained troops than we have at present. At one fifth to one eighth of the cost of a Regular soldier, TA personnel offer a cost-effective way of providing those extra troops. I hope that that point will not be lost even on the hard-nosed men of Her Majesty's Treasury.

I look forward with interest to the outcome of the consultation on the new chapter of the SDR. In his opening remarks, the Secretary of State intimated that we might see the conclusion of that process in the early summer. I hope that it will include a proposal to give an enhanced role to an enlarged Territorial Army.

Patrick Mercer: Has my hon. Friend given any thought to the resurrection of the Home Service Force?

Mr. Francois: My hon. Friend has touched on that point on other occasions, including during a debate in Westminster Hall. The Home Service Force, which mainly existed in the 1980s, was used primarily for the defence of important key targets. The two forces are not incompatible.

I also want to consider the wider subject of overstretch, as its effect on retention is serious. As I noted in an intervention, I accept that the Ministry of Defence has made strenuous efforts on recruitment, and that even during a buoyant economy, its measures have met with some success. However, the real problem is not recruitment but retention. The critical numbers are the net inflow and outflow of armed forces personnel—in other words, the relationship between recruitment and retention. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) pointed out from the Dispatch Box, the figures show clearly that there is a continuing net outflow of trained personnel from all three services.

In fact, the situation is even worse than the bare figures suggest, because those who are leaving are experienced—especially officers and NCOs—but they are being replaced by raw recruits. Even with all the enthusiasm in the world, a raw recruit cannot make up for the 15 years or so of experience, accumulated at great public expense, which is lost when a senior NCO leaves the Army. Indeed, if the Defence Analytical Services Agency could calculate the net outflow figures in terms of years of military experience, there would be an even starker picture than that revealed by the bare numbers.

Why are experienced personnel leaving in such numbers? One important factor is obviously tour intervals, particularly in specialist units that are in high demand. For young, single people the forces provide a wonderful life, but once soldiers take on family commitments things become much more complicated. The days are long gone when partners—many of whom now have careers in their own right—blithely followed the flag.

A simple summary of the "why people leave" syndrome would be as follows. A junior NCO in the Army, perhaps married and with small children, is posted

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abroad for six months without his wife and family on a so-called "unaccompanied tour". His wife is left without her husband for half a year and misses him badly.

A few months after his return his unit is posted to a new location and his family are expected to follow him. His wife has to give up the part-time job that she has obtained locally. She may have difficulty in finding another one and that creates money worries for the family. They also find that the quarters that they have been allocated are in need of repair. While they are trying to sort that out with the not always highly efficient Defence Housing Executive, they face the challenge of getting their eldest child into a local school that is already heavily subscribed by parents who already live in the area—as indeed are the dentists and GP services with whom they also try to register.

In the midst of all those problems, the NCO is given a warning order that he is again being posted abroad on another unaccompanied tour. While he is away he spends a good part of his limited telephone allowance listening to the legitimate concerns of his wife and, incidentally, being told that her mother was right all along when she told her not to marry a soldier in the first place.

The next time that the NCO is posted away at short notice, he returns to find that his wife has had enough: she has already mentally left the Army and will brook no further argument. She presents him with a stark choice: "It's the Army or me and the kids." If he chooses the Army, we retain him—but society has another broken family to deal with. If he chooses his family—for wholly admirable reasons—he is lost to the Army.

I have used the Army as an example, but the problem is similar in the other services. The armed forces personify the meaning of "no-strike agreement". Ultimately, they face a stark choice: they can put up with all that I have described or vote with their feet and leave. Crucially, experienced personnel increasingly choose option B.

What is the answer? One solution would be radically to reduce commitments, to allow for much greater stability and fewer tours—especially unaccompanied tours at relatively short notice. However, if that is currently impossible for foreign policy reasons—it would appear that, at least for the present, the Government are arguing that case—the alternative is to take measures that meaningfully improve the quality of life for service personnel and their families so that, even given all the pressures, they will not want to leave the Army. That means taking action such as increasing the time during which soldiers who are abroad can communicate with their families at home. I take the point about the 20 minutes of phone calls and electronic blueys—I accept that Ministers are trying, but they need to do much more about that.

We must accelerate improvements to the housing stock and we must markedly improve the repairs service. Sometimes, partners are most upset by the niggling things. When they have spent three months trying to get a window mended or a shower fixed and have been on the phone about it to their husbands abroad, it is no wonder that they believe their Government and their Ministry of Defence do not really care about them.

We need to improve the warning time for moves on the tour plot, so that families can plan properly. The Secretary of State made some reference to that in his remarks and

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it is only fair that we welcome it. There must also be special arrangements to improve access to schooling when soldiers relocate to avoid the chicken and egg dilemma that they cannot get a school place until they have a new address, but by the time they have an address all the places in decent schools have gone. We need to pay more attention to practical, nitty-gritty, everyday detail, but we must also spend money—a lot of it—on retention-related measures so that people will not continue to leave for the sake of their families. If the Government wish to pursue an activist foreign policy, they must provide the resources to do that. That includes providing resources for looking after the people whom they expect to do the fighting and, in extremis, the dying for them. If they carry on like this, within a few years, Ministers will face the prospect of issuing orders to deploy Regular units that are so hollowed out that they have effectively ceased to exist.

If we really care for our service men—we have all said this afternoon that we do—we must somehow find the resources to underpin our words and give them practical effect. When we are wrestling with these issues, I would humbly remind the House that it is the first duty of the Government, above all others, to ensure the defence of the realm. Our history shows repeatedly, ad nauseam, that we forget that vital lesson at our peril.

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