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5.53 pm

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup): Unfortunately, I had to leave the debate after the opening speeches by Front-Bench Members to attend the Board of Management of the House, so I hope that colleagues will forgive me for not hearing all the speeches. Those that I heard were illuminating.

I am glad to be in the Chamber with my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger), because several thousand years ago he and I served together in the Territorial Army battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Time has been kinder to him than it has to me, but we have happy memories. The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers now has more Members of Parliament than any other regiment, which is encouraging.

I shall be brief because other colleagues wish to contribute to the debate, but I wish to focus on the Territorial Army and the fact that its strength has gone down from 56,200 to just over 39,000. That fall of 16,300 since the Government came to office is a great shame, and also a great mistake.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) refer to the value of the cadets in the community. I echo that view, because that is another aspect of the Territorial Army. Its military role should be defined: that is what people join for, and what they enjoy. However, the House should not underestimate the contribution that the TA makes to the community. When we witness civic parades and the rest, we should appreciate the value that our voluntary armed forces bring to their communities. The hon. Lady made the point that the Territorial Army takes its cadet forces from among those who may not have had the best start in life or the best chances. It gives them an opportunity to experience personal self-discipline, not the unthinking discipline that many without military experience expect. That is of huge value to our society.

In their opening remarks, the Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) dwelt on the issue of recruitment and retention, which is unquestionably a problem in the Regular Army. The demands on limited resources are too great, and the line is too taut. That is having an effect on training, morale and retention.

There is a great belief in the House of Commons and, I suspect, even in Downing street that every time there is a crisis we should send for the special forces. People do

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not always realise where the special forces' training ground is: it is in the regiments of the line. If we continually depress the opportunity of people to serve in their geographically based regiments, heaven alone knows where we will get our special forces from in the next 20 years. I am sure that the Defence Committee will give that matter consideration at some stage.

I want to pay particular tribute to the often unsung but much valued work of the service charities in keeping up the morale of our service men and their families at difficult times. One of the areas that we sadly did not address when my party was in government—and the present Government are certainly not doing so now—is the poor home acquisition, especially of those who serve in the Army. It is much better for those in the Royal Navy, and even better for personnel in the Royal Air Force. Home ownership in the Army is extremely poor. Assistance, explanations and encouragement are not what they need to be to help that vital family aspect.

This and all other debates that we have on armed forces personnel rightly enable Members to pay tribute to their local areas. In the royal funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, we witnessed the standards that people believe have disappeared in this country. Perhaps they have disappeared in certain areas of life, but without doubt they have not disappeared from our armed forces. That sense of personal discipline, loyalty and efficiency above all is much valued.

On a personal note, whenever I have contact with the private offices of the Secretary of State or any of his departmental Ministers, the response is always quick, helpful and efficient. If every Department of State operated in the same way, our governance would be well served. I hope that those who do not wear a uniform but who help the armed forces realise that they are appreciated as well.

Many hon. Members want to contribute, so I shall just put on record my concern about the human rights campaign against children serving in the armed forces. We must not let that affect the work of the cadet forces, which provide the seedcorn for future generations, especially the adult instructors, and make a huge contribution to our society. It has been encouraging that support for them in the debate has come from both sides of the House, and they will need that support in the coming year or two.

5.58 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): I want to raise two issues that have an impact on our armed forces operating abroad: cluster bombs and the treatment of prisoners of war.

We are having this debate when British troops are involved in operations in many places overseas, from Kosovo to Afghanistan. British troops are among the best in the world. Although they may not be perfect, the country is rightly proud of what they are capable of and achieve when deployed. In all situations, the safety of British troops should be paramount. It is easy to focus on this issue at the moment, as soldiers are dispatched overseas, but we need to think about the risk to our forces earlier in the process.

In Kosovo and Afghanistan, deployments were preceded by major military air activities that included the dropping of many types of weapons, including cluster

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bombs. The dropping of those weapons took place when it was possible, if not probable, that British ground forces would later be deployed in the areas under attack. One of the greatest hazards facing British soldiers in Kosovo and Afghanistan is the unexploded remnants of war that result from cluster bomblets that have failed to detonate. That was acknowledged by the Secretary of State for Defence in the House on 1 November. What he said can be found at columns 1024 and 1025 of the Official Report, but I shall paraphrase. He said that soldiers could well die in the aftermath of the dropping of cluster bombs, and that that was just a factor in the balance of the war effort.

During the same debate, the Secretary of State for International Development said

That is acknowledged. We know that what is done is not deliberate. Nevertheless, a high percentage of bomblets do not explode as a matter of course, and there is the same delayed action. On 23 March, The Guardian quoted the Secretary of State for International Development, saying

I ask the Minister now whether the United States has provided that information.

Patrick Mercer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Harry Cohen: No. I do not have enough time.

In an article in this month's issue of CAAT News, the Campaign Against Arms Trade magazine, Richard Lloyd of Landmine Action writes

At least 10 per cent., he says,

That clearly poses a risk to our United Kingdom soldiers in the region.

I shall curtail my comments about cluster bombs. Let me just say that there is a campaign, led by Landmine Action and reported in CAAT News, for the establishment of a new international law placing responsibility for the clearance of all explosive weapons, including cluster bombs, on those who have used them. The campaign also demands a moratorium on the use, manufacture, sale and export of cluster bombs until the introduction of a new international law on their use and clearance. I strongly support that campaign.

Jim Knight rose

Harry Cohen: I will give way to my hon. Friend, as he may not be able to make a speech today.

Jim Knight: May I say something by way of reassurance? When I was in Kabul last week, I spoke to Lieutenant-Colonel Alistair Sheppard, commanding officer of 36 Engineers Regiment, and raised this specific issue. His troops had cleared 200,000 unexploded

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ordnance, land mines and the like. When I asked how much of that was cluster-bomb material, I was told that it was a negligible amount in the overall context. I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but he should see the situation within that overall framework.

Harry Cohen: I note my hon. Friend's experience, but there are clearly severe risks to soldiers and, certainly, to civilians from unexploded ordnance and cluster bombs. I repeat that I support the campaign that I mentioned.

Patrick Mercer rose

Harry Cohen: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman very briefly.

Patrick Mercer: No munition that is fired, be it mortar round, artillery round, aircraft bomb or cluster bomb, has a 100 per cent. detonation rate. The hon. Gentleman will know that during peacetime training UK forces, certainly, are not allowed to skirmish, walk or otherwise move over ground on which artillery ammunition has fallen, for that very reason. But if it is suggested that cluster bombs should not be used to protect our own troops, surely the next step is to suggest that our troops should be deprived of artillery or mortar bombardments. That takes the whole argument to an absurd level.

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