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6.16 pm

Jim Knight (South Dorset): I shall be brief as I am keen to hear the winding-up speech of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), my comrade on the Defence Committee. I want to pay tribute to our armed forces personnel, particularly as I saw them in Kabul last week.

In previous defence debates I have made clear my view, which is that of the Defence Committee as articulated by its Chairman, that more resources need to be put into defence and that there is strain, particularly in terms of logistics and support group work. I would have reinforced that in my speech had there been more time, but I did not want to skip over the tribute that I want to pay to the work of our armed forces in Kabul.

I was hugely impressed by the leadership of the international security assistance force by General McColl and his staff. He paid tribute to the unique role of PJHQ—permanent joint headquarters—in providing capability for rapid deployment. General McColl is performing a tremendous role in pulling together the multinational force of 19 countries. I was particularly impressed by his ability in the delicate task of negotiating with and maintaining a good relationship with the various disparate elements within Afghanistan civil society and with the Interim Administration. His intelligence work must also be praised. Therefore, I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State say that Turkey may not be taking over until after the Loya Jirga. Those relationships are so very delicate that perhaps there is strength in General McColl remaining in charge of sustaining them as matters become increasingly difficult leading up to the important meeting in the summer.

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I would say in passing to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that there is a strong difference between what is going on now in Kabul and the Russian occupation. We are there in support of the Interim Administration; we are not an occupying force. The civilian population understand that, and certainly our armed forces are clear about their role.

Our ability to deploy rapidly was exceptionally impressive, particularly in regard to the airport. When our troops did the recce in December they found the damage caused by eight 2,000 lb bombs dropped by the United States Air Force, including five huge craters on the runway. Within six days of their arrival there on 11 January, the airport had been opened and supplies were coming in for both military and civilian support. The first plane to arrive was on a humanitarian flight.

It is very important that the public get the message that our armed forces in Kabul are performing an extraordinary humanitarian mission. We saw Royal Engineers working on schools, on sanitation, on roads and on mine clearance, as I mentioned earlier. We saw the Brigade support group bringing in supplies with only 200 out of the 1,500 British deployment; the Germans, for example, have 80 per cent. support for only 20 per cent. active troops. Our armed forces are doing a tremendous job. The professionalism and experience of the Royal Anglians was also superb. The Royal Engineers raised funds themselves to carry out some of that humanitarian work—for example, $1,000 for a playground to be renovated in one village as part of the facilities being provided.

I am sorry that I have not been able to say more, but I am keen to hear the contribution of the hon. Member for Aldershot. In conclusion, I echo what has been said about support for the armed forces and about making sure that they have a good home life. They are superb and internationally respected. They need more resources, which I would love to see being provided in the Budget next week. In particular, I ask Ministers to pay attention to the quality of life of the armed forces, both at home and on deployment overseas.

6.21 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): This has been an extremely good debate. There have been some very thoughtful and knowledgeable contributions, including that of the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) who along with my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) have brought to the House their recent experiences in Afghanistan. As the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said, this debate often appears to be peopled by those who are on the Defence Committee, were on the Defence Committee or want to be on the Defence Committee. That is probably very true. Although we may not be large in number, the quality of today's debate has been good.

I join right hon. and hon. Members who have paid tribute to all those who are currently serving with Her Majesty's forces at home and overseas, especially those who are in active deployment in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Sierra Leone. We should also remember especially, as the hon. Member for Workington (Tony Cunningham) did at the outset of the debate, those Royal Air Force pilots who, as we speak, are policing the no-fly zone in Iraq, and who do so day in, day out, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and who put their lives at risk in so doing.

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The House has paid its customary and heartfelt tribute to the professionalism of our armed forces. They are trained for war fighting, and we must remember that, as we speak, not only do members of the RAF police the no-fly zone but members of the Royal Marines have been called on to undertake very difficult operations in Afghanistan alongside other members of our forces. It is a tribute to our armed forces that the United States has sought their support in these difficult operations in Afghanistan.

As other contributors to this afternoon's debate have said, we have also been privileged in the past week to see the other side of our armed forces, as they have shown such extraordinary professionalism, maintained such high standards and shown such extraordinary precision in the way they have performed their duties in respect of the lying in state and the funeral of the late Queen Mother. It was a moment to be savoured by everyone. The precision on display gave me an enormous sense of pride. The whole nation has been reminded, in this somewhat sombre hour, of just how good our armed forces are—both in the hills of Afghanistan and when showing such extraordinary dignity and professionalism here in London. They have sent out to the rest of the world the message that we are the best, and that no one does it like the British.

It is no accident that those twin facets of our armed forces should have been portrayed in such an excellent fashion. The training to which they are subject has created the quality armed forces that this country has. We have the best training, and we must ensure that that remains the case.

However, we must also remember the families of those elements of our armed forces that are serving at present. Times have been difficult for them since 11 September. I am sure that our hearts go out to all the armed forces families around the country, and especially in the garrison towns. Those families have to contend with being separated from loved ones whose jobs mean that they might be putting their lives at risk in the service of the rest of us.

We must remember too that only a small proportion of the British population is at war in Afghanistan. The rest of the population is getting on with ordinary business, and that is another reason for paying special attention to the families involved. We must ensure that they get the support that they need.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) made an extremely good speech. He painted a vivid picture of the reality of life in the armed forces today. It is fine for the squaddie going out and visiting different parts of the world as a young man: he has no responsibility, is well trained and is doing what he wants to do. However, it is different for people who have acquired the responsibilities of wife and family. My hon. Friend painted a clear picture of the tensions that can arise in such families.

We must ensure that a lesser burden is placed on the senior NCOs, upon whom so much responsibility rests. They are highly trained, but they must be able to continue to command the support of their families. Without that support, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh said, such people will be forced to decide between Army and family. That is not a choice with which we should present them. We should ensure that they can maintain both family and career. To do that, we need more people to

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take on the jobs. What has happened is that we have taken on more jobs and commitments, yet we have fewer people to perform those jobs and meet those commitments.

As has been noted already, training is suffering as a result of the constraints being placed on our armed forces. Our troops do not get the training they need because they are spending too much time on operational duties. Ultimately, that will impact on the quality of the operational service they can provide. That is another reason why we must ensure that we have enough soldiers and service personnel to undertake the tasks being placed upon them.

Opposition Members support the Government's desire to deploy our armed forces in Britain's interests overseas, but we are not uncritical. It is our duty to pose questions, and many hon. Members of all parties have done just that in this debate. I can tell the right hon. Member for Walsall, South that we do not take the year-zero approach and assume that everything was completely correct before 1997, and that everything has gone wrong since.

However, it is no good the Government saying that everything is the fault of the Conservative Government. This Government have been in office for five years. They have had the opportunity to put matters right, and they have set out their proposals in the strategic defence review. They must be held to account for the state of our armed forces, and they must balance that state against the commitments that they wish those forces to undertake.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) made some good points about the defence medical services. I have visited the Centre for Defence Medicine in Selly Oak, Birmingham and agree that it is in the wrong place. It is a military unit in a goldfish bowl. It is isolated and a fish out of water. Its staff were not allowed to wear their uniforms in public in the immediate aftermath of 11 September. The unit is 45 minutes away from the nearest defence establishment. I must tell the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) that I cast no aspersions on the service that it provides, which is first class; all I am saying is that it is in the wrong place and the Government need to act urgently to rebuild the defence medical services. It does not encourage the troops that we send into action to know that they have to rely on contingents of foreign field hospitals to receive the best treatment.

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