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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1033—continued

2.23 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I do not regard this debate on the defence of the United Kingdom as separate—in its own box—from our debate on defence in the world, and I do not think that the Minister does either. All hon. Members realise that, even before 11 September, the threats at home and abroad overlapped. It is unfortunate that, owing to parliamentary timetabling, there is a clash between this debate and one that is about to begin in Westminster Hall on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on the foreign policy aspects of the war against terrorism. A number of hon. Members were rather torn between attending that debate and this one.

I shall begin by extending our congratulations to the members of the Special Air Service and the Special Boat Service, and the Royal Air Force crews on the gallantry

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awards made to them for their role in Afghanistan. They get a lot of publicity, some of which is perhaps unfortunate, but the nature of the operations that they undertake often makes it difficult for them to get proper public recognition. I am conscious that discussing operational or training matters in relation to our special forces is not something in which we should indulge, but we should all recognise that, although those forces are high quality, they are limited in numbers and used on an extensive scale. That means that the time available to them for reorganisation, retraining and recuperation is often very limited. We should be aware that they have to put even more into those activities than members of the regular armed forces, of which they are, of course, a part. Unlike the special forces in some countries, ours are directly recruited from our mainline armed forces. They do not just have a label attached to them because they happened to join the service directly from civilian life.

The death of service men from non-combat injuries has been mentioned. The Minister rightly said that he could not comment on the incidents at Deepcut barracks, and I do not intend to draw him on that matter, or to comment on it myself. I obtained the information from a recent parliamentary question that there had been some 445 recorded suicides between January 1984 and 31 December 2001. Any one of those suicides is a tragedy, not least for the family concerned. That number of suicides may be the same as, or smaller or greater than, the number that occurred in civil society in that period. We should bear that in mind.

I want to draw on what the Minister said about the important review of how young recruits are treated and trained. Obviously, the Army, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force want to get this right. Will the Minister tell us whether the fact that many of our young recruits fail or leave the services is a problem specific to the United Kingdom, or whether it is mirrored in other NATO countries? Furthermore, is it a problem specific to the Army, as against the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force?

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that only Britain and Belgium recruit children into the Army? Given that some of the suicides that have been mentioned involved children, does he think that we should learn lessons from other NATO countries on the recruitment and deployment of children in our armed forces?

Mr. Simpson: The word Xchildren" immediately conjures up an image of people aged 11 or 12, rather than 17 or 18. The Government have already made some progress on this matter, but there are people in the Chamber who have served in the armed forces who know only too well that the recruitment of what used to be called Xboy soldiers" was a superb way of recruiting long-service men and women for the armed forces. We are talking here about volunteer armed forces, not conscripts. I believe that the Government are taking serious measures on this matter in relation to the Army. All that I am trying to do is ask a series of specific questions.

There is a difficulty—particularly in the Army; less so in the Navy and the Air Force—in determining how we strike the right balance between producing a training

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mechanism that merely goes through the motions of preparing for military life, and one that actually prepares for combat. At the end of the day, we would all expect any form of bullying or training that puts young people's lives in danger to be ruled out. However, training has to be robust and realistic, not least because we may expect those young men and women, perhaps within a matter of months, to go into an environment that will be far more robust and realistic than any British training establishment. There is a fine balance to be struck, and I suppose that the old Army motto—XSweat saves blood"—is very much in the minds of those on the training establishment. I hope that the Army produces a report and that it is published. Perhaps we shall have the opportunity to debate it.

I must discuss the strength of the armed forces. As of 1 April 2002, the Army, the Navy and the Royal Air Force had a manpower shortfall. I shall not go into the minutiae of that, which we could debate, although I believe that the issue is important. It was highlighted in the debate on overstretch in Westminster Hall this week by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight). I am raising it in the context of not only UK defence, but defence in the world.

All the problems involving shortfall and its impact on training and operations as well as the difficulties of retention and family issues will be made worse by the continuing challenge represented by not only homeland defence and achieving expeditionary force capability, but the fact that falling below a numerical critical mass will make it incredibly difficult for the armed forces to fulfil a number of functions. I genuinely believe that, and I recall that, 12 years ago, General Sir Richard Vincent, Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff, argued to Ministers that if the Army fell below about 100,000 men and women, it would be difficult to maintain a raft of capabilities. I am sure that Ministers are aware of that, and the position is similar for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.

On that point, will the Minister clarify press reports that some 30 per cent. of the Royal Navy's type 42 destroyers and type 23 frigates are out of action because their crews are ashore preparing for firefighting duties and other responsibilities? If that is the case, it is obviously a considerable challenge to the Royal Navy and it shows the tight operational conditions in which the armed forces are working. If they have such concurrent responsibilities, I suggest that that means that their overall effectiveness is incredibly limited.

During the Westminster Hall debate, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) made the point that the armed forces can cope with all that because they have a can-do mentality. Indeed, in a strange way, the armed forces are their own worst enemy. They often say that they are short of manpower and do not have the right equipment, and then go on to carry out Government policy—they deliver on it. I suspect that, not Ministers, but the Treasury, then says, XThere you are. The armed forces were crying wolf, because they delivered."

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I fear that the real issue could be sustainability. Any lengthy, full-scale operational war-fighting commitment, which most of us would rather not think about, would test the system to breaking point. There is little spare capacity, and Ministers are only too well aware that, in the event of us participating in a United Nations or other operation against Iraq that is not a quick fix, like those in Kosovo and Afghanistan, there will be major problems for the armed forces across the board.

May I ask the Minister to comment in his winding-up speech on the National Audit Office report that half the Army's Apache helicopters will have to be taken out of service for up to four years because the private finance initiative training programme is three years behind schedule?

Mr. Ingram: It was started by the Conservatives.

Mr. Simpson: From a sedentary position, the Minister does what the Liberals usually do—blame the last Conservative Government. Indeed, we might blame the last Labour Government, but the good thing is that we cannot blame the last Liberal Government, as they were in office so long ago. Of course, I recall that the 1915 shell shortage brought down the Liberal Government.

There is a serious point here: such failure to deliver on the Army's key programme—Apache helicopter capability—represents not only a defence procurement scandal, but an undermining of the morale of our armed forces. The Minister needs to consider that, not least because we were promised under the strategic defence review that smart procurement would resolve all the procurement bottleneck problems faced by all previous Governments. So far, I have seen little evidence of that.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I accept that it is the Opposition's role to look for opportunities to criticise a Government, but do the hon. Gentleman and his party accept no responsibility for the state of affairs relating to the Apache helicopter? Some of the decisions were taken by the previous Government.

Mr. Simpson: I hope that, in speaking from the Dispatch Box on defence issues, I have accepted that there is a continuity of decision making that sometimes goes back 15 or 20 years. I am proud of the fact that a Conservative Government decided to go ahead with the Apache, but if we are getting into this knockabout stuff, I have to say that I do not recall all Labour Members being in favour of it. The Labour party was arguing for larger cuts. The real issue today, which is all that service men and the public are interested in, is how we resolve the issue. There is a major shortfall and we could be sending some of our armed forces abroad to what might be a serious war with a capability that could be reduced.

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