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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1047—continued

Mr. Francois: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence. Having read the Committee's report on the issue, I can honestly say without fear or favour that it was excellent, and I should like to take the opportunity to endorse absolutely its call for emergency legislation to be included in the Queen's Speech. We simply cannot afford to wait any longer for such a Bill.

Mr. George: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that support. When the Bill is published, the logical Committee to which it should be sent is the Defence Committee, not any of the other Committees, because we have spent a great deal of our time on the issue. I hope that the Minister will pass on that endorsement to the Ministry of Defence and say that we should do that. The advantage to the MOD would be that the more time we spend harrying the civil contingencies secretariat, the less time and energy we will have to pursue the MOD. That would be in both our interests.

In our report, we welcome the appointment of Sir David Omand to the new post of intelligence and security co-ordinator. We will watch with interest how he, together with the civil contingencies secretariat under its new head, Susan Scholefield, takes forward their formidable list of responsibilities. I shall continue to urge the Government to take an active lead in pulling together all the many threads needed to co-ordinate our response to major emergencies, particularly those caused by terrorism, because that co-ordination is an essential element of any Government's first responsibility—the defence of the United Kingdom.

3.22 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), and I, too, congratulate him and the Defence Committee on its recent report and, indeed, the good work that he and his Committee continue to do.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) has already dealt with some important issues on equipment, and I hope that the Minister will be able to

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deal with the many constructive points that he made in his excellent speech later. I do not intend to begin my remarks by repeating what the hon. Gentleman said, because I want to concentrate on what I believe is the most important piece of equipment in the armed forces: the men and women who serve in them.

I want to say a word or two first about Apache helicopter training because it seems that those concerns are slightly more deeply felt than they may have originally appeared. The National Audit Office report rightly comments on the current training regime, but it appears that a number of training aids and training computer systems were never budgeted for at the very start. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm in his winding-up speech the following three points.

First, is it the case that we do not possess the equipment to allow us to simulate Apache attacks in numbers? In the past, Apaches have been used not alone, but with other Apache aircraft as well as other helicopters, yet I am told that we do not possess and have not budgeted for the training packages to allow that. Secondly, I am also told that our training packages do not contain a training laser that would allow us to use simulated laser, not the real thing. Apparently, the real laser is so powerful that it might harm our servicemen on Salisbury plain.

Finally, is it the case that, beyond what the NAO has already said, the only range where we can test Hellfire missiles and use them in simulation is in Cape Wrath in the north of Scotland, and that it cannot be used on Salisbury plain? I should like the Minister specifically to deal with those points in his winding-up speech.

May I join other colleagues in paying tribute to those members of the armed forces—some 19,000—who are preparing for the eventualities of a firefighters' strike? I have seen preparations under way in my constituency, and, like other right hon. and hon. Members, I sincerely hope that we will never have to go down that road.

This debate is entitled XDefence in the United Kingdom", and at the end of my remarks I will highlight and define what I understand that to mean. Of course we recently had a debate about the role of Britain's armed forces in the world. Liberal Democrat Members have broadly supported what the Government have been trying to achieve: flexible forces and rapid deployment—the very expeditionary strategy outlined in the strategic defence review.

We have supported the pursuit of the European security and defence policy—the commitment to build a 60,000-strong rapid reaction force for European Union states. We also have supported the deployment of British forces in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor and, most recently, Afghanistan, but we have to concentrate on problems nearer home. I want to begin with the biggest threat to Her Majesty's armed forces—retention and recruitment.

Recently released figures show a deficit in every category of full-time trained strengths and requirements, to which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk referred earlier. The naval service is 1,420 under strength; the RAF is 770 under strength; and the Army is 5,440 under strength. Reference has already been made to the excellent debate in Westminster Hall earlier this week.

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Net outflow from the armed forces, which had been slowly falling under this Government, rose in 2001–02. This year, twice the number of Army and naval officers left the services as joined them. Let us take just one example. The MOD estimates a shortfall of more than 130 fast jet pilots each year for the next four years. We all know that undermanning inevitably leads to overstretch, and even as commitments begin to draw down in the Balkans, new commitments arise, such as those in Afghanistan. Closer to home, the possibility of fire strike cover has involved cancelling the leave that more than 1,000 personnel were expecting.

Overstretch also has other casualties. Some 10,000 personnel are not fit for duty in front-line roles. By raising Army manning levels in the SDR, the Government have had to contend with an inbuilt shortfall on establishment levels. The SDR established clear targets for recruitment and retention, but they have consistently not been met. In fact, there are now around 6,000 fewer men and women serving in our armed forces today than when Labour came to power. Nowhere is that more acute than in the defence medical services. When a former head of the defence medical services, Sir John Baird, says we would struggle to meet our medical requirements for a major operation, we would do well to take note.

The SDR envisaged three fully staffed deployable field hospitals, but in current circumstances, even by stripping the reserve hospitals, we could field only two such hospitals at best. Reservists are relied on to fulfil front-line commitments in Bosnia and elsewhere. MOD hospital units are understaffed. Locums are employed to take up the slack, and even private hospitals are now being used to treat service members because the defence medical services are unable to cope. Clearly, that situation must not be allowed to continue.

The medical manning and retention review is now being conducted. Its conclusions should be made public, and we should debate them in the House. It is crucial that the new centre for defence medicine in Birmingham be helped to succeed. I have spoken to some of my constituents who have been treated there, and they have told me of the very great service of care that they have received. Considerable benefits have been achieved from the close links between that centre and the national health service, but those benefits will be of no use if the defence medical services cannot retain their specialists.

Of course I understand that there are extra difficulties in recruiting in those specialist fields. That is why the MOD must push extra hard for solutions. Some measures are simply common sense—for example, ensuring that the pay and conditions of military medical personnel are comparable with those of staff in the NHS. That makes sense, but there are no easy answers for such intractable retention problems and the MOD must start to listen to those who know best—the professionals who already work in the service.

Much has been said already about reservists. With gaps in regular regiments and serious shortfalls in specialists—signallers, engineers and doctors—the reserve forces are proving their utility. We approve of the plans announced today for reserve forces—the CCRF—to play a new role in home defence. We

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approve of that because it was, of course, a Liberal Democrat policy six months before the Government announced it.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest and respect. Does he have any suggestions to improve recruiting? At the moment, he has simply observed that recruiting is a problem. That is fine, but what solutions does he have to offer?

Mr. Keetch: The hon. Gentleman has suggested several good solutions in debates in the House, which have not been taken up. I will echo one of those solutions: we need to look at the good practice of those regiments that can recruit more easily and that can sometimes stop recruiting as a result, and make sure that that good practice is spread among other regiments. He knows from regiments in the midlands, not too far from his and my constituencies, that that happens in an effective way. We must also look, for example, at those members of the armed forces who have recently left the service, many of whom find that they do not like civilian life as much as they thought they would and want to come back into the armed forces. Those are two suggestions, but I would be happy to write to him with our party's policies on this matter, which I daresay he will be more than happy to read.

To return to the CCRF, it will only be effective if it trains regularly with the civil services—the fire brigade, the police, the ambulance service and others—if it has the right equipment, as has already been said, and if it can recruit beyond the Territorial Army. I would be prepared to act as a recruiting sergeant-major, as the Minister suggested earlier, to try to bring other people into the armed forces.

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