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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): My party and everyone in the House have the greatest sympathy for the man who lost his life and for his family. The speech of the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) was excellent, and I hope that the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who has an important position in the House, will address the point that it is important that individuals are encouraged to have military experience. Those that have such experience understand and are sympathetic to the military ethos.
Mr. George: I agree entirely. Perhaps it was from a response to one of the thousands of questions put by my colleague on the Defence Committee, the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock), that I learned that 45 per cent. of people who fly in the Royal Air Force emanate from the various flying organisations people can join during their youth. May I digress slightly? No, I will not do so, as I have just looked at Madam Deputy Speaker.
Yesterday, in the Defence Committee sitting on requirements post-11 September, we asked witnesses whether they felt any resentment that the armed forces were wandering around towns and countryside doing what may have been construed as non-military tasks. In a crisis, would people object to the military performing tasks such as those performed by the armed police of the City of London operating within the ring of steel after the bombings in the City a few years ago? People had no
It is no surprise to us to see United Kingdom forces involved in humanitarian and civil projects. When the Defence Committee went to Kosovo after the conflict in 1999, we saw the British troops there involved in the crucial work of distributing roofing kits and other vital supplies to Kosovars, especially in remote regions that the non-governmental organisations could not reach. That enabled the people to endure a difficult winter. That is not a peripheral role. If such missions are to achieve the aim of bringing peace and stability in areas of conflict, the local population need to see the benefits to and improvements in their daily lives quickly so that the momentum and motivation for peace is maintained.
In Afghanistan we visited a school. Not all of us wanted to go there, but that was the option presented to us. As it turned out, it was a wonderful experience. As the Minister knows, I would have preferred to go elsewhere, but perversely I am glad that I went to that school. It was not a school that Mr. Nigel de Gruchy would have liked to see. Some 3,000 children were enrolled, and four or five rooms had been constructed from shattered buildingsthey had been shattered not by the Taliban but in the civil war that preceded the Taliban's unfortunate rise to power.
Much of the money for the school was provided by the Department for International Development and it was helped by British troops, wonderful Finnish troops, and a local business man and builder. There were many girls at the school, whereas before females would not have been seen within hundreds of yards of it. Teachers were not wearing the burka. That is an example of the improvements now being made in Afghanistan. It is important that our armed forces are able to play a critical role not just in hearts and minds campaigns, but in showing people that the presence of British, Finnish and German forces in places such as Afghanistan can be to their benefit.
We are justly proud of the ability of the British armed forces to deploy quickly and lightly, as they did in Afghanistan. That capability is almost unique among our allies, so it most frequently falls to the UK to undertake such deployment as part of multinational operations. The willingness of our forces to live out of kit bags and to dig trenches for latrines does not mean that we should expect them to live in primitive conditions for months on end, especially when our allies then deploy with equipment and facilities that our troops view with considerable envy. I recall from Defence Committee visits to Kosovo the problems in moving our forces out of tents and into more weatherproof and suitable accommodation. We must ask whether we are properly equipping our forces for the expeditionary deployments that they are now undertaking as a matter of routine.
We do brilliantly to get our people in quickly, but how we develop our set-up over the ensuing few months needs more attention. Multinational operations have many benefits, but they give our forces the opportunity to compare their kit with that of their counterparts from other countries, and that comparison is not always in our favour.
That message is not new, but the more missions we take on around the world, the more difficult it becomes to allow our troops time to take leave and to train. We must ensure that we do not ask them to do too much. Their positive attitude to the harsh conditions that they endured when they arrived in Kabul, and the success they have achieved so far in very difficult circumstances, should impress everyone; but we should not jeopardise that commitment and success by imposing too many demands on them.
Because we still have forces in Bosnia and Kosovo, and because our leadership of ISAF in Afghanistan now seems likely to last beyond the period originally envisagedor, at any rate, we are likely to be there beyond that periodgreat care must be taken to ensure that our forces are not stretched too far.
Let me say something about defence medical services and the "year zero" phenomenon. Certainly much remains to be done to improve medical services. I recently wrote an article entitled "Stretcher-case or walking wounded? An assessment of the state of the Defence Medical Services". It was a critical article. Moreover, in 1996 the Defence Committeewhich had spent some time examining Defence Costs Study 15said that the state of our defence medical services had dropped to such a level that we doubted they would ever recover. When those services are being criticised, it is fair to point out that the crisis has not suddenly crept up on us, but has been a long time coming.
Mr. Gerald Howarth: The right hon. Gentleman seems keen to suggest that the Opposition are viewing the debate from a "year zero". Will he confirm that the critical report on a Conservative Government was carried by all members of the Committee, including Conservatives? Does that not suggest that we entirely accept that mistakes have been made?
Mr. George: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I just hope that his willingness to criticise his own party sustains his time on the Front Benchor, preferably, that his forthrightness will not be tolerated by his colleagues, that they will kick him out, and that he will then devote all the time he has to spend on defence to the Defence Committee. We would welcome his full return with, literally, open arms.
Let me say what I think most people here will say. There may be one or two exceptions, but I think the overwhelming majority will agree that we cannot sustain the current level of activity with a budget that is around 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product. One option is to reduce commitments, to cut procurement, and to do what the strategic defence review said would be donematch commitments and resources. Another option is to continue to limp on from one problem to anotherI will not say "from one crisis to another"leading a hand-to-mouth existence, and praying that the Treasury will splatter some additional goodies.
The third option is what I hope will happen. I hope the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will say that the military is one of the most effective and revered institutions in British society today. That status, however, can only remain if the Treasury dips its hand into its bag, brings out some money and gives it to the Ministry of Defence, allowing soldiers to obtain the kit they require and the accommodation in which they deserve to live. Such action would end the present haemorrhaging of personnel.
It is wonderful that we are now employing pilots from New Zealand. I said to the New Zealand high commissioner, in a politically incorrect way, "Thank you very much for allowing us to take your pilots. Is there not some truth in the suggestion that you have pilots and no air force, while we have an air force and no pilots?". That may have been taking the case a little too far, but there was enough in what I said to demonstrate the seriousness of the situation. If we cannot obtain our forces from Walsall, Stafford and Wolverhampton, it may be necessary to turn to countries that have historically provided troops for us in times of war and now, hopefully, in times of peace.
I cannot understand why, given that over the years we have seen an inevitable decline in the number of applicants to the armed forces, we have persistently made cuts in a group of people who must be, if not the best soldiers in the world, among the very best. I refer to the Gurkhas. Perhaps if they were a foot taller the Army would want to recruit more of them. One suspects that the enthusiasm for Fijians and Tongans relates more to their singing ability and ability on the rugby field than to anything elsealthough I welcome them to the Staffordshire regiment. In any event, if we cannot find the troops we need, is there not still time for us to look to the Gurkhas again? Could they not enhance our capabilities, at least in the short term?