|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
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.
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 governmentand the present Government are certainly not doing so nowis 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.
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.
The true figure could not be confirmed until more clearance work was done and the US had provided more information about where cluster bombs were dropped".
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: 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
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: 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.