HC Deb 14 January 2002 vol 378 cc7-9
3. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

What steps he is taking to avoid overstretch in the Army. [24464]

9. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

What moves he has made to reduce overstretch of the armed forces. [24470]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

We remain committed to achieving a balance of commitments for our armed forces that is consistent with the strategic defence review. We aim to commit personnel to operations for no longer than is necessary to achieve the military aim. The success of that policy is already evident. To date, there has been a significant improvement in the number of personnel committed to operations, in comparison with the position at the height of the Kosovo campaign in 1999. In the Army, although there are variations between units, the average unit tour interval has improved, with the latest assessment being around 28 months—the best figure for five years and one that is above the strategic defence review target of 24 months. Royal Navy harmony standards are being maintained, and in the Royal Air Force, only about 2 per cent. of trained personnel are exceeding the planned limit for separated service.

Mr. Prentice

Well, apparently there is no overstretch, but it seems to me that we have troops all around the globe, in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan. We have just heard about the commitment of 1,800 personnel in Afghanistan. My question is this: is it our objective to become a global policeman, and if not, why not?

Mr. Ingram

I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in supporting greater commitment in terms of our armed forces from all hon. Members. The more that we recognise the very crucial role that the forces play internationally, the greater the prospect of obtaining people to join them. He is right to say that apparently there is no overstretch, although that is not a word that we would use. Clearly, there are pressure points in some of the key areas and we are taking a range of measures to tackle them.

Hugh Robertson

I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he confirm that all the units deploying this year to Northern Ireland, Afghanistan or the Balkans will do so at full manning strength? If so, is that at peacetime or wartime establishment?

Mr. Ingram

We will do our best to achieve those objectives. That depends on two factors, one of which is maintaining recruitment. I know that the hon. Gentleman would support us on all the measures that we are taking in that regard. Also, there must be an improvement on retention of key personnel. If we can achieve those objectives, we will be able to meet the premise that he set out.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)

With this overstretch in mind, is the Minister aware that, in Afghanistan, there are more than 25,000 unexploded ordnances following the American bombing, not to mention the 10 million landmines left in that country following the Soviet era? Will he ensure that our troops are adequately covered and have sufficiently trained men in clearing these unexploded bombs, to ensure that their safety is intact?

Mr. Ingram

We take this issue very seriously indeed. My hon. Friend is right about the potential extent of the problem in Afghanistan, although it is not exclusive to that particular theatre. If time permits, all troops are given the best information that we can possibly provide in training terms and in practical terms on the ground. Of course, we deploy very significant key personnel to tackle the threat posed by unexploded ordnance.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Can the Minister deny that the Government themselves are partly responsible for overstretch, because the number of medically downgraded personnel in the armed forces has increased by more than 50 per cent. since they came to power and more than 10 per cent. of the Army is now medically downgraded? Bearing in mind that the injuries are often caused by the rigorous nature of training and duties, will the Government agree to fast-tracking of service personnel for medical purposes?

Mr. Ingram

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is trying to prove. Is he saying that our forces are incapable of carrying out the functions that we ask of them? If so, I wholly disagree with him. Being downgraded does not necessarily mean that someone is unfit for duty. The issue is clearly more complex than the hon. Gentleman's simplistic approach implies.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

What did the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, mean when he said on 17 December at column 46 of Hansard that our armed forces were "dangerously over-committed"? The Secretary of State has said that he takes advice from the current Chief of the Defence Staff. However, in his Royal United Services Institute lecture, the current chief said that something would have to give. Did he mean that we are attempting to do too much with too little? If not, what could he have meant?

Mr. Ingram

That was a range of open-ended questions. The hon. Gentleman may wish to raise Lord Guthrie's comments with the noble Member, who is an independent voice in the other place and is entitled to express his opinion. A healthy debate is taking place about what we do to tackle all our commitments. A key factor is getting resources from the centre. That is what the current Chief of the Defence Staff meant. We cannot go on doing everything, and we therefore have to be specific. That was implicit and explicit in the strategic defence review.