HC Deb 29 October 2002 vol 391 cc206-29WH

11 am

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

I am pleased to open the debate on overstretch in the armed forces, and particularly pleased that I am not doing so on the first day of a firemen's strike, or to be more accurate the first day of industrial action by the Fire Brigades Union. It seems strange that the Deputy Prime Minister and Mr. Gilchrist have apparently reached some understanding or agreement in advance of the Bain report, and we want to see what it is. For the main part, however, we must be thankful that our armed forces have not had to deploy this morning.

I met my chief fire officer in Devon, Paul Young, and his senior colleagues on Friday. Although we are in a better position than some areas—Devon has 55 fire stations, of which 46 are retained—he was extremely concerned that the whole county had an allocation of only 12 Green Goddesses. Devon is the third-largest non-metropolitan county, and covers approximately 2,500 sq miles. That includes the 600 sq miles of Dartmoor national park, 200 miles of coastline, 30 miles of motorway and several main arterial routes, such as the A380 to Torbay and the A38 expressway to Plymouth and Cornwall. No doubt during their summer holidays hon. Members have grown to know and love such routes.

Devon has a resident population of 1,082,000, which rises considerably with the influx of tourists and holidaymakers. The Devon fire and rescue service needs to be equipped to deal not only with all categories of risk, from the "A" risk of Devonport dockyard, to the large areas of sparsely populated land categorised as "remote rural". The 12 Green Goddesses, manned predominantly by the Royal Marines and Royal Navy, and trained by the Defence Fire Service, would be located in Plymouth, Torbay, Exeter, Exmouth, Barnstaple and Ilfracombe. Those who know Devon well will realise how thinly spread that cover would be.

The Minister will be aware that up to 13,000 service men and women have been trained to respond to 999 calls, drive Green Goddesses and use specialist equipment. The 827 Green Goddess crews, 331 special breathing apparatus rescue teams and 59 equipment support teams, in addition to 6,500 personnel from all three services who will be engaged in administrative, security and command and control duties, mean that 20,000 service men and women are involved in some way.

In a poll conducted by YouGov and published in The Sunday Times last weekend, 47 per cent. of those questioned said that they had "not very much confidence" in the Army being able to provide effective emergency cover. When asked whether the Army should be instructed to cross Fire Brigades Union picket lines to gain access to modern fire-fighting equipment", 74 per cent. responded that they should.

That is no criticism of our armed forces. Of course they would carry out their duties professionally if called on to do so. However, it reflects a general concern that yet again we are asking too much of them. Are we certain that their equipment is good enough to do the job? I doubt it. Even when I joined the Army in 1979, Green Goddesses appeared antediluvian, and one half-expected to see Corporal Jones behind the wheel. That was more than 20 years ago. They have no radios, lighting gear, foam-making kit or seat belts. Yet again we are asking our armed forces to do a job and use equipment that no professional, unionised organisation would agree to.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Can my hon. Friend think why, in the long time that has passed since Green Goddesses were used during the last firemen's strike, the armed forces have not been allowed to train on other, more modern equipment, as it has gone out of service? Presumably that equipment has been scrapped while the Green Goddesses have been left for the Army to use in such an emergency.

Mr. Swire

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I can only imagine that the Green Goddesses are being saved as a job lot for sale to the motor museum at Beaulieu. I go further than my hon. Friend in believing that the armed forces should have access to the most up-to-date equipment, whomever it belongs to and wherever it is located.

Perhaps all that I have been discussing is hypothetical—let us hope that that remains so. Still, perhaps the Minister could tell us whether he believes that, in the event of a strike, the armed services should have proper access to all the most up-to-date and safest equipment.

What pressure is being put on the services by what is happening at present? The Minister of State for Defence has already said that nearly 1,000 personnel who recently returned from the Balkans have had some or all of their post-operational leave delayed, although he went on to say that they, and any additional relevant troops, would have their leave as soon as possible. However, the knock-on effects of the threatened action do not stop there. In a reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the Minister admitted that the use of RAF personnel would reduce flying time and delay repairs to aircraft. No Navy ships had been recalled from sea operations, but activities had been changed to allow for training on board.

It is no wonder that there is concern at the highest level in the armed forces that overstretch is the main problem. It is also understandable that there is worry at the prospect of British forces being committed to a war against Iraq at the same time that there is industrial action at home.

I want to talk about recruitment, training and retention. The Government's strategic defence review contains plenty of acknowledgement that overstretch is a problem. Paragraph 76 states: We need to solve the problems of undermanning and additional overstretch which comes from over-commitment. Lord Gilbert, the then Minister of State with responsibility for defence procurement, said on 24 February 1999: It is the policy of Her Majesty's Government not to take on more commitments than we can handle."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 February 1999; Vol. 597, c.1229.] However, yet again the rhetoric does not match the reality: there are 1,000 fewer service men and women this year than last year and 6,000 fewer people in the armed forces than in 1997; the Army as a whole increased its strength from its 2001 total and has 1,300 more personnel than it did in1997, but its trained strength is 1,300 below what it was in 1997. The figure has remained roughly static since 1998, despite Labour's pledge to enlarge the Army by 3,300 men. The Territorial Army is 2,000 men short of its post-strategic defence review strength of 41,200.

More service men left the forces than joined them last year. Ten per cent. of the Army's rank and file left the service last year. So this morning let us deal with fact rather than aspiration. What are the Government doing, or planning to do? In 2000–01, the armed forces met 90 per cent. of their recruitment target, compared with 96 per cent. in the preceding year. The combined effect of not meeting those targets and of having more people leaving than joining is self-evident. However, while lack of manpower is one thing, lack of proper training is another. In the past 24 months, 84 exercises have been cancelled, often because those involved were already committed to other operations. Five were cancelled because of lack of funding and 36 were cancelled because of operational commitments. The Defence Secretary actually wanted to cancel Britain's biggest post-cold war exercise—Saif Sareea 2—to save £93 million. but was overruled by the Prime Minister, on the advice of military chiefs. One can only hope that the stories that he then attempted to get Sultan Qaboos of Oman to pick up the bill are erroneous.

Retention must be the key. It must make sense to concentrate on those who are already trained, rather than to start from scratch. The problem is the competitive job market. Evidence of that is the fact that we are losing highly qualified pilots from the RAF to commercial airlines. The Government's response must be to look after service men and women much better. The pressures on service families caused by overstretch are leading to many people leaving the services altogether.

A comparison with the situation six years ago underlines the challenge that the forces now face. In 1995, the Army had 33,178 personnel deployed abroad. In 2001. the figure stood only slightly lower at 30,800, despite the repatriation of units from Germany and an Army that was reduced in size.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the possibility of conflict with Iraq. If that happens, how does he suppose that we could stay as a peacekeeping force—as we would presumably have to—given the problems of overstretch elsewhere that the British Army faces day in, day out, and on which I totally concur with him?

Mr. Swire

Indeed, that is a worry shared by some very senior generals, admirals and air marshals. The question does not solely concern Iraq—it is a question of other commitments that might increase over the coming months, in Northern Ireland and nearer too.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

I draw the hon. Gentleman back to his point about pilots and how to retain them in the RAF. That is not a new issue—it has been around for some time. Can he explain how he would retain those pilots? For pilots, the issue is not only about money. They want an all-round package. I have yet to hear anyone come up with a satisfactory alternative to the private sector, which offers nearly 50 per cent. more than they now receive.

Mr. Swire

Indeed. I entirely concur with the hon. Gentleman's point. There must be a balance between pilots entering into a contract with the RAF and the service that they render. It is up to the RAF and the Ministry of Defence to work out ways of making the overall package, as the hon. Gentleman described it, as competitive as a commercial package. That might not be achieved in financial terms, but in overall career development terms. Those are questions for the Minister.

I understand that the Army had an agreed level for tour intervals of 24 months, but the Defence Select Committee was told in 2000 that because of current commitments, there were no sections of the Army in fact getting 24-month intervals. Some were badly affected by operational deployments during peak commitments in Kosovo in 1999; for example, the Royal Engineers' and the Royal Signallers' tour intervals were only seven months and six months respectively. That puts huge pressure on service families, as does the condition in which they are forced to live.

Following the sale of married quarters by the Ministry of Defence to Annington Homes in 1996, the last Conservative Government made a commitment to service families that their quarters would be upgraded to grade one condition by the autumn of 2003. Some £470 million, out of the £1.6 billion proceeds of the sale, were allocated for that purpose. Yet pressure on the defence budget has forced the Ministry of Defence to delay the upgrade programme by two years, until 2005. In the meantime, the Army Families Federation has reported that some soldiers have been driven to leave the services by intolerable living conditions, including leaking roofs, damp walls and faulty heating.

I do not wish to paint an entirely bleak picture. Whatever our country's shortcomings, it is still blessed with the most professional and dedicated fighting force in the world. However, we should not take our service men and women for granted. Not for them the luxury of a work to rule; they will always do what they are called upon to do. It was the Secretary of State himself who promised in June 1997 that the problem of overstretch would be seriously addressed. As the situation in Northern Ireland becomes more uncertain following the suspension of Stormont, as the international situation becomes more dangerous, and as the threat of the firemen's strike still hangs over us, I ask Ministers to acknowledge that they have failed to do so and to let us know, as a matter of priority, what action they intend to take.

11.15 am
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on raising this important subject and on the powerful way in which he addressed it. I want to concentrate my remarks on our ground forces.

The figures that my hon. Friend presented speak for themselves. The trained manpower of the Regular Army has shrunk since the Government took office. We have fewer trained soldiers today than at any time since the 19th century. The manpower of the Territorial Army has fallen by more than a quarter. We have fewer volunteer reserves today than at any time since the 16th century—and perhaps even before then. Today, we have the largest proportion of soldiers medically unfit for military service since modern medical record-taking began.

It is worth stepping back from this sorry sight for a moment to remind ourselves what service in uniform is about. Although I am concerned today principally with the Army, joining any of our armed forces is not a job: it is a calling. As the possibility of war in Iraq gets closer, it is worth remembering that we ask things of our service men and women that we do not ask of people in other walks of life. On those occasions when they are called upon to use their skills, we ask them to put their lives on the line. What we ask of them in peacetime and in conflicts of low intensity, put strains on their family life that, to say the least, are unusual in a civilian context.

It is worth remembering that the most important thing in the armed forces is not the equipment, nor even their level of professional training. Scipio said it all in his famous address to the Roman militia from his field hospital, after being wounded at the battle of Canae. Before the gates of Rome, when Hannibal's army, the best army by far, was fresh from its victories at Lake Trasmene and Canae, Scipio inspired the men, most of whom had never seen action, with the following message: Of all the factors which make for victory, the spirit of the warrior is the greatest. Nurturing that spirit must be a two-way process. With that in mind, I find a letter from the British Legion particularly horrifying. The Minister will recently have received a letter from me on the subject, although I do not ask him to comment on that case. A letter that I sent to the British Legion elicited this comment: I am afraid that the Legion's experience is that across the board, the medical support available to the armed forces is definitely not what is was and we are regularly consulted by members of all three Services who are being discharged with existing medical conditions that are treatable but whom the MOD medical services discharge and refer on to the NHS for treatment. This situation is particularly worrying for those who are discharged knowing that they require further surgery but are placed on a waiting list by the NHS and they are also worried that even if they find employment, it is a very understanding employer indeed who will permit them time off for surgery and perhaps months of rehabilitation … it is not unusual for people to be discharged within weeks of surgery, when the MOD must know that the individual faces a period unable to work and perhaps, unable to support their family. The letter continues: discharge with a medical condition is a real problem for trainees … Often injuries occur only days into their initial training but because they are untrained … the MOD has no 'realisable' investment in them, they are discharged … Many of them would have resigned and sacrificed jobs or college places only weeks earlier in order to enlist but they quickly find themselves at home with no job, an injury of varying severity and few prospects. That reflects to a large extent the overstretch in our medical services.

A wider measure of the way in which overstretch is a creeping cancer in our forces was elicited by a question from Lord Vivian. His question related only to the Army, but I am sure that the picture would be the same in the other two services. Since 1997, the divorce rate among military personnel has risen from 2.16 per cent. to 3.12 per cent. That is significant increase.

The truth is that we face a desperate overstretch, and my local unit, the Royal Irish Regiment, is a case in point. During the past three years. it has had three major deployments outside mainland Britain: to Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone. In this country, the national focus for professional training, and the focus that we should all expect for members of 5th Airborne Brigade, is the possibility—some say probability—of a major operation in Iraq. In fact, 400 of its number are away, training as firemen. That is creating a hole in their training, even if no Green Goddesses are actually called out. At the same time, the unit is being called on to provide substantial training teams for other units going to Northern Ireland. The questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon about the impact on professional training seem very apt in that context.

Mr. Hancock

I am slightly confused as to where the hon. Gentleman's argument is taking us. I thought that it was part of the role of regiments to help other units in the Army to familiarise themselves with what to expect in Northern Ireland. That is not new; it has been going on since 1970.

Mr. Brazier

Indeed. I support that role. It is an important one for the Army. Obviously, there must be training teams for one unit when another unit is training. My point is that if a regiment has come back from three different deployments, all of a low intensity, and it desperately needs to prepare for high-intensity war—a subject on which there would inevitably be a degree of rustiness—to have most of its soldiers away on firefighting training, and others away training another unit for another low-intensity operation, would not leave much scope for exercising for its main role. I am afraid that is an inevitable effect of overstretch.

I cannot help contrasting our situation with that of America. We are talking the same tough language as the Americans. The Prime Minister, with the support of the Conservative party, is shoulder to shoulder with President Bush. The President and the United States Congress have voted an extra $40 billion for defence. I thought that our shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), was right to say that we should fund the essential commitments of the armed forces.

It is worth remembering the other side of the equation. I do not accept that all the matters that the armed forces are involved in at the moment are actually necessary. When he was shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) pointed to the fact that the equivalent of a whole battalion's worth of expensive civilians are involved mostly in budgeting or monitoring the various forms of legislation that have resulted from the European convention on human rights. We have already made a commitment to review that in the case of the military.

Bullying is featuring prominently in the media. It is a particularly important issue at a time of overstretch, when we are considering recruitment and retention. There is not time for me to do justice to the subject, but I will make one observation: the best way to deal with bullying in a military unit, or, indeed, in a school, is by strong leadership. Strong leadership involves officers and senior non-commissioned officers getting to know the soldiers who are under them, rather than spending long hours burning the midnight oil filling in forms.

To return to the school analogy, it is no wonder the headmaster of Downside has just resigned. He pointed out that the school in his area that is most notorious for bullying is also the one that has the best reputation for getting all its forms filled in and having the most detailed anti-bullying policy. The truth is that we need less paperwork in the armed forces and fewer people involved in that paperwork. That is a whole activity area where resources could be saved.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the many occasions on which the Defence Committee criticised us for not keeping enough records of what armed forces personnel were up to. That is quite the reverse of what he is stating.

Mr. Brazier

The Defence Committee, of which I was a member for four years, commented repeatedly—at one point it was almost an annual comment—on the extent to which the MOD was spending large sums of money tracing very small financial transactions. One example was the cost of tracing the movement of military shirts. It was shown that it cost four or five times as much as the price of the shirts to discover what had happened to them. There has to be an 80:20 rule. As a person who has a background in management consultancy and corporate finance, I think that we are spending too much money on monitoring minutiae and as a result we are losing sight of the big picture.

There are others waiting to speak, so I shall return to the main thread of my argument. I want to make two final points. Our armed forces are manifestly too small for the tasks that they are set. It is essential that some of the deficiencies to which I have pointed in the Regular Army—the under-recruiting, the lack of medical fitness—are put right, but we are going to need a larger reserve to expand, whether or not people like it.

There is something bizarre about the MOD thinking that this reserve should be used only in logistic areas. If the worst comes to the worst, personnel for logistic areas can always be found from civilian life and can be trained very quickly. It is weird to claim that it is appropriate to use special forces from the Territorial Army in formed units, although we never discuss their detailed deployments; that it is appropriate to use Royal Marine reservists, commando infantry, in up to company strength, as they have been used; and that it is appropriate for 131 Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers to send formed troops around the world; while claiming that it is inappropriate to use ordinary infantry, engineers and yeomanry, the three areas that were most heavily cut in the Government's defence review, in formed units.

When we took the shameful decision to withdraw fighter cover from London, nobody asked how it was that every single air defence unit responsible for continental air defence in America comes from the Air Guard, who are volunteer reservists. Nobody even considered an option for that.

I stepped down from the last Conservative Government because I was unhappy about defence cuts. I was one of a small group of people who protested for two or three years, with limited effect, against what was going on. I was concerned that we did not sufficiently appreciate the dangers of the world as it was five or six years ago, and had failed to realise that the forces that we were providing were inadequate to meet them. Since then, no one would deny that the terrorist threat has grown enormously. The challenges that we require our armed forces to face have greatly increased, and yet the forces are still shrinking.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon on securing this vital debate. As the Government take us towards the brink on Iraq, and as the next terrorist strike may be on this building, I urge them to think and to ask themselves whether they have got the balance right

11.30 am
Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing the debate. I will comment first on his speech, and then on the speech of the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier).

On troops and firefighting, I understand that the Green Goddesses, and the training that the troops receive, are designed for what, in the parlance, is called "defensive firefighting". That means that they get to the location, douse it with water, get people out of the building if they possibly can, and then try to minimise the damage. In essence, they can stand outside, but do not go inside the building.

Trained firefighters with proper equipment, on the other hand, go inside the building and try to minimise damage. That is a much more sophisticated business, which is why they require all sorts of additional equipment, including air equipment. That is not to say that soldiers could not be trained to serve that function, but there would be several implications if they were. Should the need come to pass—I hope it will not—the troops' primary role will be to fight fires defensively. We should stress the importance of human life and accept the fact that more property may be damaged leading to more insurance costs in due course.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) suggests training troops to use complex equipment. I do not deny that they could be trained—we certainly have troops of sufficient quality—but they would need to be trained for far longer. To have the same number of troops firefighting would mean that more troops would need to be in training for longer. That would contribute to overstretch, which is the subject of the debate. The hon. Gentleman should reflect on that when he suggests having longer training time so that troops can use more complicated vehicles and equipment, while at the same time he laments the existing overstretch.

Dr. Julian Lewis

The hon. Gentleman is making a gallant attempt to shield the Government from the fact that if a firemen's strike occurs, the troops will have to go forth with inadequate equipment. Surely, a balance can be struck between not overburdening the armed forces with such a role. and at the same time updating, at least steadily, the equipment that is held in reserve for them when they have to discharge that function of support for the civil power, which surely is a normal function for armed forces in this country?

Mr. Joyce

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I do not know the technical answer, although the Minister may be able to tell us at the end of the debate. I suspect that it has something to do with how regularly equipment is updated. The training programme is designed around training troops in an emergency to use Green Goddesses and standard equipment. However, fire engines are regularly updated every couple of years, so it would be much more complicated to organise a training programme that fitted any circumstance.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

Speaking as someone who had the dubious honour of being involved in the 1977 fire strike, I can tell hon. Members that the Green Goddesses are wholly inadequate. They have no proper pumping equipment or radios for communicating with each other. I respect the point being made by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce), but he is stretching it.

Mr. Joyce

Of course I recognise the hon. Gentleman's experience, but the outcome of the 1977 strike, and the effect of the troops using Green Goddesses, was a minimal increase in loss of human life and a significant increase in damage to buildings. Insurance claims doubled. That reflects the function of the Government's present position, which is to prioritise human life and to accept that there will be an increase in insurance claims. The outcome of the troops' efforts was entirely sound and consistent with Government policy then and now.

Mr. Drew

Can we get it clear that the problem is not firefighting, but the rescue element? Firefighters provide a fire and rescue service. With the best will in the world, troops using Green Goddesses will not able to cope with that. It is a much more complicated issue than simply telling the troops to go in and fight fires. It is not just about fires, but about how people are rescued in all sorts of other ways.

Mr. Joyce

I recognise my hon. Friend's point, but should like to move on. The hon. Member for East Devon referred to targets. I counsel him against using figures that are couched as targets. Targets are simply what the Army projects as feasible, given its recruitment constraints. A target is different from a requirement. If the Army says that it hit 96 per cent. of its target two years ago, and only 90 per cent. of its target this year, that does not mean that it recruited fewer people. It does not mean anything in terms of its requirements. The reference to targets is not just a semantic device, but it means something different in the way that the hon. Gentleman uses it.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to housing. I recall that when the sale of Ministry of Defence housing to Annington went through, a substantial chunk—about £100 million of the £1.1 billion sale price—was hypothetically reserved for the upgrading of military accommodation or for additional expenditure at a rate of about £13 million or £14 million a year. The then Opposition Defence team challenged the Secretary of State on whether he would guarantee that the level of expenditure already committed to upgrades and to maintenance would be maintained. They wanted to be sure that the Conservative Government would not simply reduce the maintenance budget to add in that extra chunk. Time and again the then Secretary of State refused to give a commitment to increasing expenditure a nd upgrading housing. That is a matter of record. I am sure that we could find the appropriate references in Hansard.

Mr. Brazier

It is no secret that I led the rebellion opposing the sale of married quarters, so I have no vested interest in defending the Conservative Government's record in that area. The only positive thing to come out of that whole sorry episode was that there was a clear-cut, ring-fenced commitment to allocate the extra money for housing which my hon. Friend outlined.

Mr. Joyce

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. The clear-cut ring-fencing took place. The Government said, "Here is a receipt for £1.1 billion. We will commit a chunk of that to spend on housing." However, they refused to commit the current level of expenditure on maintenance. In other words, they could scoop money out of the maintenance budget and add it to the money committed to housing, but no extra money would be spent on housing. The Secretary of State was repeatedly challenged on that fundamental point. The hon. Gentleman will remember that.

Mr. Hancock

I would not like the hon. Gentleman to fall into the trap that has been set for him by suggesting that that ring-fencing took place. It manifestly did not. If one looks closely at what the Conservative Government were saying at that time, it is clear that they said nothing about protecting that money. It certainly did not happen.

Mr. Joyce

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I defer to his greater expertise and memory of that.

Dr. Moonie

Just in case I forget to mention this when I reply to the debate, may I point out that although £100 million is a large sum, it is nowhere near enough to do up all our accommodation to the standard that we would like?

Mr. Joyce

Of course, and I thank my hon. Friend for that.

My final point is that recruitment and retention has as much to do with economic policy as it has with defence policy. It is in the wider domain of employment and economics and the other opportunities that people have. It is an old sore but it is a fact, nonetheless, that during periods of high employment when there are other opportunities it is much harder to get people to join the armed services. It is not, as the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) said, simply a function of pay; all sorts of other things go into a person's decision whether to join the armed services. The more opportunities there are, the harder it is to get numbers into all three services.

Hon. Members may call for radical increases in recruiting—notwithstanding what I have just said, recruitment is affected by the lever of pay to a certain degree— but that would require a substantial increase in defence expenditure. The services have had their current problem for at least 10 years, although there were previous problems, but it can be solved from a financial point of view only if we are prepared to spend an enormous amount of money on pay and conditions, for example. However, just as the Opposition never say which commitments they would reduce because the armed services are overstretched, they never commit themselves to an enormous increase in defence expenditure. I would welcome a statement from any Opposition Member that there would be a gigantic increase under a Conservative Government.

11.41 am
Patrick Mercer (Newark)

Thank you, Mr. Taylor. I am full of admiration for my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) for introducing the debate.

I want to respond to one or two points made by the hon. and gallant Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce). Everything he said makes a great deal of sense until one looks at the patchy way of recruiting and at certain regiments in the British Army that are constantly over-recruited. They use wholly different methods from those laid down by the usual Army guidelines and manage, even in the areas of sparse population and full employment from which they recruit, to be over strength to the tune of about a company. Those achievements are remarkable and I will not bang on about them any more than usual as the poor Minister has heard quite enough of me on that matter. However, it drives a coach and horses through the hon. Gentleman's point and I shall return to it in a moment.

It might be useful to illustrate exactly what overstretch means at unit level. The word is bandied around an awful amount and I wonder whether people really understand what it means. It is not so much the line infantry or the Royal Artillery or the Royal Armoured Corps, but units like the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, the Royal Engineers and even the Royal Corps of Signals whose soldiers are not protected by a regimental cap badge or a battalion but whose expertise is paramount. Those soldiers are constantly being called upon for operations in Northern Ireland and Bosnia, for example; you name it, they are there.

The so-called "enablers" is a ghastly modern Army term to which I could never subscribe, but none the less the enablers are under huge pressure. It is those people, often doing the least glamorous and well-rewarded jobs, who suffer, not because they are bad soldiers or because they are unwilling, but because generally technicians have stayed in the Army longer than combat soldiers and have probably married and had more children than their equivalents in the Royal Armoured Corps or the infantry. They are under appalling pressure at home; their wives, rightly, resent not seeing their husbands and their children resent not seeing their dads, who are never available for the school run in the morning or to take them out to the cinema. My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) mentioned divorce, a matter to which I shall return. Divorce in the British Army is running at an all-time high. It is an evil that erodes combat effectiveness, morale and not just retention, but recruitment. If a unit returns its men to a small town such as Newark at the weekend or during leave periods, the word soon gets round that the Army. Navy or Air Force may be attractive on the surface, but conditions of service are highly unattractive. Therefore recruitment can be affected just as much as retention.

I ask the Minister to address a specific point: many families lose deposits that they have paid for holidays as a result of operational commitments coming up at short notice. I do not know the answer to that, but I shall illustrate the point. A company of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers went to Belize for six weeks' jungle training but, because of other commitments, was brought back after 10 days. It was brought back by scheduled flight, not trooping flight. The expense to the Government and the nation of that redeployment was considerable, but what was the personal impact on the soldiers? How many of their families lost holidays? What compensation was paid? I know from personal experience that that is a grave source of discontent.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I think that my hon. Friend was away last week when I wrote to the Minister of State for the Armed Forces about the Welsh Guards. After six months' absence from their families in Bosnia, they were told a week before they were due to return to the United Kingdom that all post-operational leave had been cancelled. I am told that up to 40 families lost deposits for their holidays, and the Ministry of Defence will not reimburse them. That sort of behaviour is seriously testing the loyalty of our armed forces, on which we rely.

Patrick Mercer

I am grateful for that intervention.

Recruiting Group, which is part of the Army Training and Recruiting Agency, must be congratulated on its recent level of recruitment success. That has been a distinct change and is a wonderful achievement. Perhaps the recent change of leadership on the recruiting side has had an effect. In any case, the Minister will know what I am going to ask next: why are there no bed spaces for those extra recruits in the training establishments? Why, with the so-called bow wave, are we unable to cope with these young men and women who wish to serve their nation?

I have made the point before, albeit only about infantry recruits. We now have the problem right across the services that failure is being snatched from the jaws of success. That strikes me as the most cack-handed piece of planning. I hope that the Minister will forgive my using that phrase, but we are eroding the will of those young men and women to serve their nation.

The treatment of regular Army reservists must also be considered. Again, these men and women are without the protection of a regular unit or even a Territorial unit. I beg the Minister to consider those regular Army reservists who are constantly called back for operational duty, yet who receive no promotion. I beg him to consider the Golden Jubilee medal for these men and women who serve the nation so well. These soldiers are plugging the gaps in the regular Army and are doing a damn fine job. I ask the Minister to consider rewarding them properly and treating them in a wholly equable fashion. They help to relieve overstretch. They are not part of the mainstream organisation, but their treatment must be examined in more detail.

I also draw the Minister's attention to the Fijian soldiers serving in the Army. More than a company of the first regiment of the Royal Scots now comes from Fiji. I shall let the Minister explain the logic of that. How comfortable these gentlemen are in tartan trews and with "white feet", I do not know, but there we are. I ask the Minister to consider the fact that when they return from Bosnia to Dreghorn barracks, they have huge difficulty in travelling on the passports that they have. Their only way of getting out of the British Isles in order to enjoy their well-earned leave is to go through the difficult process of applying for visas. That applies whether they are abroad on operations or back in this country. Could not some waiver, or perhaps a temporary passport, be found? I do not have a carefully thought through solution, but I would like to draw the Minister's attention to that matter.

Could we also reflect on expanding the utility of the Gurkhas? We have already lost one Gurkha company, we shall lose another next year and another the year after that. I understand the tripartite agreement between ourselves, India and Nepal, but it could be made more flexible. I would be grateful to hear the Minister's views.

I expect no answer—it will become clear why not—on my final point. This week our special forces are to receive recognition from Her Majesty the Queen for their enormous gallantry in Afghanistan. I want to put on record my undying admiration for these men, one of whom is to be rewarded by Her Majesty for despatching the Queen's enemies with a knife. That is wonderful. I regret the circumstances in which it occurred, but such gallantry should be recognised.

These gentlemen, however, face the same level of overstretch as the rest of the Army. For obvious reasons, that does not appear in official reports and documents. If we visited Bulmers in Hereford—the people who make the cider—we would find that 80 per cent. of the work force were female. Of those 80 per cent., a huge number are Special Air Services divorcees. The price that these men pay for their gallantry and dedication is reflected in their home lives. It is an old sore and an old adage, but unless things are right at home, the soldier is unlikely to fight effectively.

I am grateful for the Minister's attention and I ask him to pay close and detailed attention to the points that I have raised.

11.51 am
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

May I also congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing this important debate? I congratulate Members who have participated in it this morning, though many of the points raised by Conservative Members require a proper response. I was amazed to hear the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) excuse bullying by claiming that it was the result of the amount of paperwork forced on senior NCOs and others. That might be an excuse for him, but—

Mr. Brazier

I certainly did not excuse bullying, which is always inexcusable. Many soldiers at different levels have told me that whereas in the old days, senior NCOs and some officers had time to spend with soldiers training under them so that they could discover what was going on off duty, they are now increasingly so caught up in paperwork that that vital steam valve no longer operates, increasing the scope for bullying.

Mr. Hancock

That may be the hon. Gentleman's point of view. However, speaking as a member of the Defence Committee and someone who has met members of our armed forces throughout the world, whether on deployment or on station, that view has never been put to me. Nor has it been put to members of the Defence Committee in the four and a half years of my service on it. Bullying in the armed forces takes place for other reasons. I was pleased to hear a brigadier on this morning's "Today" programme make it clear how seriously the armed forces were dealing with bullying. One hopes that that is true, but it clearly remains a significant problem for some young recruits, and females in the forces often suffer from sexual abuse in one form or another.

The hon. Member for East Devon referred to the fire service. We should all be grateful that we are not today in the first stages of that dispute. One hopes for a solution that will not require the use of the armed forces. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) made an important distinction between firefighting and the fire and rescue service. Anyone who has spent time with the fire service knows all too well how much training and conditioning goes into the process of encouraging people to enter a building at great danger to themselves to rescue others. That calls for real skill and an effective means of training has developed over the years. I was amazed to hear the Leader of the Opposition suggest at Prime Minister's questions last week that such training could be accomplished in just a few days. It is ludicrous to believe that people can be trained to tackle a blaze and rescue others from inside a building in just a few weeks. That beggars belief. Training people to hold a hose and fight a fire from outside a burning building is not the same as producing dedicated rescuers capable of saving others in intensely dangerous circumstances.

The use of firefighting equipment is another issue. Training someone to use the most up-to-date fire equipment—I have taken advice from the fire service in Hampshire, which I was once, as leader of the county council, proud to lead—takes a long time. Training soldiers properly to use the latest equipment would take a minimum of six to eight weeks. That would be required to make someone capable of taking the vehicle from the station to a fire and to set about the task of fighting it—emphatically not to rescue people.

Dr. Julian Lewis

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but I fear that his memory is at fault and that he is gilding the lily on what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said. I recall that he had been advised by the Retained Firefighters Union that troops already familiar with the Green Goddesses could train up in a fairly limited time to use more modern equipment. I was not aware that my right hon. Friend said anything about them desperately plunging into buildings, as suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hancock

I listened carefully and gained the impression that that was effectively what the Leader of the Opposition said.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am grateful to my fellow Hampshire Member for giving way. I also discussed the matter with the Hampshire fire rescue people, who told me that troops could be trained up to a competent level within a couple of weeks. That entirely mirrors the advice given by retained firefighters to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. We are clearly talking not about the standards of a professional firefighter, but the ability competently to man modern equipment, which would otherwise lie idle.

Mr. Hancock

The other issue is how to accomplish the training. It would mean taking out hundreds of fire appliances currently in use—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made the same point—which would not be easy to achieve.

I was also surprised to hear Members speak so critically of the Green Goddesses. The last fire dispute took place 25 years ago in 1977. One wonders what happened in the 17 years of the 20 between 1977 and 1997 when the Conservatives were in control? I do not recall any enthusiastic rush on their part to re-vamp or replace the Green Goddesses, or to train service personnel to a higher competence.

Dr. Moonie

The idea that we are sending people out to deal with fires on ramshackle vehicles that do not work is quite wrong. The Green Goddess is old and can be unreliable, but it remains an effective instrument for doing what it is supposed to do—acting as a civil defence last line of equipment.

Mr. Hancock

I accept the Minister's point. None of us should knock efforts to train our troops properly to serve the communities where they are based, but one hopes that we shall not need to use them.

I want to respond to the Minister's riposte about paperwork. The Ministry of Defence owes it to our armed forces to ensure that, in particular, proper medical records are kept. It faces many criticisms in that respect. There have been suggestions that there is inadequate medical evidence to support claims of Gulf war syndrome; there is no proof as to what soldiers and others were given at the time. If proper records had been kept during the Gulf war, many service men and their families would be in a better position to fight their corner. We can only regret that that was not done and I hope that the lesson has been learned.

The armed forces suffer a vicious circle. Failure to address the problems of recruitment and retention results in unsustainable levels of service for those who remain and a consequential drop in morale, as those of us who represent constituencies with a service interest know only too well. The circle must be broken, but I am unclear as to how. No solutions are readily available to the MOD—it has attempted to find them, but has not been successful, and none of us has found any quick fixes for retention.

On 1 July, the Royal Navy was under strength by 1,420, the RAF by 770 and the Army by 5,440. We have two options. We can either up the ante and produce a package of pay and conditions that will attract, recruit and retain or we must seriously consider reducing the deployment capability of our nation. In 1997 we had 47,000 troops deployed overseas; today we have 44,500—a small reduction—but there is a significantly smaller pool from which to draw. There are some 23,000 reserves compared with a wanted strength of close to 40,000—we are nearly 50 per cent. short. We should ask why that is the case. I do not believe that there are soft answers; these are serious issues and, as the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) said, we are competing in a changed world with a new economic climate. In many instances, the competitive opportunities for many of the men and women whom we would like to recruit to the armed forces far outweigh what we can offer. I do not know how it is possible to retain 32-year-old pilots—they can earn 50 per cent. more and achieve a substantially higher pension by leaving the RAF while they still have 20 years' flying for a private airline in front of them. What sort of package must we come up with to make staying in the Royal Air Force until his mid-forties an attractive proposition for a pilot?

Patrick Mercer


Mr. David Taylor (in the Chair)

Order. Before I call the next speaker, I should point out that I want to call the official Opposition spokesman at 12.4 pm.

Patrick Mercer

I am grateful, Mr. Taylor, for your allowing me to intervene. Everything that the hon. Gentleman has said is correct, yet there are regiments and units that are constantly over strength and have no difficulty in recruiting and retaining. How does he explain that?

Mr. Hancock

The hon. Gentleman did not explain it to us. I was going to listen with great interest to the comments that he promised, but did not deliver. I was eager to hear what he had to say and I regret that he did not come back to that point. Perhaps on another occasion he will do us that honour.

The conditions are crucial. The issues of housing, lost holiday deposits and temporary passports for foreign nationals serving in our armed forces have to be taken into account. If we are going to ask people to serve us, we must make it clear that Parliament is committed to serving them. Now, many feel badly let down.

12.4 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The short answer to the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) is the return of the Conservative Government. That is how we shall resolve the shortage of pilots in the Royal Air Force.

I join others in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire)—indeed, he is my hon. and gallant Friend—for making such a remarkably good and wide-ranging speech. Although lack of retention has been a problem in the armed forces, the House and the country have sometimes been the beneficiaries. For instance, my hon. and gallant Friends the hon. Members for East Devon and for Newark (Patrick Mercer) added enormously to the authority and the wisdom of this place when they gave up their careers in the services to join us.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) and the hon. and gallant Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce) are here; nor do I forget my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who served with distinction in the Parachute Regiment, and the hon. and gallant Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett), a former Royal Marine. They illustrate the wisdom that Parliament does have Members with real experience.

The debate is important. It is a good example of the fact that we can have constructive and informed debates on defence in the House. Indeed, we shall be having another on Thursday; then, should the Minister be deficient in his answers today, we shall be able to take up matters again. I say that because many issues have been covered today, and I am not sure that he will have time to respond to them all.

The strategic defence review of 1998 defined overstretch as trying to do too much with too little manpower … additional pressures from persistent overstretch contribute to higher exit rates from the Armed Forces. That was how the Government defined overstretch. It is quite reasonable, four years on, to see how they conducted their stewardship of our armed forces in light of the undertakings that they gave then.

It is clear that overstretch is creating enormous problems. The time needed to train for operations, for the operations themselves and for recovering from those operations is taken from time that would otherwise be used in training for assigned tasks. Paradoxically, most operations, especially peacekeeping operations, degrade capability. Patrolling the streets of Northern Ireland does not prepare soldiers for anti-tank warfare or infantry fighting, and monotonously patrolling the no-fly zones in Iraq does not prepare our pilots for air-to-air combat.

The disruption of training and the increased disruption of family life caused by overstretch has a severe effect on the quality of life our armed forces; and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark made absolutely clear what effect that can have on family unhappiness and divorce rates.

In that respect, I hope that the Minister will respond to my letter to the Defence Secretary about the Welsh Guards. The Welsh Guards at Aldershot are deeply disappointed that post-operational leave has been cancelled and that they had to return to accommodation that they find disgusting. They were then told that the MOD would not pay their deposits for holidays that were cancelled as a result of leave being stopped. The prime cause of the retention crisis is that men with families have simply had enough; and it feeds back into further problems with overstretch.

I shall speak about each of the services, and I shall start with the Army. Lord Robertson, then Secretary of State for Defence, said in the strategic defence review: All three services have been overstretched because of the demanding pattern of our operations, and I am determined to put that right. That was four years ago. Have the Government put it right? As my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon explained so graphically, the Army's trained strength is 1,300 men lower than it was in 1997, and it has remained roughly static since 1998, despite the Government's pledge to increase the size of the Army by 3,300 men. We have seen a modest increase lately; but even by September 2002, when there was some improvement, the deficit was 5,300 compared with April 1998. Now we are told that the Army is not forecast to reach its full manning level until 2008 and, as the Adjutant-General told the Select Committee, that target has surreptitiously moved from 108,500 to 107,900, yet demands have increased since 1998 and are still increasing.

If we consider the Royal Navy, under the strategic defence review, the number of destroyers and frigates was reduced from 35 to 32, and the number of minehunters was reduced from 25 to 22. Flexible deployment was supposed to fill the resulting gaps. As the Defence Committee commented at the time: We remain unconvinced by the proposed new flexible deployment of the frigate and destroyer fleet and are not persuaded that this new flexibility has been devised for operational rather than cost-cutting reasons. The operational impact of those cuts in the number of destroyers and frigates is clear. In 1999–2000, the time spent by the Atlantic Patrol Task (North), often known as the West Indies Guard Ship, on station in the Caribbean, was cut from 365 to 244 days, so it is a case of all clear on the days when the task force will not be active but steer clear when it is. With a reduced patrol in the Caribbean, are the Government still committed to protecting British interests from drug trafficking? Now we are told that we can make do with 31 frigates, rather than 32, through the more efficient use of assets.

It was smuggled out that HMS Sheffield was to be sold prematurely, and we know the problem regarding HMS Nottingham—Notts on the rocks. HMS St. Albans encountered a ferry in last Sunday's storms. Those ships will be taken out of action. A memo from Commodore Laurence suggested that the announcement of the premature disposal of HMS Sheffield would be made by way of an inspired parliamentary question. His memo continued: A decision to dispose of the ship is likely to initiate further questioning over the ability of the fleet to meet its current and future commitments. He can say that again. It is a shame that the Government did not have the guts to announce their decision in the House, rather than relying on the matter to be leaked through a memo from Commodore Laurence.

Again, we read in The Daily Telegraph on 8 October that the Royal Navy is to lose up to six of its 32 destroyers and four minehunters in order to pay for the two new aircraft carriers and the new joint strike fighter. Ministers have denied it, but their track record is not good. We welcome the Government's plans for six new type-45 destroyers. That is good news, but we need numbers. With all the sophisticated kit in the world, we will not be able to deploy ships that we do not have. That sounds simplistic, but it is true. If the Government continue to decide that we can make more efficient use of fewer ships, we will eventually be making effective use of only 10 ships, but we will not be able to deploy them where we need them.

I shall not rehearse the arguments about Sea Harriers.

Mr. Brazier

My hon. Friend has contrasted peacetime overstretch with the ability to deploy numbers in war. That is why Jackie Fisher, arguably the greatest sealord of all time, adopted the policy of maintaining a substantial reserve of naval vessels, which could be brought rapidly back into use during war.

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We have a very limited naval reserve. I shall not go into the issue of Royal Air Force reserves, but the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mr. Hancock) has mentioned how decimated our Territorial Army reserves are. On the F35, the joint strike fighter, it was admitted in a written answer last November that the Fleet Air Arm was at only two-thirds strength, with only 44 Sea Harrier pilots compared with the required 64. Has the position improved? How do the Government propose to man the joint strike fighter in 2012, assuming that it comes into use at that time, when it cannot maintain the strength of the Fleet Air Arm? Of course, we know the position with the RAF. The 5 Squadron has been cut, which is especially ironic as it was the stand-by squadron to prepare for an intercept if it became necessary to intercept aircraft coming into London.

On all three services, there is a problem with cuts in capability. Hon. Members do not have to take only my word for that. As recently as May 2002, in another place, distinguished former serving officers who have recently retired have been unstinting in their criticism of the Government's stewardship of our armed forces. The noble and gallant Field Marshall Lord Inge said, The fundamental problem is that our Armed Forces are too small for the many operational tasks placed upon them. The noble and gallant Lord Guthrie, who recently retired as Chief of Defence Staff, said, Recruiting targets are not being met; ships and regiments are not properly manned; training is being reduced; and equipment is ageing and often not available. So far as defence is concerned, there has been, in effect, disinvestment. All this, I remind noble Lords, has been happening at a time when to many of us it appears that the threats to our security are becoming ever greaten"— [Official Report, House of Lords, 15 May 2002; c. 311–19.] Ministers cannot lightly dismiss the words of a gentleman who was, until recently, the Chief of our armed forces. I hope that the Minister will respond when he replies to the debate.

Other additional burdens include the war against terrorism and the enhanced homeland security requirements, to which General Sir Michael Rose recently referred in an excellent article in the Daily Mail. There is increased tension in Northern Ireland; four battalions are patrolling the streets of Belfast, when a few years ago there were none. Troop numbers have risen there from some 11,000 to 13,000. There is the possibility of further conflict in the middle east. There is also the firemen's strike, whose impact on the armed forces has been described by my hon. Friends.

The Government have provided no allowance for the unexpected. There is no slack in our armed forces to meet emergencies. It takes time to train experienced and competent service personnel and, if all these new conditions are imposed on them, they will, as one service man put it to me, "leg it."

The armed forces have always managed to make do, but if their concerns about over-commitment are not heeded, their ability to respond to ministerial demands could suddenly snap. In that case, we could not meet the requirements of Ministers to fulfil our commitments at home and abroad. We must not take the armed forces, or their professionalism, for granted.

I finish by quoting from the SDR, from which I quoted at the beginning of my speech, when I mentioned overstretch. The SDR promised to improve recruitment and retention so that our units are properly manned … That era of decline is behind us.

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I want to give the Minister some time to reply.

Mr. Howarth

May I just finish my point, Mr. Benton?

The debate has proved that the era of decline is not behind us.

12.18 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie)

I dislike the use of the term overstretch, as it is trite and clichéd. It should be replaced with another word but, in the absence of a substitute, I think that we should use the terms stretch, which is obviously part of the task of the armed forces, and excessive stretch. As the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) said, excessive stretch affects individuals rather than units. We must remember that we are talking about individual men and women when we discuss overstretch, not some abstract concept affecting the armed forces as a whole.

However, we should be clear on the matter. The armed forces and our service chiefs have not declined any operational commitments because of excessive stretch. As the House knows, when we deploy forces we do so with the full support of our senior military advisers. Their advice is based on the collective expertise and best information on the availability and readiness of our forces. There is inevitably some risk in any deployment, but we manage and minimise that risk. After all, operational deployment is the raison d'être of our armed forces, although we would not think so to listen to some of the speeches made by Opposition Members.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration that I can give is a simple comparison. At the height of the Kosovo operations in June 1999, 44 per cent. of Army personnel were committed to operations. The worldwide commitment is now about 27 per cent. of personnel, with about 18 per cent. deployed at the moment.

Despite heavy commitments, naval harmony guidelines under which ships spend 40 per cent. of their time in base port are generally being maintained. In the RAF, only about 2 per cent. of trained personnel exceed the planned limit for separated service.

It is true that our armed forces have been very busy. We ask our personnel to undertake demanding tasks, often in difficult circumstances such as in Afghanistan. We must ensure that that there are no doubts in the minds of families and potential recruits about what people let themselves in for when they choose a career in the armed forces. Our forces are for use, not for sitting around in barracks indulging in an endless cycle of training with no other ultimate purpose. Anyone who joins the British armed forces or the reserves must recognise that they will be expected to serve on operational deployment.

That is part of the attraction of the armed forces, and perhaps why recruitment has gone up dramatically over the past three months, especially to the Army. That has led to the problem that was properly outlined by the hon. Member for Newark, namely that recruitment is now greater than our capacity to bring new recruits into training. However, we are considering extending opportunities for people to be given some general training, to whet their appetites for the full training cycle. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence and I were offered that new strategy last year when asked how we would cope with a sudden surge in numbers. It has proved difficult to cope, as we generally expect numbers to remain fairly static or to increase gradually. The sudden surge in the past three months has posed problems, but we are addressing them.

We are not complacent about the importance of managing the demands that we place on our armed forces. To help determine them, we now seek to record separated service. I am afraid to say that that involves more paperwork. The most efficient running and coverage of what men and women do, which is what counts, requires a much higher standard and detail of record keeping than was common in the past. We need only point to medical and service records from the Gulf war to show how inadequate they were at the time, and hopefully how much better they are now.

More work is required for us to be able to trace the performance and service commitment of every individual in the armed forces. It is no small undertaking. As the hon. Member for Newark rightly pointed out, individuals in units can suffer from excessive stretch and excessive overseas deployment while the rest of the unit shows no signs of it. It is important to show what happens to each man and woman in our service. That is what we are bringing in, and all hon. Members would welcome it.

The provision of systems to capture such information for a widely dispersed and highly mobile population is difficult, and competes for resources with other technical priorities. It is a key objective of our forces personnel strategy, and in the end will give us a much a clearer picture of the demands that we place on individual men and women.

We have substantially invested in that capability, and its coverage will be extended to all parts of all three services as soon as is practicable. Since 1997, the RAF has provided that facility for personnel for periods of separation of three days or longer. The Navy started recording on a daily basis for the majority of its personnel in September last year. The Army is at present conducting trials in some units, and will bring in a universal system as soon as is feasible.

Turbulence for individual soldiers and families is important, and our general approach is to try to reduce it as much as possible. We aim to commit personnel to operations for no longer than is absolutely necessary to achieve the military aim. They are withdrawn from operations at the earliest opportunity, as in Macedonia last year. Everyone pooh-poohed the idea that 30 days would be sufficient. In fact, the operation was conducted with clinical efficiency. We went in for 30 days; we came out after 30 days of weapons collection. The fact that a fragile peace has been established in Macedonia is due in no small measure to the actions that we took.

Similarly, we said that we would go into Afghanistan for a certain period, and we stuck to that. The Turks took over and are doing a good job.

Mr. Brazier

I accept that most of the points mentioned by the hon. Gentleman should help, but the bald fact is that in the Labour Government's time in office, divorce in the Army has risen by almost half. The haemorrhage of experienced personnel has worsened. Overall, the hon. Gentleman must accept that the Government are losing the battle.

Dr. Moonie

The figures show that divorce rates in the armed forces are similar to those for the comparable group in the general population. They change over time. I shall not waste too much of my speech trying to explain details of vital statistics to the Opposition.

Average unit tour intervals in the Army have improved. They are currently assessed at an average of 23 months, which is just below the strategic defence review target of 24 months. To be fair about that figure, there are differences between units. Not all of them have attained the 24 months figure. There are particular problems with certain light role infantry battalions, engineers and signallers.

I should stress in passing the value of our reserve forces. At present 850 of our reserves are serving in units on active service, and a further 2,240 are on full-time reserve service. That huge commitment by our reserves, quite independent of any other callouts, is an indication of how effective our strategy has been in placing them close to the front line, as far as possible, and using them where they are most needed to plug gaps in service. I hope, over time, to recruit more people to both the regulars and the reserves in specialist areas such as signals and engineering, to alleviate the overstretching of those personnel and bring them back to the norm for the armed forces. I pay tribute to the excellent work done in the past couple of years by the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association and the National Employers Liaison Committee, now known, I think, as Sabre, for their superb work in bringing employers on side, to help to ensure that our reserves are treated fairly and properly by their employers.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful for the Minister's tribute to the cadet forces. I have heard that it is proposed that he should withdraw from his association with the air cadets. I hope that he can deny that and confirm that he will remain on the council.

Dr. Moonie

No, I do not deny that. I think that all cadet forces should be treated equitably by Ministers, and a Minister does not serve on the council of the Army cadets or the sea cadets. All three cadet forces should be treated in the same way. I can perform more effectively as a Minister responsible for cadets if I do not serve on their governing body, but their governing body reports to me as is proper, in line with the other two cadet forces.

I realise that I have a half-hour speech to make and about three minutes in which to deliver it, so I must try at a breathless rate to cover as many points as possible. On the matter of the use of fire brigade equipment, we have 331 breathing apparatus rescue teams and 59 rescue equipment support teams available. In passing, I should mention that we use a great many sailors in firefighting roles. All sailors are trained, to an extent, as firefighters, because fire is the great fear on board any ship. Because of factors such as the tunnel effect of corridors, they are trained to use breathing apparatus and can provide invaluable support in firefighting activities. The services will not become a fire service; they cannot do that. However, with the equipment available to us, old though it is, I am confident that the thousands of personnel whom we have deployed on firefighting operations will cope well with their allocated tasks.

I am concerned about the matter that was raised concerning the Welsh Guards and lost holiday deposits. I understand that the issue is being intently considered. Frankly, I should think that if people are losing deposits because of unforeseen operational commitments, I would expect them to be reimbursed. I will not make any promises on that, however, until I know for certain what is happening.

We have a robust strategy for defending London from the effects of aerial attack, though I do not want to say any more than that now.

We have introduced retention packages for pilots. I would have thought that the Opposition knew about that. It is a bit early to determine whether the packages will be a success, though we have not made any secret of them.

With regard to the letter from the British Legion, I look forward to—

Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair)

Order. We must move on to the next debate.