On the 30th January 2007 there was a Westminister Hall debate on The Future of the British Army.
The following is taken from the Hansard report for the 30th January:
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I follow on from what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) said and pay tribute to one of Britain’s greatest success stories, Her Majesty’s armed forces, and particularly, in the light of today’s debate, the British Army. I do not believe that there is an army in the world that can match ours.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) on securing the debate. I am sorry that more hon. Members are not present, but I pay tribute to her because she is a tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme. She has clearly benefited from it and proven to the House and, we hope, to a wider audience—she has certainly done so to the Minister, although he needs no confirmation of this—that the scheme is an extremely good organisation and helps to ensure that Members of Parliament who do not have experience of the armed forces are introduced to what is, as I said, one of Britain’s greatest success stories.
I shall not go through all the points that the hon. Lady raised, but she made two fundamental ones. The first was that the Falklands campaign illustrated the importance of being prepared to fight for one’s country, territory and interests. We must never forget that that is what our armed forces are for. Having come straight from a meeting with Baroness Thatcher and just discussed these issues, I can reinforce that remark.
The hon. Lady’s second point was about Sierra Leone. That is a very different operation, but it is one in which the British Army is conducting itself magnificently. It illustrates the extraordinary versatility of Britain’s Army and particularly those who come from less privileged backgrounds. Some people come from very difficult home backgrounds and poorer parts of society, and it is a tribute to the British Army that it manages to train them and turn them into such stalwart citizens who are both brave and versatile. In theatres such as Sierra Leone, they are winning hearts and minds, as they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is an enormous tribute to them. As Conservative Front-Bench spokesman on defence, but also as one who has the privilege of being the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, the home of the British Army, I have to say that this is a wonderful opportunity for me not only to extol the virtues of the British Army, but to highlight some of the difficulties. May I say to the Minister, who has been in post even longer than I have, that if I do highlight the difficulties, I do so because it is part of the constitutional duty of the Opposition to hold the Government to account? Much is being done that I am sure is good. New equipment is coming on board, and the Minister mentioned accommodation, but there are real problems. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife illustrated some of those. General Sir Richard Dannatt’s first intervention when he became Chief of the General Staff was to say:
“We are running hot, certainly running hot. Can we cope? I pause. I say ‘just’.” Coming from the head of the British Army, that should send a shock through all Members of this House, not just Ministers, but it was a considered view and reflects what is happening on the ground. The trouble with the military is that when asked to do something by politicians, invariably their answer is, “Yes, sir. We can do it, sir.” We politicians then glibly say, “Okay, that’s fine. Let’s crack on with it.” The military are reluctant to say, “No, we can’t do it,” because they would feel that they were failures or that they had failed to deliver what was expected of them by the politicians. I think that what General Sir Richard Dannatt said is absolutely right. It is certainly borne out by my experience and by the figures.
I remind the Minister that in 1997 the required strength of the British Army was 106,360. That had fallen by 2006 to 101,800. The trained strength of the Army in 1997 was 101,360. Last year, it was 99,570. We now have the smallest Army since 1930. The fundamental difference between 1997 and 2007 is that today we are fighting two wars. There is no point in pussy-footing around: when we say that people are going on operations, they are going into war zones. Iraq is effectively a war zone and Afghanistan is most certainly a war zone, as are the myriad other operations that the hon. Lady mentioned and to which we are committed.
The fundamental basis of our criticism of the Government is that there are insufficient men to undertake those tasks. It is no good saying, as the former Secretary of State did, that platform numbers no longer count because we have such sophisticated equipment. Of course numbers count. One ship cannot be in two places, as Admiral Sir Alan West, First Sea Lord, said. Equally, soldiers are human beings. To take territory and hold it, one needs men, and that means numbers. It does not matter how sophisticated the weapons are, the physical presence of the soldiers is what counts. We cannot understand why the Government have cut four British Army battalions when General Richards in Afghanistan has called for precisely 2,500 men. What is that? It is four battalions. That is in addition to what they are doing to cap badges and to destroy much of the morale and ethos that is associated with the support for individual units. Men do not fight for their country; they fight for the man next to them. They fight for their unit, their regiment and that battle honour. Anyone who doubts that should watch the 3 Para video of Afghanistan, which is extremely well worth watching. It exemplifies the sense of camaraderie and ethos.
In 2005, some 3,350 more people left the Army than joined up. Last year, the number was about 1,500. I agree that the problem is not so much with recruitment, although only two battalions are properly recruited—the Gurkha battalions—while the rest are under-recruited and under-strength. There is an attraction for young men and women in serving their country and taking part in the kind of operations that are under way. The problem is something else. When I go around and speak to people, many of them tell me, “I’ve done Iraq”—probably three times—and “I’ve done Afghanistan. It doesn’t get much better than that, so I’m quitting.” The people who are leaving are the backbone of the British Army: the captains, majors and senior warrant officers. They are the repository of the real experience in today’s Army. Their loss is potentially the most damaging, and something has to be done about it.
I have two Guards battalions in Aldershot at present—the Irish Guards and the Grenadier Guards. Before Christmas, the commanding officer of the Irish Guards, Colonel O’Dwyer, told me, “Sir, we are not valued.” That is a serious wake-up call and we need to wake up. The colonel is a splendid chap, and he did not say that in any way politically, but it is an accusation against the political classes. It is our job to make sure that they are valued. I shall return to the military covenant later.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: In what context was that comment made?
Mr. Howarth: I protested to the colonel that there is not a Member of Parliament who does not stand up in Westminster and proclaim the virtues of the British Army. He said, “We get less telephone time than prisoners, and when we go on a train we have to buy a travelcard. Police officers just flash their warrants and don’t have to pay anything.” I realise that those are small things.
Mr. Ingram: I shall respond to that now because I might not have time to deal with all the points that have been raised in detail. It is not correct to say that forces members have less telephone time than prisoners. We recently increased it to 30 minutes a week. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can go back and correct the misunderstanding or misinformation that is being pedalled around.
Mr. Howarth: I am happy to do that, but I want to make it clear that that is not the fundamental issue. It is more like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If I am issuing a warning to the Minister, it is this: we are taking the British Army too much for granted. It is at a tipping point. Take the Grenadier Guards. In the 115 weeks between March 2006 and June 2008, they will be on operations for 48 weeks, doing field exercises for 20 weeks, and have 10 weeks of post-operational tour leave and pre-deployment leave. To anyone who thinks that that involves swanning around at home, I say that post-operational tour leave provides the process of decompression that is essential when men are taken out of a theatre such as Iraq or Afghanistan having seen what they have seen. It is not a holiday. We do them no service.
Servicemen and women tell me that the negatives of service are the separation from their families and lack of adventure training—the kind of thing that used to make up part of the whole military package. It is now tilted in favour of duty, responsibility and work and less in favour of the benefits that made the whole package attractive. Yet these days, unlike in the cold war, those men and women are putting their lives on the line for us day in, day out. They are dying for their country. They are giving a real, not abstract, commitment.
I pay tribute to those who have given their lives for our country and to their families, who deserve the biggest tribute because they supported them. They are the ones who have experiences like the lady who said,
“When I put the children to bed, the house is silent.” She will live with that silence, and we need to bear that in mind.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Is the hon. Gentleman arguing that we should limit the exposure of the Army to a specific number of areas of engagement, or does he support the argument that while the Army’s diversified activity is positive, it is crucial that we have more people to deliver that diversity comfortably?
Mr. Howarth: It is the latter. I simply do not think that there are enough people, and that is the generally held consensus. There are not enough people to do all the jobs that are being done. I have no desire for us to retreat into a United Kingdom shell and remove ourselves from the world stage. We are a power for good in the world and I want us to play that role. I am a Tory. I believe that strong defence is the first duty of any Government—certainly a Conservative Government. We are able to play a great role in the world. Anyone who compares British forces, and how we deal with people, with the American forces in Abu Ghraib can see that we are good. Personally, I have no wish to see our role diminished.
I have written to Air Marshal Pocock about how the change in the allowances will affect the Grenadier Guards and they will lose £681,750. They are doing two operations—they just came back from Iraq in October and are going to Afghanistan in March—and they are uniquely disbenefited by the changes. I urge the Minister to look at that again.
I want to address one or two issues about equipment, starting with armoured vehicles. We have been warning for years that the nature of the operations in Iraq, in particular, and now Afghanistan, puts our troops at grave risk from roadside bombs and sophisticated improvised explosive devices. I was told in Iraq, three years ago, that the insurgents there had achieved more sophistication in 30 months than the IRA did in 30 years.
On my return from the armed forces parliamentary scheme visit to Iraq, on which there were no Labour Members, in 2005, I went straight to the Secretary of State and said, “You’ve got to do something about this.” I did not go to the press because my duty is not to spread fear and alarm among families. I have been criticised for not going public about it, but that was my view. The Government have made a mistake, although they are now bringing new kit on board.
We have a duty to give the men the best possible protection, so I welcome the Cougars coming into operation, but we were told last July by the Secretary of State that they would be fully operational at the end of 2006. I do not regard having four Mastiffs, as I believe the British Army now calls them, in theatre in Iraq as being fully operational. Everybody knows the limitations of the Snatch Land Rover and it is time that the Government did more to recognise that they have a duty to protect our troops. Equipment exists that is able to do that—for example, the Pinzgauer, which I have been to see. Others dismiss it, and I do not think that it has the full armoured capability of the RG-31 or the Mastiff, but it will make a contribution.
The second issue on equipment concerns helicopters. I understand that the Government have decided that the Danish EH101s are not available or that they will not go ahead with acquiring them. It is clear that we particularly need lift in Afghanistan, as it is insufficient. That which there is in theatre is being used at a far higher rate than had originally been envisaged, which is imposing a far greater toll on the maintainability of the helicopters. I gather that Eurocopter has put a bid before the Government concerning six Pumas; there is a possibility that three will be made fully theatre-prepared and available by July, with the rest available by the end of the year. The Government have a duty to do something about lift, because it is available, and I cannot understand why they are taking such a long time to deal with it. I know that there is a bit more time available so would it be in order for me to have another five minutes, if the Minister agrees, as he would still have time to reply, Mr. Gale?
Mr. Ingram indicated assent.
Mr. Roger Gale (in the Chair): The Minister is happy, so I am too.
Mr. Howarth: I am grateful, because there are many other issues that I could raise about the British Army. Although I do not have time to raise them all, I want to mention the important matter of medical care. We have an inadequate system of dealing with the aftermath of military operations and the Government need to do much more. The issue of mental health problems arising out of operations is also of paramount importance. If the Minister could do anything to increase the support that he makes available to Combat Stress, he would be doing a great service and would be widely thanked. We know that there are insufficient numbers of nurses and doctors. They are about 43 per cent. under-recruited, and that will also have to be addressed.
Mention has been made of the military covenant. There is not a person in this land who believes that Britain’s armed forces have not fulfilled their part of the bargain. They have done so in shed loads. They have met their duty under the military covenant, but the nation has failed them in return. We have not given them the kit, the sufficient manpower, the family support or the accommodation. Whatever the Minister is now doing, we have not done enough for our armed forces to enable us to look them in the eye and say, “We have fulfilled our part of the military covenant.” I want to make a point to the Minister by taking as my text the remarks made by the former Secretary of State, now the Minister for Europe, in supporting essay 2 to the Defence White Paper of 2003, “Delivering Security in a Changing World”.
He stated: “Since SDR our Armed Forces have conducted operations that have been more complex and greater in number than we had envisaged. We have effectively been conducting continual concurrent operations, deploying further afield, to more places, more frequently and with a greater variety of missions than set out in the SDR planning assumptions. We expect to see a similar pattern of operations in the future”.
In other words, we are imposing on our armed forces a commitment that is greater than was proposed in the strategic defence review. The SDR was never properly funded and this is not properly funded. The situation is, “Commitments of SDR, plus; funding of SDR, double minus.” That sums up the dilemma that the Government face.
It is no good the Prime Minister saying, as he did against a military backdrop—on HMS Albion—in a wonderfully orchestrated and typically Labour spin thing, that we are going to spend more on defence. When the matter was raised in the other place—I raised this with the Prime Minister at Question Time last week—Lord Davies of Oldham said of the comprehensive spending review that “there will be a number of contributions to that debate. The Prime Minister’s contribution will, of course, be regarded very seriously and very importantly indeed.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 January 2007; Vol. 688, c. 647.]
What have we come to when the Prime Minister of the land deliberately gives a stage-managed appearance on HMS Albion telling the armed forces, “Don’t worry boys, I am going to look after you. I give you a commitment” and that is a “contribution to that debate.”? That debate is presided over by, undoubtedly, the next Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has betrayed the armed forces. He has failed to fund them to the level required to meet the commitments that the Prime Minister has imposed on them. He is as much a part of this Government as the Prime Minister, and he has failed abysmally in doing the job that he ought to do of supporting our armed forces.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and I offered a little challenge before the previous election. We offered a magnum, no less, of Pol Roger champagne—the favourite champagne of his grandfather, Sir Winston Churchill—to the first person to spot the Chancellor of the Exchequer arriving at, or leaving, a military establishment. The magnum of Pol Roger is still on my sideboard awaiting collection. I believe that the Chancellor has now been to Iraq and is trying to ingratiate himself with the armed forces, but he is a man who has never done anything to help them. He may say that the Tories cut defence spending, but we did so because the circumstances after the ending of the cold war, which was achieved by my noble Friend, Baroness Thatcher, meant that we had to have a rethink. To this Government’s credit, they had a review. We should have had a review, but we did not. We cut defence expenditure but the trouble is that the Labour party wanted to cut it even further. The Government should not tell us that we did not do the right thing by the armed forces because Labour wanted further cuts.
There is an issue about the funding of our armed forces, and the hon. Member for Crosby raised it. On 30 October, The Daily Telegraph gave figures from an opinion poll that asked people whether they thought more or less should be spent on defence. Some 46 per cent. of people said that we should spend more on it, of whom 18 per cent. said that significantly more should be spent. Only 22 per cent. said that less should be spent on it. Interestingly, there was an opinion poll about Iraq in another column showing that 57 per cent. of people said that we should be out of Iraq either now or within 12 months. That illustrates the complete disconnect between the public’s opposition to the Iraq war and their support for the armed forces.
We have a duty to support the greatest army in the world. It has served us well and I, like everyone else, is proud of it. We are not doing our stuff by the Army and, if we do not do so, the haemorrhaging of people leaving the armed forces will get even worse and experienced people will go. Such people cannot be replaced. The military covenant requires us to do our duty by our magnificent armed forces.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) for securing the debate. I will come to some of the points that she made, but I want to start by paying tribute to the members of our armed forces for their dedication and the invaluable contribution that they make on a daily basis to our efforts for global peace. She put that into context well.
I also pay tribute to the families, particularly those who have lost loved ones. I was up in Kinloss yesterday for a most moving memorial service in recognition of the 14 brave men who lost their lives in the aircraft crash. It was a powerful event that brought home to me people’s resilience, dedication and commitment. I spoke only to RAF personnel and to some of the families, but all three services were represented.
As an aside, I should say that I appreciate the comments made by my hon. Friend about the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I was one of the early participants in it, which is possibly why I have ended up in this job for six years. I wanted to spend my time with the RAF because my father had been in it, but as two places had been filled, I ended up with the Army. I am glad that I did, because it gave me an insight into things that I did not have much knowledge of, other than through family contacts of a vintage period from the second world war. However, the Army’s future is not dependent on the armed forces parliamentary scheme. If it were, more participants of that scheme would be taking part in the debate. It is to be noted that so few of them are.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s recognition of what is being done in the incredible training programmes in the armed forces and, considering who we recruit and where, particularly in the Army. People are lifted and become exemplars for others in their communities, and we give welfare to tens of thousands of younger troops. That is an example of what we are trying to do as part of the covenant. We want to create an ongoing ethos. What we have done is not new, but training is getting better, sharper and better funded.
One of the baselines is how we bring on young people who come into the armed forces. In my six years as armed forces Minister, I have been dealing with the Deepcut issue—the four tragic deaths that occurred there. We have analysed it and now transformed the whole training regime, which has been independently audited and examined. Those in the armed forces who have had to deal with it must be given credit for transforming their approach, which will give the forces strength. The regime is not perfect, and there is still a lot to be done. There are accommodation issues to consider, but we have invested heavily in both financial and people terms to turn that around. If we do not get it right, we will not get right other aspects of what we are doing. I shall come to equipment, which is a key matter.
Hon. Members have mentioned the Prime Minister’s speech on 12 January. It is wrong to diminish its importance, but I understand the political knockabout that takes place. It is worth while to read the speech: it was successful and examined where we stand. The Prime Minister talked about the transformation of the context within which the military, politics and public opinion interact. We are in a new climate and environment, and some changes are driven by events and some would have had to be made anyway because of circumstances evolving beyond our shores.
Mr. Howarth: What the Prime Minister said on HMS Albion was:
“For our part, in Government, it will mean increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces; not in the short run but for the long term.”
It was a Minister in the other place, Lord Davies of Oldham, who said that that was merely a contribution to the debate. I say to the Minister that this is not knockabout stuff. If the Prime Minister’s words did not mean that the armed forces were sent the message, “We are going to increase expenditure,” what did they mean?
Mr. Ingram: I have read the comments made by my colleague in another place, and knockabout is a word that I could use to good effect in describing them. The Prime Minister’s speech was more than a contribution; it was a substantial analysis of where we stand. We are not here to consider that speech, which covered matters beyond the future of the British Army, but it put the armed forces into context. The Prime Minister talked about public opinion, politics and where Her Majesty’s armed forces sit. He also mentioned the need to invest in our nation’s warfighting capabilities to pursue our foreign policy. The sharp end of that is the British Army.
There are people who do not believe that we should be a warfighting nation, including some in the House and perhaps in the other place. I think that they are wrong, because that represents where we best position ourselves and where we have historically and traditionally given great effect at momentous times in world history. We are doing that in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and who knows where we will do it tomorrow? The Prime Minister set out a variety of security threats and challenges that we face and where the armed forces sit in relation to them. Much of what he said is what we have been addressing in the Ministry of Defence since the strategic defence review.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) for admitting that the Conservatives failed in government to address what was coming after the end of the cold war. The downsizing and the changes that took place were not well structured. The Conservatives did not analyse what the needs of the future would be. They immediately reduced defence expenditure dramatically so that they could invest it in trying to win the forthcoming elections.
Mr. Howarth rose—
Mr. Ingram: I shall give way in a moment on that point, but I do not agree with the analysis with which the hon. Gentleman closed his speech.
The incoming Labour Government considered where the armed forces should be positioned and how best they should be structured. That was an intensive programme, driven directly by the armed forces themselves. They knew that they had to get themselves better structured and positioned. On the back on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was clear that more needed to be done. There was not a full review, but more consideration needed to be given to how to structure the armed forces, particularly the Army.
We considered the new technology that was coming in, which changed the relationship between the various services and how they could fight interdependently and flexibly, meeting new challenges and a different type of threat and enemy. All that had to be included in the examination process. Such a process will always be complicated while we are engaged in heavy commitments such as in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Other countries where we are engaged have been mentioned, and it is interesting that people forget about Northern Ireland. Only a few years ago we had more troops committed there than to Iraq and Afghanistan put together. We have transformed Northern Ireland: when I was the Northern Ireland Office Minister with responsibility for security, we had about 15,000 troops committed. Some were on rear bases, but that was the total commitment, the vast bulk of which came from the Army.
The peace process was required for a lot of reasons, one of which was the heavy resource commitment. We had been there for far too long and there was another, better way of doing it. We could never have solved the problem militarily, yet we had a large commitment. As of next year, we will have a commitment of 5,000 troops—not for the peace process, although a measure of support will be given to the civilian authorities, but overall. That is a major transformation and it has reduced pressure.
Two parts of our re-examination were called future Army structure and future infantry structure. The future Army structure represents a complete overhaul of how we brigade the British Army. Virtually every Army unit establishment was subject to examination, and will be in the months and years ahead. Some 10,000 posts will be redistributed, which will reshape and restructure the Army and is intended to get a better balance between heavy, medium and light capabilities. We inherited an imbalance: the enemy and threat had changed, so we had to change accordingly. That required re-roling and people doing tasks other than those that they thought they would do when they entered the armed forces. We were committed to one objective: maintaining the high quality and standard of Her Majesty’s armed forces.
A previous Secretary of State, now the Minister for Europe, commented on the matter on 16 December 2004, saying:
“However, enhancements that we have already decided on include the creation of a new commando engineer regiment, a new port and maritime unit, an additional strategic communications unit and a new logistics support regiment for each deployable brigade. We are also creating a number of new sub-units for surveillance and target acquisition, bomb disposal and vehicle maintenance capabilities.”—(Official Report, 16 December 2004; Vol. 428, c. 1796.)
In April last year, a new special forces support group was also formed to work alongside special forces tackling the terrorism that we face globally. I have visited a support group and spoken to those deployed in Afghanistan. I cite those examples because they are never recognised as part of the process of substantial change that we have seen. That process has been driven by a military imperative to get things right, and there has been political and financial support for it.
Mr. Howarth: I entirely endorse that point, and the Minister is absolutely right, but we need to introduce changes to meet the circumstances of today, not the limbo in which we found ourselves in 1989, following the fall of the Berlin wall. It is absolutely right to do that, but the Minister’s problem is that he is still operating with an Army of less than 100,000. As far as I can work out, we would have to go back pretty well to the time of Wellington to find an Army as small as that. That is where the problem lies—not with the new units that the Minister is creating, which I applaud, but with the reduction in the Army below the critical 100,000 level.
Mr. Ingram: Let us look at the figures. The hon. Gentleman said that trained strength was 101,300 in 1997. It dropped to 100,900 the following year and to below 100,000 the year after that. In terms of the figure being below 100,000 and the reference to 1935, therefore, he is wrong. The current figures are marginally below the 1999 level. Interestingly, however, recruitment grew at the height of the Iraq controversy, when there were massive demonstrations in this country.
In 2004 and 2005, the figure went up to 102,400. That tells us something that is probably hard to analyse—recruitment went up against the trend, but we are now having recruiting difficulties. Tempo is unquestionably part of the issue, but people tend to forget the strength of the economy. The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) mentioned the strength of the Scottish economy and his own region. It is difficult to recruit from a particular cohort when the economy is strong, and especially when the demographics and all the higher and further education opportunities open to young people, which were not there before, are working against us.
That is what this debate is about, and if people can find a solution to that problem, they should tell us. A lot of effort is being put into working towards the best conclusion. We offer young people immense opportunities not only in the Army, but in the armed forces, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) mentioned the educational opportunities. We market and advertise the opportunities that the armed forces provide so that people are aware of them. Sometimes those recruiting campaigns work, but sometimes they do not. We are no different from any other major organisation that is trying to reach a market and attract people in.
What militates against our efforts is people arguing that the British armed forces are underfunded, ill equipped, badly treated and badly looked after. There may be some underlying truth in terms of issues needing to be addressed, but no wonder we find it difficult to recruit when debates such as this present a picture of complete negativity, rather than highlighting the positive attractions for young people. That is why we are putting so much effort into our recruiting strategy and trying to lift the quality of the debate as best we can.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: That is an interesting point. We have certainly seen that situation in the north-west, and particularly in Liverpool, which is a big recruiting area for young soldiers, although the economy and job opportunities have gone through the ceiling, which means that the Army is not as attractive as it was. However, I take my right hon. Friend back to my earlier point that the Army has made strong attempts to ensure that any qualification it gives has equivalent civilian accreditation. Many individuals were locked into the Army because their experience could not be marketed outside it, but that barrier has now gone. That means that they can gain fantastic opportunities and then say, “Where can I best use them?” That is quite an important factor, and I applaud the fact that we have taken those steps, but it does create retention problems.
Mr. Ingram: It is probably a no-win situation. Not every young person who comes into the armed forces because of the opportunities that they offer—they are not all 16 or 17-year-olds, and some are a bit more mature—is focused on training and education, and some come in to do what they want to do with the Royal Marines or the Army, but they are all given every opportunity. I agree that that raises an issue, in that we are making people employable who were not employable before.
I talked to RAF personnel at Kinloss yesterday, and several of them were looking at openings in the outside world. As a nation, we have give them that opportunity. Some would have taken it as a result of their own choice, but many will now be able to do so because we have provided the resources—the hundreds of millions that we pour into the education of our personnel.
I want now to touch on equipment because we hear so much about equipment problems—indeed, that is all we are ever told about. When the issue arises, Defence Ministers try to take those who make such comments through the argument. Let me give a good example of what applies to the Army today and what will apply into the future. Four years ago, an eight-man fire team would have had roughly three SA80s; one light support weapon; an individual Mk 6 helmet, webbing and Bergen; enhanced combat body armour; the old Clansman; a light anti-tank weapon; an individual weapon sight; and a 51 mm mortar. Now, such a team has a light support weapon; a light machine gun; an underslung grenade launcher; thermal imaging sights; the Mk 6A helmet, which is an improved defensive aid; all-round Osprey body armour, which has saved lives; the interim light anti-tank weapon; the Bowman personal role radio; head-mounted night-vision sights; a long-range image intensifier; and an automatic lightweight grenade launcher and a 60 mm mortar in support.
All those developments have taken place because of the theatre in which we find ourselves. That is what is happening on the procurement of equipment, and it is the same with armoured vehicles. I am really surprised that the hon. Member for Aldershot criticises what we are doing and says that we should do more. What more can we do, other than procure the numbers that we need and ask industry to supply us, which it is doing to a considerable extent? All that will place the Army in a better position in the years ahead.
Let us just consider one fact: equipment valued at more than £10 billion has been delivered to the armed forces in the past three years. When people say that equipment is not being supplied to provide for force protection and wider capabilities, they are simply wrong. If they want more defence expenditure, let me hear where they want less expenditure. I shall advocate more expenditure as part of a spending Department’s approach with the Treasury—it is our job to do that—but let those who want more for defence say where they want a reduction. In health? In education?
The issue is part of our covenant with the British people, and the Prime Minister set it out in his argument. Have we got the balance right? The argument is now out there, and the Prime Minister certainly made more than a contribution—his was a powerful examination of where we stand as a nation and what we need to do against unknown threats and enemies. However, we must get ourselves in the best position. I welcome this debate, and we should have more such debates, but I just wish that more hon. Members would participate in them.