Armed Forces Personnel

6th July 2006

Brooks Newmark calls for the Government to focus more on its duty of care owed to the men and women of the armed services and in particular to the 5 R's of recruitment, retention, resources, rehabilitation and retirement.

 

4.47 pm

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Like my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), I begin with a tribute to the men and women who serve in our armed forces. Even when they are properly resourced-I hasten to add that I am still not convinced that they are-they work day in, day out in the most challenging circumstances imaginable.

I recently had the opportunity to visit the headquarters of the Ministry of Defence police in Weathersfield, in my constituency. Whether they are guarding the UK's nuclear arsenal or other critical defence establishments, the MOD police do not live in the limelight. They stand apart from the other armed services, but, like those services, they are quietly efficient and utterly vital to this country's interests. I mention the MOD police not only because they are headquartered in my constituency, but because I suspect that they are typical of much of this country's defence establishment, in that they do an essential job that goes largely unnoticed and unappreciated.

In his contribution to the armed forces debate in another place last week, Lord Drayson was adamant that there was no public relations crisis facing the military. As evidence, he cited a MORI poll that confirmed that 80 per cent. of the population regard our armed forces as among the finest in the world. I have no doubt that they enjoy even greater support among the general public than that poll suggests, but my point is that, when most people think of the armed forces, they think, on the whole, of past services rendered. They are less quick to think of those who are on active service today, using sub-standard equipment, waiting hours or days for a flight home for deployment or worrying about their families living in inadequate accommodation back at home.

I congratulate the Government on instituting veterans day. It is right that we remember our veteran servicemen and women, but it is time that we placed greater emphasis on those serving today, and on the need to ensure that they will continue serving our country. We also need to look ahead and take action to ensure that generations of new recruits will want to follow them into the services. Recruitment relies on good public relations and, although I do not doubt the very high esteem in which the services continue to be held, we must admit that there is a difference between respecting an organisation and wanting to join it.

I was struck by the example of Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, who served as Chief of the Imperial General Staff during much of the great war. In 1919, he became the first man in the British Army to rise all the way from the rank of private to the rank of field marshal. But despite that conspicuously successful career, his working-class mother was horrified when he enlisted. He records her saying in his autobiography:

"I will name it to no one; I would rather bury you than see you in a red coat."

That late 19th century distrust of the military is something to which we would not wish to return.

As we all know, steady recruitment is the lifeblood of all our services. It depends, in no small measure, on the families of potential recruits trusting that they will be looked after and not placed in unnecessary danger because of inadequate equipment or operational overstretch. The issue of trust is central to this debate because there are increasing signs that servicemen on active duty no longer trust that they will receive adequate support from the Government.

My father-in-law, Sir John Keegan, is a distinguished military historian, which, I must admit, is something of an advantage when it comes to preparation for a debate on the armed forces. As we are commemorating the 90th anniversary of the battle of the Somme, I would like to quote briefly from one of his books, "The Face of Battle", which contains an analysis of that campaign from the perspective of the ordinary soldiers who fought in it. He says of the British Army of 1916 that

"it was a trusting army. It believed in the reassurances proffered by the staff. It believed in the superiority of its own equipment over the Germans'. It believed in the dedication and fearlessness of its battalion officers-and was right so to believe. But it believed above all in itself."

Some 90 years later and the essentials remain the same. The armed services are still trusting and that human quality sometimes does them a disservice. I hope that we do not need a military catastrophe in Iraq or in Afghanistan to shake the foundation of that trust as it did on the Somme.

I have already said a little about recruitment, but the need for it would be minimised by focusing more on retention. There are many factors affecting retention but some of the most significant are easily identifiable and must be addressed. Indeed, I ask the Minister when he will give a commitment to serving soldiers that they will not be hauled through the civil courts for actions undertaken while on deployment and operating under the most difficult circumstances.

Another R is for reserves-also lacking, both in the strategic sense of having some ability to adapt to changing circumstances which require an increased commitment, but vital in enabling our forces to sustain their current level of commitment. What are the Government doing to tackle that overstretch? Several hon. Members have already asked that question.

Overstretch should be a transient fault to be regretted and avoided wherever possible. But when overstretch becomes systemic, it is not really overstretch at all-it is underinvestment. If our armed forces are stretched too far they will lose their elasticity and ability to react quickly and decisively. Eventually, they will snap. For example, the 1st Battalion the Light Infantry is currently on its third tour of Iraq in three years, and there can be little incentive for the men in that battalion to remain in the Army. What are the Government doing to ensure that the interval target of 24 months between deployments is met for all our troops?

The lack of resources is the biggest threat to retention. The Government have reassured the House repeatedly that commanders in the field will be given what they need to succeed. I am not reassured, especially when Ministers quote senior commanders such as Lieutenant General David Richards, who said:

"Bottom line, I am content with what I have and I have the resources to carry out the mission".

I am not reassured because it is hard to imagine a military officer admitting that he or his men are not up to the task in hand, however justified that might be by the lack of resources. Soldiers just get on with the job, whatever resources are at hand, but the persistent lack of resources is not the only problem facing the services.

The extended deployment of soldiers often interferes with another R-rehabilitation. Professor Guy Chapman was a young officer during the Somme campaign. He wrote:

"If you start a man killing, you can't turn him off again like an engine."

Civilians take it for granted that their employers will offer them training, career management, counselling and a range of other services. In our cash-strapped armed services, those are the first things that are cut, and even medical care is now threatened. The net result has been that a tide of service personnel have left the forces as ill equipped to deal with civilian life as they were on active service.

Mr. Soames: I agree with much of what my hon. Friend is saying, although it is to the MOD's credit that resettlement training in the Army is brilliant. However, does he agree that the big problem faced by people leaving the forces is that of adjusting to a civilian life?

Mr. Newmark: My hon. Friend brings me to my very point. The shameful statistic is that between one quarter and one fifth of rough sleepers have served in our armed forces. That is the point that I tried to make when I intervened earlier on my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox).

The Government's duty of care to service personnel does not rest on a narrow legal definition, nor does it end when people leave the services. What are they doing to ensure that personnel receive more than just combat experience when they enlist?

My final R is retirement. It is the final stage of the through-life cost of service personnel-or, I should say, it is the final stage of the through-life duty owed to them by the Government. The Government must do more than honour veterans in spirit, or by giving them a badge. Veterans deserve more than our intangible respect: they need continuing support, medical and psychiatric but financial too-by which I mean better pensions.

I have spoken briefly about the five Rs-recruitment, retention, resources, rehabilitation and retirement. Unless we address each of them, we will not have armed forces that are, to use the Government's mantra, fit for purpose.

I conclude by quoting Lord Garden, who warned in the other place that a renewal of the duty of care owed to servicemen is needed urgently if we want to avoid finding ourselves

"with a great deal of shiny equipment but nobody to operate it."-[ Official Report, House of Lords, 29 June 2006; Vol. 683,c. 1369.]

It seems that much of our equipment is not in fact all that shiny, but I urge the Minister to pay heed to the warning.

4.59 pm

...

OTHER CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE DEBATE

Mr. Newmark: Does my hon. Friend realise that the knock-on effect of this lack of psychiatric care is that 20 to 25 per cent. of homeless people on the streets of London are people who were in the armed forces?

Dr. Fox: I have made the point that the level of mental health care for those in the armed forces needs to be looked at. What my hon. Friend describes is a wider problem. Mental health is the Cinderella service in health care provision, and Members in all parts of the House need to find a way to raise its importance as an issue. The quality of care that we provide to those with a mental illness is one way that we can measure how civilised we are as a society, and I am afraid that we fail rather badly in that regard.

 

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