Some excellent questions being asked my Conservative MPs in Defence Questions yesterday…
Bernard Jenkin: The Secretary of State must be the only person in the House who does not understand that the armed forces are overstretched and under-resourced for the commitments that they have undertaken. When is he going to face up to the fact? If the military has to cancel 10 per cent. of their training every year, the resources are clearly not available for it to do the job and be trained for the job that it is meant to do?
Des Browne: Statistics show that the number of training events is increasing every year. For the year 2004-05, the total of planned training events was 379; for 2005-06, it was 533; and for 2006-07, it was 699. I accept that some of those events were cancelled, but the percentage of cancellations has decreased. I accept, too—I have said so at the Dispatch Box—that we are asking the military to do a significant amount, which has an effect. I have also explained time and again what we plan to do to reduce that pressure.
Julian Lewis: Have not the Government failed in their attempts since 2004 to produce a defence-specific inflation index? They keep trumpeting the fact that they have given the armed forces 1.5 per cent. more than the general level of inflation, but the Royal United Services Institute calculates that defence equipment projects run at 5 to 10 per cent. above the general level of inflation. Does that not mean that the Government’s claim that they are spending more on defence in real terms is simply a load of hogwash?
Des Browne: It is not a load of hogwash. I have given the figures, and the Opposition spokesmen must accept, however reluctantly, that there have been real- terms increases. The Opposition face a problem, as there is a £6 billion hole in their spending plans. In our policy debate last Tuesday, I invited the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to say from the Dispatch Box whether he would match or improve our spending
Andrew Mackinlay (Lab): May I tell the Secretary of State that we did not know that there was a report within Government in 2005? The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has been asking for and expecting a response to the representations that it made some eight years ago, following the Sandline inquiry and the problems arising from the fact that London is one of the world recruitment capitals for security firms. There is a problem with the interface and relationship between those firms and United Kingdom armed forces, and it needs to be addressed with greater expedition.
Des Browne: I think that my hon. Friend’s question betrays the complexity of the issues involved. The problem is defining the activities that should be regulated, and how any regulation of overseas activities might be enforced. That is not an easy matter to resolve. Indeed, the Blackwater incident and its aftermath shows that the United States of America is struggling to do so, given that the regulation of such companies in Iraq currently depends on a coalition provisional authority memorandum. There are a number of complexities with the issue. I am anxious that they be resolved, and that we can come to the House in good time to explain how we will proceed on that area of policy.
James Gray: The Secretary of State sounds reluctant to grasp the nettle on the issue so ably raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). Surely there are two problems: that the companies are doing things that the British armed forces would traditionally have done themselves, were it not for overstretch, and that the attraction of some of the companies is such that they pull people out of our armed services to go and work for them at much higher wages. That in itself contributes to overstretch.
Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman only adds to the complexity of the issues with that qualification. It is not true to suggest that those companies, which are not all, by any stretch of the imagination, within the Government’s control, do work that the British Army would otherwise do were it not for overstretch. In fact, in Iraq, the Departments that contract those companies do so to provide security for civilian operators. It is by no means correct that the Army would provide that security in any event or that other military forces would do so. There is no lack of willingness on my part or energy to work our way through the difficulties, but they are significant, and we want to try to get them right before we announce the detailed policy to the House.
“Our reserves to meet the unexpected (as well as for current operations) are now almost non-existent…We now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected”.
Is that not a shocking indictment of this Government’s stewardship of our armed forces?
Bob Ainsworth: It is not the view of the chiefs of the defence staff that we are asking more than is possible of our armed forces. We, as Ministers, share the concern that our armed forces are extremely busy and that there is not a great residue of capacity left aside. We all know that we have two current operations going on. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is saying that all our armed forces are working extremely hard. No one is trying to hide that at all, but we are dealing with the situation, and our armed forces are dealing with it in an exemplary fashion.
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