First, I would like to associate myself with the condolences expressed to the families and friends of the young solider who was killed yesterday, and to those of all our servicemen and women who have died over the decades to keep this country in freedom, to preserve free speech and to help us to have the standard of living that we have today. They have more than fulfilled their need to defend their country and should be recognised as having done so.
I also congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). It is seldom that we hear an Opposition Front-Bench spokesman who has obviously looked at his portfolio and who conducts himself in a proper manner to defend not only this House but the party that he represents. His conduct in mentioning our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was exemplary. It is a pleasure to follow him.
I would like to start by talking about our veterans, following the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who eloquently explained why our veterans have done such a good job and why they should be recognised by this country. I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for coming to my constituency, where 220 veterans, plus families and friends, turned up for an event during veterans week. He was our honoured guest speaker. I also thank BAE Systems, which I will mention again later, which helped to sponsor the event.
In particular, I want to mention the cadets from the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force who turned up and looked after my veterans so ably. I think that they got more than a little enjoyment from listening to the stories that they were told about the escapades of some of the gentlemen and ladies during the second world war. They had an excellent day, as did the veterans. I have gratefully received a number of letters thanking me for the day. We had a good sing-song and went over all the songs of the war days—some of which I did not know. It was an excellent day and it was a good way to recognise those who had put their lives in harm’s way to protect those of us who were born after the war.
Earlier this week, when people once again raised the subject of an extra bank holiday, I thought to myself, “We have recognised veterans. We had veterans week last year and veterans day just the other week. If colleagues and friends want an extra bank holiday, rather than make it a nationalist type of day, why don’t we have a day off to celebrate those who put their lives on the line for their country?” Let us have a veterans day when we can properly recognise and celebrate what those people did for the country. That would be a much better way of showing support and would mean that we had a day off when we could remember members of our own families who put their lives on the line and died. That would be much better than having a bank holiday for St. Andrew’s day, St. George’s day or St. David’s day. That would be a much better way of making it a national day.
That brings me on to another subject relating to our armed forces personnel who lay down their lives. It does not matter what country they come from. Whether they come from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or England, it does not matter one jot. They are not second-class soldiers. I believe that we in this House should not be second class either. We have just as much right to defend those people in the House as they have to defend us. I deplore people’s attitude in trying to downgrade Members of this House.
I will move on to talk about the important matter of equipment for our armed forces. It will not surprise my right hon. Friend the Minister that I wish to talk about shipbuilding and, in particular, the Navy. I thank him once again for the work that he, his Department and others did to achieve the orders for the Type 45s, which are being built in my constituency as I speak. However, there is a question mark over the building of the seventh and eighth Type 45s.
Let me give hon. Members a little more insight into the Type 45s. They will defend the two new carriers that we are about to build. My informants in the Royal Navy tell me that four Type 45s are needed to defend a carrier because the Type 45s corner the carrier to cover the area all round it. As we are to have two carriers, it suggests that we will need eight Type 45s to do the job, so will my right hon. Friend tell me what is happening with Nos. 7 and 8? Our servicemen and women serving on ships deserve the best protection that they can have, so if the Royal Navy is correct and it needs those ships, I hope that my right hon. Friend will come forth with something that will make me and other hon. Members feel a lot better.
John Robertson: I had not forgotten that, but I was trying to be party conscious and help my right hon. Friend the Minister. However, it would be nice if we got the other four as well, especially because at the moment the Scotstoun yard, which is the larger of the two yards on the Clyde, seems to be sending most of its workers over to Govan, which is where the steel cutting is done, because that is where most of the work is taking place at present. It is only once the fitting starts that we will get the work back in my constituency. I am sure that the local hostelries and shops will be happy when the fitting work starts to appear on the Clyde, which I am told will happen by the end of the year.
We have been especially quiet about the military afloat reach and sustainability project. We need either several new ships, or to upgrade or renovate a number of ships, so will my right hon. Friend the Minister give us an update on what is happening? The project is especially important to some of our smaller yards, such as Ferguson’s in Port Glasgow, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan). The yard is desperate for orders, and some of the smaller ships covered by the MARS project would be ideal for it.
We must ensure that Afghanistan and Iraq have security forces who are equipped and trained for the job in hand. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister give me an update on what is happening with the training of security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan? I read somewhere that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had said that he expected that over the next 12 to 18 months, the democratically-elected Iraqi Government and their security forces might take responsibility for security. May I deduce from that that the start of the withdrawal of our troops could coincide with that time period? I will be interested to hear whether that is on the agenda. I appreciate that, for security reasons, one does not tell one’s enemy when one’s troops are being withdrawn, but as the local Iraqi troops grow to sufficient numbers, I would expect the number of our troops to decrease, albeit not necessarily by the same extent.
May I raise a subject that I raised in the debate on pensions for armed forces personnel and in other defence debates? My participation in the armed forces parliamentary scheme brought me into close contact with members of the armed forces and their lifestyle, so I was particularly pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) that the morale of our troops is high. From reading media reports, however, one would think that they were holding their heads, a handkerchief in their hand, wondering what was going to happen to them. One would not think that their morale was high, they were doing a good job, or were successfully training the Iraqi security forces. It is important that we congratulate them on doing such a good job, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Woodspring on saying so. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has alluded to the subject, but it is unusual for the shadow Secretary of State to agree with him. It would be useful if we remembered that agreement in other debates, as it is important to give credit where credit is due.
A couple of years ago, we discussed the issue of soldiers who leave the armed forces, and it was drawn to my attention that 10 per cent. of soldiers who leave the services fail to find a job and are unemployed. I thought that it was deplorable that people who had served the nation could not find a job, and were not given extra help to do so. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister of State say whether the figure is still 10 per cent., or whether it is lower or higher? What extra things have been done in the past few years to ensure that our servicemen are assisted in their return to civil society? What has been done to ensure that they find a job and are helped to find accommodation and to return to the area where they came from?
I have made a number of points that my right hon. Friend probably did not expect me to make, but I hope that I have provided the House with food for thought. I congratulate the Government on providing us with an opportunity to debate this important issue, but I wish that it could have been debated when many more Members were in the House. I see that, once again, the nationalists are missing. That is not unusual—they miss many important debates—but I should like their absence to be put on the record. Although they are the first to mount campaigns, particularly in Scotland, on regiments, the closure of airfields and so on, they could not even be bothered to turn up to our debate.