THE ARMED FORCES PARLIAMENTARY SCHEME (WESTMINSTER HALL) – 11 September 2013

Dr Julian Lewis: Mr Walker, as a master of parliamentary procedure, you will know that when participating in a debate, one is not supposed to refer to the presence of anyone outside the confines of the Chamber. However, I am sure that you will allow me to say what a pleasure it is to know that Sir Neil and Sheila Thorne are present today to hear all the wonderful tributes to them and, as I am sure they would be the first to acknowledge, to hear the tributes that must be made to the civilian and uniformed staff of the Ministry of Defence over 25 years for their huge efforts in arranging the visits from the Armed Forces’ side.

It is a real honour to make the last speech by a Back Bencher in a debate about a scheme that has been an unalloyed and phenomenal success for a quarter of a century. I am delighted that this is one of those debates in which one can honestly feel that one agrees with every sentiment expressed so far.

The scheme has many things to recommend it, and I will pick up one or two of them in the time available. Both the Labour members of the Defence Committee, the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Dai Havard) and for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Gisela Stuart), referred to the sense of involvement in and participation with the Armed Forces, and to the difference between visits to the Armed Forces wearing their civilian suits as Committee members and wearing whatever variation of military uniform they have been privileged to wear on their scheme visits. I know that lawyers have been taking a close look at that, but I assure hon. Members that if we simply revert to being civilians visiting the military, something very precious will be lost from the scheme. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I am delighted that colleagues are endorsing that with various signals, and I hope that my hon. Friend [James Gray, AFPS Chairman] will do so explicitly.

Mr Gray: May I take the opportunity absolutely to reassure my hon. Friend that we most certainly will not return to civilian dress during those visits? There is a debate about exactly what we wear, when and how we wear it and the legalities, but he is absolutely right to say that appearing on visits in some form of dress appropriate to the occasion is definitely what the future will hold.

Dr Lewis: I could not have expected or desired a more reassuring comment.

I now look for a second reassuring comment. I will not get it immediately, but I am looking to my old Front-Bench colleague of many years’ standing on the former Shadow Defence team [Andrew Murrison] – he is now, thank goodness, the Minister – to address what one might call the issue of trust. The reason why the scheme has worked so well is that people have been given privileged access to members of the Armed Forces at every level. There has been, as it were, an unwritten understanding that that privilege would not be abused. When one considers the very large numbers of colleagues of all parties who have been through the scheme, it is remarkable that there have been hardly any cases – in the low single figures – of raised eyebrows about someone going on the scheme and immediately tabling a raft of hostile questions on the Floor of the House.

That excellent outcome is very different from what might have been predicted at the start of the process. As something of an amateur military historian, I look forward to the day when I can go to the National Archives at Kew and look for the file of correspondence that must exist relating to the period in which Sir Neil originally approached the Ministry of Defence to propose that MPs have direct informal access to all ranks of the Armed Forces.

Sir Bob Russell: We all look forward to those archives being open. May I suggest to my hon. Friend that informed questions, as opposed to hostile ones, are very much part and parcel of the experience of taking part in the scheme?

Dr Lewis: Exactly. That is precisely how people who have engaged in the scheme have understood their responsibilities, with very few exceptions. When one considers that the final stage of the scheme is membership of the Royal College of Defence Studies, that is quite remarkable. It may not be common knowledge, but those of us who are fortunate enough to be parliamentary members of the RCDS are taken on as full members and are considered to remain members for life. The essence of the RCDS course is meeting people, learning from them and establishing formal and informal contacts that will stand one in good stead in relation to one’s understanding of defence developments at home and abroad.

To inject a slightly quizzical note into my speech, that is why I was a little concerned recently to read an article about the eminent military historian Sir Max Hastings being refused the sort of informal contact that for many years he and many others have been allowed with senior serving personnel in the MOD network. That runs counter to the spirit of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, but I hope that it is simply a case of over-zealous application of some rule against leaking things to the media.

Certainly, if we reach a situation in which people like Sir Max Hastings – eminent historians and public commentators – cannot secure the degree of access that they used to have, or indeed if a similar bar is put on hon. Members, all I can say is that Ministers should take a deep breath, look at what has happened with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme and realise that a tunnel vision approach to access by civilians, whether they are reporters or Members of Parliament, to the military is counter-productive.

The Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme is a boon to hon. Members with little knowledge of defence, as it is to hon. Members when, as sometimes happens, their political party goes through a phase of anti-militarism. There was a period – thank goodness, long in the past – when the Labour Party shifted in a unilateralist direction, and I am sure that it was very valuable to those courageous members of the Labour Party who did not go in that direction to be able to recharge their intellectual batteries by having access to such a scheme. It is important that Members of Parliament who want to support the Armed Forces have the intellectual ammunition, on a non-partisan basis, to speak with authority about them.

I conclude by pointing out that the scale of the scheme when it started was for two Members of Parliament to visit each of the three Armed Forces, with two more visiting the Royal Marines, which is of course a subset – some would say, a superset – of the Royal Navy.

Oliver Colvile: A very fine subset of the Royal Navy.

Dr Lewis: Indeed, which was the reason for my quick interjection of the word "superset".

The scheme then moved to having five Members per Service, and it now has very large numbers. We measure the effectiveness of a scheme or organisation by the demand for it. There is a huge demand for this scheme, and we are very grateful that the supply will continue to meet the increased demand.