PMQs: Nick tackles Gordon on armed forces’ living conditions

by Stephen Tall on January 31, 2008

Another week, more focus by Nick Clegg on domestic bread ‘n’ butter issues during his exchange with the Prime Minister at the weekly PMQs: this time taking Gordon Brown to task for the poor conditions of the British armed forces’ living conditions.

The spectres of the last week’s sleaze allegations – Labour’s Peter Hain and the Tories’ Derek Conway – were both absent from the exchanges between Mr Brown and David Cameron. The encounter seemed a score-draw to me: while Gordon lacked finesse, Dave lacked gravitas.

Nick continues to do well: focused questions, punchily delivered. At the moment he’s still sticking to his script, which is far enough while he finds his feet and gets the measure of the occasion. It also works better for media soundbites. But it would be good to see him respond directly in his second follow-up question to Mr Brown’s habitual put-downs of ‘the Liberal party’, and our economic policies – the Government’s mishandling of Northern Rock (and Vince’s assured credibility) gives him just that opportunity.

Anyway, here’s the exchange in full, as recorded by Hansard. If you like, you can watch PMQs in full here.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): Does the Prime Minister think it acceptable that, at a time when British soldiers’ lives are at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan, half their single living accommodation is still of the lowest standard, half our Apache helicopters remain unfit for service, and more than 60 per cent. of Army officers cite military overstretch as a reason for leaving the Army? Is he surprised at the widespread view that he simply does not care about our armed forces?

The Prime Minister: It is precisely because of the backlog in accommodation over many decades that we are spending £5 billion to improve service accommodation. The hon. Gentleman should welcome the fact that, as a result of the spending review, an announcement was made to do that. He should also know that we have ordered additional helicopters for both Afghanistan and Iraq and that there will be more helicopters in the field in the next few months. We are therefore taking action on each of the matters that he mentioned.
I should also remind the hon. Gentleman that defence spending has risen every year under this Government and it will increase in the next few years as a result of the spending review. Defence spending was cut by 20 per cent. between 1992 and 1997 and it is rising under us, but under no Liberal policy could that party ever afford to spend what is necessary on defence.

Mr. Clegg: Why should any British soldier’s family take the Prime Minister’s word seriously when they feel so let down? Only this week, the Defence Committee produced a report that highlighted drastic shortages in Army medical services. There is a 46 per cent. shortfall in anaesthetists, a 62 per cent. shortfall in orthopaedic surgeons and an 80 per cent. shortfall in radiologists. If the Prime Minister cannot be bothered to provide decent medical care for our servicemen and women, how can he ask them to put their lives on the line for our country?

The Prime Minister: We have been spending substantially more on medical services. I have visited some of them and seen the improvements that have been made. Many people say that Britain has some of the best medical services for members of the armed forces in the world.
I repeat that we are spending more on defence, and we will continue to do that, and that every urgent operational requirement of the armed forces is being met. The hon. Gentleman would not be able to provide the necessary money for the defence forces; because of our economic success, we have been able to do so.