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Parliamentarians learn the ropes at Defence Academy

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Last week the Defence Academy at Shrivenham played host to twenty-five politicians and Members of Parliament as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (AFPS).

The two-day stay at the internationally-acclaimed centre of excellence for defence study combined briefings, discussions and a few hands-on practical demonstrations.

The parliamentarians had explained to them the role of the military in a democracy and the MOD as a Department of State, and how the ‘casualty chain’ works, basically the method by which seriously injured troops are returned to the UK.

They were also confronted with an array of weaponry including Kalashnikovs, SA80s and Timberwolf sniper rifles, which some of them were able to try out on the firing range.

Newcomer to the scheme, West Midlands MEP Nikki Sinclaire, said she found it fascinating to hear from the families of Armed Forces personnel and learn of their particular needs and challenges.

Education and health for these family members were high on her agenda when she said ‘if Jill’s not happy then neither is Jack!’, referring to the importance of personnel deploying overseas being content in the knowledge they are leaving their families in a safe and secure environment. She added:

It’s good to hear that these issues are being addressed by local authorities.

The AFPS was founded in 1988, the brainchild of Sir Neil Thorne.

Concerned at the lack of subject knowledge displayed by MPs whilst debating defence issues, Sir Neil, a former gunner, quickly identified the urgent need to educate politicians and give them a clear insight into the structure of Defence, the interface between military and civilian personnel, and the unique workings, ethos and lifestyle of the Armed Forces.

There was a time when the majority of standing MPs would have served in one of the arms of the British military, but with National Service having been phased out some fifty years ago, ‘insider’ knowledge of military service fell to a sprinkling of MPs who had had a former career in uniform.

However, in recent years, the Armed Forces’ torch has been carried in Parliament by a number of high-profile individuals, such as distinguished former Colonel and Commander of British troops in Bosnia, Bob Stewart, now MP for Beckenham.

From its fledgling roots back in 1988 the scheme has grown, and today there are four tiers, each given an associated rank equating to Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel and Brigadier (equivalent ranks in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are given to those politicians wishing to align with these Services).

There are five members per tier with the opportunity for ‘graduation’ up through the ranks!

Sir Neil said:

It was important to pitch the associated rank at the right level so MPs got to see life as it is for the personnel on the ground as opposed to a politician visiting the Armed Forces and getting the VIP treatment.

Member of the House of Lords Ian McColl (Lord McColl of Dulwich), a former surgeon, enjoyed handling the weapons at the firing range:

The last time a fired a rifle was back in 1951 when I was a cadet at school; back then it was .303s and .22s,” he said.

Speaking about the scheme and the visit to the Academy in particular he said:

It’s a marvellous set-up; very enjoyable and educational. It’s so important to have people in Parliament with an understanding of such an important subject. I’m fascinated by how policy is communicated and the way public opinion is highly regarded.

The briefing on Operation ELLAMY, Britain’s contribution to the multinational task force deployed to Libya, greatly interested Lord McColl as he revealed:

Some years ago, about the time of the US bombing of Tripoli, I was called to operate on Gaddafi’s 103-year-old father, or so they claimed, he looked older to me! Ashen faces befell the whole surgical team as Colonel Gaddafi, wearing his trademark silver-plated automatic pistols, ominously asked me how the procedure had gone.