Conscription charge proves explosive

Inside Parliament
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Indy Politics
A charge that ministers were introducing "creeping conscription" into Britain by advertising for soldiers in JobCentres provoked fury in the Commons last night.

Nicholas Soames, the armed forces minister, went nuclear after his Labour shadow, John Reid, suggested that unemployed people who refused to take up Army vacancies could lose benefit.

"The proposition ... is so fatuous, so idiotic, so stupid that it almost defies imagination," Mr Soames declared. "There will be no conscription."

He had laid the ground for Dr Reid in the annual debate on the Army with an admission of the Army's difficulties in recruiting enough young soldiers for its fighting end. To maintain the right balance of age and experience it needs 15,000 recruits a year.

"The truth is that fewer volunteers are coming forward than we would like," Mr Soames said. According to the MoD, the Infantry, Armoured Corps and Royal Artillery are together 2,000 short. The Army is running campaigns and advertising at 1,100 job centres.

Calling on the Government to amend regulations to ensure benefit was not cut if people refused to enlist, Dr Reid said: "Either by incompetence or intent, ministers have introduced creeping conscription."

Mr Soames, a former Hussar, extolled the Army as a career without parallel in variety and excitement. But better than the list of official jollies was his story of Neil Coull, of the Royal Logistic Corps, who was challenged to an impromptu boxing match by the commander of a Muslim road block in Bosnia.

Corp Coull, from Billingham, Cleveland, was on a routine mail run when he found a Canadian convoy halted at the road block. He insisted the British forces' mail be allowed through but the commander barred the route until he noticed a pair of boxing gloves in the back of the Land-Rover. "Corp Coull, a keen amateur boxer, was promptly challenged to a winner-takes- all boxing match. A makeshift ring was marked out by the roadside and amid much cheering, Corp Coull knocked his opponent to the ground in 30 seconds. As a result, the Queen's mail was allowed through."

Outside the debate, the MoD confirmed it is to buy 800 Land-Rover military ambulances rather than an Austrian competitor. MPs were told the Army will also get 8,000 Land-Rover Defender XDs to replace about half its fleet of ageing utility vehicles. The orders are worth more than pounds 200m and should help sustain 500 jobs.

Reports that his own job was again at risk from Tory backbench moves to depose him were dismissed by John Major at Question Time as "silly speculation" and "nonsense".

Laughing off the coup was made easier by Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, who disingenuously offered his condolences that "the 'bastards' are plotting again". The "bastards" was Mr Major's unguarded description of right-wingers in his Cabinet, though the latest plotters were said to be party "grandees".

Mr Mullin said the Tories' difficulties were not Mr Major's fault. "He simply has the bad luck to be Prime Minister at the time when the bills are coming in for the Thatcher decade. If I might offer him a word of advice, it's not a leadership election he needs to offer them, it's a general election. That would shut them up."

Amid laughter, Mr Major recalled the MP had some experience, having run the campaign of one of the losing candidates (Tony Benn) in an earlier Labour Party leadership election. "So I take with some interest what he says, but perhaps I won't follow it to the letter."

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