Armed with knowledge: Andrew Jones MP

Written by Andrew Jones MP on 24 October 2012 in Culture
Andrew Jones MP praises the benefits of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme

This article is from the October 2012 issue of Total Politics

A colleague recommended it, and it was a good recommendation. I am on the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (AFPS) for this year, and it has been excellent.
The AFPS was set up in 1989 by Sir Neil Thorne, MP for Ilford from 1979 to 1992, with the objective of giving MPs the opportunity to learn more about our armed services – their ethos, cultures and the challenges they face – and to gain a little first-hand experience of the Forces themselves. Sir Neil continues to play a huge role in managing the scheme, and Mr Speaker is the president.
Most MPs do not have a military background, yet we’re asked to make decisions – some of the most difficult we make – about our services. I come from a business background and wanted my decisions to be more informed. So I joined the AFPS and I am certain that it plays a key part in ensuring parliamentarians are better informed on defence matters across all services. 
Members can choose which service they want to be assigned to, and while MPs make up the majority of the membership, it’s also open for Lords and MEPs – one participant I met was even from the House of Keys on the Isle of Man. We have to commit to 22 days’ participation in our scheme year to complete it and graduate and it’s not easy fitting this into either busy parliamentary or Forces’ diaries. 
The service I chose was the Army, because of the complexity of the challenges it faces, and because I have an army base in my Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency, the Army Foundation College. Shortly after joining the AFPS I received the parliamentary insignia, with instructions on where to collect my uniform and to fix the insignia. I needed clear instructions on that one. 
Having a uniform seemed strange at first, but I soon realised it was a good way to ensure the effective structure of the scheme. Being in uniform for a visit to a base, or spending time embedded within a unit, is about helping break down the barriers between ourselves and the hosts – we simply learn more.
Now just over half way through the year, I’ve spent time with serving soldiers, from the newest recruits to the chief of the defence staff. I’ve watched some of the training exercises, from those arriving in the Army to those deploying to theatre, from riot control to using new armoured vehicles. And I’ve examined some of the hardware and systems used: the SA80 Rifle, the Challenger tank, the Apache helicopter and the anti-IED technologies in operation. 
Some elements of the AFPS have stood out as especially valuable. The scope of the training in preparation for deployment to Afghanistan was greater than I realised – I had no prior knowledge, for example, that two Afghan villages had been built on a training area in Norfolk, or that they had villagers, and never guessed that I’d be joining their ‘elders’ for a plate of rice and chicken. The riot control exercise at Longmoor Camp for officer cadets of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, Exercise Broadsword, was far more intense than expected, and almost seemed to be a rite of passage for the cadets. The breadth of thinking at the Defence Academy about future national security threats was impressive. Above all, I’ve liked and respected all the British soldiers, of all ranks, whom I’ve met. I’ve seen the pride they have in their regiments and what they do, and been grateful for their openness when answering questions.
We have occasional moments of blistering insight. I visited the Armoured Training Centre in Bovington with Colonel Bob Stewart MP, who, when he tried to get into one of the simulators, called out, “God, I’m too fat to get through the hole.” On the same visit we were each allowed five shots on the rifle range. When checking the targets, Bob’s score was zero out of five – the score on the adjacent target of Ian Liddell-Grainger MP was 10 out of five. 
Some areas of forces’ management remain fuzzy, and neither the process for defence procurement nor the habit of speaking in three-letter acronyms aids clarity. I suspect, too, that there’s more bureaucracy than we see. 
There are a further three years of postgraduate opportunities within the scheme, during which participants take part in considering how our services work together, and the final year, the advanced post-graduate course, is based on work at the Royal College of Defence Studies. 
From my limited time so far on the AFPS, I already feel better equipped to contribute on defence issues, and also to speak up for the men and women in our services. And, having spoken to colleagues who have been assigned to each service, I know they feel the same.
Andrew Jones is Conservative MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough

Tags: Andrew Jones MP, Armed Forces, Army, Issue 51

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