Action Man Matthew Offord (right) and AFPS friends, relaxing after another gruelling tour of duty
*Updated, 6th September, see below:
When Mrs Angry was a little girl, she was a voracious reader. In those far off days, children were only allowed three library books a week and normally those would be read by Sunday. Mrs Angry was allowed a weekly comic, which didn't last long either, and so, in desperation, she would sometimes end up reading her brother's comic, 'The Victor'. This habit gave her a very interesting insight into the workings of the male psyche, which has served her well in later life too. If you are not familiar with this sort of comic, well, all you need to know is the contents were probably hugely politically incorrect, sexist, violent, xenophobic, and worse still, had endless stories about - yawn - football. Many of the regular features - with titles like 'Killer Kennedy, RN', or 'Two Targets for 22 Squadron', were about daring do in exotic locations: square jawed heros armed with machine guns or knives, fighting against all the odds and winning through, singlehandedly, of course. You boys.
Mrs Angry was reminded of these exciting tales last night, when she happened upon the latest installment of news on the website of our much missed local Hendon MP, Matthew Offord. If you remember, there was much discussion here in Broken Barnet over Matthew's failure to return to the UK during the riots, and his absence when Parliament was recalled. Our peripatetic MP was said to be in Belize, and some naughty people alleged that he might even be on a scuba diving holiday. No, no, no. Not so, citizens.
Matthew told the local Times group reporters that in fact he was not enjoying 'cocktails on the beach', poor old love. As the paper reported:
"He said he is not just on holiday but is also doing Parliamentary business helping the country prepare for hurricane season, as well as working with coastguards fighting the drugs trade and terrorism. "
Aha. Not just on holiday: what does that mean?
Well: our man in the jungle has now returned safely. You might like to have a look at what he has to say for himself and his exploits. It's a thrilling, Boys Own/Victor style adventure:
We are told that:
Matthew witnesses dumping of £50 million of illegal drugs during Armed Forces operation"£50 million of cocaine has been removed from our streets as a result of recent activity in the Caribbean. A joint operation between the Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA), the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the U.S. Coastguard Service was complemented by two MPs, Wyre Forest’s Mark Garnier and Hendon’s MP Matthew Offord - as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (AFPS).
The two MPs were stationed on the RFA’s 31,500 tonnes Fast Fleet Tanker Wave Ruler to see for themselves how narco-terrorism is being tackled by the Atlantic Patrol Task (North). During their time on board three operations were conducted, the third of which resulted in a major disruption of illegal drugs."
Mrs Angry is glad that this mission was 'complemented' by two MPs. She imagines that their contribution was invaluable. The website also reports that Mr Offord has joined the Royal Marines:
"In addition to the narco-terrorism initiative Matthew also participated in the Royal Navy’s preparations for Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) as it is currently hurricane season in the Caribbean. This programme became invaluable as Tropical Storm Harvey made landfall in Belize, whilst Matthew was in the country. Being assigned to the Royal Marines as part of the AFPS, Matthew also took the opportunity to meet a detachment Royal Marines on a training exercise in Belize."
Where were you then, exactly, Matthew, when Tropical Storm Harvey made landfall? Did you take an umbrella?
Matthew said: “I gained an incredible insight into the activities of the various law enforcement agencies as they tackle narco-terrorism* in the North Atlantic region. The results of the actions I have been involved with will have a direct consequence in crime reduction on the streets of the Hendon constituency, London and other towns and cities in the UK. This type of illegal drug destroys lives and I am proud to have been a part of an operation that has disrupted the supply.
I am also pleased to have made a contribution in the efforts to reduce the effects of tropical storms and hurricanes on British Overseas Territories. The Royal Navy not only provides direct assistance after a disaster but also gives massive reassurance by their presence. That is also a great relief to many of my constituents who originate from the Caribbean and still have friends and family in the region.”
*interesting use of the term 'narco terrorism', which is defined by the US government as:
“participation of groups or associated individuals in taxing, providing security for, otherwise aiding or abetting drug trafficking endeavors in an effort to further, or fund, terrorist activities."
Not quite sure where the link to terrorist activities is here, but it sounds good, doesn't it? Mrs Angry is confident that the citizens of Hendon will sleep more easily in their beds tonight, as a result of their MP's complementary observations.
Ah: are you wondering what the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme is? Mrs Angry was curious too. It sounds as if it is a government sponsored enterprise, doesn't it? It isn't, though.
Here is an extract from an article published on HMForces.co.uk website on January 18th 2010.
MPs have been condemned by ex-servicemen after accepting commemorative medals for time spent with the Armed Forces.
Some MPs have received the awards for 10 years’ or more membership of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (AFPS).
The body allows politicians to spend around 22 days a year with the Forces. The practice has been criticised by former servicemen, families of personnel who have died in Iraq and a senior officer who led British forces in Afghanistan.
Col Richard Kemp, was commander of British troops in the country in 2003, and campaigned for a medal for all those wounded in action but was turned down by the Ministry of Defence.
He said: “It seems a bit rich to give a medal to an MP for visiting a combat zone, yet the Government is not prepared to give a medal to someone who has lost a leg or an arm in battle.” * See below for update ... The AFPS medal is made of silver and attached to a crimson, gold and green ribbon representing the colours of the Lords, the Queen and the Commons.
It is an unofficial medal and is worn by recipients on the right breast.
MPs in the scheme – which is backed by the Ministry of Defence – are given a uniform which includes a badge decorated with a portcullis, the symbol of Parliament, and enter at the rank of major. They can earn promotion to colonel and above, according to the number of “training” days they attend. So far, around 200 MPs have participated but only eight to 10 have served long enough to be eligible for the award.
Soldiers are only awarded medals if they serve in a war zone, in operations, or for long service or acts of conspicuous bravery.
The MPs’ medal ceremony has previously taken place in the Speaker’s state dining room at the House of Commons, and is attended by senior military officers. The Labour MP Frank Cook was presented with his medal by Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the current Chief of the Defence Staff. Other politicians to receive the award include the Tories Roger Gale; James Gray; Edward Garnier QC, who is shadow attorney general; and Julian Lewis. They have all reached the rank of colonel or above.
Other Labour MPs known to have been given a medal include Andrew Miller.
“It is a bit vain to award yourself a medal just for spending time with members of the Armed Forces,” said Bob Clay, 78, who served in the Guards Independent Parachute Company for 22 years and is now a Royal British Legion committee member in Lymington, Hampshire.
“It is like patting yourself on the back. What the troops want is real support from politicians, not this sort of PR.”
Robert Hannaford, 76, who served in the Army Intelligence Corps in the 1950s and is now president of the Royal British Legion Club in Margate, Kent, said: “I’ve always been sceptical about medals awarded to people just for being in a certain place at a certain time rather than for earning them on merit.”
The scheme is run by Sir Neil Thorne, a former Tory MP and former colonel in the Territorial Army, with part-funding from the defence industry. He started it in 1988 to give MPs a clearer idea of Forces life.
Sir Neil defended the medal as recognition of long service and loyalty to service personnel.
“What I am trying to get them to do is support the men and women in the Armed Forces,” he said.
Mr Gale said: “I have got one medal from the scheme which I have worn on two occasions. Of course I would never wear it on something like Remembrance Sunday, because that’s for the bold who earned their medals in combat.”
Mr Gray said he had never worn the medal in public and considered it a “badge”.
The awarding of the medal has also attracted criticism from families of servicemen killed in action. "As the article states, funding for this MPs group is partly from the defence industry.
There appears to be a lack of transparency, in fact, as to whom exactly does give money to support this scheme, which is surely not acceptable. What happens if someone involved in this scheme also has responsibility for arms procurement or other defence matters? Is there not a potential conflict of interest?
What is clear, however, that this scheme is privately funded and organised, and is not in any way authorised by an official Parliamentary body. Some have tried, with little success, to find out exactly who does sponsor this scheme: the FOI act does not apply in this case, however, and we remain in ignorance of the funding details. Mrs Angry would suggest that this is regrettable.
If MPs like Offord get their kicks dressing up in combat gear and playing soldiers for a few days every year, then good luck to them. Just don't do it, friend, when you should be at home, supporting the people in your constituency at a time of crisis.
Mrs Angry absolutely supports the need for serving members of our armed forces to be given the respect - and resources - that they need and deserve. To award an MP a medal for playing at being a soldier when it suits them seems completely inappropriate, however, and an insult to the real courage and dedication of the members of our armed services who are putting their lives at risk on our behalf every day of the year.
The first duty of an MP is to represent the people who put them into office: which is hard work, often tedious, and boring, and offering few photo opportunities. Tough.
Mrs Angry lives in a neighbouring constituency: if she lived in Hendon, she might prefer that her MP concentrated on issues that had more immediate relevance to the ordinary citizens who have elected Mr Offord to office. Mr Offord only won his seat in Westminster by a tiny margin of votes, taking the place of the hard working Andrew Dismore, who was a very good constituency MP. There is a lesson in here, somewhere, Matthew, Mrs Angry would suggest.
* Update, Col Richard Kemp, former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, commented on this post via twitter, 26th August: 'Thanks. The Forces Parliamentary Scheme is valuable but medals and phoney ranks undermines its credibility.'
* Update 6th September: here is a letter to the press from Andrew Dismore, Labour GLA candidate in regard to the AFPS:
Hendon’s Conservative MP justifies his absence from the constituency during the aftermath of the riots and his failure to return for the recall of Parliament, because he was in Belize on the Parliamentary Armed Forces Scheme.
When I was MP, I was invited to join the scheme. I was offered all kinds of foreign travel: the Caribbean with the Royal Navy, ski-ing in Norway with the Royal Marines, jetting off with the RAF. However, I decided not to participate for two reasons.
Firstly and most importantly, the time commitment. I could not justify spending the almost one month per year in total away from Hendon the scheme requires to meet its demands, and still be able to honour my obligations to Hendon residents.
Secondly, whilst the MP states the scheme is privately funded, what he does not say is that this funding mainly comes from three major defence contractors. Personally, I did not feel it was right to take such hospitality and at the same time be free to raise defence matters without a potential conflict of interest. Indeed one Conservative MP was thrown off the scheme for challenging this very issue. Hendon’s Conservative MP has no such qualms. He has raised questions about promoting defence exports, increasing diversity in the defence market, and sustaining the defence industry in equipment procurement decisions. No doubt within the rules, I understand that he did not declare an interest when asking them.
Personally, I found the full and detailed briefings on offer from the armed forces at Westminster more than adequate; Scotland Yard also were very co-operative when I was championing the campaign against extremism in Westminster; and the local police were well informed about the local crime issues ( including drugs).
I am sure the MP enjoyed his visit to Belize (as no doubt he did his previous jaunt to the South Atlantic) whilst other MPs answered the call back to Westminster, but he should not overplay his hand. The drugs operation for which he proudly claims credit would of course have happened without him.
The scheme has some value. But In the end, it comes down to priorities. Subsidised overseas travel for whatever reason should come behind an MP’s duty to his or her constituency and constituents should come first ( as indeed the Hendon MP pledged at the time of the election, adding another to the growing list of his broken promises). When faced with such a choice myself (when schoolboy Kiyam Prince was murdered a few years ago), I decided to cancel a recess study visit to the Caribbean I had been nominated to lead, so I could be available in Hendon . Hendon’s Conservative MP yet again made the wrong call.
Andrew Dismore, Labour MP for Hendon 1997 -2010, Labour’s Candidate for the London Assembly for Barnet and Camden