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The Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme has brought deeper understanding of our services across the House

March 2022: Members taking part in the AFPS take a Chinook to RAF Odiham | © Andy Donovan

4 min read

The large number of frontbench graduates of the scheme is a testament to its value

The recent article about the visionary foundation of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (AFPS) by Sir Neil Thorne some 34 years-ago was a fascinating piece of parliamentary history. And I salute Sir Neil for his vision and warmly congratulate him on his 90th birthday.

However, the scheme has moved on since Sir Neil’s time, which prompts me to let my colleagues and others in Parliament know a little bit more about today’s AFPS.

For the last 10 years or so, the AFPS has been run from within Parliament as a charitable incorporated organisation under the governance of the Charity Commission. Its purpose is the better education and information of parliamentarians (from both Houses) about the way of life of our service people.

Strategic direction is provided by a group of nine trustees – the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust – which I chair. The other trustees are two nominated by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), two from the Commons, two from the Lords, and two from the defence industries. The scheme operates by virtue of sponsorship from the defence industry and under a memorandum of understanding with the MoD.

The AFPS is administered in Parliament by Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Longbottom, the full-time chief of staff, who is a well-known figure around the Palace. Alongside Colonel Johnny, the Royal Navy, army and Royal Air Force courses are facilitated by three Parliamentary Engagement Officers from within the MoD.

The scheme runs from September to September and allows 45 parliamentarians from both Houses to take part each year (15 to each of the three services). We are always heavily oversubscribed, which allows us to be truly cross-party and select those who have most to gain from it. For example, I am very proud that right now the Labour frontbench defence team are primarily graduates of the scheme, which alone indicates its value. Something like 200 parliamentarians will go through the scheme in any one Parliament which translates to a massive increase in understanding of defence across both Houses.

Plans are being drawn up for overseas visits to Norway, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and Cyprus

The scheme starts with a two-day Introduction to Defence course at the Defence Academy in Shrivenham, after which members spread out round the country visiting individual units and bases for their chosen service. In addition to that, there are also several overseas visits planned throughout the year. Members on the army course have already visited Operation Cabrit in Estonia – the United Kingdom’s deployment and contribution to Nato’s enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states. Plans are currently being drawn up for overseas visits to Norway, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and Cyprus.

The minimum commitment expected and needed to graduate is 15 days but, like most things in life, the more one puts in the more one gets out. It is not uncommon for 35 days or more to be achieved. The vast majority of parliamentarians easily manage the minimum 15-day commitment and are as a result invited to the annual graduation dinner after which they can wear the much-coveted AFPS tie or brooch!

The aim of the scheme is to give parliamentarians, the vast majority of whom have no experience of our armed forces, an insight into military life that would not otherwise be available to them. I hope that they will then be able to make a more informed and useful contribution to defence debates and questions. Observers in Parliament, the MoD and the armed forces agree that the AFPS as a whole has been an enormous success and that the level of understanding of our armed forces is significantly higher as a direct result of it. 

James Gray is Conservative MP for North Wiltshire and chairman of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Trust

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