Defence

– in the House of Lords at 11:00 am on 12th May 2000.

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Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence 11:00 am, 12th May 2000

rose to move, That this House takes note of the Defence White Paper, published in December 1999 (Cm 4446).

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence

My Lords, although we are to discuss the Defence White Paper and look ahead to the likely developments in our Armed Forces, first, with your Lordships' leave, I must say something about the current situation in Sierra Leone.

As a measure of how international crises can occur and how quickly we must be able to react, Sierra Leone is a textbook example. Only a week ago we were considering the possibility of having to deploy British forces to the region but by Monday over 1,000 British troops, four Chinook helicopters and eight C-130 aircraft were already on the ground in Sierra Leone. In addition, seven Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, including HMS "Ocean", with 450 marines and eight helicopters on board, are en route and will be available in the area over the next few days.

The primary purpose behind our decision to intervene in this crisis is to protect and evacuate British citizens and others for whom we have consular responsibility from a dangerous, uncertain and unpredictable situation. The Government's advice remains that all British citizens and others for whom we have consular responsibility should leave Sierra Leone as soon as possible. However, we also believe that an effective UNAMSIL, organised and equipped to meet its mandate, coupled with renewed commitment by all parties to the Lome accord, offers the best hope for a lasting peace in Sierra Leone. British forces' control of Lungi airport for evacuation purposes will enable promised reinforcements for UNAMSIL to arrive safely.

As announced last night, we therefore intend that British forces will continue to secure Lungi airport while strong reinforcements are expected to arrive from countries including India, Bangladesh, and Jordan over the coming days and weeks to bolster the existing UNAMSIL force. We are confident that once those additional forces have arrived and UNAMSIL is fully up to strength it will be able to fulfil its mandate.

The arrival of HMS "Ocean", with her embarked marines, will increase the options available to us for this task and provide useful flexibility and back-up in what remains a fluid and potentially dangerous situation. We shall also continue to offer technical military advice to UNAMSIL and to the Government of Sierra Leone.

General Sir Charles Guthrie, accompanied by a senior official from the Foreign Office, will visit west Africa this weekend. As well as meeting our forces and UNAMSIL staff in Sierra Leone, they will visit Senegal and Nigeria. The visit was planned some time ago, but it will be especially valuable because they will be able to discuss our support for UNAMSIL as part of the search for stability in Sierra Leone following the Prime Minister's statement last night.

I am sure that all Members of the House will want to join me in expressing our admiration of, and thanks for, the truly exemplary conduct of the British forces in theatre. The deployment has been a faultless demonstration of their technical capability and truly world-class quality.

However, it cannot, and will not, be an open-ended commitment. British troops will continue to evacuate entitled persons and to secure Lungi airport while the UN forces build. We do not intend that British troops will become involved in combat other than if they are attacked. Nevertheless, this is a limited but significant military contribution and should permit UNAMSIL to reach its full strength and effectively discharge its mandate. That is the best hope for Sierra Leone and for its long-suffering people.

When this Government came into office, we were acutely aware of the need to modernise our Armed Forces--

Photo of Lord Marlesford Lord Marlesford Conservative

My Lords, before the Minister continues, perhaps I can raise a question directly related to what she has said. Can she give the House a guarantee that British troops in the area at no time, whether now or in the future, will come under United Nations' control or command?

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence

My Lords, in the situation that I have described to your Lordships, it is not wise for me, from this Dispatch Box, to give guarantees in relation to any of the operational issues that may need to be reviewed in the coming days. I believe that it is highly unlikely that the situation suggested by the noble Lord will occur. But to give a guarantee, at a time when we know that there is a potentially dangerous and fluid situation, is a step further than any Minister in my position ought sensibly to take. We shall carefully watch the situation. Fortuitously, the Chief of Defence Staff has a visit planned that will enable him to look at the situation on the ground. As matters progress, I am sure that we shall be able to be more helpful about our intentions. I hope that the House will bear with me for the moment.

I shall return to what I was saying. When the Government came into office, we were acutely aware of the need to modernise our Armed Forces in order to adapt to the changing circumstances of the defence and security environment. As noble Lords will be aware, a great deal has changed over the past decade and a half. The world has become increasingly multipolar, with new and shifting centres of power and alliances. Old certainties have collapsed while new conflicts have emerged and, sadly, conflicts that previously had been repressed have been re-ignited. We felt that not enough had been done to ensure that our defence structures had changed sufficiently to meet that changing environment.

The analysis conducted during the Strategic Defence Review has fully confirmed this belief and events experienced since 1997 in Kosovo and now in Sierra Leone have reinforced those lessons. Perhaps some of this strife will prove to be transitional; the death throes of an old order. Perhaps the longer term will result in the emergence of stable, liberal democracies. I am sure we all hope that that will be the case.

But we cannot stand by in the hope of a better world appearing: there remain too many fundamental causes of conflict. Political or economic exclusion has been the root cause of many recent internal conflicts. Ineffective or corrupt governments increase the risk of instability. Taken together with various combinations of ethnic tensions and demographic pressure, all too evident in many regions of the world today, it is reasonable to expect a degree of increasing instability. Almost by definition, this is likely to be in the regions that are least able to help themselves.

Here we come to what I believe is the heart of the matter. Such crises may not place our immediate national interests at risk. There may be no immediate imperatives to intervene to protect the United Kingdom and its citizens. However, international relationships are more complex and often a great deal more subtle than that. We recognised this in the Strategic Defence Review. We recognised that in the wider interests of the United Kingdom and in order that those wider interests be protected our military capability would often be deployed in conflict prevention and peacekeeping as well as for direct national security. That is part of the changing picture of international relations--call it globalisation, call it the "world economy" or call it the international community. It is the reality of the position.

Moreover, we are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a leading member of NATO, the EU and the Commonwealth. We are a relatively wealthy nation that depends on free trade which is permitted by peace and stability. We have these relationships and responsibilities. We need to exercise them with care in the wider interests of the United Kingdom. These interests will be better served in a peaceful and stable world.

We believe that we have a great deal to be proud of in Britain: a stable democracy; respect for the rule of law; civilian control of the military; and an inherent respect for basic human rights. We have a responsibility to those struggling to enjoy precisely those rights that we take for granted; a responsibility to help to secure peace, stability and the furtherance of human rights wherever we can.

But, of course, the discharge of such responsibilities is not a straightforward matter. Ideally, it is achieved through the channels of diplomacy, discussion and debate, as well as economic and developmental aid. But sometimes, as we know all too sadly, these methods fail and then we must be prepared to adopt the methods of last resort--military force.

To be able to employ military force in the modern world, either directly or in a role that seeks to defuse tension or deter conflict, requires forces that are flexible, genuinely deployable, capable and sustainable--in some circumstances over extended periods of time. The SDR recognised that this kind of function lies at the heart of the role of the British Armed Forces of the future.

The White Paper set out how far we have already come in implementing the review's recommendations. I wish to stress to noble Lords that I believe that it is by results delivered that our policies will be judged, and rightly so. Since the White Paper was published, we have made further progress in making real improvements. Indeed, a large proportion of the review's key decisions have now been implemented. Since April last year, we have established a pool of Joint Rapid Reaction Forces to provide more capable, deployable and better supported joint forces. We have established the Joint Helicopter Command, bringing together all battlefield helicopters. We have formed 16 Air Assault Brigade, the most powerful formation of its size in Europe and equipped with the Apache attack helicopter. The first of these helicopters for the Army was recently rolled out at the Westland factory in Yeovil.

We have the Joint Force Harrier, which brings together RAF and Royal Navy Harrier aircraft into a more flexible command as part of a new Maritime Air Group. As presaged in the review, we have taken the first steps to procure two new aircraft carriers and we are in the process of fitting all our attack submarines with the Tomahawk land attack missile, which was employed so successfully during the Kosovo crisis last year.

I am happy to say that Smart procurement is proceeding well. Attention is often drawn to successes in the big equipment projects and it is quite right that we should do so. But Smart procurement is about much more than that. It represents a truly radical shake-up in our whole procurement philosophy and culture. It touches on the way we pull in the expertise and strengths of the private sector, the way we maintain and support equipment through its entire lifespan and also the way we train and educate our Armed Forces. It is often the people working on the smaller projects and the less glamorous systems who are the most creative in this. When I visited the Defence Logistics Organisation in Andover last Friday, I was impressed by the innovative ideas such as lean support techniques that could deliver savings of as much as £3 billion over the next 10 years and by the introduction of a Defence Electronic Commerce Service to cut down on red tape. I have also been much encouraged by the genuine interest shown by our defence partners from abroad in what we are doing. It is rarely the case, when I go abroad, that an item on the agenda put forward by my counterparts in governments overseas is not one of Smart procurement in which they are all extremely interested.

So when I read some of the comments the press regularly churn out about our defence equipment, I wish that reporters would at least occasionally check their facts and provide a balanced view. Modernising the Armed Forces means equipping them to perform the most demanding tasks. That represents a huge programme of investment in our forces. It is some £10 billion per year on equipment. Yet we are still accused of trying to get our defence on the cheap. That is nonsense. Yes, we want to be efficient; we want to make every pound count for defence. It would be unreasonable to expect us to take any other course. But if you asked a man or woman in the street about spending priorities, they would most likely put defence pretty low on the list. It is not that they consider defence to be of little importance, but rather that they expect any government to provide the resources necessary as a matter of course. Nonetheless, additional defence spending is not going to be a top priority with the public and we need to accept the realities of that.

The priorities of this Government lie with getting the maximum value from available resources that will always remain less than we might wish for. But we do not and will not compromise on the quality of equipment that we provide to our forces.

In past debates, many noble Lords expressed concern about our budget. It is a fact that in the period from when this Government came into office up to 2001-02, defence spending is due to fall by just 3 per cent in real terms. The defence budget does not decline by 3 per cent per year, as some noble Lords have suggested. Instead, the settlement agreed after the Strategic Defence Review included an assumption that 3 per cent efficiency savings would be found each year and that the bulk of those savings would be used to fund our SDR enhancements. That is an enormously important point. In addition, in 1998 we set an agreed level for the defence budget out to 2002. This financial stability replaces the old uncertainty of the old system of annual spending rounds and allows us to plan defence more sensibly.

I have already mentioned the TLAM programme. We will be further enhancing our stand-off precision-strike capability with Storm Shadow, an air-launched cruise missile. The roll-out of the first Apache attack helicopter for the Army was only a few weeks ago. In the longer term we have an ambitious range of new programmes including Eurofighter, the future carrier borne aircraft, the Astute Class submarine, the Type 45 destroyer, the future strategic transport aircraft and two new aircraft carriers. Those will significantly enhance our capabilities. The plans for their procurement are under way and the project teams are working on them.

But looking ahead must not distract us from the capability of our forces today. We are enhancing the capabilities of equipment already in service. Both the air defence and ground attack versions of the Tornado are being improved. The Army recently deployed Challenger 2 to Kosovo; that represents a significant leap in performance and reliability. The personal clothing of our deployed soldiers is better than it has ever been before. And despite what your Lordships might see reported in the media, 92 per cent of that clothing was made in the UK during the last six months for which we have records. That represents nearly £45 million of business placed with UK industry during this period.

Of course, there are problems. We acknowledge that. And where we can we are taking decisive early action to solve them. For example, the difficulties of the SA80 rifle have been well documented. We are taking action to address those difficulties. It is necessary to make two points here. First, these problems have not arisen on or since 1st May 1997. Secondly, they need to be kept in perspective. For example, stories appeared in the media recently about the Lynx rotor-head. Yes, this is a problem. Yes, it affected the availability of the aircraft. But it has not stopped our meeting key operational tasks in the Gulf, the south Atlantic, the Caribbean, Ulster and the Balkans. This Government would never settle for anything less.

Of course, equipment is one thing, but all of those programmes would be worthless if we did not have the right numbers of the right sort of personnel. I am sure that this House does not need reminding of the value of the work they do, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year--often in trying or dangerous circumstances. In the Balkans, the Gulf, in Ulster, people are risking their lives on our behalf. I am sure that the House will join me in expressing admiration for the tireless professional conduct of our Armed Forces and other personnel. The past year has seen numerous examples of their dedication and professional quality. I am sometimes appalled at the glibness with which armchair commentators deliver their verdicts on these issues while ignoring the very real dangers confronting our servicemen and women. The arrogance of those who downplayed the dangers facing pilots over Kosovo last year was quite breathtaking. We must never forget the risks faced every day by our Armed Forces during the Kosovo operations and those who are on operational service today.

I am pleased to say that recruitment is up for all three services over the past year. The Army has had its best intake since the beginning of the 1990s. But the real problem, as noble Lords know only too well, is retention. This is where our Policy for People is so important. We have to recognise that service personnel have families--wives, husbands, partners and children--all of whom deserve consideration too. As a result, we introduced a package of measures to improve the operational welfare of our deployed personnel. We increased their telephone allowance from three to 20 minutes per week so that service personnel can better keep in touch with those at home. We have trialled an "electronic bluey", an electronic version of the traditional forces aerogramme, with forces deployed to the Balkans and the Falkland Islands. We provide Internet facilities at units and family centres around the country and on naval vessels so that as many people as possible can have access to it. And we have introduced guaranteed periods of post-operational tour leave so that personnel can be assured that they will be able to spend time with their families when they return from operations.

It is, though, often the families of deployed personnel who are affected most by service life. We recognised this as a specific problem in the SDR and the resulting service families task force has been a particular success. It is continuing to address--and hopefully overcome--the problems faced by service families that fall outside the scope of the MoD alone. This is truly an example of joined-up government in action across Whitehall to resolve difficulties that have been significant disincentives to service life. In the 18 months of the task force's existence, it has achieved impressive results--from ensuring that the Code of Practice on Schools Admissions now specifically recognises, for the first time, service children to working with the DfEE and DSS to produce guidance that deals with the problems of service spouses, who are often moved around the country at short notice, seeking to claim jobseeker's allowance.

These measures, from new weapons systems to guidance on jobseeker's allowance, are all intended to produce one thing--world class armed forces capable of facing the tasks of today and tomorrow. A year ago, of course, our thoughts were dominated by events in the Balkans. The Kosovo campaign and the subsequent efforts to create a long-term peace in the region have validated the conclusions of the SDR on the need for rapidly deployable, highly flexible forces that we can sustain at a distance and for an extended period of time. That was borne out again in East Timor a few months later. And now, in Sierra Leone, we are seeing exactly the same requirement.

The Kosovo campaign was a remarkable success. It underlined the role that we, as a leading democracy, should be playing in the world along with our partners in NATO and elsewhere. Indeed, I am sure that the strength of collective international will was instrumental in the outcome of the crisis.

Of course there is a great deal to be done in the Balkans. There are no grounds for complacency, as we all know. But we should not understate what has been achieved thus far. We have returned hundreds of thousands of refugees to their homes and are involved in rebuilding an entire society. We never pretended that dealing with such deep-seated tensions was going to be easy, but those who predicted failure for our efforts from the start would do well to reflect on the continuing success of the international community in Bosnia.

Though the lessons of the Kosovo campaign still have to be learned, they do vindicate the SDR. The campaign has also served, I hope, in one important lesson: as a wake-up call to many nations by throwing into stark relief the failings of collective European military capability. Although European nations now contribute over 70 per cent of the forces in KFOR, proportionately their contribution to the air campaign this time last year was a great deal less impressive.

The place that Europe occupies on the world stage should reflect the continent's political and economic weight. However, such an elevated position brings with it obligations and responsibilities. In terms of its military ability to meet those obligations in some crucial areas, Europe simply does not measure up.

Kosovo thus gave an added impetus to the debate on European defence initiated by the Prime Minister. European defence is about improving our collective military capability. It is not about institutions and it is definitely not about creating a "European Army". This has been made clear by the adoption of a challenging, practical target for collective capability--the "Headline Goal", which requires EU member states to be able by the year 2003 to deploy rapidly and to sustain up to 60,000 personnel capable of undertaking the most demanding tasks. Our discussions on this are already well under way. We hope to make further progress at the up-coming EU meetings in June at Brussels and at Feira in Portugal. But I must emphasis to the House again that NATO is, and will remain, the cornerstone and fundamental building block of our defence policy. Our current discussions take place within that framework.

Proper attention to enhancing our defence capabilities should not blind us to the role played by our British defence assets in peacetime to dispel hostility, to build and maintain trust and to assist in the development of democratically accountable armed forces. As part of the SDR, we made "defence diplomacy" a high priority in its own right. That is a wise investment. By supporting arms control, training, education and advice, we hope to spread an appreciation of our standards of democratic control. Like conventional diplomacy, its success is often only measurable in terms of the bad things that do not happen. But we are confident of a real difference being made.

I said at the beginning of my remarks that I did not want to be too retrospective and that I wanted to look forward. I hope that I have been able to achieve that aim. But it would be foolish to pretend that anyone can predict the future. I strongly believe that the Strategic Defence Review provided us with sound guidance for the future shape of defence. It was based on the first principles of a rigorous foreign policy analysis and was very much a policy-led undertaking. From Kosovo and the current debate on European defence to the success of Smart procurement and the crisis in Sierra Leone, experience is vindicating the validity of the SDR's conclusions.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Defence White Paper, published in December 1999 (Cm 4446).--(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean.)

Photo of Lord Burnham Lord Burnham Conservative 11:33 am, 12th May 2000

My Lords, the whole House will be deeply grateful to the noble Baroness for what she has said. They will be particularly grateful for the sketch that she gave us at the beginning of her speech with regard to Sierra Leone. This is--to use a horrible phrase--an ongoing situation, and one which is developing all the time. If during the course of today's debate my noble friend Lord Attlee disappears from these Benches, it will be to go to find out before he speaks whether anything new has occurred which he ought to bring to the attention of your Lordships.

The whole of what the noble Baroness said--indeed, she wasted no time--lasted 27 minutes. It took her all that time to deliver it, and I emphasis that she "wasted no time". But the fact that she had to take 27 minutes to do so is an indication of the importance of the subject that we are discussing today and of the small opportunities that are being given to your Lordships to debate the matter. I have been pressing for a debate on defence for some considerable time. Thanks to the usual channels, we now have it--albeit, like other noble Lords who are unable to be here today, I have been complaining about it being held on a Friday. However, it turns out to be very appropriate to have the debate on this Friday because it has enabled the noble Baroness to keep your Lordships up to date.

I believe that we are all very worried about the situation in Sierra Leone. I should like to highlight one aspect of it because this is the theme that will run through everything that I shall say; namely, who will pay for it and where will the money come from? The Government have sent to Sierra Leone, along with ancillary forces, naval forces, HMS "Ocean" and those two closely bonded units, 3 Para and the Royal Marines. With an impressive task force, their duty has been to rescue British citizens in that sad country, and we are told that this is all that they will do--that it is evacuation and not conflict.

It must be very good news that the Chief of the Defence Staff should be there at this time because command will come from the top. But I hope that there will be no more than just evacuation. The noble Baroness said that there would be no combat unless British troops are attacked. But what are the paras to do if they find, for example, a Zambian unit being attacked by the rebels? Are they to stand back and let it go on? The danger of escalation must be enormous. No one can foresee where we shall end up. I remember the cover of the first issue of the Telegraph colour magazine in 1964 in which the caption read, "Vietnam--forgotten war". From Korea to Sierra Leone little conflicts that have involved British troops initially in a small way have ended in major confrontations and a massive expenditure of material and manpower.

However, throughout any discussion on the White Paper must come the question of money and the relationship between the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury. There seems little reason for the proposed partial privatisation of DERA, except that it puts an amount of money--a minimal amount-- in MoD's pocket. Why did the Secretary of State some months ago balk at the proposals that helicopters and other assistance should be sent to Mozambique? The answer was money. It is noticeable that the Government are pouring money into health and education and at the same time requiring yet more cuts from defence. The noble Baroness defended the situation and said that the ordinary British citizen will regard health and education, along with similar matters, as being of more importance. But that should not be at the expense of the defence of the realm.

The noble Baroness made a very spirited defence of all that the Government are doing. She denied that there are to be cuts of 3 per cent. Let us hope that there can be the savings to which she referred and that these will come back into the defence budget in some other manner. But if we are attempting to recruit another 5,000 servicemen, they will have to be paid and the unavoidable costs will inevitably rise and increase the defence budget to a very considerable extent.

It is these facts and this money problem which have led to the current short-termism in defence in spite of all that is being done, as the noble Baroness pointed out. I refer, for instance, to the decision to build two ro-ro ferries abroad. If the order does not go to a British yard, thousands of skilled shipbuilding workers will be laid off and there will be nothing for them to do until the orders for Type 45 destroyers come through. It is matters of this kind that have led the Government to be accused of "dumb procurement". This may be unfair but it certainly seems that they are mortgaging the long-term future for immediate savings.

The noble Baroness listed the successful projects but there is another large list of projects which face considerable problems. I mention only Clansman, heavy lift and the sale of perfectly good naval frigates. The noble Baroness also mentioned the problem with the Lynx helicopter. I have taken advice from someone who has intimate knowledge of the problem with the helicopter rotors. However, he lost me after about a minute and a half. I understand that this is, in part, a normal problem to which all kinds of equipment are subject and that we can get over it.

In spite of what has been said I feel that Smart procurement as set out in the SDR has, to a large extent, disappeared. Surely Smart procurement means taking a careful look at the threats that the country faces and what is needed to counter those threats. Costs and requirements must be balanced. It is difficult to see that this is being done when money is being spent in the most extraordinary way. It is probably the civil servants who are to blame, but is this the moment to spend £1.6 billion over 10 years on a new Ministry of Defence building? I am sure it is desirable but a cannon for the Typhoon should have a higher priority than a new open plan office. Part of the Treasury's objection to Ministry of Defence projects lies in a feeling that MoD and its civil servants waste money. This kind of announcement does nothing to kill that feeling.

On the question of the Typhoon, the reason given for putting a block of lead where the cannon should be is that the Typhoon was designed for cold war conflict and cannon are no longer necessary. In fact, the situation is the opposite. The Americans have cannon in their Stealth F22s, although they have to have a method of covering up the hole to make the Stealth characteristics effective. All British pilots, I think without exception, want cannon. Cannon will give greater flexibility, will enable aircraft to put shots across the bows of possible intruders, to assist in strafing, and to fire at helicopters which are going too slowly for their air-to-air missiles. Yet it appears that they are being abandoned for a handful of gold.

Noble Lords have debated the proposed public private partnership of DERA and I shall not go over it again. Such a sale will endanger the smooth running of development and research in co-operation with the United States. But it will put £250 million into the ministry's coffers. This peanut is considered necessary to balance the books. I must emphasise that I am not putting the blame on the Ministry of Defence, but on the Treasury. Those, if any, who control the Treasury have to make up their minds what they want from the Armed Forces. There can be no doubt that, while the plans for the future set out in the SDR were acceptable in the terms of July 1998, they totally ignored the possibilities for what was then the future. No account was taken of the possible expansion of crisis in the Balkans, now in Sierra Leone, and possibly in Zimbabwe.

We are told by the National Audit Office that logistically we only just scraped through in Kosovo. We did scrape through but I hope that the right lessons have been learnt with regard to the amount of back-up and supplies which are required even for a minor conflict.

Apart from procurement, overstretch is a constant problem. Particularly in the light of stories coming out over the past 48 hours, it would be unwise to rely on a reduction of the involvement of troops in Northern Ireland. From these Benches we warn of the dangers of overstretch. Therefore it may be illogical to ask the Minister to comment on what we read in the Belfast Catholic paper, the Irish News. This states that the British Army base in that haven of peace, Cookstown, is to be demolished and the Fort George base in Londonderry is to be abandoned, as are observation posts in Broadway and Belfast, possibly even in Crossmaglen. What is the reason for this? Is it a belief that the crisis is over, or is it purely to save money?

If we have to save money, one way we can do that is to drop all thought of a European army. Noble Lords have been told categorically that this is not a goer. Nevertheless it seems to be creeping in by a side door. The Government have moved the European Security and Defence Identity down a path which must lead to the creation of such an army. That will do nothing to enhance military capacity and will serve only to fan the flames of anti-Americanism in France, which were lit at the St Malo summit.

The project has been denied but the Government have supported moves for the European Union to create an independent rapid deployment force of 60,000, deployable for a year. To service this would require a force of 180,000 as troops need to be relieved. Where will they come from and who will pay for them?

Slightly apart from these arguments, but related thereto, is the question of the Territorial Army. For reasons I do not understand at all relationships between--

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I have read the St Malo declaration with great care. I am unable to identify any element within any of that Franco-British exercise that might conceivably be thought to fan the flames of anti-Americanism. Will the noble Lord explain what he means a little more clearly?

Photo of Lord Burnham Lord Burnham Conservative

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. By implicitly weakening NATO and implicitly denigrating, wrongly, the need for American involvement, St Malo has--I think this is fairly generally agreed--engendered a feeling that Europe has no need of the Americans and the quicker it can get rid of them, the better. I certainly do not accept that.

I was just about to mention the Territorial Army. Relationships between the TA and the Regular Army seem to be at rock bottom. However, the generals have to understand that the TA--and that means a 58,000-strong TA with all its infantry regiments intact--is absolutely essential to effective management of the manpower situation. Until the problems of overstretch and retention can be solved the Territorials are absolutely essential--I am sure that my noble friend Lord Attlee will comment on this--to fill the holes in the Regular units. I know that the percentage of Regulars on active service has been drastically reduced since the partial end of the Balkans conflict, but there, in Iraq, in Africa and many other places including Ireland we cannot rely on it not going wrong again. One answer would be for the British services to take a sabbatical and let someone else do the work, but I doubt whether this Government, or to be fair, any other would accept that solution. Talk about the white man's burden, this is the Briton's burden.

I am afraid that with Smart procurement we have not yet got the necessary up-to-date communications networks. It is clear that while logistic chains are being redesigned they are not working as well as they should and, more dangerous still, there is a refusal on the part of the Treasury to understand the investment that is required to provide these chains with the necessary amount of material to deliver.

What is clear is that with Smart procurement the evaluation role of DERA will have a key place in the assessment of equipment taken into service. Yet the Government appear to be hell bent on fragmenting DERA at the same time as they are bringing in Smart procurement. As this will involve major changes in the relationship between industry as supplier and the Armed Forces as user, this seems foolish. The simple effect of the constraints imposed on the defence budget lie in an adaptation to defence policy by the Government of the General Confession:

"We have done those things which we ought not to have done and we have left undone those things which we ought to have done and there is no health in us".

I ask the Minister whether she and her right honourable friend the Secretary of State can alter the Chancellor's personal hostility to defence spending.

To sum up the views from these Benches, if the current structure and pattern of the defence and related budgets, and the relationship of those budgets to public expenditure as a whole, does not provide resources sufficient to meet the international commitments which the Government accept, the requirement for continuing year-on-year cuts in the defence budget must be stopped. If necessary, that budget must be increased in cash terms and as an element of public expenditure as a whole. If the noble Baroness and her colleagues stand up for this policy, they will have our wholehearted support.

Having said that, I again thank her most warmly for her informative and interesting speech.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Convenor of the Crossbench Peers 11:51 am, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I, too, should like to express my gratitude to the Minister for the update on the difficult and very dangerous position in which our Armed Forces find themselves in Sierra Leone. I hope that what is being done will prove to be sufficient to stabilise the dangerous situation.

Turning to the White Paper, I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to answer some of the concerns which remain about the way in which Smart procurement is working. She rightly said that the Government must be judged by results.

In the Strategic Defence Review, much was made of the need to improve the way in which the MoD procures equipment and services. Many would echo those sentiments. Indeed, for those of us who have spent a lifetime in the services, there has never been a time when there has not been criticism of the MoD over procurement. It has been a rich seam for the Defence Select Committees in another place and for the Auditor General to mine, year after year after year. Delays, cost overruns, inadequate performance in service and costly modifications are but a few of the many problems which have been exposed and which have had to be faced. Each method of procurement--whether competitive, cost plus, overseas purchase, collaboration, hands on, hands off, and now Smart procurement--have all been tried and found wanting.

I think that there have probably been only two major equipment programmes in the past half-century which have reasonably successfully been run to time and budget. Those have been Polaris and Trident--although even these have not been without problems in the vastly expensive support facilities which are essential and unique to them.

The MoD has recently been deluged with yet another string of equipment problems and procurement delays. Why should this be? Those involved with procurement over the years are not idle, nor inefficient; they do their very best, as do the Ministers involved. But the history of mistakes and failures is too long, too repetitive and too serious to be dismissed, to be excused with protestations that they will not be allowed to happen again, and then happily forgotten about.

I am sure that the Minister will have given thought to this problem. I fear that, in far too many cases, analysis will show that the problem lies not in MoD at all, but in the way in which Whitehall--particularly the Treasury--comes to decisions, or fails to make decisions in a timely and positive manner. There seems to be no mechanism to cope with such procrastination, and key programmes run later than originally forecast. Look at what has been happening to the vitally important strategic airlift requirement and to the Royal Air Force's BVRAAM and future transport aircraft competition.

What so often seems to be overlooked or belittled in these delays is that they are not cost free. Equipment which should have been scrapped or paid off has to be kept going at considerable extra expense; ship refits cannot be put off any longer; major airframe overhauls have to be undertaken; training programmes and resources are not readily available or lie idle, and so on. The cost of not making a decision will frequently add a significant additional amount to the eventual outcome. I cannot attach any sense of success to the new look Smart procurement in the long and serious delays which have arisen over strategic airlift, BVRAAM and FTA.

However, when we are involved in a conflict, there is a sudden urgency in procurement. The difficult is achieved in a day; the impossible takes only a week. The expertise to resolve complex technical and demanding urgent operational requirements can be rapidly brought to bear, and the money is found. The beneficiaries, the men and women in the front line, see this happening and are greatly encouraged and delighted with the support which is evident at every level.

But what happens once the shooting stops is a different story. In the Kosovo conflict, for example, three serious problems were identified for the Royal Air Force: it could not bomb with precision through cloud; it needed a better anti-armour weapon; and, above all, it needed more secure communications. These and no doubt other shortcomings for all arms were identified in the lessons to be learnt following the conflict.

These problems must be tackled with similar urgency as if the front line was still at war. No one can any longer be confident that there will not be once more live operations in a week or two's time. Imagine the frustration of front-line crews when their identified and agreed critical needs are not being delivered with all dispatch. Is there any wonder that there is disillusion and, indeed, disgust at these poor response times?

I can think of no better retention initiative for our front-line crews than to get these identified shortfalls rapidly into front-line service. Then, and only then, will those whom we expect to fight for us and to risk their lives feel that their efforts are being recognised and supported. Without such support from higher formations, from MoD and from the Government, it is not surprising that those at the sharp end are becoming more and more disheartened.

They also realise that without better communications the time will soon come--it may have done so already--when the United States Armed Forces will no longer be willing to integrate with and operate alongside our own forces because we lack the secure communications to do so without risk of giving away vital intelligence information to an enemy.

Today's operations are no longer a one-off, never to be repeated, event. The prospect of expeditionary activity is with us for the long term. We must do better than follow the traditional and not always successful peacetime procurement procedures. Smart procurement made it sound as though the MoD was going to be better poised to obtain essential needs much more quickly, as well as more cost-effectively. We are not seeing such a universal result. Today, more than ever before, it really matters that we are not.

I was pleased to hear of the new steps--some of them, admittedly, only repetitions of previous announcements--to improve retention. But, when it comes to retention, one other area of concern is the serious financial position in which the MoD now finds itself over married quarters rentals and upgrades. I am not returning to the recent NAO criticisms about excessive holdings of quarters, which I felt were wide of the mark; rather I am referring to the repetitive delays and deferrals in upgrades.

No doubt the rising rentals which the contractor is now able to charge the MoD is a problem, but presumably this is a reflection of the housing market generally. As such it should have been anticipated and budgeted for. What is not going to help retention is never-ending deferral and delay in upgrading married accommodation to acceptable levels. It may not be the only factor which affects the serviceman and his family, but I fear that it will become the easiest to identify and blame for a decision to leave the service.

Strong and sympathetic leadership will always help individuals to cope with some of the inevitable stresses and strains of service life. But it is altogether wrong to leave everything to leadership and do too little or even nothing to resolve the problems, both operational and administrative, which budget squeezes and restrictions are now making more and more evident. So long as this Government, or any government, wish to punch their weight in the international arena, they cannot be confident of being able to continue to do so unless the services' critical needs are delivered on time and work to specification.

Without that, not only will there be equipment shortfalls, there will be manning difficulties as well. We have been extremely fortunate in recent conflicts not to have suffered serious loss of life or casualties. We must not presume that this is the norm. Every time our forces are committed, the chances of there being casualties does not grow any less. The effect of a serious loss of life in a future expeditionary action would put great strain on personnel and their families. We surely must not find out too late that some if not all of those casualties were attributable to inadequate equipment or supplies. The Government need to think these things through, or else they, or their successors, are going to find that the number of personnel who remain willing to volunteer for the forces, are confident that their families' needs are properly provided for, and who have the full-hearted support of their families to remain in the services, has dropped to levels which make it impossible to undertake demanding and increasing commitments of the kind on which governments, of both parties, have embarked in the past decade or two.

I feel sure that the noble Baroness the Minister, who shows such strong sympathy for service personnel and is highly regarded by them, will be aware of the dangers to which I have alluded. I hope that she will do all that she can to ensure that these dangers are recognised, and every effort is made to deal with them, by the Government as a whole.

In that well worn phrase, "Action this day, please!"

Photo of Lord Gilbert Lord Gilbert Labour 12:02 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I regret that I have to start by making an apology to your Lordships' House. I am unable to stay to the end of the debate because, at the very last moment, I am required to take part in a conference in Madrid. I assure noble Lords that it is only force majeure which prevents my staying to the end of the debate and I hope that I shall be acquitted of discourtesy in that respect.

I congratulate my noble friend and her right honourable colleague on their decisions with respect to DERA. I have always supported the change in the structure of DERA, although it is no secret in the Ministry of Defence that I felt considerable concern about the original proposals, which envisaged only about 1,000 of the DERA staff being retained in public service. My concern had nothing to do with the relationship between public and private service in this country. It was overwhelmingly to do with the attitude of our American friends to any new arrangements to be introduced for DERA. I cannot exaggerate to your Lordships the importance to this country of the intimate and long-standing relations at the cutting edge of defence research that exists between this country and our friends in the United States. We have similar arrangements with other countries but nothing like on the scale and intensity of those we enjoy with our American friends. If anything were to put those matters at risk, it would be deplorable and would have serious long-term consequences for our own defence capability.

I am glad to be able to tell the House that I spoke only yesterday to some of my friends in Washington. I wanted to check for myself whether the Secretary of State and my noble friend were getting the right advice. I am glad to be able to say to the House that, on present plans, the Americans are broadly satisfied with what is contemplated, although there are one or two points which they tell me have still to be negotiated. They are confident of success in making arrangements that will be congenial both to them and to the Ministry of Defence. I counsel my noble friend that it is very important in this context not to be satisfied merely that our contacts in Washington are content with these arrangements but also that the people who work in the laboratories at the lower level in the United States are also content. The danger is not that there would be any rapid rupture but that there would be an insidious refusal on the part of people at the coalface to continue with these arrangements and we would not know that it was happening. We must ensure that there is enthusiastic support among people at the coalface in American laboratories for our present contemplated arrangements. At the moment I am very relaxed about that possibility.

Secondly, I want to congratulate the Secretary of State, in contradistinction to what the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said. I fully support the decision not to have a cannon in Eurofighter. It is preposterous for us to go on thinking that we are going to be using £40 million aeroplanes in a "Biggles" role of close land attack or air-to-air dogfighting. Those days have gone, just as the horse-borne cavalry have gone. We will be equipping Eurofighter with extremely sophisticated air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface missiles. These are the weapons of the future. They are stand-off weapons with a range of scores of miles. I hope very much that the Ministry of Defence will go for the European solution for the BVRAAM--the beyond visual range air-to-air missile. When it comes to fruition, it will be by far the most advanced air-to-air missile in the world. It would be marvellous if, for once, this country had what is beyond question the best weapons system in one context. It would be immensely valuable to our forces.

I hope very much--I am sure that my noble friend has her own views on these matters--that we will be contemplating an extension of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, a subject on which I became rather a bore when I was at the Ministry of Defence. I shall go on boring your Lordships with the subject whenever I am on my feet. When I went to the Ministry of Defence people started saying, "Yes Minister--shades of Duncan Sandys, talking about unmanned aerial vehicles 30 years ago". We have seen what happened in Kosovo. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles was brilliant. There was quite rightly a huge hoo-ha when one American manned aircraft was shot down. There was enormous expense in recovering the pilot--quite rightly--and it was a brilliant operation. But during that operation in Kosovo any number of unmanned aerial vehicles were shot down and no one took a blind bit of notice because they were cheap and they were disposable. I hope very much that my noble friend will be pursuing an interest in those matters.

I shall detain your Lordships with only one or two other points. They relate to air power. With respect to the joint strike fighter, I can let the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, know that there is debate within the United States about whether or not that plane should have a cannon. I hope that those who take a modern view of these matters will win that argument.

I should like to draw my noble friend's attention to one other aspect of the procurement of the joint strike fighter. I refer to its capability or otherwise in conditions of very high temperatures and high humidity. As I understand it, in the operating specifications for the joint strike fighter there is no provision for it to be able to operate in conditions simultaneously of very high temperatures and very high humidity. When I discussed this with my American friends, they said, "Oh yes, don't worry. She's going to be built and operate out of Edwards airforce base in California, and it gets very hot there". That is true, but it does not get very humid at the same time. I hope that my noble friend will give an assurance that she will look closely at this matter. We have a great interest in the future of the joint strike fighter in this country. The last thing we want is a joint strike fighter that suffers from the same disabilities experienced by many of our aircraft in the Gulf when operating in conditions of high humidity and high temperature.

The only other point on which I want to detain your Lordships is the question of our air transport capability. Fundamental to the Strategic Defence Review was the acquisition by this country of a new strategic airlift capability. I am quite clear that that capability can only be supplied by the C-17. There is no other aircraft with the range, the load-carrying capability and the speed of the C-17. It is possible to acquire--to keep some of our Euro-enthusiasts happy--the future large aircraft (FLA) that we have been discussing with our European friends. I am personally rather sceptical of the need for it. I am certainly sceptical as to whether the Royal Air Force will want a mix of C-17s, FLAs and C-130Js. In the C-130J, at last, we may be getting a really good aeroplane. But absolutely critical to the future strategic airlift capability is the C-17.

I know that the Ministry of Defence was saying four C-17s. I think that it may be saying three C-17s for the short-term requirement, or their equivalent. The only equivalent to four C-17s is four other C-17s. It is the only aircraft that can carry a modern main battle tank. It is the only aircraft that can carry AS-90. It is the only aircraft that can carry Chinook.

If your Lordships think that those are unnecessary luxuries, or that we shall never have enough C-17s to carry many of those assets, let me draw attention to the events of the past few months. We sent some helicopters to Mozambique. They had to be disassembled, flown to Mozambique and reassembled there. It took six days. With C-17s, we could have had them there overnight. As all noble Lords will agree, that was a period when the need to deploy helicopter assets was one of extreme urgency.

We have only to look at what is happening in Sierra Leone. We have sent some Chinooks there. They had to go to Gibraltar. From Gibraltar, they flew to the Canary Islands; from the Canary Islands, they flew to Mauritania; and from Mauritania, they flew to Senegal. By the time they arrived in the zone of action their crews must have been absolutely exhausted. It took many, many hours. We could have put a couple of them in each C-17 and had a bunch of them there overnight.

In regard to the main battle tank, I happen to think that the sight of a main battle tank rumbling down the street towards you is a very great deterrent to stupid young men doing something foolish. You would not need to engage the main battle tank--it is just the sight of the thing. We could have had a handful of Challenger 2s on the streets of the capital of Sierra Leone in a matter of hours if we had had C-17s ready to deploy them. I cannot emphasise too strongly to my noble friend, and I hope that she accepts my arguments, that the C-17 is an essential ingredient in our peacekeeping and peacemaking ability, as well as our war fighting ability.

The last point I would make to my noble friend--and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Burnham--is that in this country we do not spend enough on defence. I speak with a little authority on the subject. I believe that I was the only Member of another place in 30 years who voted against the Defence Estimates on the grounds that they were too low--unlike a few other members of my party with whom I found myself in the same Lobby who were voting against them because they were too high. I still believe that they are too low. I hope that my noble friend and the Secretary of State will fight vigorously for more resources for defence. In so doing she and he will have my full support.

Photo of Lord Burnham Lord Burnham Conservative

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I consider it a great pity that he will not be present for the end of the debate. The Minister cannot be expected to reply to his remarks and I would have greatly looked forward to hearing her response.

Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative 12:15 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I thank the Minister for a remarkable and splendid speech--it is what we have come to expect from her--and make two points. First, this Government did indeed inherit many deplorable things in the area of defence. Front Line First's destruction of the medical services and the sale of the married quarters estates are examples--and, not least, the defence cuts. The Treasury called the tune then, as it does now.

Secondly, much good has been done in the field of humanitarian operations in the Balkans, and in this new world there may be other such worthy causes. What concerns me is that the Government continue to pour quart after quart into a pint pot. If they would pay for what they exact from the over-stretched Armed Forces, I should be much happier. But the bill comes also in terms of skilled men. We cannot go on stretching them for ever without threatening to destroy the skills that are needed for their paramount target: the defence of the realm.

In 1995, the Bett report stated that,

"Some tension between resources and commitment is a healthy state of affairs, encouraging taut management and a cost-effective use of public funds. There are limits, though, to what is sensible and we have been concerned that current levels of over-stretch seem to be putting unacceptable and unsustainable pressures on many Servicemen, particularly those with families".

This year, six years later, the 29th report of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body states that one complaint above all has been voiced in its discussions with service personnel--that they are being asked to do too much with insufficient resources. It added that the Strategic Defence Review had openly acknowledged 18 months previously that increased operational commitments were causing overstretch in many parts of the Armed Forces, resulting in unprecedented short gaps between tours. Since then, over-stretch has peaked with increased commitments in the Balkans.

In view of the damage clearly being caused by over-stretch, the review body had expected to receive from the MoD and the services an up-to-date and detailed analysis of its effects, together with recommendations to counter the immediate and growing retention problem. Much to its regret, the MoD had declined to present formal evidence, although it did respond to specific comments and proposals.

The review body expresses a number of concerns relating to pay, notably the 12 months' delay now expected in the introduction of the new pay system, and continuing problems in the service housing sector, where the review body was,

"appalled by the standards of some of the accommodation we have seen".

Despite some improvement to the housing stock since the DHE agency was set up (evidence of which the All-Party Defence Group has indeed seen), the review body pointed out that some 60 per cent of service accommodation is still below Grade I, and was consequently,

"dismayed to learn that the date by which the DHE is committed to bringing all SFQs up to Grade I standard for condition has slipped by 2 years to 2005".

The review rightly expects the MoD to improve the quality of housing stock for all service personnel as a matter of urgency. As the Minister knows, the Armed Forces Families Federation shares the dismay of the review body. The review looks forward to seeing the results of the joint MoD/Treasury review of the way in which defence housing is provided and managed. It had understood that the review would soon be reported to Ministers. Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether and when the results will be reported to Parliament and be available to Members of this House?

The defence mission set out in the MoD statement of government expenditure plans (1999-2002) states:

"We must manage our people with care, ensuring that the demands on individuals and their families are reasonable [and] must make every pound count for defence"-- as the Minister herself said--

"to ensure that the defence budget is used to best effect".

Of course that is right. It says under "Spending Plans" that the plans set out in the SDR involve substantial investment to improve inherited areas of weakness measured against future operational needs and to fund a continuing major equipment programme. It says that the additional investment is affordable within the overall settlement for defence for the next three years because of resources savings from rationalisation in support areas and an increased programme of efficiency improvements and smarter procurement. It says that,

"Savings will also come from some programmes identified in the SDR as being of lower priority in the current strategic environment".

Presumably, service housing comes into that category.

We come back to the infamous Treasury-driven decision to require a 3 per cent annual efficiency saving in operating costs over the four years from 1998 to 2002, and the proud boast that the defence share of GDP will fall from 2.7 per cent in 1998 to 2.4 per cent in 2002. I read the White Paper carefully. Although much good work has clearly been done on reorganisation and such admirable concepts as the Joint Rapid Reaction Forces, I hope that the Minister, who has given us an encouraging review of a procurement programme which necessarily cannot be delivered today, or even tomorrow, can nevertheless tell us whether the general sad message is still that it is jam tomorrow rather than jam today.

What additional funding is mentioned concerns chiefly the restoration of deficiencies in weapons systems and the spares of critical equipment. I say nothing about recent press reports but confine myself to the Government's own statements. Many of the major procurement programmes still seem to be in the future. The competition to fulfil the need for a short-term strategic airlift, which was mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, started in 1998 but none offered,

"an acceptable solution at an affordable cost and the competition was terminated".

It seems that we are still pursuing options to improve our airlift capacity in the short term. Similarly, bids for a future strategic tanker aircraft through a public/private partnership venture were sought in 1999, and we expect to place the contract in 2002. When will the RAF get the tanker?

Understandably, the White Paper is more concerned to define tasks and set out what should be accomplished to make good capability shortfalls than to recognise the continuing and dire problems of overstretch and retention, although naturally reference is made to them. It says that the highest priority must be to ensure that we have robust forces available to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and stability, that the forces we deploy are trained and equipped to the highest standard and that we cannot,

"ignore crises, conflicts and human suffering, nor cut corners on how we meet our responsibilities".

The whole of the White Paper is much more about ever-increasing commitments rather than the resources needed to meet them. We all know that those resources are not there and that the services are being asked to do the impossible time after time. There are constant references to new threats and challenges, but only one paragraph about overstretch, and that is chiefly related to various palliatives: the Family Task Force, the telephone allowance, more education and the new pay system. Those are rightly designed to help families but do nothing to reduce commitments. They are more in the nature of sticking plaster than anything else.

The foreign policy/peace support operation tail increasingly wags the military dog. What can we feel but alarm when we read:

"We are also working on a doctrine which takes account of circumstances where the consent of any of the parties to a conflict is uncertain and where we may need to be prepared to use military force to coerce compliance in order to create a secure and stable environment. We foresee that there will continue to be situations where it will be essential to deploy forces capable of combat operations in order to contain conflict or because there is not yet consent for an intervention".

That passage occurs in the section concerned with peace support operations in which the Secretary-General of the UN is quoted as proposing an approach based on "inducing consent" and "coercive inducement". It adds that the UK is developing this approach. Is it prepared to pay for it? Is it meant to cover a forthcoming adventure in Montenegro or, far more likely, an operation in Sierra Leone? The size, level and nature of the tri-service presence off the coast and within the country is, it seems to me, remarkably generous for the simple evacuation of a not very large expatriate population--260 so far, with possibly 700 more--and the holding of an airport.

The make-up of the task force reminds me strongly of the annexe to the memorandum of understanding with the UN, signed by the UK last year, in which we undertook to provide a brigade for so long as it was wanted and wherever it was wanted. Listed in that annexe are the destroyers, frigates, helicopters and other logistical and technical support which would come with it. There is a further annexe which lists equipment that will be available after October 2001. It includes strategic air transport and outsize heavy lift aircraft. One wonders whether this is to be a rented Antonov or we are still pursuing our options.

It is interesting that in the White Paper there is no reference whatever to that commitment to the UN. I know we have been told that we would not necessarily be able to do this. It seems to me very rash to sign a treaty to say that we will do it if we cannot. It is one thing for the Government to recognise and value the major contribution of highly trained and disciplined troops to what is now called peace support operations, but quite another for these commitments to be heaped upon the forces without the resources to match them, and with no proper recognition that the MoD's primary task must be to train high-intensive forces capable of defending the realm.

I have spoken on earlier occasions about the common foreign and security policy agreed at Helsinki and the probable conflict between its needs and those of NATO when they will both be relying on the same rather limited assets. The White Paper recognises that the EU will have to develop capability goals such as command and control and strategic transport. It says nothing, however, about the cost of all this in men, equipment and armament, and presumably accepts the no doubt well-informed view of the Minister for Europe in the FCO that there is no need for any increase in defence spending. According to him, it merely needs to be refocused or, as the White Paper says, better targeted.

We are living, surely, in an amazing world of spin if the Armed Forces are to be treated as a useful but expendable card in the hands of Ministers while little indication is given of any readiness to pay the costs, or any understanding of the political implications of the interesting new game of military monopoly that we seem to be playing. If we offer 13 destroyers and frigates to the UN, as we do under annex 1 to the memorandum, why are we selling a number of them? Is the Navy to acquire new ships through refocusing? If the other EU countries go on cutting their defence budgets, having been advised by us that all they need do is imitate the Strategic Defence Review and retarget and refocus in order to reach new and demanding capability goals, will our own forces be playing a new kind of musical chairs in which the enthusiastic defence diplomats add more chairs instead of taking them away?

For how long will the demands of the Treasury and the new commitments entered into decide our defence policy and the use of our resources while no provision is made for them? I have not for once even mentioned Russia, but her activities in the defence field can only enhance the very serious asymmetric threat. We cannot respond to that without forward planning. Is it there?

Photo of Lord Bramall Lord Bramall Crossbench 12:28 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, although I have always admired and enjoyed the passionate way in which the Minister makes the very best of her brief, and the courteous manner in which she invariably handles the very real concerns of noble Lords, for two reasons I find these defence debates rather depressing. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, pointed out, the fact that defence has been relegated to a Friday indicates yet again the low priority in political terms which governments accord it. Once upon a time it was considered the prime responsibility of any government. That trend does not augur very well for the MoD's chances in any battles in Cabinet for resources. Secondly, the apparent imperviousness of the Ministry of Defence to any criticism, however constructive--we have heard such criticism from my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig and the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert--means that these debates do not appear to get us anywhere.

Most noble Lords with experience and interest in these matters know well the many things that have been right about the handling of our defence affairs and our magnificent Armed Forces since the Government came to power. We now have the White Paper which, although some of us find it a little irritating for reasons that I need not repeat, sensibly sets out the Government's priorities, their justifiable pride in the Strategic Defence Review, and their determination to implement it.

In past debates--including a recent one--many noble Lords have consistently gone out of their way to praise the strategic policy, the operational requirements and most, if not all, of the organisational innovations set out in that admirable review. They have also praised the high quality of the men and women who serve, of whom this country can continue to feel extremely proud, always providing that some of the political, legal and financial currents that are now besetting and eddying around them, which could so easily affect their ethos, motivation, loyalty, command and discipline, do not progressively make their job too difficult.

Generally, there has been much support and encouragement for the way that the Government have started to tackle and face up to our defence problems. The Minister knows that I fully subscribe to that view. Equally, many noble Lords and noble and gallant friends know only too well what is wrong with the way that the Government's handling of defence has developed over the past year or so. It can be summed up in one word, "underfunding", which is made all the more poignant and unnecessary by that iniquitous and entirely arbitrary penalty of 3 per cent compound interest over four years, which, however it is dressed up, hits every vote-holder, and strikes at the very heart and viability of the whole Strategic Defence Review, and the Government's performance that emanates from it. It is sad that, although I have often raised this point, the Ministry of Defence does not even seem to recognise that there is a problem, choosing to portray it as an exciting, voluntarily incurred challenge in service modernisation when everyone knows that it was forced on it by the Treasury--one might almost say the revengeful Treasury--which did not obtain as large a dividend as it had hoped from the rightly, this time, policy led Strategic Defence Review.

This underfunding--already highlighted ably and thoroughly by the Select Committee on Defence--not only makes the job of every vote-holder infinitely more difficult and often impossible if those under them are to carry out their everyday missions properly. All current shortcomings, weaknesses, slippages and potential cancellations can now be attributed to it.

Perhaps I can remind noble Lords of the historical context in which the current underfunding exists. From the end of 1978--the last year of the Labour government of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan--until 1986, defence spending grew at a consistent rate of 3 per cent per annum in real terms, which constituted well over 5 per cent of the gross national product. It then reasonably levelled off until 1988, when it started a steady decline, or dive, from which it has not yet pulled out, averaging 2 per cent to 3 per cent per annum; each annual cut being made from a lower base line, bringing the ratio of the gross national product to only just over 2 per cent. This all happened at a time when lengthy, expensive and manpower intensive military commitments outside NATO, which the Government claimed to be unavoidable, were becoming more numerous than ever, and with the reduced Armed Forces proportionately more occupied and overstretched than virtually ever before.

Now, of course, with turmoil in parts of Africa, still further commitments, as we have heard, of so far uncertain length and unquantifiable costs are rolling in to stretch our forces still further. All of those, in financial and manpower terms, more than balance any thaw in the Cold War, with the Government manifestly determined to play their full part and even take the lead on the international stage.

In all my experience of Whitehall I have never known a government, to use a "wild west" term, so quick on the draw as this one. Given the circumstances and the changes in the international scene already mentioned, we have clearly cut far too far, and this will inevitably have a serious effect both on current activities and those proposed for the future. For instance, when glaring and fully recognised weaknesses exist, such as overstretch, lack of formation training, the state of the Armed Forces medical services, the maintenance of quarters, and so on--some admittedly inherited--underfunding on the present scale makes it virtually impossible to do enough to correct them in the short term, so they drag on and become even worse.

Underfunding has presumably also provided the background against which the Territorial Army--our only reliable reserve--has been weakened, just when it has rightly been asked to do more, particularly in those areas which have been cut most, such as the infantry, engineers and Military Police. There can be, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, pointed out no other good reason for such cuts. The longer-term effect could be serious. It will also have accounted for some of the admirable organisational innovations such as the air assault or air mobile brigade, not being implemented and deployed, in terms of equipment and manpower, as early as planned; and for any slippage in the equipment programme, which although good in many respects, particularly in tanks and artillery, has some glaring deficiencies especially in the important communications field and in the vital strategic airlift.

Moreover, if funding is not improved, the future for the Government's stated, even boasted about, policy and aspirations looks pretty bleak. For instance, if there is to be any real attempt to get Europe to get its defence act together, so that it could, if necessary, undertake limited operations in its area of interest without some United States involvement--which it could not do at the moment, and about which I may be more in favour than some noble Lords--it will not only require more money, but more money from us. Without that, we would be in danger of achieving the worst of all worlds: enough talk to annoy the Americans and to drive them into a never far below the surface isolation, which would be disastrous for the stability of Europe, and of the whole world, and virtually no comprehensive and compensatory capability to speak of on this side of the Atlantic. Extra resources will equally be necessary if the present--let alone any future--extension of NATO, on which the Government seem so politically bent, is to mean anything at all. It would be intolerable if this had to be at the expense of other vital parts of the existing and greatly overstretched budget.

Underfunding will clearly have serious repercussions on the future equipment programme generally, of which the noble Baroness has particular knowledge and expertise. Even now, the programme seems to be in a bit of a muddle, with an unreliable rifle, Lynx engines which need to be modified, the replacement for Clansman well behind schedule and now, at an incredibly late hour, the removal of the cannon from the massively expensive European fighter aircraft, which must reduce its flexibility in the spectrum of lower intensity operations.

Moreover, the Government have committed themselves to providing two very expensive fleet carriers, both as a means of projecting power and in order to provide close air support when no land bases are available. But since the European fighter neither can nor ever will be able to land on a carrier, yet another new ground attack aircraft with, presumably, a capability to defend itself, and somewhat in advance of a Harrier II, will now have to be developed. I wonder increasingly how this belt-and-braces strategy can possibly be sustained with the ever-declining defence resources that we are experiencing.

Unless the Ministry of Defence can find the skill, determination and political guts to secure the essential support of the Prime Minister and take on the Treasury--it keeps on saying that it is fighting like hell, but as in everything else, it must be judged by results--some of the good intentions that emerged from the Strategic Defence Review and have since been trumpeted with fine words in the White Paper will become virtually meaningless. There will be disenchantment; and the drain from the services, of which we have already had glimpses through, among other things, the departure of so many of that key age group 28 to 32 and in the manning of the medical services, will become a flood. Then we shall be left with much smaller, less well trained forces than the Government had planned with a more limited operational capability than the Strategic Defence Review considered necessary. I am sure that is not what the Government originally had in mind.

I therefore urge the Government to take note of the strong, detailed criticisms and recommendations in the report of the Select Committee on Defence in another place, and action on the funding front, before it is too late. Otherwise they must be forced to forget cutting a dash in the international arena--I refer to their grand design, however laudable, to use the Armed Forces as international policemen and a force for good in a troubled world--and instead cut a more modest, less effective, far less influential defence coat according to the totally inadequate cloth the Treasury now allows them. That would be so contrary to what the Government have promised, and even boasted about, that it would represent a most unfortunate climb down. I only hope that for the sake of the country that can be avoided.

Photo of Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede Labour 12:40 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I am a member of the Political Committee of the Western European Union and I shall concentrate my comments today on chapter 2 of the White Paper, entitled "NATO and European Defence".

Yesterday I reread the speech of Michael Colvin in another place. As your Lordships will know, it was his last speech. It was also a wide-ranging speech in which he covered everything from the Eurofighter to budgets and developments in European defence. He set out the inequalities in defence expenditure and capabilities, which are well known. He also set out the various options for the institutional changes involving the WEU, the EU and NATO. Michael Colvin made his speech on 22nd February and I would argue that already perceptions are changing about those changes. A strengthening of the likely institutional arrangements for European defence is about to be agreed.

"Separable but not separate" is the way the relationship between a common European defence and security capability is described in relation to NATO. Concern has been raised, mainly by the Americans, that this could weaken the alliance. There has been the rhetoric of the three Ds, decoupling, duplication and discrimination: decoupling of Europe's security from NATO's; the wasteful duplication of capabilities; and discrimination against allies who are not European Union members.

I believe that that rhetoric has been damaging because it stresses the risks and the negatives rather than the huge benefits to all if Europe were to develop some limited capability to undertake Petersberg missions in its area of interest. Since the Helsinki accord of December last year, the debate has moved on rapidly to the setting up of the intergovernmental machinery within the EU to deal with defence issues. It is worth noting that the traditional neutrality of certain EU members has not proved so far an impediment to this remarkably swift process.

In previous debates, when my noble friend was a Minister at the Foreign Office, she always argued, and rightly, that it was capabilities that mattered and not the institutional arrangements. She repeated that argument today. I argue that matters have moved forward. Of course, the capabilities remain a serious European problem but the institutional arrangements are under way and of huge importance, not least to those outside the EU who want to retain influence within NATO and those who aspire to joining both NATO and the EU. The arrangements are extremely important to those countries.

There are a number of initiatives outside the CFSP initiative. Our own MoD has its Outreach programme which I believe to be successful in establishing bilateral relations with former Warsaw Pact countries. NATO's Partnership for Peace is bringing in countries of central and eastern Europe, including the Russians, and proved its worth in enabling partners to play their role in peace support operations in Kosovo. Another important, longstanding initiative is the WEU assembly where parliamentarians from 28 countries meet to debate and scrutinise defence policy in a well established way.

All those types of initiatives are worthwhile and they are not in competition with each other. But the fear of many countries outside the EU is that they will lose influence if they have no forum in which to play their part in scrutinising Europe's CFSP.

I mentioned America's three Ds. There is a fourth D: democracy. It is worth remembering that all countries outside the EU are vigorously in favour of retaining the WEU assembly in some form. It is only the 11 EU members who are also in NATO who are as yet undecided on the future of the WEU assembly.

At the risk of labouring my point, the issue is not one of accountability. No one questions that accountability will remain with national parliaments because national parliaments set the defence budgets. The issue is one of scrutiny; and the WEU assembly alone has developed a record of scrutiny, recognising the different statuses of its 28 members and their different aspirations. I believe that that record should be built on in encouraging greater co-operation between countries of central and eastern Europe.

Yesterday I was reading an article by Dmitri Trenin from the Carnegie Center entitled "Russia-NATO relations: Time to pick up the pieces". He makes the familiar point that the only thing Russian politicians can agree upon is that they are against NATO enlargement. Most Russian politicians are fairly agnostic about EU enlargement and the EU taking on the military capability for Petersberg tasks. Dmitri Trenin makes the point that following the Chechnya debacle it may ironically be easier for Moscow to resume expanded contacts with NATO rather than to receive a clean bill of health from the usual Russian favourite institutions like the OSCE and the Council of Europe which have been far more critical of Russia's behaviour in Chechnya. Ironically, NATO might find that it is leading the way in rebuilding institutional arrangements.

My general point is that we need to build at all levels to promote greater co-operation. I have mentioned the MoD's Outreach programme, Partnership for Peace, the WEU assembly, and how NATO could find itself in a leadership role over the other human rights based organisations. I hope that the CFSP institutional arrangements can also be seen in this perspective as a method of outreach, if I may so put it, to build and promote greater co-operation with central and eastern Europe.

Michael Colvin gave his speech on 22nd February. Since then we have a new Russian president. Russia has been expelled from the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe. The five options for change which he outlined in his speech have been whittled down to one or perhaps two realistic options for the institutional arrangements. The countries outside the EU are becoming far more focused and vocal in saying that they want to retain some measure of influence. On top of that, British troops have recently been deployed to Sierra Leone.

It is a very fast-moving world. The White Paper states in its conclusion:

"quality ... is timeless and unchanging; the means by which we guarantee that quality have to be constantly evolving. The pace of evolution is faster than ever".

I could not have put it better myself. I congratulate my noble friend on the Government's White Paper.

Photo of Viscount Allenby of Megiddo Viscount Allenby of Megiddo Crossbench 12:50 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I, too, join other noble Lords in congratulating our Armed Forces on their everyday skills and sheer professionalism here and around the world today. I, too, thank the Minister for her sincere update on Sierra Leone to which I shall refer later. This country is both justly proud and grateful for the security and safety that our Armed Forces give us.

Today we are debating the 1999 Defence White Paper which has an interesting mixture of positive remedial measures as well as a number of omissions. I shall draw your Lordships' attention to some of them. The Select Committee on Defence in another place stated:

"The problems of overstretch and undermanning suggest that if the wheels have not yet come off the SDR, they are certainly beginning to wobble alarmingly".

Whether that was a bland statement to be taken seriously or was a knee-jerk to the Government remains to be seen.

The opening sentence of paragraph 70 of the White Paper states:

"Our first priority was to reduce overstretch".

That problem seems to be getting worse, not better. It is high time that the Government took action to solve it by providing more manpower and finance, otherwise it will never go away. On top of all that comes tight budget restraints with equipment shortages, delays in provision and the cancellation of training exercises; all of which have been well publicised.

The basic problem which affects all three services is the overall lack of manpower, particularly so in the Army. Paragraph 79 of the White Paper indicates that recruitment is going well. It states:

"the Army achieved its highest level of new recruits for nine years".

The Minister referred to that in opening. What it does not state is that wastage rates, particularly among skilled tradesmen, remain high. That is most worrying in key trades where establishment levels are already very tight.

I had hoped to see in the White Paper some indication of whether the Government are considering expanding the junior tradesman training units which have been so effective and have provided the backbone of the warrant officer structure. However, it is particularly welcome that the reserve forces continue to play an important, indeed vital, role in supporting their regular counterparts. The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, referred to that. It is particularly so in places such as Bosnia and Kosovo. Perhaps I may draw your Lordships' attention to the fact that two of the three escapees in Sierra Leone were reservists.

I wonder whether it is time to recognise the voluntary service. Perhaps a reservist who has done more than one tour of duty abroad should receive an award, not necessarily money. I believe that for long enough the reserve forces have played an important role in the defence of this country and it is time they were rewarded. When can we expect to see the results of the Reserve Mobilisation Study and what are the current manpower shortfalls? Many figures have been bandied around, but no one seems to know what the shortfall is.

The White Paper makes reference to several new initiatives to interoperability and to jointery, which on the whole are to be welcomed if they can be properly equipped and fully effective, and not some hotchpotch set-up which one or two might well become. I draw your Lordships' attention to the new staff college in particular. It has been set up at Shrivenham and is due to open on 1st September. That is a great step forward.

There is just one new organisation which I believe may have to be looked at again; that is, the Joint Nuclear and Biological and Chemical Defence Regiment--and I emphasise the word "regiment". The needs and doctrinal approach of the Army and RAF are rather different, and I wonder whether it will work fully effectively, especially bearing in mind the very high cost of equipment. The role was previously given to a reserve regiment with which I had connections and it was never fully equipped. As an aside, it is unfortunate that the Army regiment assigned to this task is the Royal Tank Regiment.

Reference has been made by a number of noble Lords to the continuing shortfall in medical services. The remedial action outlined in the White Paper is to be welcomed, but there is still a vital need for medical units, surgical and medical air evacuation teams at the front line, not withstanding full field hospitals able to cope with the higher casualty rates that we have experienced. As was said by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, we cannot assume that casualty rates will not be high in future.

The White Paper refers to further withdrawals from Germany and the formation of two new brigades; the 16 Air Assault Brigade at Colchester and the 12 Mechanised Brigade based at Aldershot. Both are to complete the Formation Readiness Cycle. It is difficult to understand the logic behind moving 16 Brigade from Aldershot further away from the Movement Control Regiment and mounting airfields in the centre of England, but there must be a good explanation for that. The problem raised in my mind is where and how these formations will train realistically, particularly the Mechanised Brigade which has only small training areas nearby. I have to tell your Lordships that I was once involved in a study of Army training areas in the UK and we were amazed how little the training areas had changed since World War I, when the Army was largely horsed and weapon ranges very short. It seems to me that we have now reached the end of the road and that a radical review of how and where the Army is going to train is necessary.

The problems facing our Armed Forces today are as complex as they have ever been. Service life is no longer from the cradle to the grave, as the Reverend John Dyer said in 1726. Unlike any business or industry, there is no productivity level by which we can measure effectiveness. Our Armed Forces are rapidly evolving and coping with modern technology, but the principal resource, manpower, needs to be nurtured and not overburdened by financial control.

Photo of Lord Brett Lord Brett Labour 12:58 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I rise to make a modest and brief contribution to the debate because I am broadly supportive of the White Paper. I echo the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, in her well deserved praise of the Minister's excellent and honest presentation.

A number of important and interesting points have and will be made, but perhaps as a civilian I may be forgiven for believing that the solution might be for 3rd Para to be used to storm that stronghold of the true enemy; namely, the Treasury. But that must be too over-simplistic!

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, gave us a 20-year history of the see-sawing of defence expenditure and its proportion of GNP. But it would be wrong to believe that in those 20 years, under either administration, that happened solely at the whim of a Chancellor or the desire of a particular Prime Minister--strong though Prime Ministers have been during that time. Government have decided their priorities in terms of their commitment to defence versus their commitment to other areas of expenditure. We ignore that at our peril.

The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, made three points which I should like to reflect upon because they are of interest to me. He started with the issue of Smart procurement. I believe that I should declare an interest. Prior to my retirement a year ago, I was the general secretary of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, which has over 20,000 members serving as scientific, technical and professional civilian staff in the Ministry of Defence.

I can recall my desire that there should be a Strategic Defence Review. I remember the pain and torment of a decade prior to 1997--the very same decade that was described by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, as being the decade of cuts--when we had absolute short-termism. I, for one, welcomed both the Strategic Defence Review and, indeed, the tough, but I believe realistic, at least in terms of the developments as we understood them at the time, situation of understanding absolutely during a five-year period from 1997 to 2002 the limitation but also the guarantee of what the services and civilian support would receive by way of government share of expenditure.

It is wrong to predicate the belief that there is a 3 per cent cut in absolute expenditure. As the Minister said, the opportunity for efficiency savings, which undoubtedly exists in some areas, need not result in reduced defence expenditure but can be translated into moneys available for the enhancement of the SDR.

I do not believe that I can go along with those who say that Smart procurement is a failure; nor do I believe that anyone claims it is already a total success. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, set out too many examples of failure for that to be a boast that anyone can make. I claim that it is too early in the process to say that it is a total success. However, it is far truer to say that it is succeeding than that it is failing.

I say that in tribute not only to the policy but to my many Civil Service members--or, rather, my former members, although I am still a member of the same union--who are putting in place the innovative and sometimes very difficult managerial decisions which will bring about change in procurement. I believe that the jury is out but, to use a boxing analogy, there is a points lead to the Smart procurement. I believe that to call it anything other than that at present would be wrong.

The second point made by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham--namely, in relation to DERA--is one on which I have considerably more sympathy with his point of view than I do on other issues. I have made my views on that matter known, both to the Minister and to the House, on previous occasions. Therefore, I shall not dwell upon it.

My third point of concern, also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, relates to troop reductions in Northern Ireland. I am sure that the Government will not seek troop reductions that are not supported by political change and political advance. However, when those reductions take place--it is hoped earlier rather than later, as we all wish to see political advance in Northern Ireland--I make a plea to the Minister for the civilian personnel working in support of the defence forces who will then be affected. Any stage of withdrawal of a substantial proportion of our defence establishment will leave a considerable number of civilian support staff in Northern Ireland, in a sense, somewhat marooned. I ask for sympathetic treatment, both for those who request postings perhaps to mainland UK and for those who perhaps wish to seek voluntary severance.

I ask for that sympathy in the total knowledge that it will be given. Although I may have a difference of opinion on what would be the right outcome for DERA, I am asked by my trade union colleagues to place on the record their appreciation of the Minister, who has acted in an open, frank and collegiate manner and has shown sympathy for the personnel difficulties that accompany difficult decisions. I am sure that that same attitude will prevail in respect of any changes in Northern Ireland. As I said at the beginning, on that basis I am broadly supportive of what I consider to be a fine White Paper.

Photo of Lord Vivian Lord Vivian Conservative 1:04 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Government for bringing this debate to the House today. I should also like to thank and congratulate the Minister on her excellent summing up at the end of the previous short defence debate and for what she has said about Sierra Leone today.

In the last defence debate I commented on efficiency savings and cuts to the defence budget. I wish to emphasise once again that the so-called annual 3 per cent efficiency savings are insufficient to fund the SDR and, overall, are now acting as cuts. Some aspects of SDR have already slipped. If we continue to make financial cuts and do not provide realistic funding, SDR will not be achieved on time.

No longer will our servicemen and women accept poor standards of accommodation, poor equipment, excessive operational deployments and poor pay and conditions of service. As I have warned your Lordships before, I sense now that if SDR fails to deliver on time, massive premature voluntary retirement will take place, leaving the country with an ineffectual and poorly trained Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force.

Chapter 1 of the White Paper covers the current security environment. Therefore, it is an opportune moment to remind ourselves of the threat. Briefly, the risks are the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; 20 countries that have a chemical and biological capability in addition to those countries that have a nuclear capability; serious concerns over North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Libya; the fighting between India and Pakistan; the tense situation between China and Taiwan, and the rivalry between China and India; the possibility of a resurgent Russia under Putin; civil wars within nation states such as the Balkans, where the interests of our country and NATO may be affected; international terrorism; and terrorism from Sinn Fein/IRA.

In connection with the IRA, a great number of people firmly believe that the recent statement about their weapons is completely meaningless and full of conditions. In the past, it seemed that only negotiating from a position of strength had any effect on the IRA. Since 1997 they have seriously weakened the British position. To contemplate the withdrawal of troops now and to destroy our sensitive observation posts at Crossmaglen, Broadway and the New Lodge in Belfast, Fort George in Londonderry and our military base at Cookstown will be seen as a complete victory for the IRA and a virtual surrender by the British.

That really must not be allowed to happen and I question why the Government are so nai ve as to adopt this course of appeasement. The recent IRA statement, so full of conditions, does not promise to complete any destruction of their weapons, nor offer any timetable for putting arms and explosives beyond use. And beyond use is not to guarantee that they can never be used again. They have said that they will initiate a process whereby a number of arms dumps, selected by themselves, can be viewed by a third party. Why not all their arms dumps, and what is the reason for not destroying them now?

From all those threats it is concluded that we live in a volatile and dangerous world. It is absolutely clear that we must have superbly trained troops for war-fighting and rapidly deployable expeditionary forces with the appropriate heavy-lift capability by sea and air for operations in other parts of the world. In connection with that, perhaps the Minister can bring your Lordships up to date on the progress of acquiring heavy-lift aircraft and shipping. I could not agree more with the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, on his views about the C-17. We need them now.

I wish to stress the importance of ensuring that our intelligence coverage is sufficient and technically as up-to-date as possible. It has been assessed that Russia may not be a great threat at the moment, but it should not be forgotten that, whereas Putin's domestic policies are somewhat obscure, he favours weapons of mass destruction, has a hatred of NATO, and has dramatically increased his exports of weapons and his defence budget by 57 per cent to modernise his conventional forces. At the same time, his rocket forces, nuclear weapons and nuclear submarine fleet have all been kept in good condition.

Those are certainly matters of which we should take careful note. With the small defence forces that the country can afford, intelligence is, as it always has been, a key factor of early warning of changing attitudes in this increasingly dangerous world.

Intelligence matters are always sensitive. However, I should like to stress the importance of ensuring that they are funded properly and with sufficient funds to achieve their essential tasks. The Government's current agreements and responsibilities for the American intelligence agencies underpin the transatlantic relationship with the US which allows us a provision of almost the total US product. From our national effort and our unique talent for intelligence assessment which is shared with the United States, the special relationship with the US gives us a quasi-superpower level of intelligence. It is absolutely critical that nothing upsets that special relationship, if we are to be assured of receiving the product from the USA and, for that matter, the heavy lift capability and the logistical support without which it would nearly be impossible to carry out large-scale overseas operational deployments.

Chapter 2 covers aspects of NATO and European defence. I am well aware that the noble Baroness has said that there is no intention of giving Eurocrats a role in our military command; that we have no intention of moving to some sort of mini-NATO for Europe; that there is no intention of ruining an organisation that has reliably provided Europe with its security for some 50 years; and that there is no intention of establishing a European Army.

There is no disagreement with Europe playing its full part in defence matters that do not directly affect the USA. But it is essential that it does not occur at the risk of our special relationship with the US. To safeguard that relationship, would it not be better for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe to establish an additional command to Allied Forces North and South called Euroforce, which would work through the Supreme Allied Commander Europe to NATO? I believe the so-called European and Security and Defence Identity to be flawed in that it currently gives the impression of the wish to establish a European army, and some in the US might think that this will create a European superstate which would rival them. Furthermore the ESDI proposal is not really plausible until such time as the European countries are determined to increase their own defence budgets, and that is most unlikely for many years to come.

Turning to Chapter 3 of the White Paper, I have not been able to find any specific mention of training. Your Lordships may recall that I touched on this matter in the last debate and I feel that it is important that I repeat once again what I said then. Due to all our current operational tasks and the fact that in 1999 47 per cent of the Army was operationally deployed, there was serious skill fade with regiments becoming less capable in their primary roles, because opportunities for training were not available. If our troops are not trained properly for war fighting, we cannot expect to win battles in the future.

Some 39 exercises were cancelled last year, including the Royal Marines Arctic exercise, due to financial restraints. Now the Marines are unlikely to hold a formation level amphibious exercise for the next two years or so due to a forthcoming deployment. We cannot go on like that any longer and the current deployment to Sierra Leone is likely to be the straw that broke the camel's back. Those troops must be returned as soon as possible, as the noble Baroness has indicated. Most cancellations were due to Kosovo, the over-commitment factor, but some were due to budgetary constraints. If over-commitment for operations affects training to such an extent, it is surely an indication that the SDR force levels are not right.

Over-commitment in the Army has resulted in the fact that there will be no high readiness brigade at the required collective performance level for the next two years or so, and then only one of the two brigades as required by the SDR. Will the noble Baroness say whether the Sierra Leone deployment will delay that further and when will 12 Brigade now be operational? Could she also update your Lordships on the training review and let your Lordships know how many operational aircraft are without pilots and what is being done to fill these spaces?

Chapter 4 covers people in the Armed Forces. In the last debate I covered recruiting and retention in some detail and I do not intend to go over this ground again. However, I would like to point out that recruiting has gone well, but the inability to retain people in the armed services is causing serious problems. In the main, it is the constant operational tours and the consequential separation of families due to too many commitments in the past which forces people out of the services. Those experienced and well-trained people have probably completed around 7 years service and are the very people one does not want to lose.

I am aware of and welcome the steps that the MoD has taken to improve conditions resulting from operational deployment, including the fact that the deployment figure had dropped to around 27 per cent. However, another positive step that could be taken to help retention is that many of those who apply to leave the Armed Forces prematurely might stay if they were offered around £5,000 remuneration for any occasion when a second or more separated tour takes place within 24 months.

The code of conduct for commanding officers has not been mentioned and, in view of the Human Rights Act, there are many problems with which they will have to grapple. I do not think that the code of conduct provides enough guidance for commanding officers, although I am aware that the code was drafted very widely to ensure maximum flexibility in its interpretation. If I may, I would like to write to the noble Baroness on this subject.

For a brief moment I would like to touch once again on the shortage of surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses in the Defence Medical Services. I accept the fact that it takes a great number of years to train doctors and it is pleasing to note that doctors are well recruited for the future. But that does not help the present situation. Will the Minister say why it would not be possible to recruit military doctors from the USA, where their medical services have been run down, or, for that matter, recruit for a limited number of years doctors from other countries such as those in the Commonwealth and adopt a similar line for getting more nurses? After all, the post of civilian military practitioner already exists within the Armed Forces.

I turn briefly to Pay 2001. There is great concern from all servicemen and women about that proposal. It may well cause divisions within the team spirit ethos, so important to the Armed Forces, and possibly affect recruiting and PVR rates. The message that I have received on defence group visits is that it is most unpopular and why, when we are struggling with retention, do we have to pursue such an unpopular policy?

Chapter 5 deals with the defence estate and equipment matters, among other things. Although there will be around 500 houses added to the estate, will the noble Baroness say whether the completion date for the refurbishment of married quarters has slipped to 2005? Will she also comment on why we need to bring more troops back from Germany when, at great expense to the defence budget, new barracks have to be built or are being built at the moment in the UK?

Furthermore, as the defence budget is in such difficulties, would it not have been better to have postponed the modernisation of the Main Building, saving around £1.5 billion? May I also ask the Minister whether she will say how far advanced is the new reconnaissance vehicle known as Tracer and why the Multi Role Armoured Vehicle has been approved by the MoD when, as far as I am aware, it is too large to fit into a Hercules aircraft?

I apologise to the noble Baroness for asking her so many questions and I should be quite happy if she were to write to me if she does not have the time to cover all those points.

Finally, I wish to pay tribute to the men and women of the Armed Forces of the Crown. They are highly professional; determined to achieve success; protect our liberty and freedom; are brave and courageous and always prepared to make the supreme sacrifice. Those men and women are an outstanding example of loyalty to their country and dedication to duty.

Photo of Lord Inge Lord Inge Crossbench 1:18 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, the Strategic Defence Review, quite rightly, earned considerable praise for its quality, its intellectual vigour, for the way it thought through the new security challenges which will face our Armed Forces and for the way it was presented. But--and it is a very big but--the real test of the Strategic Defence Review and any Defence White Papers which follow is whether Her Majesty's Government will deliver the operational capability, stability and quality of life improvements which were promised. That is the real test.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, reminded us, at the time of the announcement of the Strategic Defence Review, of what the Armed Forces had been going through. They had had Options for Change, which certainly did not reorganise the Armed Forces to meet the new operational challenges posed by the new strategic environment and was based on such flawed assumptions of only 1,500 servicemen being deployed on UN-type operations. Certainly, the smaller and better Armed Forces trumpeted by Options for Change never materialised.

Indeed, in the middle of the ongoing major reorganisation caused by Options for Change, the Armed Forces were faced with further major reorganisational changes following the defence costs study exercise. Throughout that period there was the annual demand from the Treasury for a 2 per cent efficiency saving. In other words, the defence budget was reduced every year by 2 per cent. All that change and uncertainty was carried out at a time when the Armed Forces were heavily stretched on operational duty.

The big question remains: will Her Majesty's Government provide the resources necessary to give our Armed Forces the fighting capabilities that they need, as spelt out in the Strategic Defence Review, and will the re-organisation be completed in the timescale outlined in that review? For the Armed Forces to feel let down again would have serious consequences for morale, recruitment and retention.

A number of noble Lords have mentioned the priority that this Government are prepared to give to spending on defence. If they are prepared to deploy the Armed Forces on so many operations and keep them at such a high level of operations, they must fund them so that they can be looked after and protected in the way that they deserve.

I have noticed a tendency to say how good the SDR study was, rather than face the much more important question of how Her Majesty's Government are coping with delivering the capabilities that were promised. I sense that the 1999 Defence White Paper was rather complacent in that respect.

There is little doubt that the budget agreed for implementing the SDR was always very tight, with little left in the kitty to cope with the unexpected such as rising oil prices and additional operational commitments. In addition, the timescale for implementing the SDR is also tight. Some of the key assumptions on such things as the level of operational demands have proved optimistic. The services are still committed in Kosovo and Bosnia, despite reductions there, and now we are involved in a new dangerous operation in Sierra Leone.

I want to add my strong support to what the Government are doing in Sierra Leone. I believe that it is quite right to help in the evacuation of British and other countries' citizens. However, it would have been nice if one or two of our fellow Europeans, who support the ESDI, were there as well. I recognise how difficult it would be for the Government to withdraw the British contribution before the UN force is properly in place. I hope that we shall not be sucked into another quagmire because I believe we have our hands in too many mangles already.

When I hear talk about the additional UN forces coming from Bangladesh, India and Jordan, and talk about days becoming weeks, I fear that it will become months, and that getting the British force out will prove even more difficult.

Returning to my concerns about the MoD's ability to deliver the SDR, it is common knowledge--the noble Lord, Lord Vivian mentioned it--that at least one important major exercise and many minor exercises have had to be cancelled because of the shortage of money. Given the high level of operational commitments and that major equipment such as the communication system, Bowman, have either been reduced in scale or delayed into service--the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, spoke at length about the importance of the C-17 and that the bid has been reduced from four to three--that indicates that the defence budget is under severe pressure. The SDR is unlikely to be delivered on time as the MoD has not been given the resources to implement the SDR properly.

In addition, if my experience of the MoD is anything to go by, that financial pressure will also mean that there will be reductions in or delay into service of operational reserve stocks and items in the war maintenance reserve. Such reserves are not as important for peace support or more benign operations, but they are critical for high intensity conflicts. Quite rightly, the SDR stresses the importance of retaining a true high intensity conflict capability.

In relation to the budget, the noble Baroness has made it clear that the Treasury's 3 per cent efficiency savings are not a reduction in the defence budget, but can be used for other purposes. That is not as I understood it. I had understood that the defence budget was going down from 2.7 per cent to 2.4 per cent of GDP. One has only to look at the state of soldiers' accommodation to realise what I am saying about the tightness of the defence budget. I hope that the Minister will share with us the changes that have had to be made to the initial plans for the Strategic Defence Review.

I turn to our most important asset--people--our servicemen and women who carry out such a wonderful job supporting our nation. We already know that they are faced with a serious problem of undermanning that will not be put right before 2005 at the earliest. Even then I understand that there will be serious undermanning problems in certain corps and specialist areas. I would be interested to know what the recruiting surveys show about why people do not wish to join the Armed Forces.

Although retention is improving, it is not as good as it should be. I want to know the main reasons why servicemen and women are leaving the Armed Forces sooner than we would wish. What additional measures are Her Majesty's Government considering to help to improve recruitment and, more importantly, retention? Can the Minister confirm that the Army training organisation is working to full capacity, is fully staffed and fully funded?

While on the subject of people, I want to highlight, as I have before in the House, the concern that exists throughout the Armed Forces, particularly among the commanders at the sharp end, about the increasing rise of litigation and political correctness. They are deeply concerned about the effect that that is having on commanders' willingness to take risks in training. We are in danger of producing a breed of commanders who are too cautious and wary of taking decisive decisions that could be disastrous on operations. If we undermine leadership at the lowest levels, and the feeling of collective responsibility that goes with it, we could do serious harm. Ironically, that could put the lives of our servicemen at greater risk when they are on operations. The German saying of "train hard and fight soft" remains relevant.

Mention of training in the White Paper, as indicated by other noble Lords, is a little thin. I sense that there is a misunderstanding in many people's minds that, with so many servicemen on operations, the need for training is reduced. Of course, operational experience is invaluable, but I do not need to tell Members of this House that that is only part of the equation. Recently, we have had experience in places such as Bosnia and Kosovo and now in Sierra Leone, which, although dangerous, complex and difficult, has not been high intensity conflict.

In speaking of high intensity conflict I do not speak of a third world war. Quite rightly, the Strategic Defence Review laid great emphasis on retaining a war fighting capability, which is the ability to take part in high intensity conflict. If that capability is lost, it will take years and years to regain. There is no doubt that the capability of our Armed Forces in that respect has declined significantly due to the extraordinarily high level of operational commitments which has meant a great reduction in the time available for complex joint and all-arms training. I would be interested to know what the Government are trying to do to rectify that weakness.

On the European Security and Defence Initiative, I have to declare an interest in that I am a member of the sub-committee that is looking into that. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am strongly in favour of Europe doing more, but I am also convinced that we are not talking about a European army. I believe that there is some muddled thinking about the true American attitude to that initiative, although I am not sure whether there is such a thing as a clear American attitude to it. The Americans to whom I have spoken over a number of years have said that Europe should do more. By "more" the US means providing real--I emphasise the word "real"--military capability. In that respect, NATO also is important. It would be disastrous to the transatlantic link if the rhetoric overtakes the reality.

We have to recognise that there are major capability gaps in Western Europe's military capability. I do not see how that capability can realistically be improved without some countries significantly increasing defence spending. That means much more than simply refocusing their defence spending. For us it means at least delivering the Strategic Defence Review.

In conclusion, we have small, but first-class, Armed Forces. Quite rightly, they are greatly respected, not only in this country, but also by a number of other nations. Critical to recruiting and retaining the right quality of people and giving them the effective operational capability will be the Government's determination to allocate the additional resources that they clearly need. At Christmas time, the Prime Minister was at pains to praise the service and quality of our Armed Forces. I know that that message was well received by them. Loyalty goes two ways--upwards and downwards--and the Armed Forces will be looking to the Prime Minister and to the Government to deliver the additional resources that they so badly need.

Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour 1:29 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, when returning to central London last week after an appearance on the morning "Kilroy" show, I was initiated by my chauffeur into the intricacies of the car's on-board global positioning system. We were using the GPS to negotiate the arterial streets of London, some pock-marked by holes in the road such as your Lordships' latest allocation--into which this House has recently much peered. "Blooming hopeless", opined my chauffeur about GPS, and as we approached Regent's Park, the whole system went entirely AWOL. "Ah! We have come into range of the MoD's radio defences", said my "Jason Button". He fingered the culprit. "It's the ring of radio steel protecting London's chief targets from outside missile attack. It breaks up the GPS monitor every time", he concluded. But I was grateful that the MoD had its finger on the button, ready and alert to repel attack.

But what of the United Kingdom's global positioning? What of the Government's standing in their own country, in Europe and in the wider world as regards their first and fundamental duty, as our Government, of ensuring the defence of the realm? Well, as I believe the 1999 Defence White Paper demonstrates, the Government can be satisfied with a task well done.

That the Government are doing well is illustrated by the dog that does not bark. All previous Labour administrations have faced, albeit unfairly, the twin scare stories that, first, they would ruin the economy and, secondly, leave our island vulnerable to external attack. Recently, however, many have commented on the trust in which the electorate holds the Chancellor for his running of the economy, but fewer have noted the equal confidence that the British people have invested in the Government's handling of defence. The truth is indeed that of a people at peace with their government. No better expression of that contentment can be found than in the investiture of my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen as Secretary-General of NATO--clearly the right man in the right place at the right time.

But the Government have also carried that domestic conviction and reform on into Europe. Just as we are advocating a better way for Europe in other policy areas, including reform of the economy, similarly, the Blair administration is leading in developing the post-Kosovo debate. That Europe could do better inside NATO is uncontested. Indeed, to quote my noble friend Lady Symons, "Europe does not measure up". But it is Britain that is suggesting the "where" and "how" of reform and change.

Premier Blair initiated the common European foreign and security debate some 18 months ago. This was an example of being "quick on the trigger"--a phrase used by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. It was also a departure that surprised and delighted many of our European allies who have become too used to two decades of a British government with their back against the wall and Euro-sceptic to the core.

The initiative has grown into the Helsinki European defence initiative--formed in recognition that Euro-sclerosis had hampered the urgent mobilisation of troops at the time of the Kosovo crisis. That happened at a time when we still had a generous pool of some 2 million soldiers available in Europe as a whole. The fast pace of implementing the proposal for a rapid reaction force has been gratifying to all but the greatest sceptics, who regret all aspects of sensible European integration and this Government's role in it. Indeed, we still need to prevail over those who generate "hostile weather systems" against this initiative on the bogus ground that Britain's sovereignty is being somehow irredeemably undermined. In his opening speech, the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, implied that.

However, if we do not persuade with clear arguments that it is a worthwhile aim to make allies in Europe to rebut our enemies abroad, we will throw out the baby of mobilising Europe swiftly with the bathwater of reinforcing NATO effectively--for NATO is our lodestar and we make it clear that our desire to strengthen our cisatlantic arm does not imply traducing our transatlantic partners. In that regard, we are particularly supportive of the forthcoming capabilities commitment conference.

The British agenda can be extended under the imminent French presidency of the EU without creating a fully-fledged, independent European army, a concept redundant to all but the most Napoleonic. Nevertheless, we can and should introduce efficiencies and boost effectiveness by, for example, promoting a single market in arms procurement to aid and abet the interoperability of Europe's army and navy stores of weapons.

Those practical steps towards rational reform bring me to a prediction. In 25 years' time we shall continue not only to harbour a NATO of nations dedicated to a common defence of western values, but there will also emerge a single market and a single currency to buttress the transatlantic alliance. The marrying of political and defence imperatives will indeed see Machiavelli supping with Clausewitz.

In these global reforms Britain has a unique window of opportunity. Where once we were the belligerent on the Continent, in the Americas and in an Empire transmogrifying into a commonwealth of nations, we can now use that triple special relationship--that triple alliance--to foster peace and democracy worldwide. No better example presents itself than Sierra Leone, where the escape of Major Ashby and his colleagues, as reported this morning, testifies to British courage on active display. I, too, wish to thank the Minister for her excellent opening speech, which included reference to Sierra Leone.

But such challenges seldom come as single spies; they come as battling battalions. Because of that, we must ensure that Britain does not bite off more than it can chew. We must not be left overstretched. However, it should be noted that it was the Opposition who in 1997 left us with 5,000 soldiers short of a full complement in the Army. It was the Opposition who bequeathed us a weapons procurement policy that was two arrows short of a quiver. No wonder then when discussing government policy the Opposition would prefer to trade a Bowman for an Archer.

But domestic reforms also find the Government scoring a bull's-eye. The Defence White Paper points to the innovative use of modern technology to win the battle of minds as well as the battle of mines in the theatre of war. Some 6.7 million hits on the FCO and MoD websites during the liberation of Kosovo helped to keep anxious Serbs and Albanians abreast of the truth about the malign Milosevic.

My only misgiving in the 1999 White Paper which I should like to bring to the attention of my noble friend is the reference to key skills training for school students located in Newcastle. Perhaps I may ask: why Newcastle? I am mindful of the much discussed putative north/south divide and of the recent accusation that the Army recruits soldiers in the north and officers in the south. The Government must ensure that they put the accent on ability and not on class.

Equally, I pay tribute to the development of the Service Families' Task Force, the Veterans' Advice Unit and the learning forces initiative. Those all testify to the vibrancy of the "policy for people" philosophy that infuses the White Paper.

I reiterate that I believe the Government's sensible and practical policies towards strengthening Europe within NATO are the distinguishing characteristics of their White Paper. The foreword to the 1999 report is concluded by the Secretary of State, himself a distinguished former Member of the European Parliament, with the declaration that this is a programme of reform and modernisation that will equip the United Kingdom with the effective Armed Forces that we shall need well into the 21st century. Noble Lords may agree with me that around the world, and for the benefit of all, we may be glad that it has so often been the British soldier, if not Kilroy, who was there.

Photo of Viscount Slim Viscount Slim Crossbench 1:40 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness for enabling us to take part in this debate today. It is worth coming in for on a Friday and quite a lot of Peers have.

We are coming to the end of some interesting speeches and I shall not detain the House too long. But I should like to remark on one or two points that have arisen. First, the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, in his independent role--I said to him that perhaps he ought to be sitting on these Benches--was splendid. As the noble Baroness is aware, I have talked both publicly and within the MoD to friends and officers, saying that we must do something about the medium and heavy lift capacity. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, got everything in the right order. I hope the noble Baroness will go back to her department and really push for the C-17. We are not in a position, with our jolly good, but ancient workhorse short-lift, almost medium-lift aircraft, to handle too many situations at once with the air support of munitions, people and equipment.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brett, that the main enemy is just across the road from the noble Baroness's office, and it has not been attacked in a way that produces any response. Those chaps in the Treasury sit behind locked doors; they are smug; they are well-fed; they are comfortable and well paid. And when I say those words I think of the chap in his slit trench in Sierra Leone at the moment who will not necessarily have everything he should have or may require. He will of course say the same thing, but in slightly more robust language.

Instead of the Chief of Defence Staff, or in concert with, taking senior Foreign Office officials with him to the African countries, and particularly to Sierra Leone, it is a shame that he does not also take the right honourable gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He could see on the front line what soldiers, sailors and airmen do and what they have to put up with. I have to say, and I hope I am wrong--the noble Baroness is free to correct me--that I have never seen a picture of the Chancellor of the Exchequer standing beside a soldier, sailor or airman. Yet he cuts defence budgets. He lords it in a mighty way about what we can have and what we have to do. One has the impression that he does not care very much for the defence forces. I wonder also how many of the people he employs in his Ministry belong to the TA. Noble Lords may be interested to know the volunteer reserve content of the Treasury. That is an interesting point.

The Chancellor is a brave man and I do not quarrel too much with what he has done so far for the nation. But a visit to see what happens on the ground would be useful for him. As we used to say in my day, "There is nothing like having your hair parted by a bullet to bring you down to reality and teach you what a front-line soldier, sailor or airman has to do". So let us hope we move in that direction.

What really worries me is the state of the infantry. I am pleased to hear that the Minister is having a good month of recruiting. But how short is the infantry. Fracturing major units, battalions and regiments; carving them up and sending them off with other regiments is very much an ad hoc arrangement and is no good for overall efficiency. It has worked so far, notwithstanding what my noble and gallant friend Lord Inge said. But so far we have not had to go to war. We have been taking part in peacekeeping and other operations. That is something on which we must work. The infantry is the main arm and something must be done.

I come back to training. There is no doubt, as the noble and gallant Lord said, that we are not trained for war. When we look at Sierra Leone, which is just a mission to relieve British residents--beautifully handled and I congratulate the noble Baroness on what was definitely a copybook operation with harsh but good decisions taken at political level--we recognise that it is a town. Those who may have some experience of fighting in what we call built-up areas, streets and houses, will appreciate that that sort of situation sucks up soldiers.

My anxiety is that, if we are forced to extend ourselves, the whole area will need reinforcing; the British contingent will need reinforcing. Do we have those reinforcements? Are they standing by? Are they available, bearing in mind Kosovo, Bosnia, Timor, Northern Ireland and the normal roulement of what goes on inside the United Kingdom? It is the harshest fighting of almost any sort. If we do not have the numbers, the training and the experience, it becomes an extremely tough learning curve. It is okay to guard an airport, though an airport is basically inside a town. I merely put that position forward: that there is danger in that situation. We must not be frightened of it, but we must be careful how we deploy our troops there.

All those areas we are working in are areas where battle helicopters, support helicopters which can use their missiles, machine guns and all the paraphernalia that goes with that, are essential and I am perturbed to hear that some of that equipment does not work. It is a classic case where the attack helicopters can help the infantry in an important way. Are there any out there? Or are there just the big Chinooks? The noble Baroness will not mind my saying that we have discussed a certain Chinook ad nauseam, and my noble friend Lord Chalfont and I, and others, perhaps do not have the confidence in that aircraft that we should. We are trying hard to come to terms with it but it is a bit "iffy" as I see it.

We have splendid men and women in the armed services and we keep on saying so; it is right that we should. It is right that we should tell the people of this country that they are special and that they are doing a magnificent job wherever they are deployed. But they must be looked after. They must be cared for and have what they need to fight--I emphasise the word "fight". It should not be a question of them dishing out food parcels to destitute refugees, and so on.

I turn now to this very good SDR. It is one that we all support and it is about the only real in-depth review. I have always congratulated this Government on it. However, like one or two other speakers, I just do not think that we will be able to match the targets that it sets with delivery at times, and I am sad about that.

I have two further points. There have been some 200 new Peers introduced into your Lordships' House, hardly any of whom--indeed, if any--have any military experience whatever. Again, in another place, there is hardly anyone with any military experience. However, I believe that one can learn. Perhaps I may put a plug in here for those noble Lords to be made aware that your Lordships' House does have a study group on defence, which is very bereft of Labour Peers. It is an all-party group of which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, who is sitting beside me, is the president. Both he and I were grabbed by the late Lord Shinwell, who established the group, some 30 years ago. It was set up by a Labour Party, by a Labour Minister, and it should be full of Labour Peers. He did not invite us to join: he just said that we would start "next week"; and we did.

There is also this excellent thing that the MoD does with the support of the CDS and Sir Neil Thorne, a former Member of Parliament, where Peers and Members of the House of Commons can spend time with all three services of the military and have a very interesting time. I think that they probably will not get their hair parted by a bullet--some of us, of course, cannot--but they will learn a great deal. They will become enthusiastic about their defence services and their Armed Forces. So I put those two final points to the Minister. I hope that something may develop therefrom.

I am always a little anxious about any brochure I receive that is too shiny on the outside. Indeed, I become a little suspicious. However, the SDR reads awfully well. I cannot work out whether it has been written by soldiers, sailors and airmen or just by the very excellent civilian staff that the noble Baroness has. It is good marketing and it is a good sales line. Its written with sincerity--I will give it that. But, as the noble Baroness said, there is much to do. As regards some of the things that are claimed to have been done by now and some of those that are claimed will be done by 2001 or 2002, it will be a race against time. I am on the side of the noble Baroness to get it done. Indeed, she will have my support in every way to see that this is achieved as far as possible.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour 1:54 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I welcome this debate on the White Paper. I thank my noble friend the Minister for introducing it in such a fine way. I should like to pick up on the final points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. Not only have we seen a substantial increase in the number of Labour Peers coming into the House but, on the other side of the coin, we have also seen, under the House of Lords Act of last autumn, a substantial number of people with previous experience of both working and living in the forces actually leaving this place. That is an overall issue which is of concern to us.

I am one of the few noble Lords on the speaking list who has come here with no experience of either working or living within the forces. Like two or three of my noble friends who are in the same position and who have probably spoken for the first time on a forces/defence debate, I believe that not only have we much to learn but also that we may perhaps bring the benefit of the experiences that we have gained in the wider world to our contributions to such debates.

It is important for us to seek to encourage more people to play a part in such matters. One of the suggestions I should like to make is that there could be a positive outcome from today's debate if we all recommitted ourselves to encourage other Peers, irrespective of party, to play a bigger part in the affairs of state and of defence. I refer particularly to the two points precisely made by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, as regards those of us who are in the group of the noble Lord, Lord Vivian. We received a call from him recently urging us to start playing a more active role, and we should respond to it. We should find the time for it and become further involved in it. We are shortly to have a meeting about support for the Armed Forces parliamentary scheme with Sir Neil Thorne to see what we can do to try to get more Peers involved and lined up to go on courses. In that way, intelligence, knowledge and perhaps a little skill might indeed be developed out of our association with the Armed Forces. I quickly point out here that I have no desire whatever to change the way in which I part my hair, even though I have an interest in increasing my knowledge of the forces.

This year those in the services have been putting themselves out to try to raise our understanding and knowledge of what they are doing and, indeed, to whet our appetites. I attended the three presentations that were held earlier this year. They were well supported and very well run. I found them to be of great benefit. I should like to congratulate the organisers in the three services on setting up those presentations for us. As I say, I found them helpful, informative and stimulating. They also provide a first-hand opportunity for us to talk with forces personnel.

There was something that I found particularly encouraging in those conversations. Although the personnel felt that there were still many problems to be solved--indeed, as other speakers today have said, there are question marks remaining about the extent to which there will be delivery on the review--they said, none the less, that there had been a significant change within the forces in the form of a lifting in morale and spirit and, indeed, a general optimism. I was very pleased to hear that. I hope that other colleagues who have spoken to Armed Forces personnel received similar messages. I was told clearly that the SDR has gone down extremely well and that people are now much more positive about their future, their role and their prospects.

When we attend such presentations, we can sometimes perhaps have the rosiest picture put before us. But I suspect that what was conveyed to me was not too far from the mark. Can my noble friend the Minister say whether the department is continuing to monitor morale within the services? If so, can she say what is the current response coming through to her? If she cannot answer today, I should be very happy to receive that information in the form of a letter in due course.

However, I must be open and honest and say that there are also a good number of criticisms that came through about the continuing concerns of those employed within the forces. Again, they have been expressed strongly by most speakers in the debate. The principal topics addressed in Chapter 4 of the White Paper--this is the area in which I have a particular interest--are overstretch and undermanning.

When I first entered the House of Lords just over a couple of years ago a substantially higher number of people in this country were unemployed. At that time nearly three-quarters of a million people were on the unemployment register. I was surprised to discover that nearly 10,000 vacancies existed in the Armed Forces. I pressed the then Minister responsible for these matters, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert--I am sorry that he is not present at the moment--to set out a programme and tell us what steps the Government were taking to try to fill those vacancies, especially from among the ranks of the unemployed. I also pointed out that there had been increasing criticism of the Armed Forces' image and of their human resources and management practices. There was much criticism of the Armed Forces in the press at that time, in particular of attitudes to race and gender. Some promotion issues had also been mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, assured me that steps were being taken through the New Deal and a range of other initiatives in the SDR to seek to solve those problems. Over the past year those and many other issues have been addressed.

Much more significant progress has been made overall and is described in Chapter 4 of the White Paper. My noble friend the Minister covered many of these topics in introducing the debate some few hours ago now. However, on balance, I believe that substantial progress has been made on personnel and management issues in the Armed Forces. The Armed Forces human resources development policies and practices are being transformed and now stand comparison with good employment practices almost anywhere one cares to look. Given my trade union background, I am happy to note that there has been no interference from the Civil Service and no interference whatsoever with the pay awards which have been recommended by the Armed Forces pay board. I trust that the Minister will confirm that that will continue to be the case and that every effort will be made to ensure that changes that are made to pay will be acceptable to those who will be principally affected.

Good advances have been made in improving operational welfare; in establishing the service families task force; and in support given to the veterans advice unit. I do not believe that these are minor issues, especially from the point of view of those in the ranks. The good work which has been started should be maintained and pursued further.

I have listened carefully to the views which have been expressed on training. I was interested to note the announcement made by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, when he had responsibility for these matters that £1 billion had been allocated for training purposes. That had been negotiated with his big, bad brother in No. 11 Downing Street. That was a significant and useful sum in terms of pursuing policies to improve recruitment, to train people and to enable them to gain portable qualifications.

That training should encourage people to stay in the services and reduce wastage. I refer also to assisting people who want to leave the services. Between 22,000 to 24,000 seek to leave the services each year. However, the Armed Forces, in partnership with Coutts Consulting, are practising excellent management techniques and assisting with resettlement in civilian life. That is a big step forward, although some people may feel that that harms the Armed Forces in that it helps people to resettle in civilian life and people are tending to leave. We need to keep working on that practice. Those who leave the services will spread the good message of the good life and the good training they have received. They will tell others of the qualifications they have gained and of the assistance they have received, even to the extent of receiving assistance in finding placements when they leave.

Paragraph 78 lists an impressive catalogue of achievements. However, it is only a start and much remains to be done. Overstretch, especially for the Army, remains a big problem. Undermanning also continues to pose a big problem. It has been eased to some degree in certain quarters within the forces but continues to be a major problem within the Army, as does understaffing. We cannot ignore the fact that the labour market has tightened substantially in the two years that I have been in the House of Lords. It has tightened especially as regards young people. JSA claimants aged 18 to 24 now account for 21 per cent of the total. The number of claimants in that age group now stands at its lowest level for 25 years. Those people in times of higher unemployment would have been eligible to be recruited into the forces.

Other changes are taking place in the labour market. People are staying out of the labour market for longer with the increase in the numbers undertaking further and higher education. We are now approaching a situation where 50 per cent of our young people go on to university to obtain degrees. Again, in the past those young people would have been eligible to enter the Armed Forces. I believe that the labour market will become even tighter in future years.

It was good to hear my noble friend say that recruitment has improved. However, I was disappointed to learn that problems of retention are undermining that progress. I echo the question that has been asked by others; namely, can we be given an update on overstretch? In particular, I should like to see the figures for each of the services in terms of the numbers recruited and those who leave. We need to have all the facts to be able to determine how we move forward on these issues.

While savings through Smart Procurement and other technological changes are widespread, I sincerely hope that application of e-commerce in the MoD and in the forces will generate savings and opportunities for redeployment and greater investment. I still believe that the longer term prospects for adequate staffing will be problematic and need to be addressed. We need to look for new initiatives and innovative ways of trying to solve those problems. There will never be enough money to satisfy any of the public services. Although we need more money, we shall never get as much as we wish.

We should consider the interesting suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, about ways in which we can retain more servicemen. I should like to persuade the powers that be to introduce a debate solely on the problems of overstretch, recruitment and retention. Such issues could then be discussed in more detail.

It is interesting that the United Kingdom can change its entry regulations to admit non-UK workers if they have IT specialties, as announced in the recent Budget. We have great problems within the forces and, perhaps in collaboration with the Commonwealth, this may be an area for people to come in on a bigger scale than at present in order to fill some of the gaps and to make careers for themselves in our Armed Forces.

An increasing number of youngsters are being incarcerated or placed on community programmes. Although I do not suggest the introduction of boot camps or anything like that, we should examine the possibility of using the Armed Forces to provide such youngsters with training and discipline. That would bring a purpose in life to those who lead what the Home Secretary described as "chaotic lifestyles". After all, we have had conscription in the past. Many people of that ilk were conscripted into the forces and found their way by being alongside others who knew what they wanted from life. An exploration of those areas may be worth while, although we cannot today go into them in great detail.

We should also examine the role of reservists to ascertain whether a more flexible and greater use can be made of them.

I have a number of other points to make but I have spoken for long enough. I welcome the White Paper. It is a good paper overall, but much remains to be delivered. I hope that we shall all put our shoulders to the wheel to do that.

Photo of Lord Lyell Lord Lyell Conservative 2:10 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for presenting this report. She need not feel worried about it being, as the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, put it, "shiny and well presented". Being a somewhat cynical chartered accountant, I have looked at its contents and I find them relevant, interesting and most helpful.

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, because, at the conclusion of his remarks, he mentioned conscription. I can speak as one of the last conscripts. Indeed, it is 43 years ago that I was Recruit Lyell. People younger than I, sons of my friends and people of my age say, "Oh yes. You poodled around and did not do a great deal". I wonder if they have ever looked at what happened.

My noble friend Lord Burnham will remember that there was a Guards brigade in Malaya and that young National Servicemen fought in Korea, with considerable success. Those campaigns were perhaps not exactly similar to the two other campaigns in post-war times that have been fought largely with conscript forces--one in Vietnam, or Indo-China as it was then called by the French, and one in Algeria--but perhaps the enemy and the entire concept of the conflicts were different.

I was a conscript. Six of the speakers in the debate today are considerably senior to me in military rank--five are very senior indeed--and on occasions such as this, I always rise to speak with great humility. I wish to put one or two of my thoughts to your Lordships, but not only on the defence estimates.

As has been pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, my noble friend Lord Vivian and the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, I serve on the House of Lords All Party Defence Study Group; I am purported to be the acting secretary at this moment. I look to my left and I notice that my noble friend appears still to be reasonably satisfied with me. I try to provide him with information and help.

The main thrust of any thoughts that I may have on the White Paper concern the section classed as "People in defence". I am in full agreement with the general aims in paragraphs 65 and 66, which are all good and well presented. It is only when I come to paragraph 70 and see the word "overstretch" for the first time that my blood pressure and hackles rise. Several other noble Lords have the same reaction. Indeed, the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Bramall and Lord Craig, presented this as being one aspect which is no doubt constantly in the mind of the Minister, but it is worth reiterating again and again. In conversations I have had in all parts of the United Kingdom and elsewhere, with military friends of mine--serving officers and retired officers--the problems of overstretch and of retention, which was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Vivian, are constantly brought up.

In July 1957, when I was still a recruit, there was a major change. I remember seeing a Part II order go up that the British Army was to change from being a national service army into an all-professional new regular army. I did not necessarily have in mind the picture half-way down the Lords' corridor of the New Model Army marching out to relieve the siege of Gloucester during the war of King versus Parliament, but I took the order on board despite the fact that then I was due to serve for only two years. In fact, I served considerably less than that thanks to a ski-ing accident--whether that was on leave or duty I am not too sure.

Noble Lords have referred to the SA80 rifle. I have the letters VC after my name--not like my father; no, I am visually and vertically challenged. Being somewhat too short for the major parades in which the Scots Guards were engaged in 1958, I was sent off to Hythe. It was then discovered that I was considerably visually challenged. I am just able to see across your Lordships' House. Never mind, the commanding officer took the fine decision to send me off to Hythe. On 15th May 1958 we were all sent along to the armoury and given huge plastic pouches. We cut them open and out came the new self-loading rifle. I borrowed a fellow officer's glasses, changed the lenses and stunned everyone and myself by achieving 94 out of 100 at 200 and 300 yards with the aid of the rifle. If I could do that, guess what the British Army could do. That was May 1958. Ours was the first course at the Army School of Infantry at Hythe to use those rifles. I wonder whether the Minister could have a look at the records in what I call the dungeons in the Ministry of Defence to see whether there is a parallel with the SA80 and whether anything can be learnt from what clearly was the enormous success of the self-loading rifle. I seem to recall that our self-loading rifle was a development of the FN that had been in use in Belgium.

The noble Baroness and other noble Lords have referred to the developments in Sierra Leone. That goes to show just what are the demands on our regular forces--the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and the Royal Marines--let alone on the civilian support, which is so important. It was very nice to hear the noble Lord, Lord Brett, refer to them. I may come to that point a little later.

I was interested to see in paragraph 70 of the White Paper the details and figures of overstretch and how many personnel who had been in places like Kosovo and Bosnia had also been in the Gulf. Although their duties and the needs of each situation tend to vary, those personnel are able to be redeployed. But I just wonder what lies hidden. What figures are not mentioned--for instance, Northern Ireland or Germany? Sierra Leone will provide a seismic shift in the pattern of infantry and other Army changes. For the moment, it will change the Army guidelines, to which I referred as the movement of units. That is constantly under risk from developments like Sierra Leone.

In the past 10 days I have had the chance to visit two infantry battalions. One is just back from an 18 month tour in Northern Ireland. Next year it is likely that it may take a roulement tour. That is supposed to be from May to November, but by the time one has taken the work up, the actual tour and the continuation, it is likely to be nearly one year. That is in the middle of a two-year posting in the United Kingdom.

Another battalion with which I had contact is resident in Scotland and used some of the farm buildings at home for training. It has trained for a roulement tour. I was able to see at close quarters how its training is particularly relevant not just to Northern Ireland but is a development of the training I had 42 years ago as a very junior platoon commander. Both battalions reminded me of the motto--it is a pity we did not adopt it when Independent Television was coming in--"Be the Best, Join the Army". Each and every one of them had those words in front of them while they continued with their training.

I have in front of me a note saying, "Return to your Lordships' House and support the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, seeking recruits to the Defence Study Group". The group visits all three services. That has been superbly put about by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, who was one of almost 50 recipients of letters which I mailed seeking support. This is also a chance shot at the noble Baroness on the other side. Perhaps the desire of your Lordships to take part in such visits could be conveyed to the Whips' Office. If it could look sympathetically on the programme, I am sure that today's debate would go down much better.

Everywhere I have visited with my noble friend Lord Vivian and other noble Lords on the Defence Study Group, we have received marvellous briefings commencing with the great words, "Efficiency Savings". Everyone believes that the concept is fine; the details are also pretty good--they are helped by developments in information technology, new ideas and imagination. Indeed, I was very pleased with the new idea put about by the noble Lord, Lord Brett, regarding civilian support for the military in Northern Ireland and no doubt elsewhere. As military personnel move, the talents of those who have given support to the military can be utilised in some way. I know that the Minister will take that idea on board and put it into action as she sees fit.

However, we must reflect on efficiency savings in relation to what the late Harold Macmillan called "events". We have only to look at Kosovo, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. Indeed, 10 years ago I drove to Switzerland on holiday. On my arrival, after driving all day from London, I turned on the television only to see on CNN reports of the invasion of Kuwait. There are "events" at all times. There is the Strategic Defence Review; and there is Sierra Leone. The noble Baroness has made this point. All that movement will bring about a consequential seismic movement elsewhere in relation to defence forces.

Several speakers have referred to reservists and the Territorial Army. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Vivian had some strong remarks to make in that respect. I have some personal knowledge of the Army medical services being reinforced by enormous and very welcome territorial support. Were it not for that help, they would be in a grave state. Territorials are taken on as full-timers and are in front- line service all over the world. I hope that the Minister will be able to give as much support as possible, indeed give a high priority, to the Territorials.

Within the past week I have seen two examples of the wonderful people who make up our forces. Last Friday, I attended a quasi-military event with the Scots Guards Association and I was misdirected in Purbright camp. I found myself in the middle of what can only be described as a passing out parade. There were lots of mums and dads and sisters running about. They surrounded my car and I became slightly concerned. I then saw a squad of recruit guardsmen marching down the road towards me, singing, pursued by a particularly fierce Coldstream Guards sergeant who was their squad instructor.

It took me back to the time, 43 years ago, when I took part in a similar event. I had a Coldstream Guards instructor, Sergeant Clements, who went by the attractive name of "Kiwi", as it was seen that he spit-and-polished everything, including us and himself! Those young recruits evidently had enormous pride and had taken their valuable first step as soldiers. Their standards were certainly as high as I was able to achieve all those years ago. But there was also the pride and happiness of all the mothers and fathers and other family members who supported them. They were immensely proud to be there that day. I hope that we can build on that.

On Wednesday of this week I was unable to attend the important debates in your Lordships' House. I accompanied my noble friends Lord Luke and Lord Vivian on a visit to HMS "Sheffield". The predecessor of that ship was in everyone's thoughts and prayers during the Falklands conflict. For me, that visit was one of this year's highlights of the Defence Study Group. Commander Lowe and the ship's company were a prime example of the qualities to which the MoD and White Paper refer. All of them were smiling, effective and first class, from the weaponry right down to the fire-fighters. I was taken right down the ship to see people who were called "writers". Each and every one of the crew was first-class and on top of the job. It was interesting that, no matter what came about as a result of Pay 2000, they were still keen and proud to do their job.

I apologise for detaining your Lordships as one of the junior military Members of your Lordships' House. In your Lordships' House, as elsewhere, humility in one's military career stands one in good stead. I add my thanks to the Minister but, above all, to each and every one of the service men and women who continue to be the best in the world, and to earn the gratitude of the rest of the world, particularly in places like Sierra Leone or wherever events may take them.

Photo of Lord Chalfont Lord Chalfont Crossbench 2:26 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, that is a very hard act to follow, but I shall try. It is more in sorrow than in anger that I echo the regret of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, that this important debate takes place on a Friday. The defence of the realm is, after all, the most important function of any government. I would have thought that if any subject deserved prime time it was this. If it had taken place at prime time it might have ensured that the Front Benches had better support from behind. For the first time I find myself offering sympathy to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, in that respect. But we have had a very good debate. I express particular gratitude to what I might call my noble and gallant five-star friends for their contribution to the debate, which, as always, has been professional and instructive. We had an introductory speech of the high quality we have come to expect from the noble Baroness, Lady Symons.

In the brief time that is left I should like to concentrate my remarks on only one paragraph of the Defence White Paper. In the section, "New threats and challenges", paragraph 8 is, as far as it goes, a constructive and thoughtful part of the report, but one sentence which needs closer attention begins:

"Although we still conclude, as did the SDR, that no significant ballistic missile threat to the UK and its interests will exist for some years".

That is very much a matter of opinion and judgment, but I suggest that the threat is much closer than that sentence suggests and it requires rather more urgent attention than the White Paper implies it is receiving. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has recently been in the United States and has some information about the subject. It may be that he will express views that differ from mine, but, after all, that is one of the delights of debate in your Lordships' House.

By way of background, for the past year or more I have been chairman of a cross-party group which has been formed to examine the problem of the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Our report, Coming into Range, will be published next Monday. The very title suggests what it is about. It paints a slightly more disturbing picture of the ballistic missile threat than that in the White Paper.

It is obvious to any serious student of military strategy that ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction will be the defining characteristic of strategic thinking in this century. Since the ballistic missile was first used at the end of the war more than 5,000 have been fired. That fact greatly surprises many people. It is even more surprising and significant that there are now more than 13,000 ballistic missiles in the hands of 37 different countries. Such proliferation should give us all great cause for concern. It may disturb regional power balances--an important matter in itself--and, even more importantly to us, prevent western intervention in regional crises.

Military intervention in such crises now seems to be an important part of our military strategy. As has been confirmed, we are committed to the idea of sending expeditionary forces to deal with crises involving human rights, humanitarian aid and political instability. It is what I have called in another context the right to interfere. Although we may not all agree with that right, it is now at the heart of western strategy.

I do not want to be alarmist but all the evidence supports the view that before too long several states will be able to strike at European cities with missiles armed with chemical, biological and even nuclear warheads. Some people seem satisfied in the belief that we are well out of range. But missile ranges are lengthening and in the not too distant future non-ballistic missiles could be fired from surface ships, which will bring all sorts of areas and bases within strike range.

Although the Strategic Defence Review and the White Paper, which is a high-grade publication, have several admirable and constructive qualities, they give rise to the suspicion that we may be entering a new century with new ideas and aspirations, but with weapons and strategic concepts that are more appropriate to the last century and to Cold War confrontation, which require different weapons systems and different strategic concepts.

The Strategic Defence Review was an extremely imaginative and first-rate attempt to solve some of the strategic concepts of the future. Among other things it promised a massive agenda for change, including the use of rapid reaction forces to deal with regional crises. But unless we can defend our rapid reaction forces and their bases, including the home base, from missile attack, that agenda for change will be dangerously incomplete and Britain's future capacity to project its military power overseas will be in doubt. Once that is in doubt, our influence in world affairs and our value as an ally will be greatly reduced.

The White Paper rightly emphasises the capacity that we must have to deter threats to our interests and to those of our allies. That is all very well as a statement but, as far as I can see, there has been no attempt to redefine the requirements of deterrent strategy to meet the new strategic environment. We are still trapped in the time warp of mutual assured destruction, the anti-ballistic missile treaty and all the trappings of the Cold War as regards deterrence. I do not suggest that the whole strategic concept has not been changed considerably. It has. I am talking now simply about deterrence. All we have at present is our Trident system. It still has an important part to play. However, we must recognise that its use would be inconceivable in a great number of circumstances. In a great superpower confrontation, it would be, yes; but in the multipolar world in which we now live, no. It would be foolish to regard the Trident as a weapon system for all seasons.

The conclusion, therefore, of my group, after over a year of careful study and analysis based upon sources of information and intelligence on both sides of the Atlantic, is that in the short term Britain should take some urgent steps to acquire ballistic missile defences at least sufficient to protect our expeditionary forces against missile attack. If we are going to continue to send British forces overseas to engage in these various brush-fire operations (or whatever they may be) we must be able to protect them; and we have no way to protect them at present against counter-attack from missiles and missiles with weapons of mass destruction in their warheads. That is not, as it may seem, an alarmist statement. It is based on a study over a year by serious people who know a bit about defence. We have the same information and intelligence as the Ministry of Defence. The difference is in the conclusions.

This kind of threat assessment is always subjective and always a matter of opinion. However, our judgment is that the ballistic missile threat, not just to our forces, but to their bases and perhaps eventually to the home base, has been seriously under-estimated. We believe indeed that in the long term Britain should be prepared to consider joining in a system of global missile defence led by the United States and organised through NATO. As noble Lords will know, the United States is already working on a national missile defence system. It has to be admitted--we have had discussions about it in your Lordships' House--that such a global defence system could not be developed within the constraints of the famous anti-ballistic missile treaty. For that reason, the United States is attempting to renegotiate the ABM treaty with Russia in exchange for a further reduction in its stockpiles of nuclear weapons. I should have thought that that was a deal which would appeal to most people on whichever side of the argument they stand. However, all I have to say, based on information which I regard as being totally reliable, is that if the United States does not succeed in renegotiating the anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia, the United States will abrogate that treaty and withdraw from it unilaterally.

We are at an important turning point in our strategic thinking. It is no longer any good expecting arms control to solve these problems. The anti-ballistic missile treaty, the non-proliferation treaty and the missile technology control regime are all excellent political aims and policies for any civilised government to follow. But none of them will protect our forces and their bases against the emerging threat.

If we resist the need to develop ballistic missile systems we shall do grave damage to the alliance. We shall cause strains in the alliance and strains with our principal ally, the United States of America, possibly leading to US isolationism, which is never far below the surface, or at best to the US wanting to act militarily outside the ambit of the NATO alliance.

None of those things would be in the interests of Europe. I suggest that we must now begin to pay serious attention to the problem. We pay great attention to such issues as the European security and defence initiative, which, despite what the Minister said, I believe to be an institutional irrelevance. I wish that we could get away from the argument that it is not the creation of a European army. I know that the Minister has a brief to follow, but this really is wet in the extreme! I may be taking issue with my noble and gallant friend Lord Inge, but it comprises 60,000 service people, all European. When all or a small portion are deployed, they will have a European commander who will have a European staff which will have European intelligence, European logistics and European support. If that is not a European army, I should like to know what is. But that is only a matter of semantics. I should be happier with the whole concept if only the Minister did not protest too much about it not being a European army. I ask her to think about that before we next come to discuss the matter in your Lordships' House.

I shall leave that aside--it was an irrelevance on my part--and return to the main issue of the debate. I know from personal experience that the noble Baroness thinks deeply about all these issues. I ask her to return to the Ministry and look again at paragraph 8. Are we not underestimating what I regard to be the most serious emergent military threat of the 21st century?

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat 2:42 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, as with all defence debates, this debate has raised a wide range of subjects. I note that we have heard more speeches from Members on the Cross Benches than from those on the Conservative Benches. That should not pass unnoticed in a defence debate. For some time I have felt a little naked on these Benches in defence debates. I shall welcome to these Benches the arrival next week of Lord Roper, a very good friend with whom I have worked and written on defence issues for many years, and the return of Lord Redesdale, who has experience of serving in the Territorial Army.

I should like to touch briefly on a large number of subjects. As regards manned aircraft, I am more persuaded by the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, than I am by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig. I worry whether within the next 10 years the manned fighter bomber will become the equivalent of the battleship. I should like to comment on recruitment and retention, about which we are all rightly concerned and which deserves separate treatment. As my noble friend, Lord Dholakia, has reminded me, there is underway in this country a sustained effort to recruit among ethnic minorities. It is going well and we are grateful for the help of Colin Powell in that respect. It is one way in which we can reduce the current shortages.

But I want to talk mainly about defence as such and the threat against which we believe we are now preparing. After all, defence is needed to meet anticipated threats. It is now 10 years since the end of the Cold War. There is no foreseeable threat to the territory of the United Kingdom or to what we used to regard as core western Europe as a whole. Therefore, it has been rational to reduce defence spending over the past 10 years.

I disagree with the Conservative point of view as put by the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, which seemed to me to echo that of the American Republicans who wish always to cut spending on education and health and increase it on defence. They then resist using or deploying forces outside the country. Incidentally, I must also say that, having spent some time going in and out of a remarkably unsafe building--the Ministry of Defence Main Building--I would have thought that recent refurbishment might have made the survivability of those who work in the building rather better. The Conservative approach to defence seems to me to lack a degree of common sense.

It is now a question more of security than of defence. As the Minister said in her opening remarks, we are talking about stability and about Britain's global and regional responsibilities. Britain has responsibilities as a member of the EU, NATO, the Commonwealth and as a Permanent Member of the Security Council of the United Nations. Again, I would say to our Conservative colleagues that the vigour with which they insist that Britain maintains its permanent membership of the UN Security Council does not sit easily with their resistance to the use of British forces in support of UN operations outside Europe.

I want to concentrate on Chapter 2 of the Defence White Paper and on the question of NATO and the very relevant issues which the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, raised about nuclear missile defence and the implications of that for the transatlantic partnership. I share his view that the transatlantic partnership remains the key to British and European security and that the maintenance of NATO is therefore of fundamental importance to Britain. However, as the noble Lord also said, I believe that we face some immense problems which arise from the divergence of assumptions on the different sides of the Atlantic.

I spent two weeks either side of Easter in the United States, at the spring conference of the Transatlantic Policy Network. I met a number of Congressmen. I met several members of the foreign policy advisory team of George W Bush, and I have to say that I came back very worried. We were told firmly that nuclear missile defence in the United States,

"is a done deal and it is not worth discussing the issue further".

We were told that in terms which effectively meant, "Let's not discuss the rational question of how far there is a real threat". The weight of opinion behind it in the United States is now such that there is no way of resisting.

Those of us who then listened to people who spoke about the severity of the North Korean threat to the United States found that a little difficult to grasp. However, we were equally worried when some of those to whom we spoke said, "Well, of course, it is not really North Korea; it is really China and Russia". The assumption that China and Russia are fundamentally antagonistic to the United States and must remain enemies against whom one deters is part of the worry that I have about the discourse of American defence policy.

I was also worried when one of the experts there to whom I spoke said that within the defence circles of the United States a discussion was just beginning about the ethical quality of the current trends within American defence; that the pursuit of the revolution in military affairs and in nuclear missile defence is intended to ensure that no American is ever killed in any conflict and that the only ones who are killed are always foreigners. That view is beginning to worry some of the more responsible people who are involved in these discussions.

I found myself thinking about the debate held 20 years ago in the Committee of the Present Danger, which suggested that the Soviet Union was building up an overwhelming preponderance of weapons and was inherently expansionist in the early 1980s. This partly led to the SDI debate.

I remember, 20 years before that, when I was first in the United States as a student, the missile gap debate. I even remember visiting in Vermont an observation post on the corner of a property there which still had in it the identification charts for German bomber aircraft. It had been manned from 1942 to 1945. In spite of the fact that no German aircraft had the capacity to reach Massachusetts, let alone Vermont, that had fed the American vision that there is a threat out there and that, above all, one must maintain the United States secure from it.

Over the next two years, there will be a very severe set of difficulties across the Atlantic in relation to nuclear missile defence. It involves the United Kingdom directly because, as an authoritative article in Survival said recently, upgrading the radars on British territory is clearly a breach of the ABM treaty as currently signed. Therefore, it requires amendment. Thus, the British Government will have to accept amendment of the ABM treaty.

I worry also about the divergence of the discourse about defence and security in western Europe from that of the United States. In the United States, one hears conversations about rogue states--Iran, Iraq, Libya, Cuba, North Korea--and about weapons of mass destruction--chemical and biological weapons. The last time I was at Harvard, I was shown some wonderful charts about how far biological weapons spread if dropped from the World Trade Tower in New York. There is a whole set of discussions going on about that sort of thing. They speak of the revolution in military affairs, the greater Middle East, the strategic importance of central Asia as a buffer between Russia and China, Islamic fundamentalism and the role of the Turkey/Israel partnership in resisting Islamic fundamentalism, the geopolitics of oil, and so on.

As the Minister's excellent introductory speech clearly demonstrated, the European discourse uses a very different language. It is about peacekeeping, peace-making, conflict prevention, weak states, defence diplomacy, partnership and dialogue. One needs a different balance of forces for that. One needs different equipment. The deployment in Sierra Leone demonstrates that.

There is a particular problem for Britain in that regard because, as one or two noble Lords have mentioned in the debate, the United Kingdom wishes to maintain interoperability with the United States, as well as recognising that in active conflict situations, we are most likely to be working alongside our European allies. So we are torn in both directions in terms of what sort of equipment we want to have and how much high technology we wish to procure.

I welcome, as my party has throughout, moves towards closer European defence co-operation. Again, I wish to remind the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, how that started. It started in 1994-95 with the Franco-British defence dialogue in great secrecy. Michael Portillo was one of the major players in that dialogue. It grew partly out of the experience of British and French commanders in the field in Bosnia and the recognition by both British and French commanders that they were the two who were serious and that there was a great deal to be gained from working more closely together.

The United Kingdom has become the model for successive European defence reviews elsewhere. The United Kingdom Government have rightly taken the lead in pushing very good progress so far. We have some way to go. We are waiting to see the next key decisions which will be in Germany when the Weisza cker Commission reports next month as to how far the Germans are prepared to follow the model which the French, following the British, have now taken.

Rational further progress down that road includes pursuing further shared logistical chains, further joint training establishments and, please, one may ask the Government, a little more visibility for those areas in which the British and the Dutch, the British and the French, already collaborate closely. I always wish to remind people that there is the British-Dutch marine amphibious force, now 26 years in operation, about which very few people in the British Parliament are even aware.

The underlying question is, where will forces be needed and what will they be required to do? We dearly hope that current progress in Ulster will reduce one cause of overstretch for the British Armed Forces. We also recognise that in south eastern Europe, Britain and her European allies have now taken on a long-term commitment. It should not be one that will require too many front-line British forces. There is likely to be a gendarmerie requirement for state reconstruction for which the British are less well equipped than some of our continental partners, and a requirement for soft security operations in which the EU, as well as NATO, is an active participant.

Africa and the south, as we see with Sierra Leone, will clearly be a major preoccupation. As Chairman of Sub-Committee F of the Lords European Communities Committee, I have read various papers from the Justice and Home Affairs Council of Ministers. They spoke of how to cope with the flood of immigrants and refugees entering Europe. The common conclusion of the various country studies was that we have to do something about preventing state collapse in the countries from which refugees come. There are now some 50,000 to 60,000 Somalis living in London, some of whom have come to London legally--but many of them are here illegally--over the past 10 years because the Somali state collapsed. Clearly, there is a British and a European interest in playing a role in relation to those countries. That ought not to be the major role. We do not want to take on the white man's burden again, but everything that Clare Short and others talk about in terms of defence diplomacy, supporting regional forces and retraining them is highly desirable.

In the Middle East, unlike Africa and south-eastern Europe, we are likely to work with the Americans; indeed, we will be working in support of them. In that area British, European and American views diverge. We face a difficult dialogue with our American partners, particularly under a Republican administration, as to what we do in the Middle East. Clearly, continuing to sell arms to the Middle East is not a sensible policy. Anything that we can do as the EU, and at a transatlantic level, to tighten controls on arms sales to that unstable region will be highly desirable.

Lastly, there are the Caucasus and the other areas around Russia. It is possible that if the Chechen war had overflowed into Georgia or if there had been problems with Russian minorities in the Baltic states, we may have seen problems that would have required some sort of limited confrontation with the extremely inefficient, badly organised Russian armed forces. I hope that the British Government will stress--here again we differ from our American partners--that Russia should be engaged in dialogue and should not be assumed to be a long-term enemy. Pursuit of NATO enlargement should be taken carefully and slowly rather than as a process that is seen explicitly as excluding Russia.

Closer co-operation with our European partners is the basis for an intelligent British defence policy. The maintenance of the transatlantic partnership, in spite of the many and real difficulties ahead, is as important. On these Benches we believe that we should maintain the size of the budget, particularly if Ulster allows us to reduce overstretch; that we should put much more effort into maintaining the quality of our Armed Forces; that improvement in recruitment should take place; and that we must ensure that we obtain the best quality equipment possible.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 3:00 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, before turning to the substance of my remarks, perhaps I may remind the House that I have an interest as a serving TA officer. However, I am no longer in a command appointment, but in a pool of specialist watchkeepers. That allows me more time to attend your Lordships' House.

Several noble Lords have remarked on the lack of Conservative Peers in this debate. I should point out that, although we have 42,000 men serving in the Navy, as a result of the House of Lords Act we have lost the benefit of contributions from Lord Effingham, Lord Ironside and, I suspect, other former Royal Navy officers who are no longer with us.

I am grateful to the Minister for introducing this debate. Noble Lords have always had the benefit of high quality defence Ministers, and the noble Baroness is no exception. Some noble Lords have remarked on the timing of this debate. But since 1992 I have taken part in several similar debates that have been scheduled on the last sitting day before the Summer Recess, so I think that in fact we are making progress. The average length of the excellent speeches we have heard today has been 13 minutes. I believe that that gives an indication of the value of our debate, especially as very little time has been wasted. I have found it a fascinating and informative debate.

I am grateful for the Minister's update on the situation in Sierra Leone. Matters are moving very fast indeed. The speed with which our forces were able to deploy was quite remarkable and commendable. How much more we shall be able to do when we have the heavy-lift aircraft, the need for which was identified some time ago, although the Minister has yet to place an order. We on these Benches applaud the actions of our forces, but we have deployed a very potent force, much greater than would be needed for the stated role of our troops. On the other hand, it makes sense to be able to wave an even larger stick at a potential opponent, if that proves to be necessary.

I feel that a problem has already developed. Now that our forces are in place, the people we aimed to evacuate are apparently now more confident and wish to stay. Will this situation not force the Government to leave our forces in place longer than is necessary, desirable or even planned for? Can the Minister tell the House what commitments, if any, HMG have made to the Government of Sierra Leone, or to President Kabbah, in the run-up to this crisis?

We are concerned about mission creep, as we were when UK forces were deployed to Macedonia. As it eventually ended up we were within a few days of having to mount a force of 50,000 men to deal with President Milosevic in Kosovo. However, on the other hand, in 1995 I personally witnessed the aftermath of the results of inaction when the UN force collapsed in Rwanda in 1994, so there is a balance to be struck.

I do not expect the Minister to say anything about the rules of engagement for our forces in Sierra Leone. However, I am always amused to learn that the warring factions in a conflict understand our rules of engagement when parliamentarians do not, even in confidence. Can the Minister give an assurance that our rules of engagement are broadly similar to those which obtained for our NATO forces in Bosnia? If not, what training was undertaken before deployment? This impinges clearly on some of the questions put to the Minister by my noble friend Lord Burnham. Can the Minister say on what date and at what time Ministers approved the rules of engagement for this operation? I appreciate that she may prefer to write to me in confidence on these points.

Members of another place are concerned that they have not had a Statement today about this very serious matter. Can the Minister give an assurance that a Statement will be made on Monday which will lay out clearly Her Majesty's Government's strategy for this operation?

On reading the White Paper, it struck me as very much a mutual pat on the back. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said that it was well produced. That pat is well deserved for our soldiers but less so for the Ministers. I believe that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said that it was "rather complacent". As we examine the SDR during its implementation, we realise that the Government almost undertook one of the best post-war reviews of defence. Indeed, favourable comments were made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and many others. That review has been built on the work of the previous administration. When they defend the SDR cuts--the SDR has indeed reduced defence expenditure--Ministers point to the cuts made by the previous administration, in particular Options for Change.

But our major threat from the Warsaw Pact had disappeared. What message would have been received by the Russians and others if we had maintained defence expenditure unchanged and if we had not followed the Partnership for Peace route? In the end, the Government ruined their own SDR by not properly funding it; in particular, by having a plan that the staff carefully worked out and costed and then allowing the Treasury to impose an arbitrary 3 per cent year-on-year efficiency saving. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, made some interesting comments in relation to the Treasury and the Chancellor. When one remembers that a large proportion of the defence budget is fixed, the 3 per cent could become rather more like 6 per cent on the items that are variable; the items that can be adjusted.

Many aspects of SDR are not new; they are just built upon the efforts and results of the previous administration. There is nothing new in jointery. That was always being continuously developed. Defence diplomacy--eloquently written up in the White Paper--is a new mission which, according to the White Paper, covers verification of arms control, visits by ships, aircraft, units and personnel at all levels, staff talks, personnel exchange programmes, education programmes, loan service and the British Military Advisory Team. I am not quite clear which of those laudable activities is a new one for the MoD. But I agree with Ministers that they are all highly desirable. Perhaps one of the most important is the promotion of democratic control of the Armed Forces.

16 Air Assault Brigade will be an extremely potent and desirable force, but noble Lords will recognise that it is not an additional brigade. It builds upon the experience and structure of 24 Air Mobile Brigade, and that was already based at Colchester. And indeed it builds upon the availability of the Apache AH64 attack helicopter ordered by the previous administration.

During a similar debate on 12th July 1996, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel--I am sorry he is not in his place and speaking to us today--said at col. 540 of Hansard:

"it makes no sense whatsoever to cut the strength of the services without counting the commitments to which they are engaged. In short, 'overstretch' is still with us, despite the assurances that we were offered in Options for Change and Front Line First".

I agreed with his comments at that time and still agree with them today, but I should now like to add SDR to Options for Change and Front Line First. The noble Lord went on to say that the SDR would be,

"appropriately adjusted so that there is a match between commitments and resources".

We do not seem to have made much progress there because we are still over-committed. The Minister's notes will tell her to remind us that the Government have now managed to reduce commitments to slightly below what they inherited, and that is laudable. But having a peak period of over-commitment, as we did with Kosovo, is perhaps not so important as the total length of time over which we have been over-committed, which is several years. Ministers often ask Opposition spokesmen what commitments we would cut. With great respect, that is a decision for Ministers. But they must either cut commitments or increase resources.

I welcome the Minister's comments about improving conditions for servicemen and families involved in operations. But at the end of the day we must reduce the percentage of our forces engaged in operations. That will be the most beneficial thing we can do for retention.

I used to sleep well at night, but after listening to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, I shall now be reaching for the sleeping pills. He referred to the difficulty of deploying under the threat of a ballistic missile. I shall read carefully in Hansard what he said and I suggest the Minister does the same.

I should like briefly to follow up on the many comments made about the TA. It is interesting to note that one of the officers who managed to escape in Sierra Leone was from the Royal Navy Reserve. I am minded to conclude that the Government were right not to use compulsory call-up for the TA for what I would call "base load commitment and overstretch". The TA played a vital voluntary role in reinforcing the regular forces on operations. But the staff are not fully seized of the fact that the TA is a once-only insurance policy.

If a unit, or part of it, is called out this year, it would not be practical to call it out next year without very serious problems for retention in that unit. If it was necessary to call out the TA in order to be able to put 50,000 troops in Kosovo, both regular and TA, that would be completely different and would fit in with the Government's desire to have a more usable TA. If the Minister truly desires to have a more usable TA, she will have to stop allowing the man-training-day budget to be cut in order to overcome the financial problems caused by her friends in the Treasury.

Ministers frequently refer to the Reserve Forces Mobilisation and Training Centre when defending the SDR implications to the TA. But my recollection is that this centre was planned by the previous administration and that the new government Ministers had approved it by October 1997. So it is not clear how it relates to the SDR.

We know that the Minister is responsible for defence procurement, but when reading the specialist press I detect increasing uncertainty as to what Smart procurement is. The noble Baroness said that it is "radical", but is it just doing procurement better? Is it cutting out one approval stage of a major equipment programme, or is it the introduction of integrated project teams, which were introduced during the last administration? Can the Minister say exactly what it is; why it is a different policy from the previous administration; and why informed commentators are confused about what it is?

Much comment has been made about the Clansman radio and the SA80 rifle. Of course, the Minister is proud about the fact that she has ordered a personal-role radio, which will be very useful. But, by its very nature, it has none of the complexity of the Bowman radio.

I know how much the Minister is looking forward to my Unstarred Question on the radios, but I think that we need to put the rifle in its proper context. The Minister has been good enough to agree that it is not ideal for "extreme conditions". Does she agree that this refers to extreme arctic and desert sand conditions? The problem is apparently jamming. But I have fired several thousand rounds through my service SA80 rifle and I cannot recall ever having had a jam. Admittedly, my experience is only in a temperate climate, but I did experience jamming problems with the old SLR.

My noble friend Lord Lyell referred to the introduction of the SLR. When the Minister takes my noble friend to the dungeons, she will probably discover that the SLR had its own problems when it was being introduced. The light support weapon, part of the SA80 family, also comes in for criticism because it overheats. However, it is important to remember that it is a light weapon. The armchair commentators, to whom I believe the Minister referred in her opening remarks, who wax lyrical about the general purpose machine-gun should be reminded that, while it is a very fine weapon, it is also very heavy, as is the ammunition. Noble Lords will be pleased to note that the GPMG is in service in Sierra Leone.

There is a modification programme in hand for the SA80 rifle which involves changing relevant parts. My only anxiety is that it may adversely affect accuracy. No doubt that is why it is taking so long to develop and trial the modifications. I hope that the Minister can agree with me that the SA80 rifle is a weapon that soldiers in West Africa and in the Balkans can have full confidence in, as I do. It may be that the Minister is considering its replacement. No one should be surprised. If the procurement process takes five years, the weapons will have been in service for 20 years by the time that it is introduced.

The radios are more of a problem. Is it correct that not only the enemy can listen to our military radio traffic but that the media can also do so? Is that desirable? The other problem that troops may experience in West Africa comes from the fact that I doubt whether there is an operational civil mobile phone system. My noble friend Lord Vivian raised the issue of armoured fighting vehicles. Once the Minister has replied to my Unstarred Question on radios she can look forward to another one on armoured fighting vehicles. I am glad to see that she has just given me a very pleasant smile.

I have no intention of second-guessing the Minister in her procurement decisions. I am not prepared to pass judgment on the basis of a few sheets of A4 paper on issues such as BURAM and FLA. The Minister's desk will be groaning with briefing, much of it classified. However, I should be concerned with either interference or delays from other government departments.

It is notable that neither the Minister nor her noble friend Lord Gilbert have ever ordered a warship. It would appear that she is unlikely to order a substantial ship from a UK yard. My understanding is that the roll-on, roll-off ferries will not be warships. That creates obvious procurement opportunities and challenges. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships, the FORT class, have a potent self-defence capability in terms of helicopters with an anti-submarine and anti-surface capability. Will not the ro-ro ferries be vulnerable to the most modest interference when on passage?

I join with the Minister and other noble Lords in their praise of our Armed Forces, which is well deserved. Noble Lords rightly drew attention to the risks attendant on operations. However, we must never forget that realistic training, particularly for specific operations, is not free of risk. But it is necessary: we must have live firing exercises on suitable ranges. However, live firing, by its very nature, involves risks that bring the activities into conflict with the Health and Safety at Work Act. Will the Minister reject any changes in live firing exercises when her military advice is that it would degrade combat effectiveness?

Over the past year or so there have been some tragic accidents involving live training. Will the Minister confirm that there is a training accidents investigation team which carefully investigates those accidents? Will she join with me and the rest of the House in offering our condolences and deepest sympathy to those involved--and to their families--in such accidents, whether they occurred during operations or training?

One interesting point is that the quality, if not the fitness, of our recruits is ever increasing. In days of old a high quality NCO could expect rapid promotion. Unfortunately, nowadays being graded "very good" means relatively slow promotion. To achieve only a reasonable rate of promotion one has to be outstanding. There is little chance of meteoric promotion, such is the competition in the services. That is an interesting and, in a way, nice problem to have, as it is a measure of the quality of the recruit intake. I know that much effort is being brought to bear to deal with this problem, as it adversely affects the ability to retain personnel.

One day the Minister might like to challenge myself or her noble friend Lord Gilbert as to how much we would spend on defence. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, would spend more, as he told us in his most interesting speech earlier today. I believe that we in the UK expend broadly an appropriate amount on defence, and much more than our European allies, with the possible exception of the French.

The government of the day can decide to spend X billion pounds on defence and then provide a certain capability and resources from within that budget. From that will flow what commitments can be met. Alternatively, one can decide what commitments are to be met and then determine the resources and capabilities required. From that the funding requirement would follow. If the programme was unaffordable, the commitments would have to be reduced.

The Government, under the helpful guidance of the Treasury, claim to have done the latter. But in reality they have failed because of the 3 per cent year-on-year efficiency savings or cuts. Despite the protestations of the Minister in her highly illuminating speech, most noble Lords are convinced that the MoD is desperately short of finance. The Government have compounded this by continuing to require operations to be undertaken for which the MoD is not properly resourced. We simply cannot go on with a 20 per cent operational commitment. Until the Cabinet addresses these difficulties, I think that it is extremely unlikely that the nation will be able to reap the full benefits of the SDR.

Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative

My Lords, before the Minister speaks I pray the leave of the House to declare an interest--as I should have done but omitted to do--as a very new member of the committee dealing with the common foreign and security initiative.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence 3:19 pm, 12th May 2000

My Lords, we have had a superb debate. It has been a full, wide-ranging debate which has demonstrated the enormous range of expertise and interests in your Lordships' House on all matters to do with defence. The debate has been truly thoughtful and at some points truly provocative. I thank all noble Lords who have participated in it.

There has been a certain amount of criticism about the debate taking place this morning. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, and to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, that I have looked back and I have noted that, whereas today there have been 17 speakers in the debate, plus myself as the Minister, when we last discussed defence, which was on a Wednesday afternoon, there were some 15 speakers plus myself as the Minister. So we have not suffered in the quantity of noble Lords who have participated, and, as the debate has shown, certainly not in the quality either.

I am slightly concerned that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, may have misinterpreted what I said about the visit of the Chief of the Defence Staff to Sierra Leone. It is a visit; he is not staying to take charge of what is happening there. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, commented on the size of our deployment to Sierra Leone. As I hope I indicated in my opening remarks, we believe that the size of the deployment is consistent with the tasks we have outlined for it.

The noble Baroness and the noble Earl may know that the airport is on one peninsula and the main town, Freetown, is on another; they are separated by a considerable amount of sea and the land route is extremely difficult. Given the territorial requirements, there is a great deal of complexity in the evacuation operation, and perhaps that goes some way towards explaining the numbers involved. Of course the deployment has to secure communications and access to the airport. I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, for his support on this issue.

I am not sure what the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, was asking me when he said that people may feel that there was no need to leave now that the British troops had arrived. Let me be absolutely unequivocal: our advice is clear and straightforward to all those for whom we have consular responsibility; it is to leave Sierra Leone as quickly as possible.

The noble Earl said that he would not ask me anything about rules of engagement, and then promptly did so. It is important to say that it would be foolish for us to discuss the rules of engagement. We should all understand that anything that might affect the operational effectiveness of our troops--however interesting it may be--must be kept confidential.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative

My Lords, I said that I did not expect the Minister to say what the rules of engagement were.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence

My Lords, the noble Earl then asked me to define them in terms of other rules of engagement, which was a very neat way round the issue.

Let me pick up on something that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said at the start of the debate. He said that my right honourable friend had "baulked" at the expenditure involved in the operation in Mozambique. I am sure that the noble Lord did not mean to be unfair, but it is important that I should say to him that military planners had to make some assumption about the cost of chartering a heavy-lift aircraft, the number of support staff required, subsistence costs and so on. Costs were revised downwards once we had the report from the reconnaissance team and once we had established the offsets we could make in the light of Treasury guidance. There was no baulking on the part of my right honourable friend. It is also important to acknowledge that that operation was a considerable success for the British Army.

Much of our debate today has centred around your Lordships' concerns--it is far from the first time that your Lordships have voiced them--about resourcing in the MoD. A great deal has been said about cuts and about the extent of those cuts, particularly by the noble and gallant Lords, if I may group them together in that way, and by the Front Bench opposite.

It is important to remind ourselves that in the period from 1997 to 2000-01, defence spending is due to fall by some 3 per cent. I have to compare that with the 17 per cent cut experienced in the Ministry of Defence between 1990 and 1997. With the greatest respect to noble Lords opposite, I sometimes think that they fall into a collective amnesia about what really happened while they were in a position in government to make decisions about defence spending.

Of course we recognise that the MoD's public service agreement target of achieving a 3 per cent annual efficiency in the efficiency baseline from 1998-99 to 2001-2002 is challenging. Of course it is. Nevertheless, our efficiency programme is an essential tool in delivering our programme within the resources available. I make no apology for repeating the point that we must make every pound count for defence. This is not--I repeat it again because I know that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, is particularly concerned about this point--a decline of 3 per cent per year. It is an efficiency saving of 3 per cent per year and the bulk of that will be used in the MoD to enhance our SDR requirements.

I know that the noble and gallant Lord doubts the figures on this matter. Perhaps he would like to come to see me and we can go over the figures. Perhaps I may then convince him that the figures given to me are given in good faith and that this is not trying to slide a 3 per cent cut under the counter.

I was urged by almost all noble Lords--certainly by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim--to challenge the Treasury. I am not prepared to take up quite the kind of challenge that my noble friend Lord Brett asked me to in relation to the paratroopers and our friends in Her Majesty's Treasury, but we all know that, whatever government are in power, this time of year is a time for very hard talking. At this time of year departmental Ministers go in and out of the Treasury in order to argue their case. That happened under the previous administration; it is the same under this administration. I assure your Lordships that a very robust case indeed is made by Ministers in my department.

A good deal was said about overstretch, particularly by the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, and the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. In July 1999 47 per cent of our Army were on or recovering from operations. In May 2000 that figure is down to 27 per cent. I stress to your Lordships that I have not taken into account the Sierra Leone figures, but we can do that. They are not enormous and there will be a slight adjustment upwards in that. The noble Lord said that I would remind your Lordships that that was a lower figure than the Government inherited in 1997. It is a lower figure than we inherited. The noble Lord then implied that that was because of a peak due to Kosovo. Kosovo was last year. In the course of less than a year we have decreased our commitment by some 20 per cent. Noble Lords may feel that there is still overstretch but I did not detect, sadly, any noble Lord acknowledging what has been done to tackle the overstretch problem, and tackle it by a very considerable 20 per cent in less than a year. I believe that the Government have been as good as their word in trying to address that problem of deployment.

A great deal was said on the issue of procurement. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, asked about Smart procurement and asked why mistakes happen. Mistakes happen for a great number of reasons. They happen because there is not early enough planning; they happen because that planning is very often too rigid; and they happen because it is very difficult to adapt specifications within a huge range of options, particularly in fast-changing programmes where there is a good deal of technological and engineering impact. But I do believe that the teams that are pulled together--the integration project teams--bringing together as they do the customer, industry and the scientific and technical expertise that we need are going a long way to address the issue.

We have only just finished the roll-out of the integrated project teams. They completed their training process only a couple of months ago. So I agree with my noble friend Lord Brett: it is early days for us to start judging the success or failure of the Smart procurement programme. We shall be in a much better position to do so in a few years' time.

A number of noble Lords have cast some doubt on that. I know that officials in the MoD sometimes become rather alarmed when I decide to issue these invitations, but I think it would be splendid if some of your Lordships who are worried about what is happening in relation to Smart procurement would come to the Defence Procurement Agency in Bristol, and to the Defence Logistics Organisation in Andover, to see for yourselves what is happening.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and my noble friend Lord Gilbert were concerned about the big procurement projects that we have in train at present: the future large aircraft and the beyond-visual range weapon for the Eurofighter. I hope that I shall not have to ask your Lordships to be patient on the matter for very much longer. I hope that we shall be able to bring some useful information to the House very soon. The Government recognise the importance of these decisions. We recognise the urgency, especially in relation to the future large aircraft.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and the noble Earl spoke about the roll-on, roll-off ferry. It is a matter that crosses my desk. The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said that a decision had been taken on building these ferries in Germany. I assure the noble Lord that no decision has been taken as yet about where they will be built. The noble Earl was right: these are not classified as warships. They were not so classified under the previous administration, and they have not been so classified under this administration. We currently charter civil ships in order to have roll-on, roll-off capacity. It would be very difficult for the purposes of procurement then to say that what we have chartered on a civil basis becomes a warship for the purposes of procurement. I do not think that that argument holds water; neither did the previous administration. There has been a good deal of speculation about the matter. Most people have decided that the Ministry of Defence has taken the decision even before we have actually done so. I hope that we shall be able to take a decision in due course.

A great deal has been said about the slippage on the Bowman project. I remind your Lordships that this piece of procurement began its life a very long time ago--in 1988. The in-service date was set to precede the last general election. The original date was December 1995. If noble Lords opposite try to use this as a hammer on the Government, they had better take a look at their own record on Bowman before starting to do so with too much energy.

The main Bowman system is expected to enter service in late 2003/early 2004. Yes, we are going to deliver it incrementally. I make no apology for the fact that we are looking at the personal radio element. We need to move ahead on this project. If we can move ahead on it only incrementally, at least that is some progress.

As regards the Eurofighter cannon, as was made clear in a recent letter from Air Vice-Marshal Steve Nicholl to the Daily Telegraph, giving the pilot's view, in a modern fighting world the Eurofighter's cannon has minimal value. This is not being imposed by Ministers who are desperate for cuts, as implied by some noble Lords. It is the view of the customer, the RAF, that this capability may in many ways be more of a liability than an asset. There are disadvantages in having the cannon: there are problems of recoil shock, corrosion from exhaust fumes and fatigue in the airframe. So it is not just a case of reaching for the easiest argument; namely, that of cost. We must examine what is really happening.

The noble Baroness and the noble Earl were concerned about the warship-building programme. We are embarking upon the biggest warship-building programme for at least 20 years, probably longer. Over 30 warships are to be built in the United Kingdom over the next 15 to 20 years, including the Type 45 destroyers and the future service combatant and aircraft carriers. The noble Lord asked whether I would ever do any of the ordering for these ships. I took the decision in November last year to begin the planning work on the aircraft carriers. I very much look forward to the day when a Labour Minister is also able to commission that work from a British yard.

As to the SA80, as the noble Earl said it is generally a very effective weapons system and highly accurate but it is unreliable in certain conditions, in particular extremes of climate. We are considering various solutions, including potential modifications to the system proposed by the design authority Heckler and Koch which have recently been validated in MoD trials. We are assessing the proposals and expect to come to a decision very soon.

One or two points have been made about the MoD building. The noble Lord was perhaps implying some lack of judgment. I can tell the noble Lord that I walked down a corridor in the MoD this week and heard the extraordinary noise of water pouring through a ceiling. We cannot ask people to work in those conditions. I know that it is an expensive project, but, my goodness, it is well overdue.

My noble friends Lord Gilbert and Lord Brett and the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, were concerned about DERA. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, I hope that he will refrain from repeating the figure of £250 million as the sum that we are looking for in a sale. I believe that that figure is much too low. I do not want to sell short the DERA privatisation. This is not about getting £250 million for the Treasury but ensuring that DERA receives the proper investment. DERA's work is rising exponentially and we cannot ask the British taxpayer to continue to fund it. One would be talking about a doubling or trebling of the investment in DERA. We hope that by dealing with it in this way DERA will have the opportunity to attract the kind of private investment that is very much needed. I am wholly aware of the importance of continuing to talk to our international partners, in particular the United States and others. I did so when in the United States recently. I plan to go to the United States later this month to continue those talks.

Photo of Lord Burnham Lord Burnham Conservative

My Lords, I shall be delighted to cease quoting the figure of £250 million if the noble Baroness can tell me what sum will accrue to the MoD from the sale.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence

My Lords, if I did so I would come up against the problem that I have just articulated; namely, that it would imply a value for DERA. I hope noble Lords agree that we want as much as we can for the British taxpayer from the sale of DERA. These flotations can be difficult to handle and often require a good deal of expert advice. I do not want to do anything that may prejudice the maximum value that will result from the sale.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, is a splendid advocate for servicemen and women in relation to housing. The noble Baroness asked about the draft report. That report is still undergoing final modification by officials and is due to be delivered to Ministers very shortly.

I have said something about overstretch. However, I was asked in particular about recruitment. Recruitment is buoyant. The current level of achievement for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines is 99 per cent; for the Army, it is 95 per cent; and for the RAF, it is 96 per cent. Those figures are good, although not perfect. I was also asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and my noble friend Lord Brooke about overstretch. Overstretch and undermanning are still big problems in the Army. We inherited an army which was 5,000 undermanned and we are trying to make good that deficiency. However, we have increased the need. I can tell noble Lords that on 1st March 2000 the Army had a shortfall of 8,800 UK-trained regulars against the post-SDR requirement, which was bigger than the one identified by the previous government. On 1st March 2000, the naval service had a shortfall of 1,410 in trained strength as against its requirement. Unfortunately, I do not have the figures for the RAF with me, but I shall write to noble Lords with that information.

Tri-service recruitment is going well, and our recruiting strategy will take us forward into the next century. The Government will be pursuing that policy with considerable vigour.

The noble Lord, Lord Vivian asked about separation. Separation is a difficult problem. As we all know, the separation of families is a major contributory factor to our difficulties in retaining personnel. We have significantly enhanced the separated service allowance package, details of which were announced by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State in December 1999. If the noble Lord did not see them, I shall ensure that they are sent to him.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, was worried about Pay 2000. We decided to defer the introduction of Pay 2000 by one year, to April 2001, as implementation turned out to be a complex operation. We recognise that there is great concern about this, and we shall continue to give it the attention that the noble Baroness would wish.

My noble friend Lord Brooke said some kind words about the overarching personnel strategies in the Ministry of Defence. He and the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, were among those who asked about training. Training is enormously important. The increased use of simulation in pilot training for Hawks and the Combined Armed Tactical Trainer has allowed for innovative and interesting ideas. The expansion of the Army Foundation College to achieve full capacity by September 2000 is also part of that strategy.

My efficient officials have just told me that the RAF has a shortfall of 909 against their trained strength requirement. I thank my officials for being more efficient than me.

Several initiatives are in place to ensure that service personnel have a smooth passage into civilian life. As I do not wish to detain your Lordships, I shall write to those who have expressed an interest. It will also give me an opportunity to explain an interesting initiative that we are undertaking. I know that my noble friend Lord Brooke will be interested in a youth initiative that involves six schools in Newcastle and West Norfolk, and which aims to ensure that those who may not have got off to the best start in life will have an opportunity to improve their prospects.

Several noble Lords, including the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and the noble Lords, Lord Vivian and Lord Lyell, raised the subject of the Territorial Army. It needed to be restructured to meet the demands of the modern world. Far from undermining the conclusions reached in the SDR, the intervening period has shown that the Government's readjustments were right. The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, referred to the supporting roles played by the signallers and the medics, and these were reinforced in the Territorial Army restructuring. Those personnel are now very busy due to current operations.

The number of troops in Northern Ireland will be reduced when the security situation warrants it. Noble Lords would expect me to say nothing more or less about that sensitive question, at what is a sensitive time. I have noted the points made by my noble friend Lord Brett about the civilian knock-on effect, and I shall do my best to ensure that they are taken into account. I thank my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede for his thoughtful and helpful contribution on European defence. I know that he not only takes a great interest in it, but spends much time and thought on it as well. I understand his concerns about accountability. I believe that we have a good deal of work still to do on this issue. As I hope I indicated in my opening remarks, we hope to take this matter forward in the meetings we shall have with our European Union colleagues over the course of the next few weeks.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, is also a passionate advocate of better relationships in this respect. We are making some significant progress on the procurement front over the arrangements that we have of OCCAR which went through your Lordships' House in the legislative process a few weeks ago. I am sure he is aware of the Letter of Intent process that we are also discussing with some of our European partners.

I do not see the issue of our trying to establish a better role for European defence capability as being in contention with our relationship with the United States. Neither do our friends in the United States. I have quoted to your Lordships' House before from Strobe Talbott, and from the other side of the political divide, from Mr Robert Zoellick. Both have made clear that they believe that what we are doing in this respect is a useful step forward in improving our capability.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative

My Lords, I wonder whether it would be in order to remind the Minister of what the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee for Europe, Senator Gordon Smith from Oregon, said when he was over here in December. He took a very different view. He made it absolutely clear that there are substantial and growing parts of political thought in Washington which believe that the autonomous action allowed by the European defence initiative will indeed undermine NATO.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Defence Procurement), Ministry of Defence

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. I am bound to say that if he had heard all the contributions today he might be in a better position to know that many of these points were covered. I was talking from the point of view of those who speak for their parties on this issue in the United States. I have been to the United States often enough discussing these issues to be well aware that there is a wide range of opinions in the United States on this issue as there is on the Declaration of Principles that we recently signed with the United States, and on the issues discussed by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont.

The fact is that it is a pluralistic democracy. Many people have very different opinions. I think that we should stick to the more authoritative ones, if I may say so.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, was worried about the cancellation of exercises, he thought because of lack of money. We have been over a number of these issues. I shall send him a list of the exercises that have been cancelled and the reasons. Most of those cancellations have been due to operational commitments and personal welfare. There have been occasions when there has been a shortage of funding, but nothing like to the extent that the noble and gallant Lord appeared to imply in his remarks.

There was a thought-provoking contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. I thought that some of the accounts he gave of what is going on in the United States were somewhat alarming, and I am sure very much more to the liking of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, in their turn but possibly not to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire. There are many opinions on this issue and there was going to have to be a good deal of thinking time. Perhaps we would all do well to remember that this is election time in the United States.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for what I thought was a first-class contribution. It was extraordinarily thought provoking on the position of the ballistic threat. Perhaps I may make clear to the noble Lord our position on ballistic missile defence. Our national programme of work and feasibility study shortly to be started in NATO will, I hope, allow us to continue to make informed judgments. That is what the noble Lord asks for: informed judgments about the real situation on the ground, and about the kind of capabilities in which we should be investing in the future. I am sure that this is a debate to which your Lordships will return over the course of the next few weeks and months.

I listened carefully to what the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said about what is happening in Sierra Leone, to which I return now in my closing remarks. I outlined the tasks that we have put upon our servicemen and women. Within those tasks there are options about how they should be undertaken. We are not dealing, as I am sure the noble Viscount knows, in the realms of a pre-ordained script. It is enormously important that nothing is said which undermines the security of those operations.

I know that the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, understands that as well as anyone, but already I detect that urge among media commentators to see whether they can sift through every last word spoken by Ministers in order to see whether they add up to the same nuancing. I am afraid that while there may be a bit of the "mission-creep" which some people fear, although I do not believe that will happen, during the next few days we shall be the victims of "commentary-creep" while people try to find something new to say. I hope that we in this House will not subject the issue to such treatment. I hope that we shall give it the serious treatment it deserves.

I agree wholeheartedly with what has been said about military experience in your Lordships' House. Many of us would do well to look at the ways in which we can educate ourselves. I have had to do so and I commend to your Lordships the Armed Forces parliamentary scheme. Sadly, I doubt whether I shall be allowed to participate in it, but I look forward to hearing reports of it from those noble Lords who are allowed to do so.

In conclusion, I thank all noble Lords for what has been said. I return to a constant theme that has rightly come from everyone about the high regard in which we hold our servicemen and women. That is particularly apposite today when they are in active service on an operation that has a high level of public exposure.

I agree with what was said by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, about sympathy and condolences, wherever it occurs, for those who lose their lives and for their families. But the fact is that that is the risk we ask them to take. We are asking them to take it today, as we asked them to take it on many other days. I can think of no better way than to wish them God speed.

On Question, Motion agreed to.