Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:24 pm on 29th June 2006.

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Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Shadow Minister, Defence, Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister, International Development 2:24 pm, 29th June 2006

My Lords, our debate has touched on a range of distinct but related issues, but they add up to a profound expression of anxiety. There is anxiety in this House about the insufficiency of the resources coming into our Armed Forces to enable them to prepare for and undertake the always demanding and often dangerous tasks they are asked to perform on our behalf.

In opening the debate so authoritatively, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, put that case in the clearest possible manner. I am also grateful to him for providing us with the occasion for this excellent debate. Sadly, one name is missing from the speakers' list: that of my noble friend Lord Lyell. I am sure that all those speaking today will wish him a very speedy recovery.

The noble and gallant Lord was right to remind us and the Government of the fundamental need to have sufficient numbers of the right people in the Armed Forces. I also pay tribute to the outstanding work that they are doing as a force for good in different parts of the world, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. I am sure that the Armed Forces will be grateful for the strong support they received from the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont.

The noble and gallant Lord also reminded us that the Armed Forces must be well motivated and that their mood and morale must be sustained and not undermined. That, including sustained confidence in their leaders, is and will be at the heart of improvements we shall seek to bring about in the Armed Forces Bill.

To the need for sufficient boots on the ground, and waiting in the wings, I add the equally fundamental need for a sufficient number of appropriate warships in the fleet, similarly with aircraft and particularly with helicopters. Military tasks, to be properly performed, are people-intensive and require a sufficient number of individuals deployed. But the recruitment of this sufficient number of individuals is in crisis in all three services. In addition, too many servicemen and women are leaving. They feel undervalued. Are this Government standing up for them? We have seen with the Trooper Williams and the Royal Tank Regiment cases that Ministers do not. The noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General did a great disservice to morale in the Armed Forces when he referred the Royal Tank Regiment cases to the CPS, as he said,

"to ventilate the issues in the civilian courts", heralding a disgraceful delay before the five soldiers were able to clear their names. Many soldiers of all ranks cite this apparent application of civilian legal standards and abandonment of serving soldiers as a significant factor in wanting to leave.

Incessant back-to-back tours in Iraq are not good for retention. What are the Government doing to ensure that the interval target of 24 months is met for all troops? Another example of feeling undervalued is an issue that very many servicemen and women have complained about: the nightmare of flights to and from Iraq. Noble Lords will know that I am a great admirer of the Royal Air Force. I was privileged to see the Typhoon just the other day. But why does the RAF make most of these flights to and from Iraq a drawn-out and seemingly badly run affair? Why is it necessary to ask 200 carefully vetted soldiers to report to Brize Norton 12 hours before take-off? I have heard many stories of young servicemen and women with confirmed flights home sitting around Basra airport, where there are very few facilities, sometimes for several days as there are no seats for them. If morale is damaged in this way, there are once again serious implications for retention. Will the Minister undertake to look into this problem urgently? He may think that it is trivial but too many servicemen and women tell me that they feel they are treated very badly.

The noble Lord, Lord Garden, mentioned the Defence Medical Services. The BMA's Armed Forces Committee is concerned about the recruitment and retention problems of the Defence Medical Services, particularly in the light of what can be earned by consultants in the NHS in comparison to their military counterparts. Are the Government confident that they have sufficient regular medical officers to support current operations?

My noble friend Lord De Mauley spoke about the Reserves with the authority of a former CO. Undoubtedly, the Reserves are in a very poor state. Over a quarter of them, 13,400, have resigned since April 2003. Every branch of the Reserve Forces is below strength. The reduced numbers and increased levels of deployment create a dangerous combination. The noble Lord, Lord Levene, made a very important speech on procurement. I agree with him that the success of the DIS depends on the defence industry's willingness to be open. The challenge for the Minister will be to drive improved relations past his own civil servants.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, mentioned the story in today's FT that the DPA will merge with the DLO. Will the Minister tell the House whether there is any truth in that? Like the noble and gallant Lord, I have concerns. If the story is true, could the Minister explain the merits of creating one massive organisation embracing everything from initial concept studies to final delivery? When will we see the publication of Mr McKeen's advice? Several noble Lords have mentioned different forms of equipment and, as my noble friend Lord Selsdon said, our Armed Forces must have the best and most appropriate equipment available.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, and my noble friend Lord De Mauley mentioned the Snatch Land Rover. I have had quite a mailbag about the accuracy of the Minister's reply to my question about the RG-31 a couple of weeks ago. I would be grateful if the Minister could give some further thought to his response and write to me. Some 25 per cent of the soldiers killed in Iraq have been killed in Snatch Land Rovers by IEDs. The Snatch is a brilliant vehicle, but there are times when troops would definitely be safer in a better protected armoured patrol vehicle than the Snatch Land Rover, but with a less aggressive profile than a Warrior. Several noble Lords, including the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, asked about the much-needed replacement of helicopters. I was particularly interested to hear about his experiences in Northern Ireland.

My noble friend Lord Attlee mentioned the Bowman. Will the Minister give a Written Statement after the Recess to bring the House up to date on the progress with that important equipment? My noble friend also asked about the progress of the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, asked about the carriers. I am hearing rumours that an order is about to be placed for 2,000 logistic vehicles. Will the Minister comment on that?

We need money to pay for all this much-needed equipment. Can the Minister confirm or deny the strong rumours mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, that £1 billion will be moved from the defence budget to homeland security? I hope that is not true. As the noble and gallant Lord said, the front line is already underfunded. Several noble Lords, notably my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, spoke about the UK nuclear deterrent. I will say only two things about that. First, as my right honourable friend David Cameron made absolutely clear at the weekend, we regard the long-term continuance of the independent UK deterrent as a prudent and necessary insurance policy. Secondly, and this is directly relevant to our debate today, the necessary costs and appropriate long-term continuance must be spread over a suitable period of years as an addition to the regular defence budget and must not be used as an excuse to shave from that budget the money needed now to meet more immediate requirements, a need stressed by so many noble Lords today.

I am sure that the noble Lord, as the Minister responsible for defence procurement, has already identified the importance of this point in relation to matters for which he has personal responsibility. It may not be too much to hope, given the well publicised conversion of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the cause, that the noble Lord will be able to give us the necessary assurances about the additional status of this investment. Several noble Lords have asked about the operational objectives in Afghanistan, and I look forward to hearing the Minister's clarification. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, made a very powerful speech calling for a commission to look into the conduct of the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. I look forward to the Government's response.

My noble friend Lord Luke mentioned the poor state of defence accommodation, which is so important for morale. As my noble friend said, most service families care passionately about their homes, which offer such important stability. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, spoke about the importance of uniformed DPRs. I am sure we will return to that issue in Committee on the Armed Forces Bill. I hope that Ministers will do more than hear what has been said today. I hope that they will understand it and, more importantly, act on it.