Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:38 am on 22nd November 2007.

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Photo of Baroness Park of Monmouth Baroness Park of Monmouth Conservative 11:38 am, 22nd November 2007

rose to call attention to the planning, action, and support required to enable the Armed Forces to meet the long- and short-term challenges facing them; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, I welcome the presence here of so many noble Lords, and especially noble and gallant Lords, who can speak with authority and passion about a major national crisis and a major national scandal. We have had many such debates on defence since I entered this House in 1991, but I have never addressed the issue with such a heavy heart nor with such indignation.

I should not have made planning one of the aims of this debate. The Armed Forces are in the dangerous situation that they now occupy because successive Governments have planned, as in the Strategic Defence Review and the White Papers since 1997, but have never been prepared to provide the funding or to examine the consequences of the commitments into which they have entered. My own party, believing that the collapse of the Soviet regime in Russia had removed the strategic threat, proceeded to close two out of three service hospitals and in 1996 allowed the Treasury to put through the sale of the married quarters estate and a number of other valuable MoD properties, including the drill halls in county towns, which had been a vital part of recruitment. These two acts had continuing adverse consequences for service recruitment and, above all, for the well-being of service families.

The Government, however, have been in power for 10 years. In that time, the Armed Forces have been continuously involved in interventions—in the Balkans, in Afghanistan twice, in the Gulf twice and in military aid to the civil power elsewhere year after year. Year after year they have been more and more inadequately funded and equipped to do more and more tasks.

The new defence aim reported to Parliament in 2003 was,

"to deliver security for the people of the United Kingdom and the Overseas Territories by defending them, including against terrorism; and to act as a force for good by strengthening international peace and stability".—[Hansard, Commons, 3/11/03; col. 432W.]

Twenty-eight military tasks are recorded, apart from the main mission, and eight subordinate large military tasks in the White Paper. I will read noble Lords the forthright comments of the chairman of the Defence Committee in the other place commenting on the 2003 Defence White Paper:

"The thing that disturbs me about the whole process is that the process is driven by how much money the Treasury is prepared to allocate to you, and frankly if the Prime Minister wishes to deploy those forces readily around the world, then doing it within the constraints of what might be a diminishing budget appears to me a bit of a fantasy. You either decide you are going to have adequate forces, adequately funded, adequately led, adequately deployed and adequately resourced, or you do not. If there are going to be any further cuts in this Defence Budget, you might wish to see, and we might wish to see, them curtailed because the Treasury once again, as in 1920 with the 10-year rule, has their perception of warfare 10 years from now, which is often based on a delusion and on economic decision-making rather than defence policy-making".

There have been enough plans, both strategic and tactical. HMG should be acting to maintain forces adequately equipped and trained to deal with the growing asymmetric threat, not least in the now unstable state of Pakistan—a nuclear power where forces are based which constitute a possible threat to our troops in Afghanistan. There are also possible threats from Iran, in terms of fomenting unrest in the Middle East, and jihadism based in Saudi Arabia. We cannot discount possible action from Russia in terms of interventions supporting Iran's nuclear ambitions and Syria's possible intentions in Lebanon and Iraq.

Russia, which is rearming extensively—its defence budget for this year is £16 billion and it is reported that a £94 billion programme for rearmament is planned—remains an important player by proxy in the Middle East. Russia no longer considers itself bound by the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. An ominous response has been the reported move by Poland's new Government to consider withdrawing from their commitment to allow the US to base part of a missile defence system in Poland. Russian officials are said to have given warning that the US plan could lead to a new arms race.

Much will depend on the EU's readiness to stand up to Russian bullying. If we indeed regard our commitment in Afghanistan as open-ended, we must expect some years of military commitment and the possible escalation by pro-Taliban forces to gain control in Pakistan. Our NATO allies in Europe, never in most cases very robust, will gradually fade away.

We do not know what call may be made on our military resources to fight an asymmetric war, to protect our borders, to protect the integrity of UK waters and airspace, to support the civil power in times of flood or internal unrest or to carry out disaster relief, as we come to the succour of Commonwealth countries in emergency. All those possible tasks are recognised, with many others. Incidentally, I wonder how much of the €10 billion Galileo is now going to cost—the original estimate was €4 billion—we shall have to pay.

All these possible tasks are recognised, but who will carry them out and with what training and equipment? We have commitments to the EU, the AU, the UN and NATO. Parliament, through the Defence Committee, the Public Accounts Committee and other respected bodies, such as the National Audit Office and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, has repeatedly warned over the years that our defence capability is at serious risk. Still the Treasury and the Government continue to starve the forces year after year, while the Government continue to pile more tasks on them. The MoD itself has been far from blameless. Even at this critical time, when not a day passes without more reports of serious overstretch—aircraft which ought not to be flying, a shortage of helicopters because there are no instructors, let alone an absolute failure in the duty of care—the MoD this week says that it intends to publish a White Paper on service personnel next spring. It will,

"take stock of policies affecting the Armed Forces and set out our plans to improve conditions", and move to encourage recruitment. Once more it is jam tomorrow, never jam today. Both strategically and practically, the defence of the realm is in greater danger than for many years. There is one major cause and one single remedy—resources, both human and financial.

It is now widely admitted that the military covenant is breaking down. Because so many noble and gallant Lords are here today who can speak with authority on the military issues, I shall concentrate on the duty of care. That has been for too long ignored. The Government are prepared year after year to use and exploit our Armed Forces but not to pay them fairly, whether in money, decent quarters or security for their families, nor to provide enough equipment for satisfactory training. Three major bodies, the Public Accounts Committee, the Defence Committee and the National Audit Office, are unanimous in stating the urgent need for the human needs of the troops and the families to be addressed. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body quotes the Chancellor's view that pay settlements should be guided by the 2 per cent CPI inflation target and "affordability" within departmental resources.

The Secretary of State for Defence emphasised that affordability was a key concern in determining the pay award. A "fair pay" award needed to be set against the MoD's priorities for targeted measures. The NAO's report on recruitment and retention identifies the crucial pinch points, including, incidentally, the severe lack of doctors; without the Territorial Army I do not know what we would do. The defence White Paper sums up the policy as,

"the same military effects to be achieved with less".

The MoD today is working within the 2007-08 defence budget, which was set in 2004. Pay recommendations which exceeded provision—that is, above the "affordable" 2 per cent—would threaten other objectives, yet operational demands on serving soldiers have greatly increased. The Government must understand that they are not dealing with a piece of equipment but with that indispensable item, human beings, who cannot postpone living for five years to suit the budget cycle.

Unfortunately, as the White Paper recognises, network defence capability,

"will only work when employed by highly trained professional forces".

There has to be investment in equipment and systems, but also in training the people who operate them.

The redoubtable Lizzie Iron, then chairman of the Army Families Federation, wrote in 2004 to the then Under-Secretary of State, having presumably been told yet once more that there was no money:

"You emphasize the importance of up-to-date equipment, but without soldiers to operate it the best kit in the world will not make an effective army".

Mounting political commitments are making it impossible to train the forces to wage high-density warfare, which is their primary military task and one which cannot be achieved at the last minute. Our defence forces are not primarily a political weapon, and neither the Treasury nor the FCO are the right people to make the strategy. Action is needed before it is too late to address the military tasks and needs of the defence forces, and, incidentally, to complement our seriously attenuated military capacity by restoring some of the worldwide diplomatic presence we once enjoyed. This not only nourishes our relations with other countries and promotes our trade, but has provided safe bases for our intelligence gatherers and the means to negotiate naval bases when they are required in emergency. They also forewarn us of threats.

As regards support, I need not reiterate to noble Lords the importance of the military covenant between our fighting forces, a citizen army of volunteers and the nation, and the way it is being breached. When we address the needs of the defence establishment we are dealing not only with the men and women serving in the Armed Forces, but with their families, whom they are not here to care for. It is a major constituency which has no MP and has major problems, not least the disgraceful state of much of the housing. The forces see support for their families in housing, health and related areas as the clear manifestation of whether we mean it when we say that the country has a major asset and that people are important. The service families, whose steadfast support for those who are serving away from home and whose approach to their own problems is both practical and brave, need to be recognised and rewarded. The covenant is that the forces fight for us and we help their families when they need it most. Yet year after year the families live in very often disgraceful conditions. Their needs are ignored, and year after year promised funding for housing does not materialise because it has been diverted to some other "more important" objective.

In the families federation report for 2002, housing problems accounted for 25 per cent of all calls for help and action. One example of the failure to provide support was the cancellation, on grounds of cost, of a promised rebuild of an estate where families were living in terrible conditions. The DHE said it had no money, and nothing was done. At the 2004 conference of the federation, a main issue was housing. In 2007, the dominant issue is housing.

The admirable Royal British Legion, to which I am indebted, makes two important recommendations; that the local connection rule, which discriminates against ex-service families applying for social housing, should be removed at once, and that there should be ring-fenced, affordable housing for veterans where MoD land has been given over for housing development. The Treasury should not be allowed, as it is reported to be doing, to sell off a helicopter base and an RAF training base to raise money at this critical time.

I am indebted to the legion for the statistics that I now cite and for some of the recommendations. The legion deals with 4.8 million veterans, with an average age of 64, the majority of whom, 83 per cent, served in the Armed Forces. There are 3.6 million adult dependants and 1.7 million children. Of the 189,000 troops and 200,000 reservists serving in the Armed Forces, 18,000 are women. There are 1.3 million widows or widowers. We are dealing with a great number of our citizens. Harmony guidelines on separation, which are a major concern of both the NAO and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, are frequently breached for large parts of the services, often with serious effects for marriages.

The legion is fighting many battles; here are some of them. Sadly, one large group of veterans, the 1991 Gulf War veterans, have had a long battle for fair treatment, which has often been debated in this House. About 7,000 finally received compensation payments, but those veterans should also receive an ex-gratia payment. More research into the result of the war pensions review for Gulf War veterans is needed. The onus should be put on the Government to prove that the service was not responsible for causing or worsening an injury or illness when compensation claims under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme are being considered. The Government should also remove the time limit on claims under the AFCS, including the five year cut-off point. The legion urges—recent examples of this have been publicised—that there should be full compensation for each and every injury sustained in a single incident.

The Government should pay for the accommodation of families of injured service personnel, whose presence is an important part of their treatment and rehabilitation. We have all read about the new accommodation that is to be built by the SSAFA from charitable funds, including money raised by a national newspaper, for the families of those being treated for severe injuries at Headley Court. That should be public money. At last, we have a long-awaited dedicated military ward at Selly Oak, and excellent work on post-operational stress and trauma is being piloted and evaluated at the King's Centre for Medical Health Research. We now need a regime of surveillance of those who have been deployed for long periods and who may be vulnerable to mental health problems. We are building up great trouble for the future if we do not do that.

Resources must be made available to ensure that priority treatment for veterans by the NHS is delivered. That right was established in 1953, but it is now no longer effectively provided or, if it is provided, it is much delayed. The legion makes a strong case for health surveillance in the services. There needs to be proper access, as the NAO urges, to resettlement services for those who are retiring, and mandatory vocational assessments should be provided. Those who are leaving the forces are, incidentally, potentially extremely valuable to civil society.

The legion is concerned, as we should be, about veterans and their dependants living in poverty, for whom we have a continuous duty of care. It urges the Government to improve disabled facilities grants. That scheme should be better funded. The legion has often to step in and fill the gap. It urges that war pensions should be uprated in line with earnings from 2008, in advance of the proposed changes to the uprating of state pensions.

We have to recognise that service families cannot but be dysfunctional when the head of the family is in action abroad and/or is prevented by overstretch, and by the consequent failure to observe harmony guidelines, from seeing his family. He and they lose out in almost every area of life because of that separation when it lasts too long. The legion urges that servicepeople who were mis-sold endowment mortgages by UK firms when posted abroad should have access to compensation schemes, as those in the UK do. Not least, there is strong pressure to clear the present backlog in military inquests and for service families to be provided with legal advice and advocacy at public expense in those inquests.

I see that I have a little more time and shall be happy to recount something that I missed out. It is about the Treasury, my favourite subject, and an incident some years ago that some of you will remember, when the contract for the complex updating of the Tornado and the Hercules had to be placed with an incompetent, inexperienced small contractor because the tender was the lowest. The resulting damage to the aircraft by that firm was discovered, fortunately, by the RAF when the aircraft were returned to St Athan before proceeding to operational service in the Gulf. The RAF found that such damage had been done that if those aircraft had flown, they would have crashed. Not only would we have lost the aircraft, but the crews. I suggest that this was one of the occasions when it is rather important how we judge what savings are. The Treasury does it with money and figures. We should be doing it with human lives.

I return to my speech, which is nearly finished. The defence strategy that the services are expected to carry out without enough equipment, without enough training time and with little regard for the whole life of a soldier, is like a householder who buys an expensive microwave on the instalment system but fails to give his wife any money to buy the food or the chance to learn to cook. No one doubts the high morale of our forces in the field, made up of comradeship, courage, pride in their profession and battle skills, and their families do all they can to support that morale. Nevertheless, a stretched elastic can break. We know from the NAO that the impact of service life on family life and the feeling that the work of the services is no longer valued accounts for 65 per cent of the reasons for leaving. The NAO and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body are concerned about the increasing breaches in harmony and the steady loss of essential skilled personnel serving at the pinch points.

It is in the interests of the country as a whole, not just the defence family, to deliver proper care and support to a significant part of our people who are engaged in the defence of the realm. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, in a defence debate quoted Thucydides on the importance of morale. The noble Lord also quoted Field-Marshal Montgomery when he spoke of the importance of a contented Army and said,

"the morale of the soldier is the greatest single factor in war".

I beg to move for Papers.

Annotations

David Tolhurst
Posted on 28 Nov 2007 2:19 pm (Report this annotation)

Baroness Park's speech is brilliant. All the speeches in this debate of a vrry high standard and I am glad I read them all. David Tolhurst tollies@btinternet.com

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