Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:28 pm on 22nd November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank Crossbench 1:28 pm, 22nd November 2007

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for this important debate. First, I pay tribute to two soldiers from the SAS who were killed yesterday in Iraq. I am the colonel of the SAS, and I know that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that we sympathise. The two soldiers had very young children. I know, too, that Members of this House very much admire what we are doing in the SAS in Iraq and elsewhere, day after day.

I find the Government's attitude to the Armed Forces mystifying. We should give them credit for injecting some, if not enough, new money into defence, for Iraq and Afghanistan and for training. Undoubtedly—and we should not forget this—much of the equipment that has now been introduced is as good as any equipment anywhere in the world. However, it is unfortunate that too many people were killed and lives were lost through the late arrival of this equipment, which could have been made available if adequate funding had been found sooner, when the requirement was known about.

The fact is that the defence of our country has been underfunded for years. In the Cold War we got away with it, but took huge risks. To compound our difficulties, the Government of the day took a peace dividend that now seems unwisely large, but that was a long time ago. We now have services that have been underfunded for years and find themselves desperately stretched fighting two wars.

At the Lord Mayor's banquet last week, the Prime Minister affirmed his commitment that he would, at all times, support and strengthen our Armed Forces, our defences and security. In my experience as Chief of the Defence Staff in Whitehall, he was the most unsympathetic Chancellor of the Exchequer as far as defence was concerned, and the only senior Cabinet Minister who avoided coming to the Ministry of Defence to be briefed by our staff on our problems. The only time that I remember him coming to the Ministry of Defence when I was there was when he came to talk about the future of the Rosyth dockyard, which was in his constituency. He must take much of the blame for the very serious situation we find the services in today.

However, I am delighted that he is now taking more interest. He has visited Iraq and Afghanistan on various occasions and has devoted more time to those in the Ministry of Defence. But can he really understand how serious the situation is if he appoints—as others have mentioned—a Secretary of State who is not fully committed to defence at such a time as this? I, like others, speak to servicemen and women who view that as a serious slight at a time when the intensity of operations is far higher than it has been for many years. I cannot understand how the Prime Minister could do such a thing.

It is well known that the defence budget is under huge pressure and it will be interesting to know from the Minister just which programmes will not survive—she will probably not be able to tell us today—which will be reduced and which scalings will be reviewed. We know that difficult decisions will have to be faced unless additional funding is made available. Lately, Ministers have been boasting about the extra money that has been produced for defence. I will not go over the ground that has been so well covered by the noble Lord, Lord King, and the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Bramall and Lord Boyce, but whatever has happened, it is woefully inadequate as far as running the services today is concerned. It is not a matter for self-congratulation.

There are many examples of equipment and shortages—some have been given. I am not going to give noble Lords a long list, but one example is a brigade being deployed to Afghanistan not having been trained on medium machine guns before it goes, because the medium machine guns all have to be out in Afghanistan. That is a serious matter and risks people's lives. There is a shortage of three battalions worth of HF radios. I could go on, but I will not, because the point has already been made.

Recently, senior officers, including the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, have thought it necessary to speak out. It is regrettable when senior officers think it necessary to do that. I do not think that it is the British way or that it is constitutional, but it indicates how they are at the end of their tether. What the Government are expecting them to do and deliver is absolutely unreasonable with the resources that they have.

We find ourselves in a very dangerous world at the moment. Long gone are the days when we could remain safe in our own country, isolated from troubles elsewhere. If the Government are really serious about defence and security, as the Prime Minister clearly said last week—it is interesting that government support behind the Minister has just gone up by 50 per cent, which does not indicate that members of the Government in this House are taking it very seriously—funding must be increased or the Government will seriously damage one of the state's greatest assets beyond quick repair.

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Michael Spence
Posted on 27 Nov 2007 3:40 pm (Report this annotation)

Well said.