Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:15 pm on 22nd November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Lyell Lord Lyell Conservative 2:15 pm, 22nd November 2007

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Park for giving us the opportunity today to have a good, lengthy debate on defence. One looks down the speakers list to find half a dozen dazzling speeches. Perhaps I may make one request to the Minister: please, will she take up the suggestion of my noble friend Lord King and see that the report of this debate is brought to the Prime Minister's notice? As well as being a very competent Scot, accountant and figures man, his heart is in the right place and I think that he would take to heart what is being said today.

It is a great privilege and pleasure, and great luck, to follow the marvellous speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. He justifies the British Army's motto, "Be The Best". That was certainly one of the best speeches today and I would reiterate much if not all of what he said. However, as a very humble 19-months' serviceman, I was always taught that you should concentrate on what was in front of you, and I see that the subject of this debate is the long- and short-term future of the armed services.

We have heard a bit about the long term: the carriers. It seems to be good, innovative thinking and good planning. I have the good luck to be the secretary of the House of Lords Defence Group under the marvellous chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. We made two visits in July, one of which was to the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose where, under the excellent leadership of Captain Thicknesse RN, we saw the Merlin and the Sea King helicopters and what they can do; I think they will be part of future carrier operations. I hope that the Minister can reassure me on strike training—I hope that that is the right term for air power—in the GR7s, the naval version of the harrier which will bridge the gap on the carriers before the arrival of the vertical and short take-off version, let alone the carrier version of the Joint Strike Fighter. I understand that the Navy will be acquiring the VSTOL.

As for air power in the long term and the Typhoon—which the Defence Group had the good luck to see during a visit earlier this year to the first operational squadron at RAF Coningsby under Group Captain Atha—I hope the Minister can confirm, probably later in writing, that the good work will continue, and that repairs to the runway at RAF Leuchars will soon be completed. I understand that 6 Squadron, the first operational Typhoon squadron detached from RAF Coningsby, will soon be at RAF Leuchars. I am very glad that my nearest RAF station will be equipped with this excellent and most modern aircraft.

As for the short term, I can add nothing to what has already been said about Iraq. As for 2008-09 and political developments in the United States, I just wonder what will happen. I suspect that our operations in Iraq will be affected by what happens across the Atlantic, and that they will continue.

I turn to Afghanistan, the main theme of today's superb speeches. I have never been there—I do not know it—but I have looked on a map and perhaps I have read too many novels about the military operations and the life there. The terrain, the extraordinary mix of people and what they want in supporting the Government are very difficult. I am concerned that it will be a very long-term operation, but perhaps the Minister can confirm that. Everything that has been said today indicates just that.

I return to the home front. In the debate, an enormous amount of time has been spent on, and the main thrust has been, our people in the Armed Forces. The Army's motto is "Be The Best" and its members certainly are, each and every one of them—not just those who serve but also their wives and families and those who support them. They certainly make our Armed Forces the pride of this country and of many admirers around the world.

The young men in the Armed Forces are not Masai warriors, or those professionals who go to war and then retire to domestic life at the age of 25 or 30. Our young men are incredibly professional, and are certainly as good as any you will find in the world, if not better, but they are not ascetic monks. They have domestic and home lives; they have people at home they want to see. That is why I am so pleased my noble friend Lord Selkirk referred to housing and to Chelsea Barracks, which I passed this morning on my way to your Lordships' House. I understand that £500 million or thereabouts might be achieved from the sale of Chelsea Barracks for all sorts of purposes. Like my noble friend, I hope that those funds can be reinvested to improve the existing stock and to refurbish other stock in one or two years. That money could straightaway be put towards refurbishing much of the rundown, tired and fatigued housing all over the United Kingdom, and possibly abroad, where it is needed.

On the people concerned, the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, referred to young people. I am pleased to see that the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, is on the Woolsack today. He and I share a great love of sport, including football. The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, will appreciate the four-letter word "duty" as he sits there, and I am sure that he will enjoy himself. At the opening of the Wembley Stadium, I was delighted to see Private Beharry, Victoria Cross, come out. Little by little, such events bring the situation home to the public. I would call him, and others like him, a hero and I believe it brought the matter to the public's notice in a subtle way.

We have heard, and we shall continue to hear, enormous amounts about overstretch. I have a note here about the arms plot which may come under the aegis of my noble friend Lord King. Service men and women, including their families, require intervals for rest and recuperation, let alone for training. They might need retraining, or training on new skills for new tasks which they will be asked to undertake, but that is all done during the intervals needed by our service men and women.

There is another darker or shady side to the situation: injuries and casualties. My noble friend Lady Park, other members of your Lordships' Defence Group and I have been fortunate enough to visit military hospitals at Northallerton and Haslar, and my noble friend Lady Park may remember visiting the military hospital at Frimley, which caused considerable concern. My noble friend was robust and extremely tough in demanding that Frimley would get everything that it needed. That is certainly relevant today.

In March this year, I was extremely fortunate, with my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, to visit Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham. We found that the two military wards were superb. Something that appealed, besides the service, the dedication and commitment, were two separate facilities on site for accommodating single servicemen under diagnosis there, together with refurbished flats for relatives visiting the wounded and ill soldiers. The dedication and skill put into refurbishing that accommodation is second to none. That is one small detail, but little by little, progress is being made in that area.

Your Lordships have referred to kit. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, spoke about the lamentable situation in which soldiers have to spend their own money to get the best kit that they need. I am confident that the Minister will take up this point, following the traditions of the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, whose loss we regret. We wish him all the best in the future. I give my personal thanks, support and devotion to the men and women who serve in the Armed Forces 24 hours a day, seven days a week, today and every day for as long as it takes. I am very grateful to my noble friend Lady Park.


Caroline Taylor
Posted on 23 Nov 2007 9:30 am (Report this annotation)

Unfortunately, in the eyes of the Government the families of the armed forces are also severely overlooked and services and conditions provided for them dealing with tremendous pressures when their husbands and wives have to spend a considerable time away from home falls very short. Being brought up within the service community and now married into it, i've seen enormous changes to the overall service community and not for the best. The service community spirit and sticking together has gone and it's every man for themselves. Surely with us all in the same boat we should be sticking together and supporting each other. But the Army in particular does very little to support or accept responsibilities towards service families and it's a disgrace that they continually ignore pleas for change. In many cases if it wasn't for the support of families, many service personnel would not be able to cope with things on their return from duty. The government insists that moral is very high on the ground but this is not a fair reflection and moral is not high at all. I am very proud of my husband and all the armed forces but I can't say that about the current government!

Caroline Taylor
Posted on 23 Nov 2007 9:37 am (Report this annotation)

The MOD has very old fashioned views and hasn't moved with the times. Our services today are very different from 20 or even 30 years ago and the MOD needs to recognise this and stop the old school ideas and listen to the people that matter, the service men and their families. Recruiting an army of single lads which is what the army would prefer is never going to happen, how naive of them to think this would ever work! They are human after all .... they need to get a grip.

Daniel Jackson
Posted on 27 Nov 2007 10:50 am (Report this annotation)

Unfortunately this would seem to be the case with all three services I fear.