Armed Forces

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:59 pm on 22nd November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Gilbert Lord Gilbert Labour 2:59 pm, 22nd November 2007

My Lords, like every other Member of your Lordships' House, I am very much in debt to the noble Baroness, Lady Park, for raising this as a subject for debate. In the short 10 years for which I have been a Member of your Lordships' House, I have never heard a debate of such seriousness, quality and one-sided passion from men whom I did not think were necessarily given to passionate speech.

I have a few words of friendly advice for my noble friend, whom I very much congratulate on her appointment. I wish her well without any reservation whatsoever. I hope that she will understand that when I have a few remarks to make that are critical of Her Majesty's Government, they do not reflect in any way on her personally but are given in the hope that she can avoid some of the mistakes that her colleagues—and, dare I say it, her predecessors—have made. There has already been reference to the extraordinary appointments made by the present Prime Minister at the Ministry of Defence.

I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, who mentioned that which we all know: that the first duty of any Government is the defence of the realm. I am wickedly tempted to say to my noble friend that her first job when she gets to her desk at the Ministry of Defence this evening is to send a signal to all naval officers that they acquaint themselves with the borders of the realm that they are supposed to be defending, which seems to be something that one of our Ministers—was it as recently as yesterday?—was himself not acquainted with.

I have already said what I think about the double-hatting of the position of Secretary of State for Defence with that of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I will say it again unambiguously. I think that it is a disgraceful appointment. I have been to see my Chief Whip; I told him that I was going to say this; and I am going to go on saying it at every possible opportunity until the appointment is revoked. It is a disgrace. It is an insult—not merely to those who are serving in Her Majesty's forces but to their families, and that is what I take personally very hard indeed.

This is my friendly advice to my noble friend. I hope very much that when she replies to the debate, she makes no attempt to justify that appointment but rather gets up to say that she will convey the unanimous sentiments of this House to her right honourable friend on that point. If she seeks to defend it, she will do herself great damage. I intend to dwell on that for a moment. This appointment reflects not only on the Prime Minister; it also reflects on the Secretary of State for Defence, because he should not have accepted it. As I said, the sooner that it is revoked, the better.

There has been discussion of resources, which goes to the heart of whether we are able to equip and sustain our Armed Forces appropriately. I very much endorse what the former Secretary of State, the noble Lord, Lord King, said on the subject of the mantra of Her Majesty's Government increasing resources in real terms by a modest percentage year after year.

I very much hope—again, this is a friendly word of advice to my noble friend—that she does not seek to defend the 1.5 per cent figure or repeat it as a justification for the theme that Her Majesty's Government have the Armed Forces at heart. When she gets back to her office—she is a very sophisticated and intelligent Minister—she needs to find out what that 1.5 per cent nominal increase in real terms represents in the decrease in capability, given the inflation element in defence equipment year after year. There is no getting away from it: 1.5 per cent overall in the budget represents a reduction in capability year after year. I very much hope—this is friendly advice to my noble friend—that she does not try to call in aid that 1.5 per cent figure as evidence of what the Government are doing for defence, because we are steadily going downhill as a result of that overly modest contribution.

My noble friend faces great challenges at the defence procurement end of the Ministry of Defence. She will suffer from the mistakes of her predecessors—no doubt I made a few in my time. I very much hope that when she gets there, she will realise the one thing that we all ought to realise: there is no such thing as a stupid question. I hope that she will not be intimidated by the jargon and the often overbearing attitude of those who are advising her. Here I am going to say something sacrilegious, which will no doubt offend many noble Lords with whom I have agreed wholly up till now. Those people will not always tell you the truth. People do not like to admit that people are not telling them the truth, because they realise that it is a reflection on them—or rather of what other people think about them. It is very difficult to take that on board.

I tell my noble friend—again, this is a piece of what I hope she will regard as friendly advice—that I once had a conversation with a former Conservative Defence Secretary at a conference overseas. He rose to a far greater height than me—he became a Secretary of State and member of the Cabinet. I said, "You lucky fellow, didn't you enjoy it?". He said, "Yes, except that they lied to me". I hope that my noble friend tucks that away as something that she must recognise will happen from time to time. Do not be afraid of asking the stupid questions.

As I said, my noble friend will be the prisoner of various decisions taken in the past, some of which she will not be able to influence or reverse. To me, for example, one of the most classic ones relates to the Trident missile system, of which I am a great supporter, and I am a supporter of it having a successor. But it is quite beyond me why we in NATO pay good money for a missile system that is delivering thermonuclear warheads with an accuracy of a CEP of a handful of metres. The joke used to be that you could not only hit Moscow, you could put it into the men's room in the Kremlin. Frankly, what on earth is the difference, when we have a warhead with a destructive capability many times that which we launched on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whether it ends up at that end of your Lordships' Chamber or at the other? We seem to be paying for a grotesque, otiose accuracy. My noble friend may be in a position to influence that when it comes to the next generation of ICBM that this country will procure. I hope that she will consider that.

I move on from Trident to Typhoon, of which we are all immensely proud. I suggest to my noble friend that when she gets back to her desk, she asks a couple of questions about Typhoon's agility. It is a marvellously agile aircraft. I do not know whether she is familiar with the way that airmen measure agility. They do it in terms of the number of G-forces that a plane can sustain when it is being put through its most violent manoeuvres before it falls apart. We pay a great deal for the agility of Typhoon. I am not going to disclose the figure—I happen to have it at the back of my head, but I will not disclose the figure in your Lordships' House—but I suggest that when she inquires about the agility of Typhoon, simultaneously with acquiring the figure for its maximum agility, she acquires the figure for the maximum G-force that the human frame can sustain. She might be interested in comparing the two answers.

When she knows that the Saudis are buying 20 Typhoons—I forget how many it is, but that is not important—I suggest that she urges that the contract be made for them to buy them not from British Aerospace but from the Royal Air Force. That will release funds for the Royal Air Force to get a much more cost-effective aircraft. When the Minister talks about Typhoon, on which we are spending billions and billions of pounds, I suggest that she acquaints herself with radar cross-section, asks what the comparable radar cross-section is on modern American fighter planes, and sees what she is getting for our money.

There are many reasons for these misallocations of defence expenditure. Some are for political reasons in our country. I remember when I had to go on buying frigates from one shipyard many years ago. I do not mind telling your Lordships that that shipyard was Cammell Laird. Frigates were cheap in those days. A frigate cost £100 million. Frigates from Cammell Laird cost £120 million. I was made to buy them for political reasons—for employment policy and regional policy—all of which were very good and noble things but which should have been charges not on the defence vote, but on the department of employment's vote or the department of the environment's vote for regional policy. I very much hope that my noble friend will screw her courage to the sticking place, although it will be very difficult. I failed, so I shall not be too censorious of her if she does not succeed, but I hope she will realise that she should fight against that.

The Minister will find my very last point to be about much the same sort of nonsense, in that she is required from time to time to buy some—I am trying to use politer language today—Euroslobbering make-work project such as the A400M, and I suggest that she acquaints herself with all the reasons why it is preposterous and totally unnecessary. I hope very much that she will put all her energy behind getting the fifth C-17, which we were promised I think a year and a half ago but which has yet to appear, and which is the single most necessary and urgent ingredient in defence expenditure.


Caroline Taylor
Posted on 23 Nov 2007 12:46 pm (Report this annotation)

I agree with Lord Gilbert that the secretary of state should concentrate on one role only, it is better to be effective in one role than be ineffective by doing both.

The secretary of state i find insincere when it comes to the armed forces and i will continue to fight for our basic civil rights as dependants of forces personnel.

We are not second rate citizens but people who support and keep those fighting for their country going and without our support and presence the personnel wouldn't be able to do what they do. That surely comes with a price!

Caroline Taylor
Posted on 23 Nov 2007 12:51 pm (Report this annotation)

The government should stop going round the houses and face facts, our armed forces are becoming more and more ineffective and this is due to lack of support and financial support from the government. No excuses, they say they are picking up the pieces from previous leadership, well this may be the case but let's be honest how long has this government had to make a difference. I speak as I find it and the government should do the same, my words are not spoken without truth and without experience. I have grown up within the service community and have seen the decay within the service and it's community. This is a failing of years of oversight...... Let's not forget that!