Armed Forces

– in the House of Lords at 4:24 pm on 24th November 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Taylor of Bolton Baroness Taylor of Bolton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (International Defence and Security), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (International Defence and Security) (also in Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, this debate is very timely and will be welcomed by Members on all sides of the House. Recently, we have been paying tribute, as we always do at this time of year, to those who have been killed or injured in action. This year, our time of remembrance was especially poignant as we marked the 90th anniversary of the Armistice and remembered the sacrifices made in conflicts from 1914 to the present day. It is not an exaggeration to say that the freedoms that we enjoy were bought at a very high price. It is right that as a nation we reflect on what our predecessors achieved for our sake. It is also important to reflect on the sacrifices that the brave men and women of our Armed Forces continue to make in order to defend our vital national interests. Some have paid the ultimate price, even very recently. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude and offer our deepest condolences to their families.

There can be no doubt that the British Armed Forces are working extremely hard. Ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that they are operating at a high tempo. On a daily basis they demonstrate their courage, dedication and professionalism. They are stretched but, as the chiefs have said, the situation is manageable. In such times, the nation and the Government have a duty to offer more than just warm words. The demands that we impose on our Armed Forces are unique and we must ensure that they receive the support and recognition that they deserve.

The national recognition study, which the Government commissioned and which reported earlier this year, highlighted ways in which the country could do more to show its appreciation. I am glad that it has caught the imagination of the public. Since its publication, we have seen the nation doing more to celebrate and honour our Armed Forces. Only last week, large crowds lined the streets of Colchester to welcome back 16 Air Assault Brigade. That is not a unique occurrence, but it is one that I hope will continue. It is an appropriate form of recognition, which I would like to see in more towns and cities around the country.

While recognition is important, we must ensure that our service men and women, their families and those who have left the services get the support that they need and merit. That is why this Government launched the service personnel Command Paper in July this year. This set out for the first time ever the nation's commitment to the Armed Forces constituency, which numbers around 10 million people. Cross-government, some 40 initiatives are being taken forward and are starting to deliver. For example, we expect the first payments doubling the compensation lump sum to be made before the end of this year and we have already extended eligibility for the affordable housing programme in England for a further 12 months post-discharge. These and other initiatives will ensure that those who serve their country are not disadvantaged by virtue of what they do or the circumstances of their work and that, where necessary, they are given special treatment.

This is not all jam tomorrow. We have already done much across the board to improve the lot of our service personnel. Pay has been going up above inflation for the past two years. In February, we accepted the Armed Forces Pay Review Body's recommendation of a 2.6 per cent pay rise for all service men and women—among the best in the public sector. This award builds on last year's increase of 3.3 per cent—also the highest in the public sector. The 2007 award included a 9.4 per cent pay increase for some 13,000 of the most junior trained service personnel. It should be remembered that this is just basic pay; it does not include the free medical care, subsidised accommodation, food and a range of allowances on top of the basic salary. We have also introduced a wide-ranging operational welfare package. It includes more free calls for those on the front line so that they can stay in touch with people at home, free internet access, free post and council tax rebates, to name just a few.

We recognise that accommodation is a key concern for personnel. Decades of underinvestment have left some service accommodation in poor condition, but that is something that we are putting right. In the next 10 years, we will be spending £8.4 billion in that area alone. Over the past seven years, the MoD has upgraded around 13,000 family homes to the top standard. I am pleased to say that by the end of this year there will no longer be any service families living in accommodation at the lowest tier of standards. We are also improving single living accommodation. Some 30,000 new or improved bed spaces have already been delivered. A further investment of £1.7 billion will be made in the next decade.

Recently opened improvements at Catterick demonstrate the level of accommodation that we are putting in place. In Catterick—the Army's largest garrison—1,800 of the soldiers from 4 Mechanised Brigade now have their own en suite rooms. Since 2002, some 2,800 new bedrooms have been completed as part of the £330 million programme to develop the super-garrison. The MoD is also building a physiotherapy centre, dining facilities, a sport and leisure centre and swimming pool, as well as redeveloping Catterick town centre under a major private finance initiative contract.

I will take this opportunity to give noble Lords an update on Wellington Barracks, an issue that has been raised with me on the Floor of the House. I have acknowledged that the barracks are in need of improvement, but plans are being developed to do everything possible to bring such improvements about. Work is already in hand to improve the standard of the accommodation, with showers being refurbished, junior ranks' communal areas being redecorated and site-wide heating repairs and upgrades. Additionally, a band rehearsal block is being built to replace facilities that were lost with the disposal of Chelsea Barracks. In total, it is anticipated that over £10 million will be spent on making improvements at Wellington Barracks over the next two years.

However, we do not only focus on the accommodation that the MoD provides. We are also improving access to the property ladder for service personnel and those leaving the forces. Next year, we expect to launch a £20 million pilot scheme to promote home ownership. These are some of the things that we are doing in that area.

Those who put themselves in harm's way on our behalf must be assured that if they need medical attention it is of the best quality possible, both on operations and here in the UK. In Afghanistan, our forces have access to world-standard care provided at Camp Bastion—some colleagues will have seen that facility. There is a deployed hospital with all the associated support elements, including emergency medicine, primary surgery, an intensive care unit, medium and low-dependency nursing care beds and diagnostic support, including a CT scanner. The skills that medical professionals pick up in that field hospital are proving extremely beneficial; medical staff return to work in the UK with valuable experience. As well as that centre, additional facilities are deployed at local and unit levels to provide front-line medical support as well as an airborne evacuation in-theatre capability.

Here in the UK, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust is now recognised as one of the best in the world for military medical attention. The military ward within the Birmingham New Hospital will ensure that service casualties continue to receive the same excellent level of care but in the greater privacy of single-bedded and four-bedded rooms, which all patients in that hospital will enjoy.

The inspirational recoveries made by our injured personnel show the incredible spirit and determination of those individuals and what can be achieved with the right support. That is why we are now investing a further £24 million to maintain and enhance the first-class facilities that we have at Headley Court and why we are also working to improve regional and primary care rehabilitation facilities across the UK. However, it is obvious that our most urgent responsibility is to those on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why we are spending billions of pounds on new and improved equipment, both for the short and the long terms.

Of course, money alone does not give the full picture, but in the past three years we have delivered more than £10 billion-worth of equipment to the Armed Forces, £4.5 billion of it in the past financial year. I think that these figures demonstrate how seriously we take equipping those on the front line. As a result, our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are now better equipped than ever before, both for their own protection and for carrying out their missions. Commanders on the ground have told me first-hand that they have never had so much good-quality kit. However, if you asked any commander if he would like more, he would probably say yes, just as any Minister would always want more for their department. None the less, that does not mean that commanders are short of what they need to achieve their objectives.

When things go wrong—as they will in an operational situations—questions are asked. Obviously, the Snatch Land Rover has come under a lot of scrutiny, so I want to say a few words about this vehicle. The nub of the issue is that commanders need a wide variety of vehicles. Sometimes, for certain tasks, a light, manoeuvrable and/or low-profile vehicle may be the most suitable. What is most important is that commanders on the ground have access to a range of vehicles. It is their prerogative, not ours, to choose the most appropriate vehicle for any given task; we cannot second-guess what they should be doing. We have done a great deal to ensure that commanders have a variety of vehicles at their disposal—vehicles that provide varying degrees of protection, mobility and firepower. Although we have invested heavily in personal protection vehicles, there will still be situations when commanders use Snatch as part of their mixed force. The Chief of the General Staff said recently:

"There has always been and there remains a requirement for a small, agile vehicle to get to some of the places both in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the larger and protected vehicles, like Warrior, Bulldog and Mastiff, can't get to ... If there was a better vehicle, a smaller vehicle, out there that we could get our hands on quickly, or could have got our hands on quickly, we would do so or would have done so".

That is a very clear statement of the need for that vehicle in some circumstances.

We are spending more than £30 million to upgrade all our Snatch vehicles on operations to the Snatch Vixen, which provides the same level of manoeuvrability with increased protection. These modifications, developed in response to operational pressures, will give the Snatch Vixen the highest levels of protection for its size and weight class compared with other vehicles out there on the market. However, we realise that the new generation of heavily armoured vehicles is also proving very useful and, indeed, vital. Therefore, last month we announced an extra 700 vehicles to further improve the safety of our people in theatre.

Although we are investing billions of pounds in equipment for both the short and the long terms, there are those who still argue that we are not providing the right kit. Sadly, there have been casualties and each death is a huge loss. Obviously, it is right that independent authorities look into every death in an endeavour to avoid such events in the future. If bad practice or policy is apparent, we will change it. I hope that the investment that I have mentioned, and the reports from commanders that I have quoted from, put these issues in proper context.

I am not suggesting—and nobody in the Ministry of Defence would suggest—that there is no more work to be done. We always want to improve our kit, our vehicles and the overall service that we provide. We are, at the moment, in the process of finding more helicopters from our allies and getting them to the front line as quickly as possible. The UK-French helicopter initiative, launched in May, has already brought several countries to the table to secure funds and to increase our helicopter capability. So far, Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Norway are all helping in this respect and the fund currently stands at €20 million. In response to the initiative, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Ukraine have offered helicopters for Afghanistan, provided that they can secure funding for essential refurbishment, the equipment that is needed and the training that would allow those helicopters to be deployed.

I hope that noble Lords will accept that the Ministry of Defence is committed to providing the best possible support for the Armed Forces, whether at home or on operations overseas. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the work that they do on a daily basis, because that work is to maintain our security. Our men and women on current military operations are showing exactly the same kind of steel and resolve that their forebears had, so it is right that, this month, when we honour the memory of those who protected us in the past, we should also honour and acknowledge those who protect us today. Part of what we are doing is committing ourselves to ensuring that service personnel, their families and veterans get the recognition and support that they deserve. The recognition study and the Command Paper have been significant steps forward in clarifying that relationship and in enhancing the entitlement of those in the Armed Forces. I therefore believe that real progress is being made and hope that we can continue to improve the lot of those to whom we owe so much. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of matters relating to Her Majesty's Armed Forces and the service personnel Command Paper (Cm 7424).—(Baroness Taylor of Bolton.)

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Shadow Minister, Defence 4:42 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, I join the Minister in paying tribute to our Armed Forces who are serving on our behalf, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to their families who support them. I also join the Minister in paying tribute to those who have given their lives for this country in earlier wars and campaigns. I thank the Minister for facilitating this long-awaited debate, which is, I am sure, welcomed by all sides of the House.

In opening this debate, the Minister commended to the House the White Paper, The Nation's Commitment: Cross-Government Support to our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans. This side of the House welcomed much of the White Paper, in particular the admission that the bureaucratic process, as a whole, operates to the frustration of service families, and of where that process can be adjusted. However, real enthusiasm escapes me for three main reasons. First, parliamentary debate about the Armed Forces needs to go much deeper and wider than the matters addressed in the White Paper. My second ground for concern is scepticism, borne of experience, over the extent to which, and how soon, the Government will succeed in bringing about their promised changes in the working of the bureaucratic machine. My third reservation relates to the general tone of the document. While it explicitly recognises, at several points, the human dimension of the sacrifices which our soldiers, sailors and airmen are expected to make in the course of their duties, it seems to regard what needs to be done as largely mechanical matters of process, and not matters of people talking to, listening to and helping others.

I found no real acknowledgement of the key role that voluntary organisations such as The Royal British Legion, SAFA, the Army Families Federation and the War Widows' Association can and do make in supporting veterans and families. The only recognition that they receive is acknowledgement in the list of consultees at the end. It is likewise for the old comrades' associations, to use a generic term, which do so much to help with welfare issues.

A further curiosity of the wording of the White Paper is that, as far as I can see, it does not refer at any point to the military covenant, yet, in ordinary conversation and debate, that phrase encapsulates the subject matter of the White Paper. I was therefore very pleased to hear the Secretary of State, giving evidence recently to the Defence Committee in the other place, use precisely the phrase "the military covenant" in answering a question on the matter from my honourable friend Bernard Jenkin. The commitment that the Minister then gave was that the military covenant is a vital part of the whole deal. That is how it is rightly perceived by my right honourable friend David Cameron, and that is why he appointed a commission to advise him on precisely that brief. I commend that commission for its work and its interim report entitled, Restoring the Covenant.

There must be an acceptance by government of a duty of care and support for those willing to die and be injured, often with life-changing injuries, on behalf of their country. That was recognised three centuries ago by the Duke of Marlborough. He told this House after his victory at Blenheim that the best way to celebrate was to do right by the soldiers who fought so bravely with him.

With that in mind, I shall concentrate on three points that are very relevant to the military covenant and morale. First, for the past few years, I have been raising in this House the totally unsatisfactory position of the air bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each time, Ministers gave me assurances that something would be done, but when I speak to troops, which I do quite often, I am told that that is not the case. The air bridge problems are a continuing cause of real resentment for those service men and women travelling to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. I make no apology for returning to that again today, as it is having a serious effect on morale.

New figures show that so far this year, only 56 per cent of flights returning from Afghanistan have been on time or delayed by less than an hour. Moreover, the number of flights delayed by six hours or more has increased to 17 per cent. Given that new figures from the Military Covenant Commission show that only 47 per cent of the fleet is fit for purpose, perhaps flight delays are not surprising. The Royal Air Force's fleet is, on the whole, very old, so delays are not always its fault.

In America, leave starts at one minute past midnight the day after service personnel have arrived at their destination. In this country, however, leave starts when waiting for the flight home. Here, as the Chief of the General Staff's briefing team reports, plane delays, sometimes as long as 24 hours, mean that loss of leave is still widespread. Service personnel get only two weeks' leave during their six months in theatre, so that precious time with their family and friends must be protected as a very high priority. It is astonishing, therefore, that this seems impossible to achieve. What plans do the Government have at this time to improve the air bridge and what is the latest news on the A400M?

The sending of unsolicited parcels to service personnel from well-meaning members of the public should be an occasion for good cheer. They are signs of gratitude and a mark that those in Afghanistan and Iraq are not only in the minds of their family but also of those members of the general public who acknowledge their debt to the Armed Forces. However, because of the strain these parcels put on the air bridge, the Ministry of Defence has decided that this practice must cease. Do the Government understand what a damaging impact this will have on morale?

The second grievance that is fully justified is the sub-standard housing for service men and women and their families. Real resentment at the incompetence and lack of motivation of MHS, the company responsible for service accommodation, is apparent at many units I have visited. The strength of feeling is considerable. There is little confidence in the approach of MHS or in its service. In his recent report, the CGS said that he was,

"hugely irritated by the initial contract delivery standards of MHS".

He went on to acknowledge that efforts are being made to improve these standards. Can the Minister assure us that MHS is now focusing sustained attention on improving its performance and customer satisfaction?

A few weeks ago the Lords Defence Group visited Wellington Barracks. To say that we were all shocked by what we saw is an understatement. It is quite wrong that service men and women are forced to accept these very sub-standard living conditions. I was grateful to hear the Minister's assurance in her opening speech that there are going to be considerable improvements to Wellington Barracks. Admiral Timothy Laurence, Chief Executive of Defence Estates, recently spoke to the Lords Defence Group. I was heartened by his address and I am confident that he will get a grip on the problems of service accommodation. Will the Minister assure us that further instalments of payments for Chelsea Barracks are secure and have been ring-fenced, as we were told they would be, for defence accommodation?

Thirdly, I am concerned at the premature voluntary retirement of too many service men and women in all three services, particularly middle-ranking officers and NCOs who we can ill afford to lose. One area for downward adjustment of spending lies in programmes for the future provision of technologically advanced kit. I will not venture into that today but of one thing I am certain: our most important resource, our most valuable capability, is our people and the Government must stop short-changing them. It is well recognised today that through-life capability management is a key objective where kit is concerned. The same should and must apply to the capability that is our people. The White Paper and the interim report of our covenant commission are the necessary first steps to that end.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs 4:55 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome the White Paper. My party, like the others, has done considerable work and published on the military covenant and support for our Armed Forces, and there is a great deal of common ground in this White Paper with which we can all agree—provided that it is fully implemented.

We are all concerned about the degree of overstretch from which our Armed Forces have been suffering through heavy commitments over the past few years—"running hot", as Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman in the other place, wrote in an early paper, Our Nation's Duty, published in December last year. The strains on our forces, on their families, on reserves called up far more frequently than anticipated and on our equipment—and thus on the military covenant as such—have been acute. After the cuts which the Conservative Government made after 1990, thinking that we could cut back on our Armed Forces post the end of the Cold War, when I heard a Minister say in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that cuts in the probation services were going to affect not the front line but merely the tail, I was reminded of the problems we got into with Front Line First, which cut Defence Medical Services most sharply, from which we have been suffering since.

We have had wars of choice for the past 10 years—what John Kampfner unkindly called "Blair's Wars" and what the White Paper refers to as using our forces for good—in Kosovo, where there was a major operation in which we were prepared to commit almost half our effective army; in Sierra Leone, where a small commitment did a world of good; in Afghanistan, a necessary commitment though badly delayed with all that time lost between 2000 and 2006 which has made the reconstruction of the economy, society and state so much more difficult; and, of course, in Iraq, which my party strongly opposed and which thankfully we will complete, we hope, within the next six months. Perhaps the Minister will tell us a little about the prospects for completing the status of forces agreement in Iraq and how that will affect the remaining months that our forces will stay in Basra. I have not yet read that the status of forces agreement has been completed. As a result, we have had no spare capacity to contribute to multilateral forces in central Africa, in the Congo, in the Great Lakes region, in Sudan and Chad, or to do as much as we would have liked to train and provide logistical support for troops from African states in that very damaged continent.

A range of wider issues follow from this: where should we commit to conflicts, under what circumstances, with whom and with what equipment? We should be addressing what we think are the likeliest sorts of conflicts, whether high-level conflicts between states of the kind which led to the intervention in Iraq or—I dread the thought—potential operations against Iran, or the Petersburg tasks of separation of combatants, peace enforcement, restoration of order, nation-building and reconstruction. We need different kinds of equipment and training for these actions. For interstate war we need aircraft carriers, highly capable piloted aircraft and perhaps even a new nuclear deterrent. For state-building and peace enforcement we need good armoured vehicles, personal armour, helicopters and pilotless drones.

In all these we pursue closer co-operation with the armed forces of other states, which we need to pursue more actively and, I suggest, discuss more openly with Parliament. Do we pursue primarily continuing partnership with the United States, with its much larger armed forces with a rather different set of military doctrines, or more the French, the Dutch, the Danish and the Canadians, with whom we find ourselves operating in Helmand and elsewhere? I welcome the report of the UK-French helicopter initiative. That seems very much the kind of thing that we should be doing.

Even peace enforcement now is increasingly hard fought. We are up against asymmetrical warfare with improvised explosive devices, grenade launchers and the like and, as in Afghanistan, we take heavy casualties. Welcome improvements in medical care and in evacuating the wounded mean that fewer die, but more return to the United Kingdom severely injured and often permanently disabled. The White Paper notes that, since 2001, 350 personnel have been killed, but more than 2,000 have been seriously injured or wounded, creating a new generation of long-term disabled ex-service men and women. We welcome the proposals for the Armed Forces compensation scheme. We welcome the extension of Selly Oak to house a separate military ward, and the further investment in Headley Court. We very much welcome what the White Paper says about mental health services for returning servicemen, veterans and Reserve Forces after active service. We look forward to hearing that these measures have been put in place.

I was glad to see the comment in the White Paper that the number of ex-servicemen who are rough sleepers has declined. I was talking some months ago in Bradford to soup-run organisers, who told me that there is still a higher proportion of ex-servicemen there and in some other northern cities than there is in London. There is still a lot to be done in looking after ex-servicemen who find that the adjustment to civilian life after active service is very difficult.

A lot of extra work is being done by service charities. I was at a concert in Bradford the weekend before last for the benefit of Help for Heroes, the excellent new charity that has raised a lot of money, particularly for Headley Court and for the badly wounded. However, as the White Paper remarks, the central responsibility lies with government—not just for the wounded, but for the families of servicemen, for their houses and for the educational needs of their children. It is good to hear about what is under way at Catterick. Last weekend I was in Richmond, talking to Liberal Democrat councillors who represent that area. They tell me that things are, without question, improving.

I have one question about paragraph 2.22, in which we are told that the provision of new housing for service-leavers is very important, and that the Government will give £400,000 for it. It seems a very small sum for a very large objective.

I note also the remarks about the 12,000 foreign and Commonwealth personnel in the UK Armed Forces—the Gurkhas, 3,000 Fijians, a substantial number from the Caribbean and so on. The question of earned citizenship, and of the earned citizenship of their partners and families, is being addressed in a much more satisfactory way. I recognise that the extent now to which we depend on people from Fiji and elsewhere reflects the difficulties we have in recruiting in our own cities from those pockets of deep, often second and third-generation unemployment. A period in the services would help to break the cycle of deprivation and underachievement there.

In terms of joined-up government, I find contradictions between the continuing emphasis on long-term service for all and the increasing dependence on partly trained Reserve Forces; and between the emphasis on the armed services providing education and training for people who have missed out elsewhere and the suggestion that a smaller proportion of people will pass through the services, each serving for a very long period. We are told that 40 per cent of other ranks now serve for 10 years or more, often acquiring growing family commitments and risking losing touch with civilian life.

The Americans have an exemplary record of using their services to provide education and training for the disadvantaged, including apprenticeships in practical skills, from computing to mechanical engineering. We support the remission of tuition fees after six years' service; perhaps it should be a little less. We should perhaps encourage shorter term service to help citizenship engagement, which is dear to the Prime Minister's heart but not mentioned in this White Paper. That would give a larger throughput of young volunteers with experience of military service for their country. The citizenship agenda ought to be more explicitly addressed in this White Paper. We have a reference to veterans' day. Some of us feel that Remembrance Day is the closest thing we have to a national day and that it is time to rethink and reshape it. I was sorry that, for example, no recently returned active servicemen marched past the Cenotaph on 9 November and that cadet forces, the future of our services, were at the back of the march, not the front.

I would like to see much more said about the role of the Reserve Forces, down now to fewer than 40,000 when we are told that 20,000 have served in operations in the past 10 years. It is time for a much wider debate on the future of our Reserve Forces since they have become so much more actively used in that time, with their role not only in supporting operations abroad but in assistance to civil powers at home—flooding, foot and mouth, BSE or a potential pandemic—and the wider role of the cadet forces in providing a sense of personal worth and self-respect to young teenage males in our cities. Reserve Forces have a particular value in likely operations in Africa and other areas where weak or failing states require assistance in state-building. Civil military skills are then particularly useful, and I note that almost all the armed services' civil military units in the States are drawn from its National Guard, for similar reasons.

My much lamented colleague Lord Garden used to say that we needed to take some hard decisions regarding British defence that we were ducking. It is now 10 years since the 1998 strategic review under the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, from whom I look forward to hearing. It was an excellent White Paper, even though it left out the multilateral European dimension, which the Prime Minister launched at St Malo a few months later. Lord Garden would also say that no Government would be likely to invest sufficient additional spending in defence to provide the full range of equipment and specialist units needed to meet all contingencies. We therefore have to choose. We have seen the emergence of a huge overhang in future defence procurement in which the future commitments clearly cannot be met within the existing budget, with delays in the future FRES and cutbacks and delays in helicopter orders, while reinforcing the joint combat aircraft and nuclear deterrent investment.

My party produced a security paper last year that came to the conclusion that:

"The defence budget crunch, combined with doubts over when and how Britain should play a role in expeditionary deployments, is ample evidence", that:

"Britain must take a long hard look at whether we can continue ... to design our armed forces as an almost miniature version of the American military with a wide variety of military platforms".

Sir Menzies Campbell, in a paper published two months ago, said that we need a debate nationally about our political objectives. He suggested that we cannot carry on regardless, trying to maintain all our military objectives and commitments, but that we lack the possibility, particularly now that we are in a recession, of doing properly everything we are committed to do because of the immense additional funding that that would require. He suggests that we may need to focus rather more on the wars of today and to prioritise expeditionary and peacekeeping missions over state-on-state or full spectrum war-fighting capabilities, which would see,

"prioritisation of armoured vehicles, helicopters, strategic lift"— about which the noble Lord, Lord Astor, has spoken—

"and intelligence gathering technology over large scale procurement such as fighter jets, aircraft carriers, nuclear capabilities and submarines".

That, I suggest, is the wider context that lies behind the welcome Armed Forces welfare questions that this paper covers.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench 5:09 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity that this debate gives us to discuss a number of very important issues and I congratulate the Minister on securing it.

It is to the Government's credit that at long last, in Command Paper 7424, they have taken more seriously than heretofore the importance of giving special consideration to members and former members of the Armed Forces and their families. I hope that all this is not just inspired by the serious and extensive nature of the operations on which this Government have embarked in wars of choice. I say extensive because, as noble Lords will recognise, our Armed Forces have been involved continuously in demanding operations for some years, longer than the years of conflict in the two World Wars. Those two wars were not "wars of choice", rather they were "wars of national survival". Moreover, in both wars, after much trial and tribulations, a successful end was in view before hostilities ended. Would that the same could be said with equal confidence about Afghanistan; and it has taken us too long time to reach the endgame in Iraq, which I sincerely hope that we have. All three services face a demanding future of operations.

So let us all welcome the renewed government concern and the emphasis, in the Minister's own words, on providing unashamedly special treatment for servicemen and women who have endured most in the course of duty, perhaps suffering terrible physical and mental injuries. But I hope we shall not find ourselves back in the world of Rudyard Kipling, who wrote of Tommy Atkins:

"For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!'But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot".

The number of promises and undertakings by government in Command Paper 7424 is most striking. It is extremely comprehensive. It covers a wide field of interest for serving and retired personnel and their families. It involves not only other government departments but the devolved Administrations as well. I welcome this attempt to deal with service issues on a nationwide basis. But noble Lords will be aware that this is no longer the "default" position when dealing with matters affecting the Armed Forces and veterans. Only after a considerable battle with the Ministry of Justice, and praying Command Paper 7424 in aid, was the Ministry of Justice prepared to set up a dedicated war pensions and Armed Forces compensation chamber in the new first-tier tribunal to take on the work of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal, in England and Wales, when that was abolished. Meanwhile, pensions appeal tribunals in Scotland and Northern Ireland, being devolved matters, have not been abolished.

Devolution, whatever its benefits, should not place the Armed Forces and dependants in such a confusing no man's land of responsibility for looking after their interests. Similar problems have arisen with regard to the management and oversight of the services' non-public funds, funds that have enjoyed a charitable status since the days of Henry VIII, because charity matters are now another devolved issue. Only after much persuasion were the Government prepared to add,

"the promotion of the efficiency of the armed forces of the Crown", to the Charities Act 2006. But in the Scottish equivalent charities legislation, the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005, there is no mention of the Armed Forces at all. I believe that the Government and the devolved Administrations should pay greater attention to avoiding anomalies in the treatment of the Armed Forces. Wherever possible they should agree that the support they provide for the forces and dependants should be equal and where possible provided nationally. After all, the Armed Forces fight for the whole country and not separate regions within it. We must at all costs avoid some form of postcode lottery when dealing with the Armed Forces, veterans and their dependants. As Command Paper 7424 repeatedly emphasises, they must be treated fairly.

One of the most striking things when reading through the White Paper is the number of undertakings to do this or that to help and support individuals and families. Chapter 2 is headed "What We Will Do", and this promise is repeated paragraph after paragraph throughout that chapter. Maybe it should be characterised as "Yes we can". Chapter 3 covers, in the words of the chapter heading,

"What We Have Already Done".

However, a number of ongoing promises have yet to be delivered in full or made more widely known to the potential beneficiaries. I take the view that it is not done until it is done. So these issues need to be considered along with all the other promises of delivery.

Wherever there is a will, however, there needs to be an assured way of demonstrating that it has been achieved, and how. So I was pleased to note that there are to be arrangements to make sure of delivery. These say that the Cabinet Office will provide the chair and secretariat and that there will be wide representation on the so-called external reference group. This group will be required to report annually to the Prime Minister and to the Defence Secretary and its report will be published. While that is in many ways a sound intention, I think that it would be even better if the chair was departmentally independent. I invite the Government to consider the advantages that this would bring in giving greater confidence that the actions are properly recorded and that there is no fudging or spins put in the annual reports.

I am also concerned that there appear to be no types of sanction that might be imposed if delivery is not achieved or falls behind. There needs to be a method of keeping action rolling forward and not allowing promised improvements to wither because "funds were not available" or "other more pressing matters unfortunately intervened". When setting up the Armed Forces chamber in the new first-tier tribunal, the Ministry of Justice did agree to set up a steering group with an independent chair. This example should be followed for the Command Paper 7424 oversight.

Long experience shows—without wishing to bring a too-discordant note to this debate—that promises of government action have a habit of successfully grabbing the initiating headlines but then running out of steam and, in all too short a time, disappearing from sight. Perhaps I may remind the House of just a couple such instances in the past decade or so. Research into Gulf War illness arising from the exposure of service personnel to organophosphate spray and the use of NAPS tablets to protect them from chemical attack was, after drifting in the 1990s, given top priority by the incoming Government in 1997. Yet now, almost another 11 years on, they have failed to reach a long overdue satisfactory conclusion and closure to this issue. Improvements to service accommodation have repeatedly been promised but, as we heard this afternoon, delivery has at times been far too slow and often unsatisfactory. PFIs have also had mixed success, to the disappointment and disadvantage of service personnel.

So I again urge the Government to underwrite their commitments in the White Paper by strengthening their intentions of ensuring "delivery". They should appoint a chair independent of government—a senior retired officer. That would give the services confidence that their interests are being taken seriously. Whoever is to chair, they must be given sufficient clout to help ensure that government departments keep up to the mark.

Finally, as no doubt there will be occasions when parliamentarians and others wish to question the Government on progress, or lack of progress, on Command Paper 7424's promises, how do the Government see those questions being answered? Will it be for the department concerned, for example on a health question; or will it be for the Cabinet Office Minister to handle all such questions? Clarity now on how these matters are to be dealt with would help to ensure that questions are not batted from one department to another with no sign of a satisfactory response. The confidence—or otherwise—that Armed Forces personnel, veterans and dependants have in this important government initiative will rest heavily on delivery and on how the Government deal with questions of substance about progress.

Photo of Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Lord Robertson of Port Ellen Labour 5:20 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate and the White Paper on which it is based. With our troops engaged in armed conflict in two major theatres, it is absolutely right that we regularly look at all the issues concerning them. This applies not only to their physical and equipment needs, which are mightily important, but to the political and military background to what is happening and how we can get our Armed Forces back to their regular rhythm. That is the way in which I should like to shape my few remarks today.

With other noble Lords, I pay tribute to those engaged in the present conflict. There are thousands of members of our forces, and the civilians who support them, now engaged in perilous activity in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Many more are still engaged in other military activity at home and abroad, and they, too, should not be forgotten as we thank those who lay their lives and limbs on the line for our freedom. We are amazingly lucky to have such people to serve us and this country. They have a uniquely British spirit and tenacity, as well as genuine and admirable courage and professionalism, which should and does make us all deeply proud of them.

As honorary colonel of the London Scottish, a component part of the London Regiment and closely connected to the Scots Guards, I have met many of the ordinary, yet extraordinary, members of the Territorial Army who have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We are now using our Reserve Forces much more than ever in the past. The reroling of the Territorial Army following the Strategic Defence Review has been one of the great successes. My admiration of those with whom I have come into contact and of their carrying out with great success what we expect them to do knows no bounds. We owe all who serve in the Armed Forces a great deal, and we have a responsibility to ensure that they are well looked after, have the right equipment to do the job, and stay as safe as they can be in a war zone.

In many fields, huge improvements have been made to the conditions of those who serve us. My noble friend Lady Taylor has this evening outlined many of the improvements that have taken place. I pay tribute to her work during the period in which she has been in the Ministry of Defence. I am glad that the Prime Minister kept her there, because her expertise and experience will be of great use in the future. I know that all John Hutton's predecessors as Secretary of State—Geoff Hoon, John Reid and Des Browne—have felt deeply and personally about the sacrifices that we regularly ask for, and have been intent on doing the right thing by our troops. I pay tribute to their decisions and the changes that have been made. I know that John Hutton, who has been a friend and long-time colleague, will be an outstanding holder of the office.

I am impressed by the command document and the way in which it focuses on improving so many areas of welfare. Having been a Secretary of State for Defence and struggled with the Treasury and other government departments on some of these very same issues a decade ago, I recognise that we have made serious progress. I notice that my former deputy, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, is with us in the Chamber. He will remember our fights with certain people across the road, who have now changed their mind substantially, I am glad to say.

The top-level tariffs in the Armed Forces compensation scheme have been doubled. Compensation is much more generous than it has been, although it in no way compensates for the terrible tragedies that have befallen some people. Access to adapted social housing is provided for more seriously injured people. Priority access is given to other social housing. Free additional education up to first-degree level is offered to service leavers after six years of service, which follows on an idea in the Strategic Defence Review which we were never able to deliver at the time. In terms of the National Health Service, childcare provision, the disadvantage in accessing school places and the improvements in Defence Medical Services, the Government have a lot to be proud of, even if some issues will continue to need attention.

As other noble Lords have done, I also pay tribute to the service charities because they do a huge amount of work. SSAFA, the British Legion and others are actively engaged in the detailed work so often required to deal with the many people who have been in active service and who are just leaving. I am a trustee of the British Forces Foundation, an organisation founded by Mr Jim Davidson, the comedian and Conservative—these are mutually exclusive at times. Over the years he has delivered entertainment by himself and by his friends in show business. It has been hugely successful. The entertainment provided to our troops, especially in-theatre, is very valuable indeed for building morale. For this reason I am pleased to assist the British Forces Foundation.

All of us who have served in the greatest office of state in the Ministry of Defence know those daily life-and-death decisions which devolve down to the ordinary soldier, sailor, airman and airwoman. No Defence Minister I have ever met has been immune from the heavy, ever present burden carried for ensuring that as much as possible is done, as often as possible and in as many circumstances as possible, to ensure that our people are both effective and safe. As in any war, there will be mistakes, shortages and missing equipment. There will also be coroners who will generalise on the particular, often well after the event and usually long after the lessons have been learned.

The pace of conflict today is so swift that urgent operational requirements are now driving the whole equipment budget. That is because requirements are often only seen on the battlefield and as circumstances alter and become evident. The old military saying that no plan survives the first engagement with the enemy is as true today as it was in the past. That is why urgent operational requirements have amounted to £3.6 billion since the beginning of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These come from outside the stated defence budget. Of these, 85 per cent are related to force protection. The Government are doing the right thing in making sure that our forces are protected.

Every injury caused by the wrong kit is a singular tragedy but they often arise in more complex situations than the black and white world of 20/20 vision. Three hundred and one members of our Armed Forces have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since hostilities began. Anyone who saw the BBC television programme two weeks ago called "The Fallen", which itemised every single one of those of our troops who has perished and the impact that it has had on their close families and friends, will understand just how tragic each one of these casualties is. We mourn each and every one of them. We also remember the many others who have come home with injuries, both physical and mental. Their welfare must continue to be a priority.

I spoke earlier about the political and diplomatic backdrop to the fighting in both theatres. There will be no safe return of our troops until this has been addressed and a political outcome obtained and settled. As Secretary-General of NATO, I had a lot to do with the decision that the alliance take on responsibility for that co-operative effort in post-Taliban Afghanistan called ISAF—the International Security and Assistance Force. I may have moved on from that post but my responsibility and my passion has in no way diminished.

What we are doing in Afghanistan today is defending this country. That is what it is about—defending our country, our liberties and our way of life. That fact is all too often ignored, misunderstood, even dismissed, but it is true none the less. Threats to our country no longer lie at our national frontiers; they germinate in failed and weak states such as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and, as we are now seeing every day, Somalia. They grow deadly tentacles which spread out from these failed states into our own streets, with the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground, the attacks on the twin towers or on the trains in Madrid or to the US embassy in Nairobi, to Istanbul, to Bali and even to Glasgow Airport and London's Haymarket. So if the Taliban were to beat NATO, or the nations of NATO were to allow it to be defeated, then the forces of darkness—al-Qaeda and its like—would stop for only a very brief moment to congratulate themselves on defeating the greatest defence alliance that the world has known, and then they will be back in our midst.

That is why our troops fight in Helmand province; it is why so many have died and been injured, why so many others take the risks with us—the Canadians most notably—and why their sacrifices matter to every citizen of this country. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, we are facing a financial crisis, not just in this but in every country. Inevitably, that means that there will not be extra money for defence or, indeed, for pretty well any other public services. We can therefore no longer talk in terms of notional expenditure that we want to see spent on our Armed Forces and on defence; we have to make better decisions about the money that we already spend. That will mean tough decisions for those who have responsibility for making the recommendations. No party in this country will be able to outbid another in terms of the money it would spend on defence because it simply will not be believed. So each party has to make its recommendations within the envelope that exists at the moment or even one that might conceivably shrink in the future.

There is much more that I would say about the dilemmas facing the NATO nations in Afghanistan if there were more time. Some of that will be contained in the interim report of the IPPR's Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, which will be published on Thursday morning. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and I have co-'chaired this commission, which includes a wide range of distinguished experts and will give a number of pointers as to what needs to be done.

Let me give one example from our report. We believe that there should be a more regional approach to a solution in Afghanistan, which should and must include involving Iran in discussions. There must also be closer co-ordination, even control, of all the external assistance to the Government of Afghanistan. It was a great pity, bordering on a tragedy, that President Karzai vetoed the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, as the overseer of external assistance to Afghanistan. I hope that a search will continue for somebody of his calibre, experience and leadership qualities so that the people of Afghanistan can get a much better return from what is coming to them.

Let me add to this list regarding Afghanistan the view of a senior Army officer, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, whom I met at Edinburgh Airport last Thursday evening. He said that unless the issues of corruption and narcotics in Afghanistan are not gripped decisively and soon, we will not find a long-term solution to the encroaching influence of the Taliban.

Our troops are giving their all. More nations need to provide more troops and use them as fighting troops and not as beat policemen. Afghanistan needs the promised development cash as well, which it has been regularly promised but which has rarely been delivered. I remind the House that our troops, and all the troops serving outside Kabul, are part of provincial reconstruction teams. They were to provide security to those providing the reconstruction in schools, hospitals, industry and all the substitute activities for the growing of the poppy. The soldiers try, often at the expense of their own lives and limbs, to provide the security—but where is the reconstruction? Our fine fighting forces and those who support them, both in theatre and at home, are doing with magnificence what we demand of them. How much more important it is that we do what we, the leaders of the nations of the ordered world, have to do to let them come home with honour, with the job well done. That is our part of a solemn bargain.

Photo of Lord Lyell Lord Lyell Conservative 5:36 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for giving us the opportunity to discuss this particularly important subject today. Secondly, as noble Lords will see, I am a bit down the batting list. However, after the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, I shall be brief and restrict my remarks to what I have been able to see in this country as the secretary of the all-party House of Lords Defence Group.

I am grateful to the Minister for all that she said about Wellington Barracks. In this folder, which I managed to dig out in the dark of Angus as I left at half-past six this morning, I have the kind note that she sent me after our visit, dated 20 October. She mentioned the figure of £10 million to be spent on Wellington Barracks. She made one or two other comments in the note, which I shall spare her this evening, but I am sure that she and the Ministry are looking into the repairs. We are grateful for what is being carried out at Wellington Barracks. I am sure that the battalion there—I think that it is the Grenadier Guards—will be very pleased indeed.

I was delighted to hear what the Minister had to say about the Catterick Garrison and 4 Mechanised Brigade. She may know that my regiment and that of my noble and gallant father, the Scots Guards, will also be using Catterick as its home. It will be part of an armoured, mechanised battalion. I thank her for all the information that she gave on the improvements at Catterick, particularly as far as ongoing health is concerned—things like physiotherapy and conditioning for the young soldiers, not just the young recruits who are being trained there.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew may remember a visit that we paid to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham in March last year. My two colleagues and I were particularly impressed by the efforts being made at Selly Oak. We were also impressed by one or two small points, such as the refurbishment of accommodation for families who might wish to visit their sons or daughters, casualties at Selly Oak or in the Birmingham area, as well as single accommodation for young soldiers under treatment or consideration at Selly Oak. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and I, together with others from the House of Lords Defence Group, visited the University of Central England in Birmingham, which does enormous amounts of training for the military medics. We were grateful for what it is doing and for what the Minister said today about its work.

In June this year, the House of Lords Defence Group was lucky to visit Headley Court. All your Lordships would want to pay particular tribute to everything that was being done there, above all to the unbelievable spirit and outlook of the young servicemen, as well as some of the older ones. In particular, the younger ones thought, in the words of the late Group Captain Douglas Bader, "Think of what you can do tomorrow, not what happened yesterday". They and everybody else at Headley Court are doing just that.

As far as operations far and away are concerned, I have been able to study and read only what I find in the media or the newspapers. The noble Baroness referred to vehicle upgrading and to the Apache helicopter, about which I have recently been reading some mainly favourable reports. Will she and her department please take action and keep vigilant "this day", to cite two words used by the great Admiral Lord Nelson?

Also, will she please keep up to date and check every item of kit and weaponry to be used overseas that comes across her desk in the department each and every day? Will she be kind enough to confirm two small items to me, on which she may have written to me before? The GR7 and GR9 Harriers were at 800 and 801 Squadron at RNAS Yeovilton. I think that they now roost or are based at RAF Cottesmore. I understand that they are carrying out particularly intensive operations in theatre. I hope that she can confirm that the training, the equipment and the support that they get are up to date.

Will the noble Baroness also write to me and confirm that the budget will still be in place for the new version of the Joint Strike Fighter, which I think is called the F-35? The F-35A, the conventional version, is being well developed. The F-35B, which will be the successor to the Harrier vertical or short take-off and landing, is the first prototype that has flown and will soon be in the air, perhaps early next year. Can she confirm that to me? I understand that the F-35C, which will be the conventional carrier version, is still a year or two down the road. Will she write to me on that? I have a rather complicated query on an item of kit, but I will not disturb the noble Baroness about it this evening; I will let her department have my query on it.

I conclude by sending the thoughts of each and every one of us to the men and women who, as soldiers and young recruits—rather like my noble friends Lord Astor, Lord Glenarthur and I were all those years ago—are learning and taking the very best training that you can get anywhere. It is they whom we shall be supporting in future debates. I will take the gentle luxury of giving the support of all of us to what I call my commando—45 Commando—which is based in Angus. We are particularly proud of Colonel Morris and each and every one of them. We hope that they will come back safe and sound, having done a wonderful tour of duty. We send our support, our good wishes and our hopes to the personnel. I thank the noble Baroness for giving us the opportunity to discuss what is particularly important at this gap in the programme and for bringing it forward today.

Photo of Lord Burnett Lord Burnett Spokesperson in the Lords (Planning), Department for Communities and Local Government 5:44 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, it is entirely appropriate that the first photograph of a serviceman in the Command Paper is of a Royal Marine—the photograph is on page 7, in chapter 1, "The Context". He is, I believe, a member of the Armoured Support Group and was in the Royal Gallery the other day at the reception for serving members of the Armed Forces. He lost his legs as a result of an improvised explosive device. Such devices are a continuing and major hazard in Afghanistan. Another member of the crew of the vehicle was Marine Dale Gostick, who tragically lost his life.

There have been many unsung heroes in the Afghanistan conflict, but none more heroic and none more courageous than the members of the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group. They have had very little respite over the years of this conflict. They have been deployed with all the leading fighting formations. Their job is hazardous in the extreme and they have brought a new and effective dimension to our capability in this theatre of operations. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing profound gratitude and admiration to all the members of this unit.

I welcome the Command Paper, out of which arise a number of questions. First, will the Minister say what steps the Government are taking to ensure that there are opportunities for personnel severely wounded and disabled on active service to remain with their corps, regiments or units in administrative or clerical roles, if they wish to do so? Secondly, I emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, that the delays and inadequacies of the air bridge to Afghanistan and Iraq are causing major morale problems for service personnel and their families. It is imperative that this is sorted out without delay.

I was interested to read early in the paper that, as the Minister said, the Armed Forces constituency in total is in excess of 10 million people. It is reassuring, therefore, that no Government can afford to neglect the needs and requirements of those who serve our country with such courage and commitment. This paper is correct to state in paragraph 2.2:

"Service personnel and their families make a vital contribution to the whole of the United Kingdom".

As to the Armed Forces compensation scheme, I welcome the recent doubling of the lump sum payment. Are there proposals to increase the guaranteed income payment? Will the Minister confirm that the guaranteed income is free of tax and national insurance deductions? Will she also let me have by letter details of the categories of severity of injury and wounds relating to the lump sum payment and the index-linked annual payments?

The paper goes on to discuss education and training for service leavers. These provisions are welcome. I know that the Minister and noble Lords will agree that retiring sailors, Royal Marines, soldiers and airmen have great skills and qualities to offer the outside world. These personnel continue to be in much demand and I was delighted to read the statistic in paragraph 3.18 of the paper.

As to the commitment bonus or re-engagement premium, to whom do these payments apply? This includes their length of service and rank. Which units of the Armed Forces have the benefit of being able to take up the offer? I hear that the system is extremely complex and confusing. People do not understand the terms, which could be made simpler. How many people have taken up the commitment bonus so far and for how much longer will it last? Will the Minister also elaborate on the tax and national insurance status of these payments? It would be interesting to hear from her exactly what the conditions are for the longer separation allowance and how much is payable.

Right at the start—at paragraph 1.1—the Command Paper demonstrates the breadth of the operations in which our Armed Forces have been involved for over 20 years. It is a formidable list of challenges, all of which have been overcome. Most of those engagements have been dependent on our amphibious capability. Without that capability, we would lose much of our global influence. The key to a successful future defence strategy for the country must be not only the nuclear submarine deterrent but our ability to project force and engage in humanitarian operations through our amphibious fleet and our expeditionary expertise. That calls for a strong Navy well equipped with the right ships.

It is interesting to note that, even with the huge commitment in Afghanistan, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines manage to fit in amphibious exercises, practising skills honed over many decades. Amphibious or expeditionary operations require considerable know-how, expertise and practice. That expertise must be preserved, notwithstanding the fact that 40 Commando Royal Marines returned from Afghanistan earlier this year and that 3 Commando Brigade, with 42 and 45 Commando, are currently spearheading our efforts in Afghanistan. That is how it should be: they are the elite fighting troops and represent the significant Royal Naval contribution to operations. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind the vital importance of preserving our expeditionary capability.

HMS "Ocean", the landing platform helicopter ship—I always call them commando ships, which is the old-fashioned expression—was launched over 10 years ago and built to a civilian specification. We fortunately now have two assault ships—landing platform docks—the "Bulwark" and the "Albion", but we only have one helicopter carrier. I very much welcome the placing of orders for the two aircraft carriers and I hope that the Government will soon order aircraft to fly from them. The Government must, however, initiate the construction of a new helicopter carrier in the near future.

I congratulate our Armed Forces on their exemplary and courageous commitment and their loyalty to this country. They always exceed the high expectations that we have of them.

Photo of Baroness Emerton Baroness Emerton Crossbench 5:52 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the Minister for raising the debate, and I support her comments on the poignancy of the Remembrance services. I was in Osnabruck on 11 November and shared in a service with the personnel there. They had just returned from Afghanistan and some had lost their comrades. Indeed, it was a very poignant time. Most of them will be moving to Catterick, which I have also visited recently, and I agree with the comments about the improvements already made there and those that are ongoing.

I declare an interest because I am a director of the trust and a trustee of the Order of St John and the British Red Cross Defence Medical Welfare Service. Many noble Lords will recognise that the service has a long history and was formerly known as the Service Hospital Welfare Service. It dates back to the First World War when the organisation was grant-funded by the War Committee. Voluntary-aid-society status was granted both to the Order of St John and the British Red Cross in war and peace by Geneva, which it still holds today.

In 2001, the grant aid ceased and the Defence Medical Welfare Service was established under contract with the Ministry of Defence. The service is only a small organisation but it is the only civilian charity to serve a three-month front-line tour. Two welfare officers are in Iraq and two are in Afghanistan, serving a three-month tour having received combat training beforehand.

Other welfare officers are posted in seven units in the UK, including the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham, the provider hospitals in Germany, a unit in Northern Ireland and one in Cyprus. It is the only organisation providing a 24-hour welfare service and its remit is solely medical welfare, which involves visiting each hospitalised service personnel or dependent relative to ensure that their immediate needs are met. This may be just clothing for someone who is admitted after severe injury, or it may involve contacting relatives or arranging accommodation for relatives of the dangerously ill. A daily visit is made and recorded, and the whole organisation is subject to performance management, which is monitored quarterly by the Ministry of Defence. The service provided is confidential and outside the line of command, which enables the service personnel to share any personal concerns and worries without them being passed up the chain of command.

Dealing with relatives plays a large part of welfare officers' work, as does, especially on deployment, counselling medical team staff following a tremendous influx of severely injured or killed personnel. One important task is to ensure that the friends of the deceased, who are often injured themselves, are allowed to say goodbye to their comrades in a dignified way accompanied by a welfare officer. Many patients are cared for over a lengthy period and the welfare officers provide DVDs, CDs and jigsaws—simple welfare. Some are very lonely as their relatives are far away, and the welfare officers try to give them more time and help them to make contact with their families.

The Command Paper does not include mention of the work done by the Defence Medical Welfare Service but patient surveys, commanding officers and medical teams recognise the valuable service that this small group of welfare officers give at what are often the most vulnerable times in the experience of a serviceman and his relatives. Both the Order of St John and the British Red Cross have high regard for the work carried out by the Defence Medical Welfare Service and are anxious that the voluntary-aid-society status bestowed on them in World War I is continued. This is very relevant at the moment for both organisations, as the Civil Contingencies Act is being reviewed. It is hoped that this status will be retained and I ask the Minister whether this can be looked at.

I hope that the Minister will also take note of the small but very valuable contribution made by the Defence Medical Welfare Service. I ask whether this can be taken account of in the future work outlined in the Command Paper concerning the development of welfare to service personnel and, indeed, to veterans.

Photo of Lord James of Blackheath Lord James of Blackheath Conservative 5:58 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, I shall be brief. I have two questions for the Minister, both relating to matters of severe welfare concern to two categories of members of the Armed Forces.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will be aware of the workings of the Crown Proceedings (Armed Forces) Act 1987, which set out to repeal Section 10 of the corresponding 1947 Act. On the face of it, this should have been very good news for members of the armed services because it opened up the way to make claims for compensation for disabilities caused by unforeseen circumstances during their service. In particular, it should have been of great encouragement to members of the Royal Navy who had served on ships which had been equipped and cladded out with significant amounts of asbestos to protect them from fire and damage during action but who, in the natural course of things, had unfortunately been exposed to asbestos contamination to the point where asbestosis became a progressive and severe risk for them over their advancing years.

Unfortunately, the 1987 Act did nothing of the sort. It was not retrospective, applying only to anybody who could be proven to have contracted the disease after the Act had been passed, which was, of course, a complete contradiction in terms. After it is first contracted, this disease takes some 40 years to mature. When the symptoms first appear, you can therefore say quite clearly that you caught it 30 years ago. However, you would not qualify for a claim under the 1987 Act because you would be making the claim after the Act had been passed and could not make a retrospective claim. That is a total injustice which has never been corrected. What processes does the MoD apply today to monitor the victims of this disease who contracted it during their service? How many such cases are there? What, if anything, is the MoD doing to assist these people with care and support and, particularly, to support the families who have the terrible burden of looking after them?

The MoD will have a full list of the ships that were principally afflicted, but HMS "Furious" is one in particular. Most notably and most severely hit have been the crews of the Royal Yacht "Britannia", which ought to be a cause of significant concern to the MoD. A number of its crew, including one commanding officer who has since died because he insisted on supervising too personally the renovation of the engine room, should be given careful attention to see how they are being looked after today and what their fate is. That is one particular concern.

My other concern relates to something much more up-to-date. It relates to the RAF and arises from the recent coroners court proceedings about the Hercules aircraft crash in January 2005. We have heard press comment to the effect that putting in the explosive-suppressant foam—the missing factor that was said possibly to have contributed to that mishap—required a capital investment in equipment of £270,000 and a £50,000 cost for each aircraft thereafter. I understand that there are, at the moment, 16 of the old J-type Hercules aircraft and 24 of the later K-type Hercules. I believe that the Js are about to be reduced from 16 to five, making a total fleet of 29.

I have received information from a senior Civil Service source that the total cost of meeting the anticipated ruling of the coroners court—that the explosive-suppressant foam should be applied to the whole fleet—was considered to be such that it required the abandonment of the entire upgrade, renovation and maintenance programme for the whole of the Hercules fleet. This included the list of all other known things that had to be upgraded. If that is the case, it is an absolutely disgraceful economy to make in these circumstances. It is also a complete reversal of the common-sense principle that if you know you have a problem in one area, you should put all other problems right as well. Will the Minister assure us that the money which has been diverted for the foam replacement will be made good to enable the immediate resumption and completion of the entire maintenance programme? This had previously been set for the vital work of our forces at this time. My two questions, one about the Navy and one about the RAF, relate to groups of people who are dedicated, give loyal and committed service, and earn and deserve a little of the same in return.

Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Spokesperson in the Lords (Tourism), Culture, Media & Sport, Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence, Whip 6:04 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, it is 90 years since the Armistice which brought an end to the tragic and needless slaughter of the First World War. It is difficult to argue that the world has learnt the lessons of the futility of war, or has become more civilised. We find ourselves engaged in military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have troops in the Balkans. The situation in the Middle East seems as intractable as ever. Brutal and oppressive regimes dominate in Burma, North Korea and Zimbabwe; and bloodshed and genocide continue in the Congo and other parts of Africa. Piracy prevails off Somalia; we have serious instability in Pakistan; and the uncertainty over Iran's nuclear ambitions continues. Meanwhile, many countries are significantly increasing their military spend. China is moving towards developing its first aircraft carrier; India, Japan and Russia are all spending considerably more.

By contrast, we have seen a steady reduction in the percentage of gross national product spent on defence—now 2.3 per cent, the lowest point since 1933. We have also seen a steady downgrading of the importance of the Ministry of Defence in the Government, culminating in the part-time appointment of the previous Secretary of State and changed only at the most recent reshuffle. I make no criticism of him, but that is an example of the downgrading of the MoD as an institution.

I do not criticise the commitment or integrity of the present defence ministerial team; the blame lies with the former Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister during all his years as Chancellor of the Exchequer. They jointly took little interest in the size, equipment or capability of our Armed Forces, yet had no compunction in ordering them into action in the Balkans, in Sierra Leone, in Iraq and, more recently, in Afghanistan. Some disastrous procurement decisions were taken, such as the one in 2004 to take £1.4 billion out of the helicopter budget. Although it may be necessary, it is rather embarrassing to hear from the Minister this evening that we are scouring the world for helicopters adequately to provide for our forces in Afghanistan.

Since the Government came to power in 1997, our regular force numbers have fallen by 12 per cent from 211,000 to 185,000. TA numbers have fallen by 42 per cent from just under 52,000 in 1997 to slightly over 30,000 in 2008. The inadequacy of our Reserve Forces was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Wallace and the noble Lord, Lord Robertson. All aircraft fleets—transport, combat, reconnaissance and air tanker—have already been halved since the end of the Cold War. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review indicated a requirement for 32 escorts, including 12 new Type 45 destroyers. Today, we have only 22 escorts. In the early and mid-1980s, when I was a junior defence Minister, I was criticised when I referred to our force of about 50 frigates and destroyers at sea, rather than a definite 50.

I give credit to the Government for significantly improving equipment for our forces in Afghanistan after a poor start, for their recent announcement on the procurement of better protected vehicles and for tackling the backlog of housing maintenance that has developed over the years, but much remains to be done. We on these Benches welcome the decisions on pay, the operational welfare package, the improvements to Wellington Barracks—I look forward to hearing more in future on the £20 million pilot scheme to support home ownership—and, especially, the increases in compensation referred to by my noble friend Lord Burnett.

Overstretch has become one of the most used words in the defence vocabulary. It has been suggested that our forces need up to a dozen years of peace to regroup, re-equip and retrain. A recent editorial in the New York Times parallels our situation. Talking about the overstretch of the US army as a result of Iraq, it states:

"The long-term cost in morale, recruit quality and readiness will persist for years. Nearly one-fifth of the troops—some 300,000 men and women—have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan reporting post-traumatic stress disorders".

It was said earlier that the Government are faced with a major funding shortfall of up to £2 billion in the procurement budget, and something clearly has to give. The Government need to take major decisions on the third phase of Typhoon; on whether we go ahead with joint-strike aircraft for our new carriers—and I take the point about the importance of the humanitarian role of our amphibious vessels made by my noble friend Lord Burnett; on the future Lynx—a decision urgently awaited by Westland; and on FRES.

The situation in Afghanistan is enormously complex. It is a long haul and, as the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, said, we cannot allow the forces of darkness to prevail. Can the Minister say whether the Americans have requested additional UK forces to support them in any possible surge operation? It seems to me we have to regain the military initiative and get on top of the situation there for there to be serious, long-term dialogue with the Taliban.

My view is that the public would be willing to accept an increase in defence expenditure, probably for the first time in many years. We all know the difficult economic situation we are in at present. Nevertheless, we need to look again at the defence spend. I believe we need to look to building up our Army from the current 103,000 service men and women towards the 120,000 mark. At the moment, our military cannot complete all the tasks asked of it. Given that we are so stretched, it is extremely difficult for us to consider participating in any peacekeeping operations that may come about in the short term. The Congo was referred to by my noble friend Lord Wallace and we may be called upon to help in the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe. We also need to work much more closely with France and respond in a more positive way to the overtures of President Sarkozy. We have moved a long way from the absurd posturing of the De Gaulle era and I hope the Government will give a real example of working with the French. Perhaps the Minister could refer to that when she winds up.

At the last major defence debate in this House on 22 November 2007, the Government was flayed by our former Chiefs of the Defence Staff in an unprecedented way. Since then, the media and general public have come out strongly in support of our Armed Forces, which probably command a greater respect now than ever before. The Command Paper discusses a range of welcome improvements but we can and must do more. We just cannot continue to undertake all the tasks with the resources currently available to our Armed Forces.

Photo of Lord Luke Lord Luke Conservative 6:14 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, I am most happy to add my wholehearted support for all the men and women who have served or are serving right now in the regular and volunteer forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The bravery and dedication of these troops and the valiant support of their families is something of which we should all be extremely proud. We welcome the White Paper and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, for initiating such a crucial debate at this time.

The military covenant states that:

"Soldiers will be called upon to make personal sacrifices—including the ultimate sacrifice—in the service of the Nation. In putting the needs of the Nation and", the armed services,

"before their own, they forgo some of the rights enjoyed by those outside the Armed Forces".

In return there must be an,

"unbreakable common bond of identity, loyalty and responsibility", between the,

"nation, the Army and each individual soldier", sailor and airman to compensate and reward those brave service personnel who risk their lives to protect our nation.

A recent report by Demos, however, said that the military covenant had been "damaged almost beyond repair" and a new compact must be established between civil and military. At a time when our forces are being asked to fight in two wars, and in light of the fact that the British military death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan recently reached 300, this is a disgraceful situation to be in and must be rectified.

Are the basic standards of the Armed Forces degenerating because of the pressures of current commitments, and because of the lack of time to carry out anything more than essential short-term training? Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, recently said that when,

"you are committing young people to battle, they have to be given the best".

We must acknowledge that our troops do not always have the best. By 15 November this year, 36 of our military personnel had been killed in the lightly armoured Snatch Land Rovers. Can we be assured that they will be used only inside defended military compounds and bases from now on? I do not believe that commanders in the field have as much choice of vehicles as they should and are, with their troops, therefore in greater danger than is absolutely necessary. It is therefore reassuring that the Minister seems to have taken this on board. Let us hope her colleagues will follow her lead. The Oxfordshire coroner, Andrew Walker, has said that,

"to send soldiers into a combat zone without basic equipment is unforgivable, inexcusable and a breach of trust between soldiers and those who govern them".

The vulnerable Snatch vehicles make up a part of this and it is vital that more should be done.

The problem is further exacerbated by a persistent shortage of battlefield helicopters, which could also be used as an alternative to the more susceptible Snatch vehicles. I am glad that special arrangements with the French will be carried through. However, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence has recently reported that the Government have no plans to accelerate the Future Lynx helicopter programme despite the fact that the:

"Future Lynx helicopter could be ready to enter service by 2011".

Now it appears that it will be 2014 and 2015, with the full complement not in service until after 2017. Perhaps the Government can explain the reasoning behind this seemingly relaxed approach for providing essential and long overdue new equipment.

After six months' service, soldiers are given a period of time to adjust between life on the front line and what life will be like on leave. Those who have served will know exactly how necessary this decompression time is. As the Overseas Territories Minister stated in another place, Foreign Office staff are also required to take decompression breaks after their time in Afghanistan or Iraq. This is very sensible and perfectly right. However, I wonder why the Foreign Office staff are given decompression breaks of 10 to 14 days when those serving on the front line in the Armed Forces are given, on average, only 24 hours. Can the Government account for the reason why?

The last Strategic Defence Review was conducted over a decade ago. Do the Government feel it is right that we are basing our requirements on an assessment that was conducted before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had even begun? Do they not feel that it might be appropriate to carry out another review now, and perhaps adopt the American system of conducting a defence review every four years, so that our assessments about the requirements of our troops are kept up to date and accurate? Would the Government not accept that this would be sensible? When we get back into power, we will initiate an immediate Strategic Defence Review.

Sir Kevin O'Donoghue stated that the crackdown on military spending will not affect the two £4 billion aircraft carriers—all well and good. However, in view of the fact that these aircraft carriers are useless without the new Joint Strike Fighter, will the Government give us the latest news on the availability of the JSF? My noble friend Lord Lyell asked pertinent questions about this. I presume that the Navy will be able to find properly trained sailors to man the carriers as they come online. Can the Minister assure us that there will be early deliveries of sufficient JSFs to provide training facilities for air crew in advance of the main deliveries, so that there will be at least one carrier and enough fighters and pilots arriving at the same time?

The debate has thrown open many interesting issues, and there have been several good speeches. I draw attention to my noble friend Lord James, who made a most thoughtful speech, particularly on the subject of the air bridge. My noble friend Lord Lyell mentioned the work in hand at Wellington barracks, announced by the Minister. We are all pleased about this; it really was a mess when we visited it. The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, made some pertinent, interesting and wise remarks, with which we would like to be associated, concerning the Royal Marines. My noble friend Lord James was concerned about asbestosis on the Royal Yacht. Are the sailors who crewed her being properly monitored to see whether they have been affected? He also mentioned the Hercules fleet. Can the Minister answer his concerns on that?

We are grateful for the Command Paper, but, as my noble friend said, it does not go far enough, and many more issues need urgent answers. I hope that the concerns raised by this debate will mean that action will be taken to ensure that changes are made to protect our troops, better serve their families and fulfil the military covenant.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Bolton Baroness Taylor of Bolton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (International Defence and Security), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (International Defence and Security) (also in Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 6:22 pm, 24th November 2008

My Lords, I thank all those who contributed to this debate. There have been common themes in what we have all said. While there will be differences in emphasis and on particular issues, it is clear that all noble Lords share an admiration for those who fight on our behalf and all are keen that recognition of that contribution should not be lost on any occasion. It is also clear that we all want to do as much as possible and that we all have a clear commitment to working to realise the White Paper's ambitions and themes in terms of making life easier for, and rewarding the contributions of, those who serve this country.

The fact that we are discussing this issue in the context of the military covenant and the nation's commitment is something that is relatively new. When I first came to the department and asked about the military covenant and its history I was somewhat surprised to learn that it is not something that had been written down many years ago but that it is relatively recent. As I said earlier, this White Paper is the first time that any Government have tried to put into writing their commitment to those in our armed services, their families and our veterans. We are taking a significant step forward. While we may all want to move more quickly on a range of issues, it is significant that we are having this debate. We should start by acknowledging that this issue has come to the fore partly because we now have people on operations whose contribution is, quite rightly, much more in people's minds than perhaps used to be the case.

I will try to cover as many of the points raised as possible, but if there are any significant ones that I do not cover I will write to noble Lords later. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, welcomed the White Paper but commented that some of it seems to provide bureaucratic solutions. Although individual people are at the heart of what we are trying to do, many of their concerns arise because of bureaucratic systems that have sometimes acted to the detriment of those working in the Armed Forces. We do not want to see a situation where regulations about hospital waiting lists or access to local schools stand in the way of those in the Armed Forces or disadvantage them. So it is only natural that many of the solutions we are putting forward are about the process and making sure that people get what they are entitled to. It is important that we get that situation into perspective.

The noble Lord asked several specific questions and other noble Lords referred to some of the same issues. I will try to cover those, starting with the air bridge, which is extremely important and is under pressure because we are engaged in operations a long way away. We have to be careful in how we access these countries in such difficult and dangerous circumstances. As for the fact that 56 per cent of flights bringing people home are on time, I am not sure what the commercial airlines' figures are but, given that we are talking about war zones, our figures are not an absolute disaster.

It is important that people should get back to their families and have some relief as quickly as possible, but, as the noble Lord said, 17 per cent of flights were significantly delayed. We have to put safety first. We can fly into certain places only if we have aircraft with the defensive aid suites that are necessary to provide protection. That means that those aircraft work extremely hard and we have to keep the maintenance up. We cannot afford to take risks in those circumstances. Safety has to be our priority. It is right that we should look for new ways of getting people back—having a stopover in Cyprus has proved valuable and been appreciated—but we cannot afford to take any risks and fly aircraft that do not have defensive aid suites.

The noble Lord and others mentioned the A400M. We have put considerable investment into the A400M, as have other countries. The delay is concerning us and we are talking to the companies involved about that delay. We are doing so along with other countries, because this is not a single-country project. The partner nations are concerned by the announcements that have been made by EADS and Airbus Military regarding those delays, and we have had several discussions about them. It is important that we have a common approach from all the countries because a number of them are looking forward to that aircraft coming into operation. The company acknowledges the problems.

The noble Lord also mentioned the issue of unsolicited parcels and the fact that this year we are asking people not to send unnamed parcels to people because of the extra stress it puts on the air bridge. I think that that is a reasonable position to take. Obviously, it is nice for people to receive parcels at Christmas, but parcels from anonymous sources or schools often frustrate our troops. Although these parcels are welcome, they take up capacity on the aircraft while other parcels from home—from their wives, mothers or families—cannot get through. We want to concentrate on ensuring that parcels from family members and friends, which are properly addressed to individual members of the Armed Forces, get through. That has to be our priority.

Photo of Lord Burnett Lord Burnett Spokesperson in the Lords (Planning), Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, a great many such parcels have already been collected. Last year, many were sent to Afghanistan and the response from the troops was one of great gratitude and appreciation. I understand the problem, but will the Minister think again on this point?

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Bolton Baroness Taylor of Bolton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (International Defence and Security), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (International Defence and Security) (also in Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I understand the point, my Lords. There is a system in operation to get non-addressed parcels out to as many people as possible, but those are from a recognised charity. Last December I went to Brize Norton and saw the boxes for myself. Many of them contained unsuitable items such as aerosols or liquids that had to be screened before they could be put on an aircraft, and that caused extra difficulties. If a deluge of such parcels means that parcels from wives, husbands, mothers or fathers cannot get through, that can cause difficulty. There is scope for considering whether arrangements can be made for these parcels to go elsewhere—to the families of servicemen or something of that kind—but we cannot afford to have the same backlog build up. We get inundated with unmarked parcels which sometimes contain items that cause difficulties.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, mentioned Chelsea Barracks. The department has made a commitment to use the proceeds from the barracks for accommodation. However, those are specific points and I shall come on to housing later. Nevertheless, the noble Lord, Lord Astor, complained rather strongly about the company responsible for what he called substandard housing. Although I do not want to bring too much politics into this, I should point out that it was the previous Conservative Government who were responsible for the sale of much of the MoD housing stock. We are often bound by these very long-term commitments, which sometimes tie the hands of the department.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned the peace dividend, which we had almost forgotten about; there were many hopes there. He said that we entered into wars of choice. I am not sure that they have always been wars of choice, as the consequences of not acting might well have been very severe. I think that everyone in Europe felt that action had to be taken on Kosovo. Although I know that the noble Lord has strong views on Iraq, I would remind him of the words of my noble friend Lord Robertson today on Afghanistan. He has clearly explained that we are there to defend this country. I think that I can recall my noble friend saying at the time that if we did not go to the Taliban, the Taliban would come to us. That is exactly the same situation, although now we might use the words "al-Qaeda" rather than just "Taliban". It is of course a complex situation.

It is true that we have a range of commitments and there is a limit to what we can do by ourselves, which is why we work in alliances and why we have to look carefully at where we can work with others. We work with others on equipment such as the A400M, as I mentioned. I was asked earlier about co-operation with the French. Regardless of whether it is France or any other country or group of countries, we can work collaboratively with others on equipment projects only if all of us have the same requirements, work to the same timescales and have the same financial ability to take on board the contracts. It is not necessarily an easy commitment but, because of the complexity of many items of modern equipment, it is often the only way forward to get the kind of equipment that we need these days.

The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, asked about paragraph 2.22, which is on housing. I think that that part applies to homelessness, on which we are trying to do some quite novel and ambitious things. A project in Aldershot is aimed at homelessness among former members of the armed services and it is proposed that we have such projects in other, similar garrison towns. The project can be considered to be a pilot and we are working with both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly to see what we can do on this. People can often have problems in transition, which is why we have placed so much emphasis on education and on providing opportunities for people once they leave the services.

I am afraid that the questions from the noble Lord about helicopter orders, FRES and other items will have to wait until we are ready to announce such things, although the noble Lord, Lord Astor, has a Question on Wednesday and, before too long, it might be possible to say more on a whole range of those issues. I welcome what the noble Lord said on many issues—about recruitment, about the potential for breaking the cycle of deprivation and about the role of the cadet, which we all see as valuable.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, made a number of valuable points, as usual, drawing on his experience and, indeed, on his contacts. He is always extremely well informed on these matters. He said that we have been in Iraq too long and hoped that we would be out soon. I think that we are all pleased at the progress that has been made there. We are discussing the SOFA. We will not allow our troops to stay there without clarity, but we feel that we are making progress.

We are making progress on the compensation scheme, which has been welcomed—indeed, everyone should welcome it, because we should not forget that our scheme is another relatively new invention. Previously, there was simply the war pensions scheme, which did not have the lump sums. The doubling of those sums is significant, as is the fact that they should be paid to some people before the year's end. That is a big step forward, as is the tax-free monthly income that goes with it for the more severely injured. It shows that some things have been delivered, which, again, we should welcome.

The external reference group was mentioned, as was the fact that the chair of the committee is from the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office is there to hold other government departments to account. As the initiatives in the White Paper range across government, from education to health, to work and pensions and a whole range of issues, it is appropriate that we should have someone from the Cabinet Office chairing the group and keeping all those departments on their toes. The external reference group is a significant group of people, involving representatives of the Royal British Legion, SSAFA, the Army, Navy and RAF family federations, the war widows and so on. That significant group of people would not be likely to let the Government off the hook on these things. The noble and gallant Lord's motto, "Yes we can", when it comes to delivery on these issues, is one to which we will be held by those who are in that group. They will take it as their responsibility to make sure that we keep up to the mark.

My noble friend Lord Robertson used his experience as a former Secretary of State and Secretary-General of NATO to give a wide perspective. I have mentioned what he said about Afghanistan. He is right. We have to remind people time and again that we are in Afghanistan for our own national interest, as well as to improve the lot of that country. Only by improving the lot of that country can we establish there stability, good governance and the rule of law, and tackle corruption, which has been mentioned as well. If we can get that country into a position where it does not provide that threat, it will be a significant step forward.

I appreciated the noble Lord's remarks about the Treasury and the struggles that all departments have with it from time to time. I can say only that the Treasury has been extremely good at finding the money for urgent operational requirements, just as industry has been extremely good in responding to our needs.

The noble Lord, Lord Lyell, mentioned the House of Lords Defence Group, which seems to visit a good number of places to get an insight. We try to keep in touch on that. He asked about the JSF budget. Other noble Lords asked whether the JSF will be on the carriers at the appropriate time. The timetable for JSF has never directly coincided with the timetables for the carriers; that has always been the case. So far, we have invested the appropriate amount in JSF. We do not have to make any more investment decisions until next year. The stowable version has flown. We are keeping in very close touch on that. So far, things are going to plan.

The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, mentioned personnel. He also mentioned education and training. It is important that we emphasise that people who come into our Armed Forces often receive very good education and training that will stand them in good stead when they leave. He raised some specific points and asked for some figures. I shall have to write to him about those, because I cannot give all the answers off the top of my head.

The noble Baroness, Lady Emerton, mentioned the work of the Defence Medical Welfare Service. I know that she has met my right honourable friend Bob Ainsworth about it. We are happy to work alongside it in delivering the Command Paper commitments and recognise the good work that has been done. We are happy to continue to work with the noble Baroness and to hear her concerns so that we can be kept up to date.

The noble Lord, Lord James, mentioned two points. The first was case of the RAF Hercules, which is still the subject of an inquest in a coroner's court. On that basis, I do not think it appropriate to comment. I shall provide him with as much information as possible at the appropriate stage, but I am not sure when that will be.

The noble Lord also mentioned asbestosis, which is a significant problem for those who are affected by it and has affected many people in many industries. The MoD is sympathetic to claims made in relation to exposure to asbestos. There is an automatic presumption that Royal Navy personnel who served between 1939 and 1973 would have been exposed to asbestos, so any claim for a war pension can be fast-tracked. Anyone serving later than that would be reviewed as individual cases. We recognise asbestosis as an important issue on which we have to keep a watch.

The noble Lord, Lord Lee, mentioned the importance of the MoD in government going down because my right honourable friend Des Browne doubled up as Secretary of State for Scotland. I was stopped in this House the other day by a noble Lord who asked why we now had five Ministers in the MoD. If you are judging it on numbers, there is a bit of divergence of opinion. I do not know whether it was personal or on behalf of the party of the noble Lord, Lord Lee, but I take note of the commitment that the Liberals would spend more on defence. He mentioned the issue of reservists and so did—

Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Spokesperson in the Lords (Tourism), Culture, Media & Sport, Spokesperson in the Lords, Defence, Whip

My Lords, I put on record that I hope that all parties in this House would commit themselves to an increase in defence expenditure.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Bolton Baroness Taylor of Bolton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (International Defence and Security), Ministry of Defence, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) (International Defence and Security) (also in Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

My Lords, I hear the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, echoing that. I am sorry, it was my noble friend Lord Gilbert, who has sneaked round from the other side of the Chamber and is now in his more usual place. He has long advocated that a lot more money be spent on defence.

The noble Lord, Lord Lee, mentioned the reserves and suggested that the noble Lords, Lord Wallace and Lord Robertson, had talked about the inadequacy of the reservists. That is unfair, as I do not think that is what they were saying. We are having a strategic review, however. This began in April and the aim is to try to ensure that we have Reserve Forces that meet defence needs now and well into the future. We see the Reserve Forces as an increasingly integral part of defence capabilities. That is what we have been consulting on and I hope we will be in a position to report on this soon.

Although we acknowledge that our Armed Forces are stretched, we are told that they are able to work well at the moment and that is what we believe to be the case. We have recently taken on the headquarters for the piracy operation under the ESDP. I hope the noble Lord will welcome this and I believe it is something we can make a contribution to.

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, summarised many of the points that others have been making and he came back to the Snatch-vehicle issue as one which I acknowledged in my opening remarks had caused some concern. He asked me to say that Snatch vehicles would only be used in certain circumstances. I think Ministers should not make decisions about what is appropriate for any particular operation. We have to leave that to commanders in the field because we cannot run a war from Whitehall; nor would we want to. Although I understand his concerns, I hope he will also understand our concerns that we have to try to ensure that we provide the wide range of vehicles that commanders want. The House will appreciate the extra investment and the work that is going on.

In summary, there are individual points that we want to emphasise or ask questions on, and no one would ever say the situation were perfect, particularly when you are on operations. As my noble friend Lord Robertson said, when you are on operations, difficulties, mistakes and challenges always arise. It is always a changing and challenging situation but the MoD and the country as a whole have to do everything to provide the members of our Armed Forces with the equipment and the resources that they need and to look after them and their families once they have left the service. We can all agree on that point.

On Question, Motion agreed to.