Armed Forces: Parachuting — Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:06 pm on 14th October 2009.

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Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Spokesperson for Defence, Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport 3:06 pm, 14th October 2009

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they intend to maintain the parachuting capability of the Armed Forces.

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

My Lords, the Government intend to maintain a parachute capability for the Armed Forces for the foreseeable future. The level at which it is maintained will be kept under review to ensure that it is consistent with operational priorities, but parachuting remains a key part of our defence doctrine.

Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Spokesperson for Defence, Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply but the reality is that at the present time there is a serious overstretch problem with availability of aircraft. Noble Lords visited 16 Air Assault Brigade in July, before the Recess, and discovered that on many occasions soldiers were turning up at Lyneham prepared to jump, only to find that the aircraft were not available, out of service or had been retasked on higher priority, and therefore they had to turn back and return to base. We discovered that, overall, something like 41 per cent of the members of 16 Air Assault Brigade are not now parachute qualified because of lack of jump availability. As for newer recruits, those who have completed the pre-training course have not jumped for more than two years. What plans do the Government have to remedy the situation?

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

My Lords, there is indeed a shortfall and we acknowledge that, as has been made clear in the replies that I have given, not least to the noble Lord, Lord Lee. We believe that we have sufficient training for the core tasks that are in hand. Operational requirements have to take precedence, but we have made provision to use Skyvan. The contract with the private contractor that was used until 2004 is now being reinstituted, which should help to ease the situation.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative

My Lords, I was on the visit and I was very concerned that the Paras did not have any wings—they had lost their pride. We are short of aircraft but we have 40 countries co-operating with us in Afghanistan, many of which have Hercules and other aircraft. Perhaps they might be able to lend them to us so that our parachutists could learn how to jump.

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

My Lords, we have looked at the possibility of making arrangements with other countries, such as some of our allies. There are some technical and practical problems with the configuration of the aircraft, even if it is basically the same plane, but we have not excluded that possibility and we are doing everything that we can to be imaginative about how we maintain the training that we need.

Photo of Lord Addington Lord Addington Spokesperson for Defence, Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport , Deputy Chief Whip

My Lords, is it not the case that parachutists who complete the course get a bonus in their pay packet? Are we not effectively depriving a number of our troops of a bonus that they would have expected to get in their wages?

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

My Lords, we have taken account of that factor. The bonus, which I believe is £5.35 per day, is paid to those who have qualified even if they are not able to maintain their current qualification by jumping within the prescribed period. It means that they do not get the training and practice that they want and that is obviously important, but, in terms of financial penalty, those who are not able to maintain their currency do not get penalised, because we have made provision for that.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

My Lords, when exactly will this all be sorted out? This is not an optional extra of Her Majesty's forces: this is a key component of them.

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

My Lords, as I made clear, the current capability is there. The lack of parachute training is not having an effect on the mandated operational capacity. Of course, we would like to improve the training facilities, but I hope that everybody would agree that it is right to give operational needs the priority that we have given them.

Photo of Lord Boyce Lord Boyce Crossbench

My Lords, will the noble Baroness comment on the effect on ethos of the lack of training such as has been perpetrated by this withdrawal? In extension, what might the ethos of the Territorial Army be in light of the reduction of training that it is about to suffer?

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

My Lords, it is clear that those who are in parachute regiments want to be able to exercise their skills. That is something that we all understand. As far as I understand it, morale is good and I have checked that with those who are in charge of the particular division. They would like more facilities and would appreciate more opportunities to jump, but they all acknowledge—as we should all acknowledge—that when aircraft are needed for operations, that is where they should be. That is important.

Photo of Lord Rotherwick Lord Rotherwick Conservative

My Lords, the Minister talks about developing parachute training. Weston-on-the-Green near Otmoor in Oxfordshire is one of the main sites used for parachute training. The Government have recently been touting this as an eco site. Although it will not go forward in the first round of ecotowns, what provision have the Government made in the event of Weston-on-the-Green becoming an ecotown so that other sites are developed to take on this parachute training?

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

My Lords, I cannot comment on ecotowns, but we ensure that we have the relevant areas that we require for training. The Skyvan contract, which I mentioned is being reinstituted, is allowing for training in the Colchester area. The training does not need to be in one particular area only.

Photo of Lord Inge Lord Inge Crossbench

My Lords, will the noble Baroness explain what she meant when she said that morale had not been affected? What does that actually mean, and how is it judged?

Photo of The Earl of Onslow The Earl of Onslow Conservative

My Lords, when is a mass parachute drop ever likely to happen again? Surely, mass paratroop drops are as out of date as horses are to cavalry regiments.

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

My Lords, I hear a voice from behind me saying that we should have one on Otmoor, but I am not sure that that is our intention. The important thing is that there is no stated requirement for that kind of parachuting in Afghanistan. That is our priority at present because the operational commitment is extremely high. If we can meet our obligations there, we will be pursuing the right priorities.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee - Shadow Minister (Maritime and Shipping), Shadow Minister

My Lords, what other key capabilities are being neglected, because I believe that there are many?

Photo of Viscount Slim Viscount Slim Crossbench

My Lords, is it not a fact that the Royal Air Force plays an important role in parachuting? Any curtailment in the research and development of new techniques and new technologies for clandestine entry by parachute and other means must not in any way be thwarted.