Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:07 pm on 7th April 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative 8:07 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for providing this opportunity, albeit a truncated one, to raise this important subject. I echo his last comment and hope that it will be possible early in the next Session to hold a much more substantial debate on these important issues, not least given the troubled times in which we now may be finding ourselves. His Question asks the Government for,

“their assessment of whether they have sufficient manpower and the right balance of regular and reserve forces…to meet the United Kingdom’s current national and international responsibilities and requirements”.

As he rightly says, current responsibilities may look different from those of a few months ago.

In looking at this, many noble Lords will have had the advantage of reading the Defence Select Committee report, Future Army 2020. My first point is that the Secretary of State, in his answers to that Select Committee about the matters in the report, makes no bones about a determination to find a particular financial package into which defence requirements and defence equipment and resources have to fit. That is not a pleasant position to be in, but his approach is certainly much more sensible than to embark on more ambitious proposals for which funds are inadequate. Our Armed Forces are entitled to expect some measure of certainty that what we are embarking on can be properly funded and is therefore likely to be properly implemented. In that sense, recognising the need for austerity, I support him.

However, I share the noble Lord’s concern about the recruitment of reserves. I look with particular interest to what small firms are saying about making employees available for service in the reserves. Although they recognise the benefits of it to the individuals concerned, two-fifths of the companies that are open to providing reserves had reservations about their ability to help under the new structure. That is a serious matter. I therefore welcome the undertaking by the Secretary of State that he will keep this matter under close review.

I was interested in the exchange between Colonel Bob Stewart, the Secretary of State and the Chief of the General Staff when Bob Stewart asked for a short answer to the question: what was the strength and what was the weakness of Future Army 2020? General Wall said that its strength was the capability that we are getting for the resources allocated. That was a pretty guarded statement. Its weakness was that some areas would have less resilience than we would need, which obviously is a matter of concern.

The other element that I noticed coming through very strongly is that we are just talking about regulars and reserves here. However, noble Lords will have noticed the emphasis that is also given to contractors. There is undoubtedly a determination to make maximum use of contractors and contracted manpower to help fill perhaps some of the gaps in that respect. I welcome that because I have certainly found in the past that it can be very effective and very efficient—particularly, for example, bringing in contractors from the actual manufacturers to maintain and service important equipment.

I will not talk in detail about this, but the other concern I have is about rebasing from Germany, where quality of accommodation will be a major challenge for the Ministry of Defence. I hope that our returning forces will have the quality of accommodation to which they are entitled as they come out of some very good facilities in Germany.

The general view in the Select Committee report seemed to be that the question of further intervention was not one of if but of when and where. I was not in favour of intervention in Syria but I recognise that there will almost certainly be other cases. We are already involved in Somalia and Mali, and are helping with training in Libya. This activity of conflict prevention and capability building by training and helping countries to help themselves will continue to be a very important role for our Armed Forces. I welcome it from their point of view because, with the end of activities in Afghanistan, there will now be a period of what may appear to be rather dull service activity, and it is important that the Armed Forces have real and worthwhile activities.

As the noble Lord said, we are in a potentially dangerous time. We cannot be sure where the latest news coming out of Ukraine might lead. We hope that good sense will prevail, but at the same time we need to keep a very close eye on our resources while also keeping the new changes under close review. I welcome this opportunity which the noble Lord has given us to raise this point and to urge the Government to be ready to have a further, rather longer and proper discussion of these matters in the new Session of Parliament.