Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:21 pm on 7th April 2014.

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Photo of The Bishop of St Albans The Bishop of St Albans Bishop 8:21 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for giving us this opportunity to discuss this important matter. I also take the opportunity to pay tribute to all those who with great commitment, and sometimes great cost and self-sacrifice, are putting their lives on the line for us and for the defence of our nation. It is important to remember some of those who are now on active service.

I shall refrain from commenting on technical military matters and raise two specific points quite briefly. First, as well as ensuring that our country is properly defended, it is vital that we maintain the capacity to contribute to the increasing need for peacekeeping in our world, and not least with the United Nations. These missions are essential if we are to protect civilians when hostilities break out and stop them escalating. They are vital if we are to create the conditions for rebuilding peace and for establishing strong democratic Governments.

Britain already supports a number of UN peacekeeping missions: in Cyprus, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. These are long-term commitments. They do not just go away; they eat up many of our resources. After the United States, Japan, France and Germany, we are the largest contributor to the UN peacekeeping budget. As one of the largest economies in the world, we have a moral duty to provide help where we can if we are trying to create new alliances and to help those places that are facing really serious problems and divisions.

Noble Lords have already referred to the fact that world events can change rapidly—Ukraine—but of course we also sometimes look to our Armed Forces to help when there are emergencies in this country. It was not many weeks ago that parts of our country were facing flooding and we were very grateful to be able to call upon them to help us in those situations.

We need spare capacity and resources that are flexible. I have no doubt that Reserve Forces are an important element in this, as long as the increase in Reserve Forces is not used as an excuse to see them as a replacement for endlessly cutting our Regular Forces.

My second point is that if we are going to see some fundamental changes in the balance of how we sort out our defences, not least by a serious increase in the number of reservists and the use of Reserve Forces, we need to ensure that resources are refocused to support the reservists in particular. The Regular Forces have the huge advantage of being based on or close to military establishments. There are opportunities for their families to meet and offer mutual support. Local schools are always alert to the huge stresses put on the children—whom we must not forget—of those who are actively serving. Some of the excellent charities and support services are close at hand; indeed, chaplaincy is usually available on those military sites. But for many reservists, there is no similar support in the immediate locality when they return, especially if they live in rural areas far from large urban centres.

It has been hugely encouraging to hear about the impact and success of the Armed Forces community covenants. When the covenant was signed in my home town of St Albans in December 2011 between the Armed Forces, representatives of the Royal British Legion, the county council and all the district and borough councils, also included were Hertfordshire Enterprise Partnership, Jobcentre Plus and Hertfordshire NHS. However, it concerns me that we were not given an opportunity to join in with thinking about how we can offer chaplaincy and support, particularly to reservists, and indeed there was no mention of how schools were going to be included, so that when reservists came back and children found that stressful, they would be included and supported. I hope that as these covenants are rolled out, we can think about how we can draw in the voluntary sector to offer real and significant support to those who put themselves on the line in the defence of our country.