Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 7th April 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Labour 8:45 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, I join other Members of the House in congratulating and thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for this short debate this evening. Questions for Short Debate are one of a number ways of probing and questioning the Government’s policy; others include Questions for Written Answer, Oral Questions and debates. The fact is that the Government have not convinced people that their approach and policy on this area are right. They do not appear to have convinced either the House of Commons Select Committee or experienced spokespeople in this area.

For this debate I turned to the recent report by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, an organisation which meets several thousand Armed Forces personnel face to face every year. Paragraph 2.11 of its report states:

“There had been notable drops in reported morale from Army personnel for the third consecutive year”.

According to the surveys, morale has dropped in our Armed Forces every year of this coalition Government. Paragraph 2.12 states:

“Our visits took place amidst continuing high tempo, with much operational commitment at the same time as the impact of the redundancy programme was being felt”.

Paragraph 2.13 refers to:

“The continued erosion of the overall package, together with the impact of the redundancy process were felt to be adversely affecting morale, which was already considered to be fragile”.

The facts linked with that are that last year, mainly before these redundancies were complete, the working hours of our Armed Forces personnel were up to 47.9 hours per week. That is the average, week in, week out. The average weekly duty hours increased in one year by three hours to 70.7 hours a week. That is something that we need to take into account when we consider the wording of this Question and the assessment of whether we have sufficient manpower in the Armed Forces.

In my experience, any commercial organisation would make such fundamental changes incrementally: as you made one change, you would increase another. The Government have gone forward with these redundancies but have no idea whether they will ultimately be able to recruit 30,000 reserve personnel. I hope they are able to, but the transitional period between now and then is a great danger for us as a nation, as we have seen in the latest developments in Europe.

In a letter accompanying this report, the Minister said that the Government accepted all the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. Will he therefore tell us what the Government are going to do about the morale issue—some but not all of which is a direct result of these changes—and what are they going to do about the overall working hours of our Armed Forces personnel?

Paragraph 31 on page 11 of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee report, which was published on 29 January, states:

“It is essential that the MoD budget settlement allows for the delivery of Army 2020”.

I cannot find any overall commitment from the Treasury that has confirmed categorically that the money will be available for this. Can the Minister give us that assurance?

The first responsibility of any Government is the defence of the realm. Does the Minister believe that with the state of morale and the numbers of our Armed Forces, they have the manpower to deliver that?