Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:55 pm on 7th April 2014.

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Photo of Lord Lyell Lord Lyell Conservative 8:55 pm, 7th April 2014

My Lords, the thanks of all of us, especially from myself, are due enormously this evening to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for giving us the opportunity to have just a starter or taster for what we hope will come later on in the Session. He has probed what I understand may be fairly fertile ground with my noble friend the Minister, and we may have a full debate at a later stage in this Session.

Your Lordships may recognise that the noble Lord is a man of enormous expertise and competence. I know from my relations with him, and thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and other noble Lords in the House of Lords Defence Group, that he is a soldier and a man of enormous charm. However, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, this evening, he is also a man of some considerable steel, and he says what needs to be said, tactfully but realistically. He may hit hard with the Ministry of Defence, but it is recognised with enormous gratitude in your Lordships’ House.

Thank goodness that I looked at the timetable and found that I had just three minutes—I shall certainly be under that. The text for this evening’s Question was particularly on the Reserve and Regular Forces. We have had notable speeches from my noble friends Lord Freeman and Lord Glenarthur on the Reserve Forces. In the various activities of the British Army in deployment in the past 10 or 15 years, the number of reservists who go to make up the total number of forces who are sent overseas, particularly Army, is one aspect—but there is much more. My noble friend Lord Glenarthur will know that it is the specialist forces, particularly his medics, who go for long deployment abroad and who bring enormous skills. Without their skills, operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere would be virtually impossible. Certainly, medics—I understand that there are engineers in other particular disciplines—have these specialist skills and are available.

I understand that three of your Lordships who have spoken this evening—my noble friends Lord King and Lord Freeman and myself—are conscripts who go back 50 years or more. As far as I recall, we were liable for two years’ full-time service and four years in the reserves. Certainly, I was never called up because I had a triple fracture of the leg that finished my full-time career; it probably would have ruled me out. I am not too sure what happened or what the rules were in the late 1950s, and whether it was obligatory or recommended that, having spent two years full time, you did four years as a reservist and fulfilled your duties in that regard. Our current Army has 82,000 regulars, with 30,000 reservists—at least that will be the target figure. I hope that that will be quite enough to fulfil national and, above all, international requirements, let alone responsibilities.

I salute and am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, for giving us the opportunity this evening and asking what needs to be done. I conclude swiftly by thanking my noble friend the Minister. The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, made a fair point, possibly, about my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. But I hope that he and the rest of your Lordships’ House, particularly those of us who have had the good luck to serve on the House of Lords Defence Group, recognise that my noble friend the Minister is certainly one of the most outstanding Defence Ministers in your Lordships’ House.

I have spent 41 years with the House of Lords Defence Group. I first went in 1973 to RAF Leuchars and RAF Kinloss. In all that time, I have known and learned more, and one thing I have learned is how lucky we are to have the constant support that we have from my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. We are even luckier to have the support that we have had this evening from the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt. I cannot wait to hear what my noble friend has to say.