My Lords, in the quite extraordinary times within which we are currently living—both in terms of our external security and our internal security, well described by my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup earlier on in our debate—like other noble Lords, I was very pleased to note that Her Majesty’s gracious Speech made reference to the Government’s commitments to spending 2% of GDP on defence and to spending 0.7% of GDP on international development, as well as including a reference to a renewed commitment to the Armed Forces covenant and a determination to improve the provision made for mental health. I would like to make five points arising from those references.
First, there is the commitment to 2% of GDP being spent on defence, or more specifically the commitment in the gracious Speech to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. I assume that this was deliberate drafting and indicated the welcome intent to increase our spending on defence. I am not alone in believing that an increase in our defence budget, and a renewed commitment to not just our own security but that of Europe, would be an important signal to our European friends that, although we are leaving the EU, we are not walking away from playing our full part in European security but, within the context of NATO, are prepared to play an even greater part. Our Armed Forces are the benchmark for armed forces within Europe, and an increase in spending on defence would be welcomed in Europe and by our principal ally, the United States.
Furthermore, the reversal of the decision to withdraw all our troops from Germany—a decision which seemed right at the time and one that I supported then—would send a strong message from Brexit Britain to our friends and foes alike. Retaining the armoured infantry brigade in the well-found garrison of Sennelager and Paderborn would substantiate that message and have the side benefit of removing the necessity of rehousing that brigade within the UK, at least in the short to medium term, a move for which it is a challenge to find adequate funds and which would be the potential cause of an unacceptably high concentration of armoured vehicles around Salisbury Plain.
Secondly, I draw attention to the relationship between our defence budget and our spending on international development. Some might characterise this as our spending on hard power and soft power respectively, but I believe such characterisation misses the point. If the short-hand précis of our foreign, defence and security objectives is for the United Kingdom to exercise beneficial influence around the world, then the way to maximise this is the complete integration of our diplomatic, defence and development capabilities. Currently, such integration, although much talked about, is not fully practised, notwithstanding the double-hatting of the right honourable Alistair Burt in the present Government. A few years ago, I was staying with our high commissioner in Rwanda, and he remarked with exasperation that the UK had two foreign policies in that country: one run by him and the other by the senior DflD official in the country. Of course, it was the DfID policy that prevailed, as it had the money, as the noble Lord, Lord Polak, informed us earlier on in our debate. I know there is a danger of formulating policy based on anecdote, but how much more effective would our influence be if our diplomatic, defence and development capabilities and policies were fully integrated—even to the extent of allowing elements of the sizeable international development budget to be spent on diplomatic, defence or security matters where a particular situation demanded that response? That would be truly beneficial integration.
Thirdly, I welcome the reference to the Armed Forces covenant in the gracious Speech, coming as it does in Armed Forces Week. We all recognise that the Armed Forces covenant remains, almost by definition, work in progress, as illustrated by the tabling of the annual report to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Defence in association with the other delivery departments. But I continue to wonder whether our governmental structure is right to do the best for our veteran community of some 6 million people. The Veterans Minister is to be found within the Ministry of Defence, but apart from the administration of pensions, the MoD has little to do with veterans: its focus is quite properly on the current serving population and the defence capability that is delivered by those uniformed serving individuals. The needs of the veteran community are predominantly met by other government departments, which focus on health, housing, education and social welfare. Is there therefore not a case for the Veterans Minister to be found, not in the MoD, but in the Cabinet Office, where a more cross-cutting and co-ordinating function could be exercised? I urge the Government to consider that possibility. The recently announced Veterans Board in the Cabinet Office is a step in the right direction, but I am not sure it goes far enough.
Fourthly, I noted with approval in the gracious Speech the reference to mental health and the intention to ensure that it is prioritised in the National Health Service in England. Detailed discussion of that is for another day in this debate, but in the context of the Armed Forces covenant I wish to raise one issue: the provision of emergency out-of-hours mental health cover for serving Armed Forces personnel. The current policy for serving Armed Forces personnel who are suffering an acute mental health event is that they should go to their nearest NHS A&E department or ring the Combat Stress helpline. I have been contacted several times by serving or recently discharged personnel who believe that this policy is wrong—lives of young people have been lost—and that there should be a dedicated MoD helpline to which those in need can turn. I make no criticism of the Combat Stress helpline, but I question whether serving Armed Forces personnel should have to resort to a charity helpline. I have raised this matter previously with MoD Ministers, as has Dr Julian Lewis, chairman of the Defence Select Committee, to the Secretary of State for Defence. We owe a duty of care to all our serving and veteran Armed Forces personnel, but I question whether the MoD is fully discharging that duty to those who are still serving, but suffering from mental health illness, by requiring them to ring a charity helpline.
My final point relates to our serving soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, the very people who are at the heart of our defence capability. Frankly, there are just not enough of them. We have cut the size of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force too far. In the 2010 SDSR, the Treasury demanded a 7% cut in the defence budget, which led to a 20% cut in the size of the Regular Army and necessitated a major reorganisation of it. At the height of our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army and Royal Marines together were able to field 10 combat brigades, with five each going around the two operational cycles. The 2010 reorganisation took the Army down to six brigades, only three of which are at relatively high readiness. The net result is that in future we would have the manpower for only one extended intervention. The maths do not add up—a 7% cut in the defence budget leading to a 20% cut in the size of the Army resulting in a 50% reduction in our operational capability. There may be no appetite to put British boots on the ground in the short term, but somewhere, some day, there will be a non-discretionary set of circumstances that will demand a major deployment of British troops. Like the concerns expressed by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, about the numbers of aircraft, and those expressed by the noble Lord, Lord West, about the numbers of frigates and destroyers, I worry about the number of soldiers that we have—or, particularly, do not have. We are carrying too much risk. The last Government from 2010 and this present Government might get away with it, but the future will catch us out at some point and the verdict of history will be damning.