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Armed Forces (Resourcing)

Volume 451: debated on Monday 30 October 2006

6. What assessment he has made of the extent to which the armed forces have sufficient resources to meet their commitments; and if he will make a statement. (97414)

As Members are aware, we have two major commitments—those in Iraq and Afghanistan—plus significant enduring commitments in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and elsewhere. We accept those challenges because we cannot afford not to. The job that our forces are doing, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, is vital, and I am grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman’s party for both of those missions. We continually review our force levels in each theatre, and I assure the House that the current levels are manageable, and that they give our commanders what they need to do the job.

Although we have supported the Secretary of State in those two missions, ever since the publication of the strategic defence review before the millennium, when Lord Guthrie went to see the Prime Minister to complain about underfunding of the armed forces, we have consistently pointed out and complained about overstretch and underfunding, and this Government’s failure to match the commitments that they have taken on with the necessary resources to meet those commitments. If the Prime Minister is continually to say, “Whatever the commanders on the ground want, we will give them”, whose fault is it if he cannot deliver what they want, such as more helicopters and armoured vehicles?

The hon. Gentleman can point to no example where the Prime Minister or any Secretary of State for Defence, or the Ministry of Defence, in this Government has failed to deliver what our troops on the ground want and need. Of course, we are able to do that because, in cash terms, the annual budget for defence has increased by £5 billion in the past five years. We should compare and contrast that with the cuts of £2.5 billion in the last five years of the previous Government. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make assertions about investment in our armed forces, he ought to do so on a proper, comparative basis.

Resources, of course, can mean people as well as equipment, and if we are to maintain our defence capability, recruitment remains a challenge. I, and doubtless Members in all parts of the House, want more young people to learn about service in the forces, so that they might choose it as their career. Will my right hon. Friend therefore give the House a progress report on the pilot scheme to extend the combined cadet forces into state schools, and does he have any proposals to encourage more young people in state schools to join the cadets?

The pilot schemes are due to roll out shortly. Because they are still in the planning and negotiating stages with the individual schools concerned, I am not in a position to give him from the Dispatch Box the report that he would like, but I will write to him with the details of those discussions. However, we intend to ensure that the pilots are successful, so that they can be a forerunner of the development of cadet forces across the country.

On resources and the recent tragic loss of an RAF Nimrod in Afghanistan, the Secretary of State wrote to me today in detail, saying that the investigation

“will include consideration of the concerns raised about the age and management of the Nimrod fleet”,

which I welcome. Can he tell the House today how quickly he expects the board of inquiry to conclude its investigations?

As I said in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, the board of inquiry, which was set up to deal with such matters, is not in my control and nor is it accountable to me. It is entirely independent and its conduct is entirely a matter for itself, but it is inconceivable that it would not deal with the very issues that he raised with me in correspondence. For the very reason that it is independent, I am not in a position to say when I expect it to report, but I anticipate that it will do so as quickly as possible, in line with the thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Experience of the armed forces parliamentary scheme suggests that the British armed forces will do their level best to meet every commitment that we throw at them. Although I disagree with the view that our armed forces are at overstretch, it seems clear that they are at stretch and have been for some considerable time. Would it not ease matters if we drew down our remaining troops in Bosnia, now that the majority of that task is complete, and if some of our European allies took a more forthright role—in particular, if German troops took on a combat role?

On Bosnia, we are looking at that very possibility in the context of EUFOR—the European force that is there—and its command and control. I am confident that, in or about next spring, we will be able to do just what he is urging upon me.

Has the right hon. Gentleman noted General Lord Guthrie’s description of the British Government’s military intervention in Afghanistan as “cuckoo”, which he gave for exactly the reasons that I have repeatedly put to the right hon. Gentleman and his two predecessors as Secretary of State for Defence?

I indeed noted the interview that Lord Guthrie gave, but it must have been only partly reported in the newspaper that claimed to have that interview. Although I could see the assertion that the deployment of our troops into Afghanistan and the operation there were “cuckoo”, I was unable to glean from the interview as reported exactly what the reasoning behind that assertion was, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that the assertion was made for the reasons that he has articulated, because that allows me to repeat that those reasons are wrong. The hon. Gentleman repeatedly misunderstands, as do others in the House, what we are doing in Afghanistan. We are not doing what the Soviets or anybody else sought to do, or even the British Army before them. We are there in partnership with the Government of Afghanistan, and in excess of 30,000 Afghan troops are now fighting with us in Afghanistan.

As the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) correctly said, the ultimate resource for our armed forces is manpower, which is dependent on morale and motivation. The Secretary of State told us that he did not know about the planned changes to the separation allowance, which will mean cuts to the income of many of our front-line combat troops, when he announced the recent bonus payment. Can he now confirm that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have decided that those cuts will go ahead? That is a clear case yet again of this Government giving with one hand and taking with the other, and—what is worse—undermining the morale and motivation of our troops, to boot.

The hon. Gentleman repeatedly draws conclusions from facts that he does not understand, into which he does not inquire, or which he misrepresents. On this occasion, he is making suggestions about the reconfiguration of the separation allowance—an issue that was reported in the media. I confess that I did not know the detail of the subject, but given that the decision was made three years ago, and was agreed by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, it is not surprising that it was not at the forefront of my mind. If he had made even the most cursory inquiry into the matter, he would have discovered that the reconfiguration of the allowances does not take one penny away from anybody or from the armed forces. It makes sure that the allowances are paid fairly across all the services. Money is not being taken away from anybody. Indeed, the operational allowance that I announced in the House two weeks ago is significant additional money for our armed forces. The total effect of the operational and the separation allowance is to give significant additional money to the armed forces, and, interestingly, it will result in more money for the lowest paid, which his proposal of a tax cut would not have achieved.