House of Lords
Thursday, 15 March 2007.
The House met at eleven o’clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.
Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.
Parents: Flexible Working
asked Her Majesty’s Government:
What percentage of parents of children under six have exercised the right to request flexible working; and what are the obstacles to extending this right to all parents of children up to the age of 18.
My Lords, in the past two years, 24 per cent of employees with children under the age of six have asked to work flexibly. The targeted, light-touch nature of the law has assured its success. We will be publishing a compendium of the evidence on flexible working on 29 March. On 6 April, we will be extending the right to carers of adults, thereby giving it to 2.65 million more employees. We will keep the law under review.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Do Her Majesty’s Government agree that flexible working can contribute to meeting many social goals, from reducing child poverty through greater parental participation in the labour market to closing the gender pay gap? Will the Government give every encouragement to the business community to embrace all the benefits that flexible working can bring for the good of business, the good of the family and the good of the community at large?
My Lords, first, I express my personal condolences to the friends, family and parishioners of the Reverend Paul Bennett, who was tragically killed in south Wales yesterday.
We recognise the considerable benefits that flexible working can have, particularly in helping parents to balance their work and family responsibilities. It also brings very real benefits to employers, as they recognise. That is why we have long been encouraging flexible working and why, in 2003, we introduced the right to request it. The law has been a huge success, with around 47 per cent of new mothers working flexitime compared to just 17 per cent in 2002. We must ensure that the law remains a success. As I mentioned in my Answer, from April 2007 we shall extend the right to carers of adults. We are also taking a number of actions to ensure that employers publicise the rights of employees to request flexible working. We are taking a number of measures—I shall not go into detail at this point—to ensure that we raise awareness of all these changes.
My Lords, will the noble Lord take on board my concern about the number of highly qualified women scientists and engineers who either are not active in the workplace at all or are doing jobs at a much lower level than those for which they are qualified simply because they cannot find jobs that fit in with their family commitments? Are the Government supporting any programmes to help these women to get back to work in jobs for which they are qualified?
Yes, my Lords. I can tell the noble Baroness that we are challenging employers by building a set of exemplar employers from both the public and private sectors, ensuring that we have good practice initiatives, including flexible working, helping to spread best practice and encouraging a culture change. We have also set up a £500,000 funding initiative to increase the number of senior and quality jobs that are available part time for women. That all follows on from the Women and Work Commission report. However, ultimately, most employers recognise that they need to do more to recruit and retain good employees, and of course women are at the forefront of the skills set of employees in today’s world.
My Lords, I congratulate the Government on what they are clearly achieving and on the monitoring that they will undertake. However, will they include a survey of the percentage of fathers who have asked for, and been allowed to take up, the option of flexible working? One suspects that considerably fewer fathers than women rightly ask for and, I hope, obtain flexible working. It is important to know what that figure is and what more the Government can do to encourage more fathers to ask for flexible working and more employers to grant it.
My Lords, the noble Baroness has made an interesting suggestion, which I shall certainly take back to my department. I can inform your Lordships that 80 per cent of all requests for flexible working are agreed to by employers and, in a survey that we carried out, 75 per cent of employees said that employers treated them the same when considering requests for flexible working, no matter what their gender or personal circumstances. Of course, this Government have introduced, for the first time, paid paternity and adoption leave, which are greatly helping families.
My Lords, so far all contributions have emphasised the benefits to parents and employers. Does the Minister accept that children are also important beneficiaries? Enabling parents to be with children is an important way of enabling them to become good citizens. That need extends up to the age of 18, as the right reverend Prelate’s Question suggests. Will he put that on the record as well?
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that less than 70 per cent of children in this country sit down to a meal with their parents more than once a week, many much less than that and many not at all? Is he aware that the recent UNICEF report on the well-being of children in rich countries shows Great Britain at the bottom of a list of 21 rich countries that were studied? Is it not time that we did more about this?
My Lords, I am aware of that report, although some of its details are disputed in so far as they apply to the United Kingdom. Over the years, this Government have done an awful lot to support families and working families with benefit entitlements. In the past 10 years, we have, for example, doubled the amount and period of maternity pay, tripled the length of maternity leave for employed mums and, as I said, introduced paid paternity leave. This Government are doing a lot to help families, so I would be surprised if the statistics are, in practice, quite as the noble Lord indicated.
My Lords, I have personally raised Zimbabwe with President Konaré at each of the past three AU summits. Yesterday the Prime Minister discussed Zimbabwe with President Kufuor of Ghana, who is also the AU president. They agreed to work with the AU to support and help a process of ensuring that proper order is restored in a lawful and constitutional way so that people are able to express their views and proper democracy can be introduced. We work with African leaders to try to press on Mugabe the steps needed to end that country’s nightmare.
My Lords, I thank the Minster for his Answer. It is widely recognised that the UK is in a peculiarly difficult position vis-à-vis Zimbabwe but the Government nevertheless give that country a significant amount of humanitarian aid. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to support all those organisations, both inside Zimbabwe and in neighbouring countries, that are working towards creating pockets of democracy by increasing their funding, particularly those that work with citizens to enhance citizen participation and democratic protest?
My Lords, we work hard with those who are trying to improve the democratic space in every respect. Sometimes when we assist they are immediately denounced as being in some sense in the pockets of the former colonial power. It does not always help them. None the less, that work is imperative, whether it is with journalists, women’s organisations or the Zimbabwean trade unions that I saw yesterday morning. We will continue to do everything we can to improve that democratic space.
My Lords, the International Crisis Group report suggests that Commonwealth member countries in southern Africa should help to mediate a political settlement for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. Is my noble friend seeking to detect and support currents of opinion in the African Union which are going in that direction?
My Lords, absolutely; hence the discussions with President Konaré, Ambassador Djinnit and others. We are trying to build as much of an alliance as we can within the African Union, and between us and it, towards exactly those aims.
We have also made it plain that this is not a bilateral dispute between the United Kingdom and Zimbabwe which can be mediated. It is the terrorisation of the people of Zimbabwe by their Government. That is what must be resolved and where we must put our efforts.
My Lords, I was pleased to hear about the discussions that the Prime Minister held with President John Kufuor yesterday. We also heard yesterday evening about the discussion between the Secretary of State for International Development and President Kufuor. Did any practical suggestions emerge from these discussions on how the UK could best help the African Union to rescue the people of Zimbabwe from the economic and political abyss into which they have been plunged by Mugabe and ZANU-PF? Following the awful reports in yesterday’s media of the murder of Gift Tandare and the systematic torture of 50 opposition leaders, is there not a case to be made for indicting some of Zimbabwe’s leaders before the International Criminal Court? How does the Minister think that that could be pursued?
My Lords, on work being done with the African Union—a good deal of which is between the EU and the AU, not just the UK—first, we are sustaining the sanctions against 130 named individuals. Secondly, we are doing what we can with the AU to ensure that the return to law and order and the underpinning of the legal institutions that President Kufuor also demanded yesterday are central to the work being done. In due course, people will have to consider whether crimes against humanity are being committed. We are currently trying to get changes in the economy and the political space, as I have described, but everybody must understand that there can be no process by which people go along with this kind of brutality.
My Lords, do the policies made by the president, welcome though they are, go as far as the policies already in the African Union treaty, the NePAD treaty and the SADC treaty, which call for human rights, the rule of law and good governance, and peer pressure to ensure that they are observed? The danger is that if the African countries continue to fail to enforce those undertakings, the fate of the African Union one day—not just yet, but later—may be the same as the fate of the OAU, which was folded up in ignominy not long ago.
My Lords, I understand the point that having words on paper in treaties and in the formulation documents that start organisations is very different from taking the steps that then secure the aims of those constitutions and treaties. I believe that there are many in the African Union who see the matter as we do. They are not always as forthcoming in what they have to say, and that sometimes must be a matter of regret, but most of all I want them to do the things that are in those treaties and I want us to work with them to secure those outcomes.
My Lords, will my noble friend try to make it clear to the members of the African Union, especially southern African members, that a failure clearly to denounce the oppression in Zimbabwe begins to call into question the commitment to good governance? Does he not agree that the continued failure to act will lead almost inevitably to the dissipation of the good will towards Africa, which was shown so clearly in the Commission for Africa?
My Lords, we plainly want them to be forthcoming on these fundamental issues and it is damaging when people are not. However much one understands the history of reticence, it does not help. I like to try to recall with African leaders that the Gleneagles outcomes were an agreement. We undertook to do many things in the aid area, with the cancellation of debt and the stimulation of trade. They made undertakings on good governance. That was in essence the agreement and an agreement should be seen through as an agreement.
My Lords, I hope I am not alone in this House in hoping that some day soon this fellow Mugabe will get his come-uppance. But what happens next? Who is doing the thinking, either elsewhere in the world or here as a former colonial power, as to how on earth, whenever that happens, this place gets an incredible and tremendous lift?
My Lords, that question would require a very long answer, but detailed work is obviously being done about what might be in the next phase. That was one of the things Kofi Annan was addressing when Mugabe said he did not want him to go to Zimbabwe. That post-Mugabe period has to be looked at with great care. I can assure the House that that is exactly what is happening.
EU: Article 308
asked Her Majesty’s Government:
What is the justification for using Article 308 of the treaty establishing the European Communities as the legal base for the European Union’s programme “Prevention, Preparedness and Consequence Management of Terrorism” when that article permits the European Union to act only “in the course of the operation of the common market”.
My Lords, Article 308 does not require that every proposal using it as its legal base should relate in a narrow and restrictive sense to the operation of the Common Market. There is limited Community competence in relation to civil protection and the protection of critical infrastructure from security-related risks and damage to these interests could have an impact on economic activity and the operation of the Common Market.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply, from which it is depressingly clear that most of the failed constitution is being put in place surreptitiously and illegally using this and other treaty clauses. If this process leaves Brussels with the constitution’s aims of a new foreign secretary, a more permanent president and the reweighting of votes in the Council—for which even the Euro-crats may lose their nerve before using such provisions—will the Government give us a referendum on those initiatives? Also, assuming that that would leave only one unfulfilled ambition in the constitution—the big one, which is the EU’s proposed new legal personality superior to that of all the member states—will the Government guarantee to veto that or, if they do not, put it in a referendum to the British people?
My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, says. This is not an attempt to bring in through the back door provisions relating to the constitutional community. The noble Lord knows that only too well. I congratulate him on his ability to use this Question as a stalking horse. Article 308 has been in the treaty for a long time. It has been used proportionately and appropriately in this instance, as the noble Lord knows, in order to support member states in carrying out their duties. It has passed the scrutiny committee, which was content.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is blindingly obvious to anyone, as it should be to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, that if we had terrorism for which we were not prepared in Europe, at least one of the consequences would be the disruption of the single market?
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, is taking a rather restrictive view of Article 308? This is very much an enabling article, and surely, in the present day and age—when we are fighting cross-border crime and terrorism—it is right that we should make use of it. Surely incidents such as 9/11, 7/7 and the Madrid bombing have an effect on the economies of the countries involved and of other countries in Europe.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a Euro-crat. Does the Minister agree that, very important though it is that we observe the proper legal basis for European Community instruments, it is also important to focus on the real benefits that the European Union brings to British industry, to British workers and even to British tourists travelling in countries where, alas, Britain no longer has full consular representation? Although the link is rather indirect, may I ask the Minister or perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, to thank all those, whether British, Ethiopian or Eritrean, who worked so hard and successfully to secure the release of the British tourists in Ethiopia earlier this week?
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for uttering those thanks. Again, I agree without reservation. He is absolutely right: all those who engaged in that activity did an absolutely first-class job, and we owe them a debt for that work. I also agree with his other comments about the real benefits that we get as a result of being a full partner in Europe.
My Lords, is it not also blindingly obvious that the use—indeed, the increased use—of Article 308 means that more and more, and by stealth, this country is losing its right to govern itself? Should there not have been a veto on behalf of the British people in this matter?
No, my Lords. I absolutely disagree. We have made it clear that the provision can be used only within the Community’s competence. The language has been honed to enable that to happen. Yes, we have partnership, but we have not ceded any competence at all by joining our partners in our joint endeavour.
My Lords, does the Minister agree with the EU Commission’s communication that Article 308 and the recent measures that have been introduced under it facilitate,
“the emergence of common approaches in fields traditionally very close to national sovereignty”?
It is well known that throughout history individual freedoms have been chipped away at under the guise of crime prevention and terrorism. This is a most serious matter. It falls to Britain to read some of these publications. Behind this is a gradual erosion of this country’s sovereignty, and I think that the Minister should take that most seriously.
My Lords, if there were to be an erosion of sovereignty, we would of course take it seriously. However, because the globe has changed, we have had to pool our efforts in order to face up to some global challenges. Europe together has made a much better fist of it than each of us would have done on our own.
My Lords, we are well into the 23rd minute. Time is up on this Question.
My Lords, the latest Iraq neighbours’ meeting took place in Baghdad on 10 March. The meeting reached agreement that there should be a follow-on ministerial event and that working groups would be established to look at refugees, fuel imports and security co-operation between Iraq and her neighbours. We regard this as a positive result. All those around the table were clear in their emphasis on the support for the Government of Iraq and for the Iraqi people in their efforts to confront terrorism and sectarian violence.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and note that the involvement for the first time of Iran and Syria seems to have been received on all sides as an encouraging new development. Does he agree that the twin scourges in Iraq remain the violence of the faction bombers and militants and the disastrously incompetent American occupation? More and more ordinary Iraqi citizens, except some of the Ministers in the green zone, see an early US withdrawal as a catalyst for all the different Iraqi groups to begin painfully but positively to negotiate their own sovereign and durable peace.
My Lords, I think that everybody in the alliance would like to get to the point where they believe that security could be achieved at a level where it was no longer necessary for them to be there. That would, no doubt, be a moment welcomed by the Iraqi people; but those inflicting the bombings, deaths and multiple tragedies on the Iraqi people are terrorists who have chosen to do so. They will have to be resisted by the international movement; otherwise, we would allow internal collapse and the takeover of that country from a democratic Government by a group of insurgents.
My Lords, will the Minister comment on a growing number of reports that the increased American troop levels in Baghdad are having some effect on its security? It may have improved slightly, although one realises the dangers of commenting on this when something terrible happens. The surge philosophy may not be quite as bankrupt as some feared. What role have Her Majesty’s Government played in the recent Baghdad security conference—I am not sure what level of representation we had—and what role are we likely to play in the proposals for the meeting on 28 and 29 March, led by Saudi Arabia, for reactivating the Arab peace initiative? Generally, where do we stand as a nation in all these moves to bring the neighbouring countries together to resolve the Iraq situation? The impression grows that British influence in these areas has severely declined. Could the Minister refute that worrying claim?
My Lords, it is too early to know whether the surge has succeeded, but I am encouraged by the early indications. I think we will have to review that. We were pleased to participate in the meeting as invitees, and we have expressed our support for Iraq’s sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity. We hope to take part in the expert working groups that will work through to the meetings that the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, mentioned. We have a good deal of expertise to offer, and it is helpful to be able to do it with Syria and Iran now taking part in the discussions.
My Lords, in his Answer the Minister spoke of the working groups, one of which is on border security. As I understand it, it is between the neighbouring states and Iraq. Is there a mechanism for the UK to be represented, given the special concerns we have about transit across the Iran/Iraq border?
My Lords, the working groups are just starting. I am not yet 100 per cent clear who they will look to for additional outside support. Recently we had some indications that expertise that we can bring to bear in this area would be regarded as valuable by those in the region who have to face the difficulties, and we stand ready to give that expertise.
My Lords, I believe that some refugees have returned home to relatively more stable parts of Iraq. No one wants to see destitute people in Syria or Jordan. There is a good deal in our aid programme that may well help. I include in that our aid programme in Iraq, which should help to encourage people to return. We have now carried out £640 million worth of work and reconstruction, which we hope will give greater security to those who need it.
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that earlier this week a group of Iraqi parliamentarians visited the Palace of Westminster? They told us that violence appeared to be declining, refugees were returning and there was increasing respect for the organs of state now being set up. Do the Government share that view? How do they view prospects for the near future?
My Lords, the evidence appears to us to be flowing in that direction. I am cautious about it, which I hope the House will appreciate. I want to see more of the evidence over a longer period to feel confident about it, but it would be churlish not to welcome the first signs that we are seeing.
Business of the House: Standing Order 47
My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That Standing Order 47 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with on Monday 19 March to allow the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill and the Income Tax Bill to be taken through their remaining stages that day.—(Baroness Amos.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Business of the House: Debate Today
My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the debate on the Motion in the name of the Lord King of Bridgwater set down for today shall be limited to five hours.—(Baroness Amos.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Business of the House: Sub Judice
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I wish to make a Statement on the sub judice rule in respect of the court martial case R v Payne and others.
Having received a request so to do, I have decided to waive the strict application of the sub judice rule in respect of this case and the issues it raises. However, one of the defendants in the case, Corporal Payne, is awaiting sentence for his conviction of inhumane treatment. Though the remaining six defendants have been acquitted, under the rules of the House the case would normally have remained sub judice until the conclusion of the mandatory post-trial review.
I therefore ask noble Lords not to comment on the charges against and the conviction of Corporal Payne or to discuss the actual circumstances of the incident to which the case relates.
rose to call attention to the state of the Armed Forces of the Crown; and to move for Papers.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I start by expressing our deep sympathy, sorrow and condolences—I know that in this I carry the whole House with me—to all those who have lost their lives in the recent conflicts. I include in our thoughts those who are very often forgotten—the wounded. The wonders of modern medicine mean that many more people who perhaps would have died in earlier conflicts now survive. However, the triumphs of modern medicine mean that many more people perhaps survive, but often with considerable impairment and disability. In official records, the number of dead is often recorded but the number of those wounded is often ignored. We should recognise that at the start of this debate. I know that I will carry the House with me in paying tribute to the outstanding courage, commitment and skill of our Armed Forces, who have been put—particularly in recent years—in the most difficult circumstances and who have discharged their duties with outstanding courage and determination.
I welcome the quantity and the quality of speakers for this debate. It is no secret that that is some indicator of the concerns that exist in many corners of the House about the state of our Armed Forces at present, about the challenges with which we are facing them and about the issues the Government and we in these Houses need to address.
I do not recall an occasion when there have been more warnings or more comments from senior officers, expressing their concerns about the present situation. This is a difficult issue and many say that it is quite improper for senior, serving officers to speak out. Yet they have a duty to those whom they lead. Provided it is handled responsibly, it is important that the servicemen they lead are aware of their concerns and the problems that they face.
The House will be familiar with recent quotations. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, said that,
“there is no shortage of work these days for our soldiers”,
but there is a shortage of soldiers to do it. Barely a week ago, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, gave evidence before the House of Commons Defence Select Committee in which he said categorically that the Armed Forces are “very stretched”. He said that,
“there is not much left in the locker”.
On the challenge he faces,
“the lack of training and recruitment and retention”,
worry him most. From the present, stretched situation, he spoke—I doubt any Chief of the Defence Staff has said this before—of the problem of recovery and said:
“We are not going to be in the business of engaging in large-scale, high-end war-fighting operations for some years to come”.
That statement to the Prime Minister, saying his Armed Forces would not be in the business of any substantial defence of our country, is an interesting comment on the problems. He went on to say that,
“either we need to reduce the overall level of commitment, or we have to think about the overall force structure”.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, who is in his place in the House, talked about the hurt from the lack of adequate government funding.
All these are indicative of the strains on our Armed Forces. It is no secret, and puts great pressures on our troops and challenges on morale. I have no doubt of, and many testimonies have been paid to, the morale of our forces in the face of the enemy and on active service on the ground. It is a different matter when they come home, where they and their families face different challenges. One particular challenge—it is currently grave—is that of getting public support for their activities and operations. The unhappy background to the events of Iraq—problems with inaccurate intelligence, the dossier, the inaccurate information about weapons of mass destruction, the catastrophic absence of planning thereafter—made our forces’ job that much more difficult on the ground.
On Afghanistan, the Chief of the Defence Staff was pretty frank in his evidence to the Defence Select Committee about the difficulty in forming adequate intelligence appraisal in advance of our involvement in Helmand province. The evidence—much warned about at the time—was that the forces we were putting into Helmand province would not be adequate, and that has proved to be the case. On the unfortunately misunderstood comments of John Reid about being happy if not a shot were fired, I cannot remember how much ammunition has now been consumed in the extraordinary gunfight taking place in Afghanistan. The return of his successor from a visit to troops in Afghanistan saying to Mr Des Browne that he did not realise how tough the Taliban would be gave us some cause for concern about how accurate the appreciation was of the challenge.
Out of this has arisen the use of the word “covenant”, which I never recall hearing in my time as Secretary of State for Defence. I think that everyone in this House accepts the principle that lies behind that word, although I do not think that anyone has felt previously the need to use it. It was used by General Mike Jackson in his Dimbleby lecture and has been used frequently since. Obviously, if we ask young men and women to stand in harm’s way to fight for what we believe is just cause, to risk their lives, and to risk injury and incur it as they do, they are entitled to expect the full support and resource of the nation behind them in that undertaking. Sadly and with great regret, out of that comes also talk of the possible formation of unions in the Armed Forces. The feeling has arisen before and is arising again that perhaps there is a need for some other support; that is, they are not fully represented by the support of the country expressed through the Government, the Ministry of Defence and their leadership, and their concerns are not fully reflected.
I was very struck by the speech that the Prime Minister made in Plymouth. I understand that it is part of his farewell tour of a series of lectures entitled “Our Nation’s Future”. He said that of course he understands that there is,
“some anger at faulty weapons or ammunition; boots and body armour; the right vehicles or the wrong ones; and the problems of transport … home”,
and problems with single or married accommodation being below standard. He said that,
“ten years ago none of this would have mattered so much. In times in which men and women are being asked for so much more, they do”.
I profoundly disagree with that statement. It should be the determination of us all to ensure that they have the best possible equipment at all times.
If we take the Prime Minister’s statement further, we never know where the next problem will come from. I was Secretary of State for Defence—my noble friend Lord Hurd is in his place—when we had a totally unexpected event in the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein. The attitude that nothing much is going on so that it does not really matter whether we have everything in place or have a few problems is an appalling approach. We have to strive at all times to be ready for whatever eventuality will arise. The Prime Minister continued:
“For our part, in Government, it will mean increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces; not in the short run but for the long term”.
I would have preferred to hear that statement at the start of his term of office and not on his farewell tour.
The current situation is no secret and is known to the House. Obviously, there are challenges for the RAF and the Royal Navy, but I shall concentrate on the Army. We have 39 battalions in the Army, only two of which are at full strength and 37 under strength. Last June, the Minister said in a debate in this House that recruitment was good and retention was satisfactory. I would be very interested to hear the current situation. In welcoming the recent pay settlement for our Armed Forces, I suspect that that sort of settlement does not come out of the Treasury unless there is a stark realisation that something needs to be done and that the Treasury was presented with some pretty dire figures to persuade it to move in the apparently much more generous approach than it had in the past. In technical terms, it is claimed that planning assumptions have been exceeded in the past seven years, which is hitting the training and regeneration capabilities of our Armed Forces.
I do not know how many of your Lordships were here when the Minister repeated a Statement on troop withdrawal from Bosnia. The Minster will recall that he started by expressing his condolences to Rifleman Coffey of the 2nd Battalion of the Rifles. What hit your Lordships at the time was the realisation that here was a young man who had been a trained soldier for barely a year, who was on his second tour in Afghanistan, already having done a seven-month tour—longer than the intended six months. He sadly lost his life on a second tour that he had been asked to volunteer for because of a shortage of trained troops.
Recently in the other place a Question was asked about the Government’s definition of overstretch. The Answer given by Mr Adam Ingram was that overstretch would be if the Army was unable to fulfil the tasks asked of it. That is a very limited interpretation of overstretch. The Armed Forces are outstandingly good at taking on and meeting the immediate challenge of the moment—that is one of the challenges that they face. The duty of Government and Parliament is to see not just whether they are able to fulfil the tasks asked of them at this moment but whether they are going to be able to fulfil those tasks in two, three or five years’ time. That is my reason for raising this debate.
Obviously the pay settlement is an attempt to help with retention and recruitment problems. There are morale issues; recently there has been much publicity about medical facilities. I do not wish to go over that in detail but other Members may wish to. It was mentioned in the other place yesterday by the Prime Minister. We face the challenge of a much tougher combat environment than was expected, and the number of casualties is rising. The Minister may like to comment on the number of wounded who are now facing the kind of issues found in the Walter Reed Hospital, which led to the sacking of the US Army Secretary and the Surgeon-General. It was stated that they were overwhelmed by the number of casualties coming back from Afghanistan and Iraq. I do not know to what extent we are able to cope with the numbers that we are incurring.
Other issues affect morale and retention. I live not far from the Lyneham airbase. A recent issue of the local paper, the Wiltshire Gazette, under the heading “How Many More Men Must Die?” stated:
“Crews are being sent to war in flying bombs”.
This refers to damage due to the lack of fire-suppressant foam in the Hercules aircraft that are used—or are not, I hope, now being used—for airbridge activities. That sort of article can be damaging. It was written by a former Hercules pilot, expressing his concern about the lack of proper equipment. Why are all the planes that the Americans have flying in the war zone properly protected? Why did the Australians take action in 2004 with their Hercules? When the matter was brought up in 2002 each Hercules could be protected for $25,000. That is one small illustration to establish whether we are taking justified care of our Armed Forces.
The former Chief of General Staff stood up and said that some of the accommodation for our Armed Forces is “frankly shaming”. I have to say to the Government that the Chief of the Defence Staff in his evidence to the Defence Select Committee referred to the fact the even if superhuman efforts are made and a huge programme undertaken—I think £5 billion is now earmarked for this programme—30 per cent of accommodation will still remain unsatisfactorily.
It is against that background that we face the challenges of the future. John Smith made an interesting comment in a recent debate on the Armed Forces in another place. He said that the trouble was that most people in the Army did not really join up to fight on a regular basis. It is true that that has not been the experience of people who have served in the Army since the end of the Second World War. He said our service personnel now find themselves,
“fighting, not just once, but again and again, in most difficult circumstances”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/2/07; cols. 440-42.]
“But can we continue with a peacetime budget when some might say that we are in a wartime situation?”.
The Chief of the Defence Staff told the Defence Select Committee that there was a limit, which, if exceeded for extended periods, could cause considerable difficulties. He said that, if it was exceeded on more or less a permanent basis, that limit was not right.
The chairman of the Select Committee, Mr James Arbuthnot, said to the Chief of the Defence Staff:
“Your answers this morning have all been of a piece, in a sense. They suggest that commitments are higher than planned, that they are going on for longer than planned, that that combination is affecting readiness and training and at some stage the elastic could break. You said you wanted to be aware of the cliff before you actually walked over it”.
The Chief of the Defence Staff gave a fairly extensive answer. He said that he had already warned of this situation and that, during the next 12 months, they would get an idea of what their response would have to be.
I now draw the House’s attention to the speech of the Prime Minister. I referred earlier to the comments that he made in Plymouth. He made it clear that this was not a short-term situation or a temporary blip or a tiresome little local difficulty in Afghanistan or Iraq. He said:
“So my choice is for Armed forces that are prepared to engage in this difficult, tough, challenging campaign, to be warfighters as well as peacekeepers; for a British foreign policy that keeps our American alliance strong and is prepared to project hard as well as soft power; and for us as a nation to be as willing to fight terrorism and pay the cost of that fight wherever it may be, as we are to be proud champions of the causes of peace in the Middle East”.
He said that this is the new challenge that we face. When he spoke about tackling poverty in Africa and said that one cannot tackle poverty without security, and when he spoke about the challenge of terrorism wherever it is in the world, he was setting out an agenda for our country and our Armed Forces which I think we have not yet addressed. We are moving into it. The question, as I have said so many times in this House, is not just whether we can do it now, but whether we are doing permanent damage by not recognising the challenges that we face. We should be prepared to recognise them now and to provide for them. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I declare my interest as a director of Finmeccanica (UK) and as non-executive chairman of Selex (S&AS) SpA.
This is my first speech on defence matters since ceasing to be Minister for Defence Procurement some 22 months ago. It was an enormous privilege to be a Minister within the Ministry of Defence for almost four years, particularly at a time when, whatever else could be said, defence was at the very centre of events.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord King, for introducing this debate and congratulate him on speaking from the Back-Benches this year on a Motion that he has instigated. If no one else understands what I am referring to, I know that the noble Lord will.
Over the past 10 years, my party in government has proved its credentials as seriously committed to defence, and we continue to do so. Our political opponents have tried hard to persuade the British people on three separate occasions that we could not be trusted with something as crucial as the nation's defence. They failed three times. At a time when we have been addressing decades of underinvestment elsewhere in our public services and in our national infrastructure, the Government have done well in increasing the level of defence spending. I remind the House that the last spending review added another £3.7 billion to the defence budget, a real-terms increase of 1.4 per cent per year, resulting in the longest sustained increase in defence spending for 20 years.
In this debate, there will be many and varied criticisms by a number of noble and gallant Lords with a lifetime’s experience in the defence field, whose great advantage is that they are not party-political animals. I believe, as I always have, that the Government should take a great deal of notice of their comments and proposals. I hope that I always did that when serving as a defence Minister, and I know that my noble friend the Minister pays special attention to what they have to say.
The traditions of this House mean much to me, but I must confess that I have never really understood one of them. Why is it that, while Government and Ministers are fair game, criticisms of the record of opposition parties when in government and those of ex-Secretaries of State are somehow considered not good form? I say this because, in life, it is always important to look at what someone has done when considering how seriously to take their criticism. By way of example, the Options for Change policy of the early 1990s resulted in savage cuts for our Armed Forces, and thus for our defence capability. It was almost entirely premised on a false view of history, best described by Fukuyama as “The end of history”. In short: the false notion that, because the Soviet empire had fallen, we could somehow be less troubled about defending ourselves since liberal democracy had won.
So, “peace dividend” proposals were put forward by the Government of the day, and carried out—in spite of constant and dire warnings from, among others, the House of Commons Defence Committee. Of course, we now know that these policies did a great disservice to the UK Armed Forces and British defence policy. We feel their consequences even today. In its 1991 and 1992 reports, the Defence Committee found, despite repeated denials from Ministers,
“a pervasive sense throughout the Options for Change exercise that financial constraints have at times overridden purely military considerations”.
It worried whether the size of the new Army proposed would be adequate to deal with future crises, and whether the Army’s peacetime commitments could be met without unacceptable strain. It reported in July 1996 that,
“at the present time, the RAF is just about meeting its commitments”,
and expressed the hope that,
“this year’s Statement will not again be undermined by further defence cuts in the 1996 Budget or by any other means”.
My advice to the Government would be: do not be oversensitive to attacks from those whose own record, to put it mildly, is less than satisfactory.
My Lords, can we just kill the Options for Change argument? I took some responsibility for that; the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent, personally oversaw it in this House and Sir Richard Mottram, who is now a senior servant of the present Government, played an outstanding part in that review. If we had the forces now that Options for Change arranged that we should have, we would be in a much happier position than we are. We did that against the background of an obvious reduction in threat: the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says, but the reduction in our Armed Forces that took place as a result of Options for Change, based as that was on a false premise, was one that we feel the consequences of even today.
As we speak, British Armed Forces are of course engaged around the world, risking their lives, so that our country’s security may be protected, but also in order to make this a safer and better world. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to them and their families. We also need to think carefully before indulging in easy political soundbites that make their already difficult task even harder.
I shall say a word about defence procurement. By its very nature, this is and always has been a controversial and difficult field. We must take account of not only present needs but future requirements. It is necessary to anticipate the whole range of potential threats that could arise decades ahead. Technology today advances so quickly that new potential solutions are always emerging. However, one thing is abundantly clear: if you travel abroad, as I did, you will appreciate that the military equipment used by members of our Armed Forces is considered to among the very best in the world. That is why, along with the excellence of DESO, we have been successful in selling equipment to friends and allies.
Selling defence equipment is an important and valid activity. Not only does it assist the UK's interests around the world, it also creates and maintains thousands of jobs in British manufacturing industry. In just the past three years, equipment valued at more than £10 billion has been delivered to the Armed Forces. The new amphibious ships of the Royal Navy are the envy of the world, our Type 45 Destroyers will be world-beating and, of course, the two aircraft carriers will represent the culmination of a significant naval programme. Tranche 2 of Eurofighter is now being flown, and everyone knows how highly the RAF rates that aircraft. A whole range of other equipment is now being employed successfully.
I congratulate my noble friend on his achievement in introducing the defence industrial strategy and the associated defence technology strategy. In a very modest way, I had something to do with the emergence of a defence industrial policy, which was the forerunner of the detailed and comprehensive strategy now in place. That strategy has widespread support among the defence industry, and a great deal of credit must go to my noble friend for the impressive way in which he has driven this project forward.
As I said at the start of my speech, it was a privilege to have been a Defence Minister for almost four years and a particular honour to have been the Minister in this House. There is a real appreciation in this place of the value of our country's Armed Forces. The pleasure and privilege of working with not only members of the Armed Forces but also excellent Ministry of Defence civil servants will remain with me for the rest of my life. Our country should be very proud of them.
My Lords, we all recognise that we are discussing an extremely serious subject. The noble Lord, Lord King, in introducing it referred to the condolences, which we all offer, to the families of our troops who are killed and injured in action. We recognise how many of them are currently deployed and how hard stretched they are.
I want to follow the noble Lord in taking as my text the Prime Minister’s speech on HMS “Albion” on 12 January and marking, as he did, some of the assumptions of that speech. The Prime Minister stated that our defence and foreign policy should be,
“governed as much by values as interests”,
and that we further our values as well as,
“our interests in the modern era of globalisation and interdependence”.
He went on to state:
“The new frontiers for our security are global … with no immediate threat to our territory, in environments and in ways unfamiliar to”,
our troops. He pointed out that our troops,
“will usually fight alongside other nations, in alliance with them”.
He referred to two major alliances—with the United States and Europe—and said that our troops will fight,
“notably, but probably not exclusively with the USA”.
He concluded by saying:
“The covenant between Armed Forces, Government and people has to be renewed”.
There are some very major themes there about why British forces are deployed so widely in the world, what their responsibilities are and the nature of the covenant between our Armed Forces and the public.
On Tuesday I was engaged in launching a book on just war, called The Price of Peace, which is a joint exercise between the Archbishops’ Council and the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. We addressed the question of the obligation to use force, the other side of just war: how far does one need to accept and share responsibilities for global order and what is the responsibility to protect?
Our Prime Minister, from his Chicago speech onwards, has taken our responsibilities very broadly. As he said in Chicago:
“We have to think about the use of armed force as an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress”.
He has made it clear that that is an obligation which we share with other countries all over the world. But how much responsibility should Britain take, and with whom? Mr Blair has made it clear that he sees our responsibilities as exercised primarily with the United States and, secondly, with out European partners—not very much, incidentally, with the United Nations. I think I am right in saying that at the moment the Chinese have more troops on UN peacekeeping operations than the United Kingdom.
I have some doubts about the evolving discussion in the United States about the changing role of NATO and the extent to which the United States now sees NATO as a global alliance that shoulders the burden of maintaining global order as a sort of modernised white man’s burden, with the Japanese, the Australians, New Zealanders and others. We have to question the extent to which the burden of world order is one to which we should be co-opting the Chinese, the Indians and others within a strengthened and reformed United Nations, and to question what the future role of NATO should be.
The noble Lord, Lord King, referred to Options for Change, the first post-Cold War defence review. I was reading last weekend Simon Jenkins’s splendid book Thatcher and Sons in which he notes that the 1982 defence review, the Conservatives’ first defence review, had intended to reduce our defence ambitions down to those of a moderately sized European country, but the implications of that review had been blown out of the water by the Falklands, and, in effect, since then we have never got back to accepting how we need to be more modest and more moderate in our aspirations. In 1997-98, this Government conducted a defence review that attempted to address some of those questions but that, oddly, entirely left out the European dimension.
Some months afterwards, the Prime Minister, on his own initiative, launched a major European defence initiative with the French into which a number of British generals, officials and others had put a great deal of effort. I am constantly struck as I talk to people from other Defence Ministries and other European armed forces by their references to the positive British contribution to the building of the recent Nordic battle group, the co-operation with the Germans, the Dutch, the Danes, the Swedes and others. Nothing of that appears in the British press because the Faustian bargain between the Government and the Murdoch press is one in which the positive contribution that the Dutch and the Germans are making in Afghanistan, and that the Swedes and the Danes made in our operation in Congo et cetera, is not convenient to address. We now need a 2008 defence review, and on a cross-party consultative basis in order to promote consensus for public support on the role we are asking our Armed Forces to fulfil. It has to be a more modest role because no Chancellor from any party is going to support a significant spending increase and we have to work within those limits.
Let me move rapidly on to the question of the military covenant. I note, incidentally, that the Army doctrine publication talks about the military covenant as the mutual obligation,
“between the nation, the Army and each individual soldier”.
It goes on to say:
“It has perhaps its greatest manifestation in the annual commemoration of Armistice Day, when the nation keeps covenant with those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in action”.
I faced some hostility some weeks ago when I raised the question of whether we needed to rethink how we commemorate Armistice Day to link in with what our Armed Forces are now doing. We need to think through how we connect what our Armed Forces are doing today with how we present their contribution to the nation—to the public. We all recognise the ambiguities with which our Armed Forces now have to cope—what an American Marine general called the three-block war, in which troops find themselves providing humanitarian aid, enforcing the peace, and then sometimes being involved in direct, hard combat within a few blocks of the same occupied city. We also recognise the weakening of the links between the forces and society, 50 years from the end of conscription and national service, with shrinking reserves and part-timers, with the Armed Forces having a preference for long-term engagement of a larger number of younger people moving through our forces on short-term engagement, and with the rising proportion of non-British soldiers in our Army—now just over 5 per cent, from Nepal, Fiji and a range of other Commonwealth countries.
Others will address the conditions for our Armed Forces, and I hope the changing and much more complex legal framework under conditions of instant communications, interventions from human rights groups and much larger media coverage. Perhaps some will touch on the political exploitation of our Armed Forces through active media management; it is always good for Prime Ministers and Defence Ministers to appear with “our boys” in good photo opportunities. If we are to rebuild public support and understanding, we need to rebuild the military covenant. A Lords sessional committee might usefully address the question of the Armed Forces’ links with the public and the political class. Many in the Armed Forces have argued that the covenant is close to breaking; perhaps we should address how best to rebuild it.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, for initiating the debate, and I take heart from the effective and penetrating way he got it going. He had considerable ministerial experience of defence in peace and war, and, having served in a famous light infantry regiment, has personal experience of the forces and the understanding of their ethos that counts so much. I am certain that the Minister of State will listen most carefully to all that is said with his usual care and courtesy, and I congratulate him very much on his promotion, which many of us on all sides of the House think is richly deserved.
It is not difficult to identify matters of deep concern over this country’s defence policy. Over the past 12 years, we have seen two initially not unreasonable and even acclaimed defence reviews, the Conservative Options for Change and the Government’s Strategic Defence Review, both systematically and progressively degraded by the Treasury to make them more draconian and less relevant and sustainable in the light of what had become our foreign policy and our Armed Forces’ commitment. Now figures from NATO, the National Audit Office and many other responsible sources give chilling testimony about falling strength in personnel, ships, aircraft and the paltry percentage of our national income—the GDP—that we spend on defence compared with other countries. That is all brought about by continued and continual underfunding, all when this Government have presided over a big increase in their commitments, and when our forces have been operating consistently above the most demanding combinations of operations envisaged by defence planners. Hang “additional strains on the staff”, the only overstretch that the Ministry of Defence spokesman, more concerned about saving Ministers from embarrassment than anything else, will admit to. I am concerned about the undoubted stretch and strain on the fighting men on the ground, the air crew and their ground crew, ships at sea and the effect that it has on leave, time spent with families, retention and, most vital of all, essential professional training at every level, which has suffered disastrously.
Essentially, two major problems emerge for the ministry, one immediate and one longer term. When General Richards, our recent, much-respected NATO commander in Afghanistan, said on leaving, “Well, with what we had we didn’t do a bad job”, going on to say that more troops were now urgently needed, he was merely saying what many people, particularly noble and gallant Lords, knew only too well, and about which they had warned Ministers. That was that we had entered into a pacification operation in the south without the foresight of the inevitable threat to produce enough troops on the ground or enough helicopters in the air—with other shortages too—all accentuated by our preoccupation with Iraq. Now significantly more troops are being sent, but it is clear that this increased presence cannot be sustained as long as we continue to have a shooting war on two fronts.
The Prime Minister has promised to see that the forces have the fighting power, equipment and logistic backing that they need. The extra ground troops will undoubtedly enable our forces to engage the Taliban on more favourable terms and allow them to win more local engagements. Whether those troops, and perhaps more later, will put us in a position to achieve a conclusive result is still very much open to question. As I said in your Lordships’ House last November, we really should be thinking hard about ways of containing and dealing with al-Qaeda other than engaging in what may well turn out to be an open-ended battle against the Taliban and others who for centuries have resented the presence of foreigners, let alone westerners, in their country. In any event, funding for our better equipped and sustained forces will be required for some time to come.
The second problem is a longer term one that will get out of hand if a start is not made to tackle it now. Defence policy, like an insurance policy, which it virtually is, of which we have had experience in our own lives, has to be able to deal with immediate needs, which from time to time inevitably crop up, and at the same time guard against the bigger disasters which we hope will never happen but one day might. In military terms, the latter would cover the ability to deter, however that is done, to move quickly to the points of trouble, to have the training and equipment for the hard battle capability, as the Prime Minister put it, and to deal with lesser but still complicated and dangerous alarms and excursions.
The whole thing comes back to funding. If the Government want to have—as they steadfastly claim they do—three or four nuclear submarines to launch a Trident replacement, and two fleet carriers and the aircraft to fly off them to give our forces strategic mobility, power projection and local air cover irrespective of the situation in the area, and they also need to provide the extra or improved equipment and support for our forces engaged now and in the foreseeable future, all that expenditure will start to come together at a crunch period from 2011. To put it bluntly, the anticipated funding will just not go round.
It will be interesting to see what the Government have in mind to do about that. Will they, for instance, try to continue to cut their coat according to their cloth, and if so how? Perhaps they would do it by backtracking on their firm personnel and equipment commitments, on which they have more or less staked their reputation. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that. Or will they take the bold step of assembling more cloth? There will be other pressing requirements for increased expenditure in areas that, albeit peripheral to mainstream operations, are no less high profile, such as forces’ accommodation. As the noble Lord, Lord King, said, even after the £500 million extra now promised, at least 30 per cent of forces’ accommodation will still be unacceptably substandard four years from now. The shambles in certain aspects of medical care will never be put right unless more funding is put into it.
I suppose that none of us, in the provision of our own insurance, ever expects to be fully insured, always taking into account what we can afford; but that is exactly what the Government manifestly have not done over the past eight years. Bearing in mind our rising GDP and the fact that, although the threats today are not potentially as massive as those of the Cold War, they are no less dangerous, I suggest that it is highly irresponsible that this Government are spending only just over 2 per cent of what the nation earns on what is, after all, their prime responsibility: the security of the state.
So if the Government are serious about what the Prime Minister has openly said about the need to spend more on defence—Her Majesty’s Opposition appear to have endorsed this—it is up to the Cabinet to take the collective decision that in this dangerous world we are not paying sufficient insurance premiums. If that could then lead them to accept that, if necessary and if the case were properly made, defence expenditure could be allowed to rise up to a not unreasonable 3 per cent of GDP, it would be a major step forward. It would make it possible properly to manage the budget over the difficult next five to 15 years, and it would enable the Government to keep faith with and sustain that covenant with the Armed Forces, as has already been mentioned and as was eloquently enunciated by my noble and gallant friend Lord Walker of Aldringham in his maiden speech. The unphased pay award may have been a start but it came from a very low base line.
Such a decision would also, above all, send a clear signal to the Treasury, just as back in the 1970s and mid-1980s the accepted—beginning with the Callaghan Government—NATO target of 3 per cent growth in real terms sent such a signal, and it would take decisions on cash squeezes out of the exclusive hands of senior Treasury officials, where they lie at the moment. However, if something on these lines is not seriously considered, I, for one, will fear for the future, when at any moment, and unless we handle properly, with vigour, skill and imagination, our joined-up defence and foreign policy and the influence that this can bring us, wider conflict may break out in the Near East, which will have disastrous effects for the peace of the whole world and the future of this country.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall. I associate myself with his remarks concerning my noble friend Lord King, who made a powerful speech—I associate myself wholly with what he said. I also agree with the noble and gallant Lord in congratulating the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, on being promoted in-post. This is a most welcome move and a tribute to two extra qualities that the noble and gallant Lord did not mention: energy and perseverance. We congratulate him from these Benches and look forward to his continuing contribution.
I shall speak very briefly about a specific but important issue: the condition of our reservists. I speak as president of the Council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association in the United Kingdom. Something like 40,000 reservists are currently serving in the United Kingdom.
Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the formation, on 1 April 1908, of Lord Haldane’s volunteer army. The territorials were initially formed into 14 infantry divisions and 14 mounted yeomanry brigades. I am very proud that my grandfather was one of the earliest recruits to the Cheshire Yeomanry. In those days, when the territorials were formed, there were 104 territorial force associations, one for each county and city. They are the forerunners of the present Reserve Forces and cadets associations throughout the country. I pay tribute to them for their hard-working support for our reservists.
Lord Haldane would be proud of the changes to our Reserve Forces and the challenges that they face. Of course, we now have reservists in the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force. I shall focus my brief remarks on the Territorial Army. Lord Haldane would have been amazed at the integration of the volunteers into the Regular Army, so that we now have one Army. He would have been amazed at the continuous service abroad of our reservists in relative peace time—not in world wars. I think that I am right in saying that the maximum number of reservists in any conflict in the past 10 years has been 15 per cent of troops committed. In the past 10 years, some 18,000 men and women have been mobilised for a series of conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan
My first point relates to extended requirements, which my noble friend Lord King and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, talked of. Those extended requirements and pressures have to be balanced by ensuring that there is sustainability in what can be offered, not only by our Regular Forces, but also by our reservists. To coin the same phrase as was coined by my noble friend Lord King and was recently used by Sir Jock Stirrup, there is not much left in the locker as regards our reservists. We are reaching the end of voluntary mobilisation and some of our reservists have served second and third tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must be very careful that we do not move to a situation of persistent compulsory mobilisation, with a knock-on effect for the relationship between reservists and employers, an issue that my noble friend Lord Glenarthur might touch on later in the debate. Voluntary mobilisation is one thing, but compulsory mobilisation is another. Secondly, sustainability relates to training and specifically to what the Army calls man-training days. I fear that there might be further pressure on that. The more you cut the training on offer to our reservists, the more difficult it is to recruit them and certainly to retain them. I hope that the Minister will bear that in mind.
My second point, which was also mentioned by my noble friend Lord King, concerns those who have been injured and return to the United Kingdom, let alone those who have given their lives. Returning reservists do not have a regiment to come back to and they do not have the support of the Regular Army. Very often they go home and, if they suffer from combat stress or are injured, they have to rely on their families and their employers to a much greater extent than the regulars. I pay tribute to the welfare charities and to the National Employer Advisory Board, chaired by my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, but on behalf of the Reserve Forces Association I offer the Minister renewed effort in trying to give support for our reservists as regards injury and combat stress. We are well placed to do that and we shall make an effort.
My third point is that we have to deal with the problem of recruiting and retaining specialist reservists. I am thinking of those drawn from the National Health Service, interpreters, and those who can advise on the reconstruction of damaged areas, not only in conflict zones but also for barracks in conflict zones. We are well below manning levels in some of those specialist TA categories; we are at 50 or 60 per cent strength. That is unacceptable. We have to make a new initiative. I put one suggestion to the Minister. Perhaps under his chairmanship or that of one of his colleagues, and with all-party support, we might make a special plea to employer organisations, particularly in the National Health Service and in some of the professional bodies, to explain the importance of specialist recruitment into the Territorial Army. I am sure that there would be a sound response to that.
In anticipation of the centenary, I hope that your Lordships will join with me in saying a heartfelt “thank you” to our reservists, their families and their employers for service to Queen and country.
My Lords, I begin by agreeing with the opening sentence of the noble Lord, Lord King, in the tribute that he paid to all those soldiers who have laid down their lives in the service of their country. However, I began to disagree with him when he said that the large number of speakers in the debate reflected concern about the state of our Armed Forces. I emphasise that I am not speaking from such a concern. I speak as someone who wants to express gratitude and admiration for necessary, imperative work that is well done and professionally undertaken within a budget that can be sustained. The noble Lord, Lord King, seemed to be saying—I do not want to be too polemical in today's debate, as this is not the occasion—that we need either more resources or to do less. I did not hear any advice to the Government about the things that we ought not to do. Therefore, the implication is that we need more resources. In that respect, I found the speech rather long on rhetoric and short on specific promise.
It serves us well to reflect on some of the more mundane things that this Government are doing, day in day out, week in week out, to improve the situation for our Armed Forces. There is always significant comment on the state of housing and accommodation. That state of degradation in the estate did not start in 1997; it has come about after decades of neglect. Following those decades of neglect, the Government are pouring large sums of money into improving the estate. As I understand it, in 2005-06 the Ministry of Defence spent £700 million on housing and other living accommodation and upgraded over 1,700 service family homes, way above the target of 600 that it had set for that year. There is good pragmatic evidence of very significant improvements. The Ministry of Defence, as I found out following my inquiries, is proposing to spend more than £5 billion over the next decade on further improvements to housing and living accommodation with plans for a further 35,000 improved bed spaces. That is a very real contribution to improving morale in our Armed Forces and, through that, improving retention.
Equally, on medical support, one could be forgiven at times for believing that all the problems began in 1997, but for many years it had to be acknowledged that the Royal Hospital Haslar had nothing like the range of medical facilities necessary and certainly could not match the expertise of a major trust hospital such as that at Selly Oak in Birmingham. The decisions made by the previous Administration on closing military hospitals had to be made, but I believe that the alternative provision that is being made is fit for purpose.
On manning levels, of course the Armed Forces are working hard and of course they are stretched, but being stretched does not necessarily mean being overstretched. A major problem in manning levels—perhaps I might ask my noble friend to comment on it when he replies to the debate—is that something like one in eight of our service personnel is considered medically unfit for the task to which he or she is posted. Those are not the kind of demands that we are complaining about as regards medical services; the reasons tend to be boring ones of fitness, including dental unfitness. If we really want to do something about improving the capacity of our staff and improving the manning levels, getting rid of many of those one in eight unfit-for-purpose personnel would be a major contribution.
Looking at manning levels and resources, in an increasingly global world where much of our responsibility is channelled through bodies such as the European Union and NATO, we are entitled, with our contribution to global security, to ask some of our allies whether they are performing to the level that they ought. An important part of our contribution to the debate is not just to shoulder every obligation but, in a multilateral world, to use our political influence to put pressure on some of our allies to put their money where their mouth is. They are quick enough to run forward to participate in something like the European Defence Agency, where there might be a contract at the end of it, but they should pay admission to the club that they have joined by accepting their financial responsibility.
The same could be said about operational equipment. Of course, the Army could always use more. As I see it, however, the Armed Forces have had equipment valued at more than £10 billion delivered to them in the past three years. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Dean will deal at some length with the military pay settlement this year, which has been exemplary and of which we can be proud.
My final point is that, in Afghanistan, where we are putting in enormous military effort, we must also start looking at some of the other problems. I hope that defence and foreign affairs Ministers are looking seriously at the advice of the Senlis Council on the drug problem in Afghanistan and the desirability of procuring those drugs to meet the shortage of opiates in the European Union. That would guarantee farmers a proper income and thereby create a reasonable basis on which to get some peaceful solutions in that troubled country.
The Government are doing a good job in difficult circumstances. I participate today to express not my concern, but my praise.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord King, for calling this debate. One of the joys of being in this place is participating in a debate where so many have such considerable expertise and experience. I also congratulate the Minister on his recent promotion. It is well deserved; he enjoys a high reputation not just in this place, but outside. In opening, I declare that I am a patron of the Royal Marines Association.
First, I put on record my admiration and gratitude to our Armed Forces. Last night, I was reading obituaries of various Royal Marines and soldiers who have been killed in action in the past year of Afghanistan and Iraq deployments. It is impossible to exaggerate their courage and professionalism. They are doing magnificent work. When we read, hear or see the news in this country, it barely scratches the surface of the work they do and the valour that they display daily.
The operations in Afghanistan have been spearheaded by 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines for some months now. I have had the opportunity of discussing the current deployment in Afghanistan with individuals who have returned for a short break, or who have recently completed tours. I have heard that the troops on the front line are getting most, if not all, of the personal equipment they need. I am told that, as a general rule, the personal equipment being issued is reasonably good and fit for purpose. I am told also that morale is exceptionally high and Royal Marines and attached ranks are rightly proud of the fantastic work they are doing. Young men who passed out from training at the Commando School at Lympstone last October are now battle-hardened commando soldiers. They are facing combat of ferocity and on a scale not seen for decades, probably not since the Korean war in the 1950s.
Before I advert to medical support, I put on record my admiration for, and the debt we owe, to the many National Health Service staff deployed in theatre on active service in support of our troops, from consultants to support staff. I have spoken to a consultant who has recently returned from a three-month deployment in Afghanistan. He has been a doctor for 25 years, of which he has been a consultant for 10. He has told me that this is the most fulfilling period of his entire medical career.
The medical support teams do fantastic work. As always, systems and practices are improving with experience. There is, fortunately, a greater commitment to rehabilitating wounded and injured men in theatre, which is working well. Fighting troops like to be with their own. They need the support of their friends or “oppos”, and wounded and injured men are understandably reluctant to be evacuated to the UK. There is now a different approach to the men who have to be “casevaced”. If possible, they are left in theatre for three or four days, and there is a short chilling-out process. Men from their own unit can come and see them whenever possible, providing support in often traumatic circumstances.
Nevertheless, when they return, there are still problems. When wounded or injured troops are evacuated to the UK, they need an exclusively military area where they can be among their own and have that crucial mutual support. Furthermore, I gather that, even now, some men are being lost in the system. That is dreadful and unacceptable. Someone must be ultimately medically responsible for, and for monitoring, each wounded and injured man. That wounded or injured man’s priority is imperative. We owe each and every one of these men a debt of honour we can never repay. It is my understanding that there has been considerable improvement in dealing with these vital problems, but I nevertheless look to the Minister for confirmation that this matter is his most urgent priority. I hope that he will be able to assure the House that there will be more helicopters and helicopter pilots deployed in theatre. I am told that more armoured WMIKs are urgently required.
Secondly, on the support for the Commando Brigade, the Minister and the whole House will be aware from what I have said that the Royal Marines offer outstanding value for money. They are our elite troops, with lengthy training and complete flexibility and versatility. They can be deployed on operations anywhere in the world, from humanitarian operations to all-out combat. I need hardly emphasise in this House the importance of the expertise required for expeditionary and combined operations. The culture of the Royal Marines is based on many pillars, including a glorious history as an integral part of the Royal Navy. As noble Lords will be aware, that core history is being enhanced as we speak.
The Ministry of Defence has recently proposed that an infantry battalion be deployed in support of the Commando Brigade. I suggest that this is a mistake for the reasons I have already given. Training, experience and know-how are not easily acquired. The Ministry of Defence should reconsider this decision and consider reforming a fourth commando unit. About 25 years ago, we had five commando units: 40, 41, 42, 43 and 45. We now have three: 40, 42 and 45. I strongly suggest that the Ministry of Defence authorises the Royal Marines to reform a fourth commando unit. The House should bear in mind that nearly 50 per cent of badged Special Forces operators come from the Royal Marines.
I would like to say a few words about the current review of Britain's naval bases, particularly with reference to DML in Plymouth and Appledore. First, I hope that the matter of ownership of DML will be resolved as soon as possible and I look forward to hearing from the Minister about progress on that. Secondly, I hope that the Minister will remember that DML employs nearly 5,000 personnel in Plymouth and in Appledore, north Devon. I hope he will agree that DML Plymouth Appledore should be reinforced as the strategic hub of the Royal Navy. The amphibious ships Ocean, Albion and Bulwark are based at Devonport near the bulk of the 3 Commando Brigade. DML is the only shipyard capable of refitting nuclear submarines therefore it has to be preserved. No other yard could afford the £1 billion investment required to do this work. Furthermore, no other yard is likely to get planning permission. I hope the Minister will agree that if there are difficult choices to be made—and I acknowledge there are difficult choices to be made because of overcapacity—DML must be the only option, its capacity should be maximised, and that is in the best interests of our country.
My Lords, it is difficult to do justice to the very serious operational, funding and equipment issues affecting the effectiveness of our Armed Forces, but I must join other noble Lords in praising them for what they have done, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is all too easy to forget Trident, the strategic nuclear deterrent continuously on patrol and the many other operational tasks undertaken by our Armed Forces which are not in the glare of publicity; but there can be no doubt that, in certain key areas, the Armed Forces are not getting the support they deserve. In Iraq and Afghanistan we have seen some inspirational examples of leadership and great courage; our Armed Forces are a huge credit to our country and more importantly to the military leadership—and I stress military—within those forces. What I have to say next is not so positive.
I remain very concerned that, although our Armed Forces have the support of the nation, they are seen by many as a peripheral activity. Too few people have an understanding of the demands placed on our service men and women and their families. The Government and MoD officials, not just the Chiefs of Staff, have a great responsibility to educate the nation.
As many other noble Lords have said, we need to remember that recent emergencies have all been unforeseen: the Falklands, the first Gulf war, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. The threat now posed by international terrorism has the potential to be more demanding and is likely to last longer. In some ways people felt more secure in the Cold War than they do now, but that concern has not been translated by the Government into recognising the need for a sustained—and I stress sustained—increase in defence spending so that the Armed Forces can meet their wide range of operational challenges, which have major implications for training, which is crucial and expensive, and on the size of the forces. The noble Lord, Lord Burnett, has made a strong plea for the Royal Marines; I make a strong plea for other parts of the Armed Forces as well. Frankly, they are too small for the tasks being laid upon them. There are problems in funding a modern equipment programme and providing the right operational and administrative support not only on the medical side, about which much has been done, but in looking after families properly. In addition, the Armed Forces must have a legal system which they trust. I found it extraordinary that the Adjutant-General was forbidden to come and talk to the House of Lords Defence Group.
In recent months the Ministry of Defence has successfully persuaded the Treasury to fund a number of urgent operational requirements, but many of those were for equipment that should have already been in the defence programme. We know, for example, about the future rapid effects system vehicle, which is so important for the Army. It is unlikely to be available before 2012 and possibly not until 2017 or 2018. The RAF transport fleet, which does a great job in very demanding circumstances, is also suffering from neglect in funding. I am well aware that the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, has done much to improve the equipment process, and I join other noble Lords in congratulating him on his promotion, if he looks upon it as such.
My final point before moving on to Afghanistan is about the direction of the military campaign. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, in a very important debate on Iraq, turned the spotlight on the shortcomings in the campaign in Iraq. I sense that Afghanistan is drifting the same way. We need a clearer political military strategy that can be translated into clear direction for commanders on the ground. I recognise that, for the coalition in Afghanistan, this direction should come from NATO, but we also need a sharper focus here in London. I will say a little more about NATO in a minute. It is important that the strategy covers not only the military but the political, economic and hearts-and-minds campaign. We talk too much at the moment about the tactical successes, which have been considerable, particularly in Helmand province, but we do not think through how the campaign might develop. I think that there are going to be some bumps on the road.
I shall concentrate on Afghanistan. All the indications are that the coalition is looking for an elegant way to extract itself from Iraq and concentrate on Afghanistan because, to quote a number of people, it is “winnable”. I wonder whether that is the case—I say so not only because of the history of Afghanistan but also given the position of the warlords and tribal leaders. NATO, certainly at the moment, does not have enough troops in Afghanistan to allow us to really dominate the situation in order that a proper and—dare I say?— very expensive reconstruction campaign can follow in its wake. What are we really going to do about the poppy crop? A lot of noise was made about this in the early stages but very little seems to be happening. There are also other limitations. The Afghan national army has a very high rate of absenteeism, and you cannot train senior non-commissioned officers and other officers in just a few months. The Afghan national police are even worse.
The relationship with Pakistan is critical if we are to succeed in Afghanistan. Noble Lords will realise that this is a huge challenge. It would be awful if failure in Afghanistan and our demands on Pakistan created difficulties for the Pakistani/Indian relationship. Finally, we have to recognise that as far as Afghanistan is concerned we are in for the very long haul. I asked a number of people when I was there recently what they meant by the long haul. The optimistic ones said 20 years. I wonder whether the Conservative Party or the present Government are ready for that.
Afghanistan is, therefore, a real test for NATO. However, the contingents of too many NATO nations deployed in Afghanistan are too small and have very restricted rules of engagement; some are not allowed out at night. That makes it very difficult for the operational commander and will in time cause huge resentment. In addition, the chain of command back from General McNeill in Afghanistan to NATO is laborious and ponderous.
Recently I have been asking myself what my hero Field Marshal Viscount Slim, father of the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, would say about this. As many of your Lordships will know, Field Marshal Slim transformed the very demoralised British Eastern Army into the most successful 14 Army in Burma. If any man understood morale, he did and that is fundamentally important to our Armed Forces. Let me just quote what he said about morale in his outstanding book Defeat into Victory because there has been much talk about the military covenant. He said that morale must have a spiritual dimension, not in the religious sense but:
“There must be a great and noble objective. Its achievement must be vital. The method of achievement must be active … The man”—
it was, of course, mainly men, then—
“must feel that what he is and what he does matters directly towards the attainment of the object. He must be convinced that the objective can be attained; that it is not out of reach”.
Next, and very importantly, a man must feel,
“that the organisation to which he belongs and which is striving to attain the objective is an efficient one. He must have confidence in his leaders and that goes all the way up the chain of command and he must know that whatever dangers and hardships he is called upon to suffer, his life will not be lightly flung away. The man must feel that he will get a fair deal from his commanders and from the army generally. He must, as far as humanly possible, be given the best weapons and equipment for his task. His living and working conditions must be made as good as they can be”.
That is not a bad check list for the Government.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow the noble and gallant Lord—a privilege made a little less daunting by the fact that I agreed with so much of what he said. Because of so much very properly expressed anxiety recently about the medical treatment that has, or has not, been given to our troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is right to say a few supportive words at the beginning about the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Selly Oak, which I had the privilege of visiting very recently under the aegis of the House of Lords defence group with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and my noble friend Lord Lyell. From the highly qualified and very determined commandant, Air Commodore Batchelor, downwards, we found nothing but the most dedicated determination to secure the very best treatment and nursing attention to the patients in their charge. In view of various fears, it is also worth saying that there was absolutely no indication that the military are treated in some way as second-class citizens. It is true that there are difficulties. The military part of the ward needs to be relocated to a place that is less exposed to the comings and goings inherent in the business of a big ward. That will be rectified.
There have also been great success stories. We were told of one patient whose hand had been destroyed. The hand was completely reconstructed and restored using material taken from his ribs. I am quite convinced that this was made possible only because of the availability of some of the very best consultant expertise and equipment at that location.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning the new provision at Selly Oak of some quite outstanding accommodation and facilities for visiting families, who can stay there, for many weeks in some instances, if necessary. I am very glad that the Defence Select Committee in the other place has just decided to investigate allegations of some shocking inadequacies in the treatment of casualties, whenever and wherever they have occurred. However, it is only fair—and, I hope, a little reassuring—to record the very positive impressions that I formed on our recent visit to Selly Oak.
When the subject of this debate covers so broad a canvas, I shall focus on a single theme, which is all one can do, and then try in the short time available to pick out some illustrative details. Many noble Lords have chosen as a theme today our shortcomings as a nation, to which we must confess, under the covenant between our nation and the servicemen whom we ask to fight on our behalf. The word “covenant” has been in frequent currency for some time; notably, in the debate today. Put briefly, our duty to our service people is both to employ them and to look after them fairly. That means, among other things, not exposing them, by reason of financial economy, to greater risks than are inherent in the jobs that we ask them to do. It means making their welfare a priority, especially in a theatre where the strain on morale is made greater by a harsh climate and where our bases are static and attract frequent attack from enemies too numerous to eliminate and hard to identify. It means looking after their families generously, especially in their accommodation. It also means not asking our service people to do too much. Overstretch is rightly the word of the moment. The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said that it was all right to be stretched; that was not the same thing as being overstretched. However, overstretch vividly suggests what happens to elastic when too much is required of it. For people who are professional life-riskers to find themselves subjected to it is deeply distressing to them, as well as unfair. It causes them to feel let down by those in whom they are entitled to put their trust. Yet, as we have been reminded, the recently retired head of the Army felt the need in a Dimbleby lecture to refer reproachfully to our national covenant and to warn us of the danger of breaking it. His successor, who is still in post, has spoken similarly.
I do not deny that we experienced overstretch in Northern Ireland from time to time, but that does not make it any less serious. In November 2006, the National Audit Office found that 14.5 per cent of soldiers are being sent on missions more frequently than recommended in Army guidelines. That can legitimately be described as overstretch. The NAO also found that manning levels have not been adjusted to reflect current levels of activity faced by the Armed Forces. We have already been reminded that General Sir Mike Jackson recently said that a proportion of the accommodation for families was, frankly, shaming.
I warmly join in congratulating the Minister, who is held in such high regard. Let me in the form of questions to him establish some illustrative detail. I have tried to give him some notice, albeit brief, of the thrust of most of them. Are not the Snatch Land Rovers in use in Basra far too old for reliable service and therefore liable frequently to break down when out of camp, when they and their occupants become immediate and static potential targets in exposed positions? Are not the better armoured, new 432 Mk2 Bulldog vehicles, which were intended to replace them for patrol purposes, afflicted by a chronic shortage of spares? Are these not always needed in the case of any newly developed vehicle, especially one that has been urgently procured? Does this not greatly prolong the period when Bulldogs are unfit for service and off the road, so that the insufficiently armoured Snatch Land Rovers must be used in their place, with the greatly enhanced risks that that entails?
Is the Minister satisfied that roofs and other vulnerable areas at the static base at Basra Palace, a camp for some 600 troops, are now satisfactorily hardened against the risk of rocket and mortar attack? If he is, when was that state of protection achieved, and how long after such attacks became an established threat? Less seriously, but still importantly, on the welfare front, does mail addressed to forces in Basra city arrive only intermittently, with often no deliveries at all for a week, and are newspapers delivered from the UK typically a fortnight out of date? I understand this to be so. I hope we can have answers, and explanations, to at least some of these questions, because they bear directly on the troops’ perception of whether they are supported as they should be.
No one can sensibly contend that Treasury tightfistedness towards the military is only a recent phenomenon; nor can anyone contend that the Government cannot point to some increase in defence spending in real terms, although, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, has pointed out, their spending is down as a proportion of our GDP. However, the dual campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan are costing between them, I believe, some £100 million per month, and the Chief of the Defence Staff has recently told MPs that,
“there is not much left in the locker”,
as we have heard several times today. If that locker is not replenished urgently and ungrudgingly, and our support performance improved, I predict that the retention figures for our service people will get worse and the dominant cause will be fairly described as breach of covenant.
My Lords, it is a bit daunting to follow the noble and learned Lord, but I look upon him today as a heavily wounded cavalry officer. I do not know if you have seen him, but he can hardly walk and there is not a horse in sight. It is tricky. He has been brave to come and talk to us, and we all wish him a speedy recovery.
I will, with your Lordships’ permission, come down a bit, to congratulate the Ministry of Defence on its new workings for the Brigade of Gurkhas. The new rules that have been put out for its future make a great deal of sense. This has been hard work by the Under-Secretary and those who came before him, including the noble Lord, Lord Moonie, who I do not see in his place. Due credit must be given to the Brigade of Gurkhas because, with the absolutely impossible situation within Nepal, they have somehow carried on with their recruitment and enlistment service. Noble Lords should be aware that the only two battalions up to strength on their own are the Gurkha battalions. They have been ably supported throughout these negotiations, and I hope the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, will not mind me mentioning the great support he has given over many years.
One or two little problems arise from this new paper. I do not want to dwell on them because the news is so good. Yet there is going to be a bit of a pension problem. Some decisions will have to be taken in view of the arbitrary 1997 ruling—similar, the noble Lord might recall, to the 1973 ruling that he and I have had words about in the past. We have to make certain that the Gurkha pensioner, post-1997 and pre-1997, does not lose out. The Gurkha Welfare Trust will have more to do, and will need government support and perhaps bringing into consultations. It already looks after the many Gurkha soldiers throughout Nepal who left without 15 years’ service, who did not get a pension and only a fairly small hand-out. One or two things must be sorted, as well as help and advice to the Gurkha. I hope that that will be done.
I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, will be speaking. The Minister may not know that his late father was the most senior general of Gurkhas in the Indian army. The Gurkhas have some 50 battalions, compared to our two. His father was a great solider, and the noble Lord and I have one thing in common. Whatever way we disappeared into the mists and tangents afterwards, we were both brought up as Gurkha children. That is something rather special in a man’s life.
I do not want to get involved in the blame game, and was rather hoping that we would not get into that today. I thank the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, for his speech and his interjection. The gallant defence put up by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, was good, but I have noticed that whenever a political party has some difficulty, the first thing they crash is the military so that they can maintain their constituents in false teeth, education or whatever it is that they want. I am not impressed by the blame game. I am much more concerned about what we are doing about what is happening today. I still see this cutting, cutting, cutting; diminishing and civilianising the military, and not helping its ethos. I worry that this still goes on, and lay the blame bluntly on the Cabinet, on Ministers of the day and Ministers of the past. I will not allow the previous Administration not to be commented upon.
Down the corridor in the other place, people do not consider the military problems, the Armed Forces, nearly enough. They get carried away with polar bears in the snow and goodness knows what. They do not give time to the military problems of today and their own Armed Forces—this covenant that noble Lords have so rightly talked about today. It is disgraceful. The shoring up process being attempted at the moment is okay, but will not actually help that much. For all the high morale in the Royal Marines that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, talked about, they know they are at the bottom of the pile. All soldiers, sailors and airmen know they are at the bottom of the pile, and somebody has got to bring them up.
I am able to speak a little deeper than the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, on this. I had the honour, with the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, of living with the Royal Marines in the Helmand for some days. They are magnificent. We do not have to say anything more; we expect them to be the best and they are. Soldiers are just as good, but the marines are doing the most tremendous job there. The noble Earl and I were very impressed by the leadership, at the intellectual way in which they approach problems. I thank the noble Earl because he is 30 years younger than me and twice I asked him to carry my pack because I am about to be 80. That is a small matter. He has considerable experience in various operational theatres as a fine reserve officer.
I was not happy with the air support. The air support is so tiny that it can only cope with one situation at a time. When company groups set out to achieve their aims, one of them often has to stop because the other needs all the air support. That is no way to run an outfit or operations.
Noble Lords should also be aware of the enemy. The Taliban are the grandsons of the people we used to recruit in the Indian army under the overall name of Pathans. They are very good if you train them properly. Ask a German at Cassino what a bunch of Punjabi Musselmans, the great Hindu martial tribes or the Pathans were like as they came at him, or ask a Jap in Burma; they knew what they were up against. The Taliban’s macho honour requires them to be brave and good, but they respect strength and power. I do not like hearing that we are containing them and keeping them at bay; I want to hear of them being defeated. A lot of hard work has been done in the operation there to win hearts and minds by talking to everybody, but when there is a battle, we have to win, not break off. We must beat the enemy and win. If we had the proper strength and forces, particularly air support, we could probably win in Afghanistan, even with all the problems. Careful thought should be given to how we are going to do that.
My Lords, I began my career in defence in this House when I tried in vain to delay a Treasury decision to sell the married quarters estate for a paltry sum, so I am well aware that this is not a party matter and we are all culpable.
We all read the Sunday papers and the disgraceful story they told. Although I was relieved to hear from my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew that part of it was not just, there was, nevertheless, enough truth in it. However, for years now, serious professional bodies such as the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, the Defence Committee in the Commons and this House have been predicting serious trouble. Not three months ago, the National Audit Commission gave bleak and dire warnings of a shortfall of 68 to 70 per cent in the provision of accident and emergency and intensive therapy nurses and of 17 per cent in GPs. Without the Reserve Forces, there would have been, and may still be, a disaster, and the recurring theme is lack of care for the needs of soldiers and their families. The closing of service hospitals not only created the so-called dedicated wards which, because the National Health Service has priority, have proved largely to be for our geriatrics—although I am glad to hear that that is not true in Selly Oak—but also brought to an end all secondary health care. Families have to turn to an NHS that was never geared for the postings which keep service families perpetually on the move.
Incidentally, calling unfortunate service families and the new crop of traumatised soldiers—who are experiencing the same difficulty in securing treatment and credibility in the civilian world as the Gulf War veterans did—“stakeholders” and “customers” in the new jargon of the Government does nothing to enhance their access to decent housing or to secure their timely secondary care in civilian hospitals.
We all know all this only too well. We have been saying it to a long succession of Ministers who would undoubtedly prefer to report some action. Why can they not do so? They cannot because there is no money and no sufficient will to care. The Army puts up with things. Ministers, who could do something, seem quite unmoved by widespread evidence of turbulence, routine breaking of harmony guidelines on separated service and dangerous reliance on the Reserve Forces.
“Many of the medical staff in Iraq are on their second or even third operational tour in 12 months. Territorials make up 50 per cent of the 400-strong UK medical force in Operation TELIC 4A”.—[Official Report, 17/1/05; cols. 568-69.]
The Government take us into adventures that they should not. The Chancellor has suddenly become interested in veterans, but he still grudges every penny spent on defence. If we are set to stay for 10 or even 20 years in Afghanistan, to say nothing of the other wars into which this Government may precipitate us because of the new military doctrine of intervention—the child of the UN—there will be serious and perhaps irreversible trouble. What is the point of glossy reports defining how many wars—two minor or one major—we are prepared to be engaged in if we do not have the men and they no longer believe they are valued except to enable politicians to make gestures?
The National Audit Office conducted a poll in which 64 per cent of the service men and women polled gave as their reason for contemplating leaving the service—this relates to the important issue of retention—their perception that the British people no longer value them. Nearly the same number was motivated by the failure to provide even the basic equipment they need not just to fight a war, but to stay alive. Like the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, the NAO finds this a matter of great concern. It has identified a number of operational pinch-points, that is, indispensable skilled jobs that are not being filled. They include recovery mechanics, information systems engineers, the warfare branch in the Royal Navy and nuclear watch-keepers. Ships are being deployed with a number of gapped posts. Harmony guidelines are regularly broken. Instructors have to go on operations, and many of those vital technicians are now also committed to anti-terrorism work in the UK. This is many-hatting with a vengeance, and it is happening to armed services that are seriously over-stretched and under-valued. All we hear is the Treasury termites being allowed, by the very political leaders who should ensure that the forces have what they need, to require the money needed to look after the families and the wounded to be found somewhere when all the other, usually operational, demands have been met from within the MoD’s budget. What can be done to ensure that defence decisions are made on the grounds of defence and not merely those of cost? There is a faint hope that Mr Brown, once he is wearing the Prime Minister’s hat, may at last perceive that the continuing success and, indeed, survival of our Armed Forces is and will be a critical factor when he comes to deal not only with the US but also with NATO, the EU and, not least, Russia, which, in the words of the IRA, has not gone away.
The armed services are suffering not only from the unchecked depredations of the termites but also from the whole new doctrine of this Government. Mark Leonard, who founded the new Foreign Policy Centre, was shocked to find that our foreign policy was founded on the national interest. He thought that he would consult not diplomats or the Ministers of a country, but opinion polls, field workers and the internet. His other new doctrine, expressed more recently in a BBC discussion of arms sales is very remarkable. It is that we do not need arms or defence because our influence comes from people respecting us.
Any number of glossy reports are being written—the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit produced one 92 pages long—mostly by people who have never been near a war. I wonder what became of JIC assessments and regular reporting from missions abroad, which once contained people from DfID, commercial and defence attachés and, above all, political staff who spoke the language, made friends, travelled the country and knew the danger points. Today, separate DfID missions, many of them long on goodwill but woefully short of knowledge of the country, are far larger and better funded. There are probably no defence or commercial attachés any more and they were the people who used to help British business land million-pound contracts. There is a tiny cadre of political staff whose job is to know the country, the people, the customs and the ethnic problems but also, vitally, to represent what we think and hold dear. That is all going.
I perceive three major strands of policy throughout government: the first is to subordinate our defence and our foreign policy to the perceived interests of DfID, which has too much money to spend; the second is to reduce a once highly valued FCO to a department for global warming; and the third is to commit our Armed Forces without regard to what they need to operate. Too much money and power is being wasted on such things as major subventions—not accounted for because that would be colonialist—to African leaders such as the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who last year shot down some of his own people. All this adversely affects the standing of diplomatic missions vis-à-vis the Governments to whom they are reporting. They are the people who should be telling us when there are danger points. In turn, that severely reduces good on-the-spot briefing when military action is contemplated. We often expect the forces to operate in a dire political vacuum.
We have a Government in which the worthy Mr Brown and the winsome Mr Blair visit our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan respectively and utterly ignore the increasingly desperate need for more money even for the equipment to stay alive let alone to fight a war—many noble Lords have given examples of what I am talking about. When Mr Brown went to Iraq this year, he was photographed with the troops, and he made an announcement about money. Was that money for defence? No. It was money for the Iraqis. He should not be surprised if increasing numbers of service men and women opt for resignation from the forces, which are at the disposal of a Government who treat them so monstrously.
That goes for the Gulf veterans, the young wounded returning here to geriatric wards in some cases and to families who feel abandoned. No amount of smart procurement, global strategy and defence planning assumptions which seem made to be ignored will change the drift out of the services. Something has to be done to convince them that they are valued and will be supported in just the way that the noble Viscount, Lord Slim—the great Lord Slim—said. The Government know from countless reports that too many deployments, too little care to provide the necessary equipment, the disgraceful lack of secondary medical care for families of men discharged and the continuing neglect of service housing all lead inexorably to major failures—the failure to provide the nation’s defence, the failure to provide the duty of care for the armed services.
I should dearly like to see Mr Brown and Mr Blair in an old Land Rover in Afghanistan without flak jackets, and without helicopter support because of the lack of money to train the pilots.
My Lords, this is a scary time for our Armed Forces, and I am not talking about the threat posed by the Taliban, al-Qaeda or any others bent on doing our soldiers, sailors or airmen harm; I am talking about the threat that looms from the Treasury in the shape of the Comprehensive Spending Review.
Unshakeable in its belief that the MoD cannot spend its money wisely or efficiently—although compared with the ineptitude of some other government departments in using their cash to best effect, the MoD is a positive paragon of financial efficiency—the Treasury is showing every sign of keeping the purse strings tightly drawn and not allowing the release of what is required to fund adequately this Government’s aspirations for, and real-time use of, a global expeditionary force.
It is no good the Minister claiming that the defence budget has had it good with year-on-year increases over the past few years without acknowledging that the Strategic Defence Review baseline was never properly resourced in the first place. The annual increases have never closed that gap, which has been exacerbated by the huge increase in defence activity over the same timeframe and a concomitant falling-away of the percentage of GDP spent on the Armed Forces, while defence equipment costs have outstripped inflation by a factor of six or seven.
I am afraid that, in the search for cash to give those departments that are perceived to be the ones that will catch more votes, it has been obvious that defence is all too easy to ignore. The Government still have a peacetime mentality as we engage in full-on war fighting. Our Armed Forces find themselves unable to afford what they need to run themselves properly today. The future prospects for the full equipment programme that they need also looks bleak. On the latter, I would be entirely content to hear the Minister tell me that I am wrong and that there will be room in the programme for such major projects as the future carrier and the Army’s future rapid effects system, both of which are vital if the UK’s defence policy is to be deliverable.
I hope that the Minister will confirm that such programmes will remain intact and safe, not least from being raided to pay for the replacement deterrent. On that, I remind the Minister that we shall be watching carefully to see that the Prime Minister’s promise—that the cost of the deterrent will not be at the expense of the conventional forces—is kept and that there will not be the expected Treasury sleight of hand to make the MoD pay by some other means, such as through swingeing efficiency targets or by cutting the number of Astute-class submarines being built. But I am not holding my breath.
Let us move from the future back to today. The corrosive effect of under-resourcing the present is very plain to see in the cuts that have been visited on what some perceive is the second line and the support area. For example, will the Minister confirm that the fleet remains unable to meet all its required levels of readiness following the damage done by the policy of reduced fleet support that was inflicted because of shortage of in-year cash between 2004 and 2006? That policy has led to mass cannibalisation and store robbing, which has left the majority of ships operationally impoverished in order to keep the few on deployment competent to do their duty, with all the fall-out effects that that had on training and morale. Will he comment on the study that is being conducted into cutting one of our three naval bases? That was initiated not for strategic reasons—such a move could not possibly weather any strategic logic—but to find more cash to prop up inadequate funding of running costs or suffer the penalty of having more ships axed. What about training? Is the Minister satisfied that the criteria for the tiers of training that our Army brigades need to undergo to be at full war-fighting effectiveness are in accordance with their defence planning assumptions?
There are appalling stories about how some of the families are being treated in their service accommodation. The fact is that the rear line—especially the domestic conditions for our service people—is impoverished. As the Public Accounts Committee has identified, about a third of the Armed Forces are not able to meet their war-readiness states. To use a well worn phrase, they are not fit for purpose. That is down to money, not to the people, who do brilliantly with their can-do attitude at managing their shortfalls manfully and at doing the best with what they have got.
Will the Minister acknowledge that the treatment of the so-called second line is second class because there are not the funds to keep those people at the level of training and thus the readiness that they should be at to take their turn on the front? I believe that that is at the heart of the concern expressed last week by the Chief of the Defence Staff about the Armed Forces’ ability to maintain the current tempo of operations within existing resources. In the other place, the Secretary of State for Defence said of the operational tempo that,
“we cannot sustain it in the long term without doing damage to the core of our troops”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/07; col. 625.]
That statement is myopic. Such damage is being inflicted now. Incidentally, while I was derided some four years ago for saying that it would take us at least two years to recover from the operational tempo at that time, I would put that figure significantly higher now.
I also say, en passant, that we are hardly helped here by our so-called allies. I reflect wryly on the number of times that I was told in the Ministry of Defence by Ministers and their bean-counting advisers, as well as by the Treasury, that we could afford to take risks with holes in our capabilities because those holes would be filled by our allies with whom we would always go to war. That is fine as long as no fighting is required, as the pathetic performance in Afghanistan of some of these allies of ostensible strength shows. Lest your Lordships think that I am being unduly pejorative about some of our European partners, let me quote the Secretary of State for Defence, who said of them a couple or so weeks ago:
“The sooner people remove those caveats”—
that is, restricting foreign commanders’ ability to deploy troops appropriately—
“and allow their troops to be deployed where they are most needed, the better it will be for all of us”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/2/07; col. 624.]
Your Lordships will not be surprised that I find irresponsible the reduction in our destroyer and frigate numbers over the past three years, in part because of that assumption that we would always be part of a multinational fleet that would give us the benefit of working alongside our allies. That philosophy was recently paraded once again by the Minister for the Armed Forces in the context of fleet air defence. It is all very well to say such things, but it rather makes the courageous assumption that our allies will fight.
Speaking of escort numbers, I trust that the Minister can reassure the House that the force level of destroyers and frigates will not fall below 25—already a dangerously low number, as I guarantee the country will find to its regret in years to come. We should not forget that the Strategic Defence Review set the number at 32, and the expeditionary fundamentals of that review have not changed. Will the Minister also say whether the seventh and eighth Type 45 destroyers will be ordered and that sensible provision will be made in the defence budget for the future surface combatant? I hope that if the Minister responds to the point about escort numbers he will not trot out the argument that the modern ship is a force multiplier and that we can therefore do with fewer. As I have said in this House many times, unless teleportation has been invented, a ship cannot be in two places at the same time. Our defence policy demands a Navy that can be globally deployed; indeed, our Navy currently contributes to eight out of 10 Foreign Office objectives.
The Government have set a global strategy and a policy for our security that I totally endorse. The world in which we now live means that the defence of our homeland starts not in our territorial limits but well beyond, wherever across the globe our interests are threatened. That requires the expeditionary policy of the Strategic Defence Review. I regret that the hollowing-out of our Armed Forces occasioned by their continued underfunding has put that policy at serious risk of being undeliverable. It certainly puts those trying to deliver it at the cutting edge under huge strain. It is time that the Government treated honourably those who sacrifice themselves for their country and delivered their side of the covenant.
My Lords, I, too, greatly welcome this debate and congratulate my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater on securing it. I share many of the sentiments expressed so far. I declare an interest as chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board for Britain’s Reserve Forces, as honorary colonel of 306 Field Hospital (Volunteer) and as honorary air commodore of 612 (County of Aberdeen) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force. Individuals from both those units have been deployed once, twice or even three times to Iraq over recent years. They have acquitted themselves extraordinarily well and all those associated with them are extremely proud of what they have done.
My noble friend Lord Freeman referred to my role as chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board. His organisation—the Council of Reserve Forces and Cadets Association—and my board work in close collaboration to try to achieve support for employers and make it possible for them to release their valuable employees to play a part in the reserves. My noble friend tempted me to comment on voluntary and compulsory mobilisation. All I would say is that we need to have a very honest and open relationship with employers and must find more innovative ways of supporting them. I know that my board, no doubt with my noble friend’s support, will continue to keep that under close review.
I would like to speak on a rather wider topic relating to defence, which has, in a sense, been touched on by many who have spoken today. If defence of the realm in its broadest sense is the first real responsibility of government, it is becoming increasingly clear, as I try to represent the interests of employers in the reserves field, that Governments of all political persuasions and the armed services have a substantial responsibility to do whatever they can to educate much more broadly the public about why defence is a vital part of public sector responsibility.
The public at large, the electorate, are understandably full of enthusiasm for a properly resourced and managed health service—the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, gave an analogy about false teeth—education system, police service and much else. Successive Governments of either party spend much time trying to capture the public imagination in these and other fields with promises of improvement and extra funding, which are not always successfully delivered. One can obviously argue that there is a lot of politics in those areas. However, many areas of public policy are of potentially diminished value unless the overall defence of Britain’s interests in the protection of international public order—a phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire—can be achieved. I am afraid that public interest and enthusiasm, and therefore the pressure that can be applied from it, is not the same for adequately funded, trained and equipped armed services, which do not strike so much of a chord with the public imagination. Therefore, inadequate enthusiasm is generated for the funding necessary.
I believe that that is for several reasons. First, despite the publicity given to current operations, there is a widespread lack of knowledge of what makes our armed services what they are; namely, their ethos, their culture, their expertise, the loyalty of one man or woman to another and to their units, and much else besides. That is because the Armed Forces are, I fear, increasingly seen as remote from the rest of society.
Gone are the days when the bulk of the population had some connection with the armed services, such as family members who fought in the last war or have experience of national or regular service. Of course, there is a marked degree of enthusiasm and appreciation of what our armed services do in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Sierra Leone or wherever. But I do not believe that there is widespread understanding of the superlative professionalism, flexibility and adaptability that the modern serviceman exhibits and achieves. It may be understood in this House very clearly, but I am afraid to say that, despite some of the headlines in the papers and elsewhere, there is not a genuine universal appreciation of what it is all about.
As chairman of the National Employer Advisory Board, I know of many employers who visit our Armed Forces in operational theatres or on exercises, and from time to time I go with them. It never ceases to amaze and encourage me when I go with them, or when I hear of their exploits when they come back, to see those employers express surprise and delight at the sheer professionalism and expertise of those whom they meet. They often have no previous experience of what our Armed Forces do, whether regulars or reservists—from my experience, I defy anyone nowadays to tell the difference between them on operations.
Fewer Members in another place have military experience, and there are fewer in industry, fewer in the academic world and fewer in the public sector, although I like to think as I work with the Reserve Forces that they are part of a bridge between the regular forces and society at large. There are fewer individuals to be true ambassadors for what it means to be a service man or woman and what should be made available to them to enable them to do their duty without undue strain. Elements of service life are sadly and markedly lacking in many aspects of society; self-discipline, loyalty, sense of duty and respect are among them. But they are the bedrock on which the successful Armed Forces are built. I venture to suggest that they should also be the bedrock on which a lot of other things are built.
Somehow—and Governments of whichever political hue need to give a lead on this—we have to find ways of broadening the true understanding of what defence in its wider sense is all about and why it is as necessary now as it ever was. I shall certainly not today enter the debate about Iraq or Afghanistan and the politics of why we are there. However, given that we are there, our armed services, which are doing a superb job under extremely difficult circumstances, need to be properly equipped and supported. The covenant, which has been referred to by so many today, needs to be developed in a much more widely understood debate. That debate should be not so much about why we are there, but about why sufficient resources to man, equip and sustain our Armed Forces should matter just as much to the man in the street as provision for the National Health Service or a properly funded education system does.
The role of the community in defence is an area of public responsibility and public policy that all of us have to try to find ways of taking much more seriously. If defence is the first priority and responsibility of government, as it most certainly should be, it is increasingly essential that that responsibility should be much more widely articulated, understood and accepted by us all. In that way, enthusiasm for our armed services can be enhanced and, with that, the imperative, political or otherwise, of public pressure to secure the necessary funding—up to a significantly higher proportion of GDP—can be brought much more starkly to the front of people’s minds. The national public debate to support and fund our armed services should become much more strident.
My Lords, I begin by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, on obtaining this important debate and on the comprehensive way in which he introduced it. Like my noble friend Lord Slim, I want to dwell on blame. That intention was given a nudge this morning by reading in the Daily Telegraph a letter from the former Surgeon General of the Armed Forces, Lieutenant-General Sir Peter Beale, who, referring to complaints about military medical treatment, said:
“Let us be clear. Successive governments, both Tory and Labour, have equally been responsible for the reduction of the Defence Military Medical Services over the past 20 years, notably in the blatantly motivated cost-cutting Options for Change exercise in 1990 (ordered concurrently and obscenely with the first Gulf war)”.
I was in the Army at the time of the first Gulf War and I remember the discussions about Options for Change and the reduction of manpower at that time. The noble Lord, Lord King, will remember that we hoped that the lessons of the first Gulf War would have been absorbed before the cuts were made. For various reasons beyond his control—and I suspect beyond everyone’s control other than that of the Treasury—that did not happen. I believe that many of our current problems, certainly as far as the Army is concerned, stem from the fact that the lessons—in things such as structures as well as equipment—from that first Gulf War conflict were not absorbed and learnt, because we are reaping the wind.
I am reminded of the speech made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, which I was glad to hear. A great deal of criticism has been poured on the medical services without necessarily looking at the good things that are done. I particularly pay tribute to the remarkable quality of the work of those in the field hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan. Without their dedication and skill, people would not be returned to this country other than in a coffin. Tribute, which I do not hear often, ought also to be paid to the staff of the rehabilitation centre at Headley Court, an entirely militarily run centre. The Adjutant General told me the other day that more than 30 amputees are now serving in the Armed Forces as a result of the treatment that they received at Headley Court. That has enabled them to return to some form of duty. On that subject I am particularly glad that there is to be a conference in early April of all the welfare authorities and that the Minister for Veterans will be present. The conference will look at the deficiencies, which have been mentioned many times in this debate, in follow-up treatment—not necessarily patients’ immediate treatment. Follow-up treatment is by no means good enough and that is affecting and undermining confidence in the system as a whole.
I mentioned confidence. The debate today has focused on the three things which determine defence spending and always have done: the balance between money, manpower and machines. Is the money available to buy the machines with which to equip the manpower? Is the money there to have the manpower to use those machines? Connected with that is the word “affordability”. My commander, the late Field Marshal Lord Carver, always used to mention the importance of the word affordability in connection with these things. It has two definitions: can you afford it or can you afford to give up what you have got to give up in order to afford it? The question of money and affordability moves us into a government arena. The Government have to ask themselves whether they can afford the defence requirements and whether they can afford to give up the other things that they want in order to fund those defence requirements. I get the feeling that at the moment the Government are looking at the other things and not at the defence requirements in that balance. However, that is a personal view.
With regard to machines, I look at the defence budget and at the fact that it is dominated by four major projects: Trident, which could be said to have a political overtone; the Eurofighter; the Astute submarine programme; and the aircraft carrier. I am not going to debate the merits of those because this is not the time and place to do it. However, those four massive programmes distort the small budget with its 2 per cent capability. Looked at from the point of view of those in the current operations, it appears to be distorted against their needs. The needs we hear about are all the things that they do not get. At the end of the combat phase of the second Gulf War I was struck by a conversation I had with our divisional commander. I asked him what, in terms of equipment, was the most battle-winning factor that he had during that combat. He said that it was the American Marine air wing, which was put under his command by the American Marine commander. He said that it had every type of fixed and rotary wing aircraft that he needed for that task and that our register did not contain that equipment. It is interesting that the requests from Afghanistan and Iraq are for the sort of equipment that were in that American Marine air wing and not Eurofighter.
I come to the question of affordability. Can we afford to spend so much on those major projects, which the noble Lord, Lord Bach, mentioned are for potential future conflicts rather than the current ones? On the current ones, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, who, like others, I congratulate on his promotion and thank him for the care he takes to keep us informed of what is going on, that one of the complaints I hear over and over again is a lack of agility among officials in the procurement agency. He knows what I mean.
I will give two practical examples of past exercise of that agility. In December 1971 I was given an armour piercing bullet which had penetrated a vehicle in Belfast that day and been taken out of the soldier who had unfortunately been wounded by it. That meant a new threat-level to us. It was brought back to England, given to the authorities and, one month later, CGS and I went see the new vehicle armour which had been designed to meet that threat—that was immediate agility. The most successful and speedily developed equipment I can remember in my service was Milan. It was brought in when three people were left for three years and told to develop it and they did it more swiftly and efficiently because they were not moved. People being moved while projects are happening inevitably means delay.
Finally, I come to the question of manpower, affordability and the covenant which has been mentioned so often. There is no better definition of the covenant than the words of Field Marshal Lord Slim quoted by my noble and gallant friend, Lord Inge—that is, what the soldiers require. They require a properly structured home base where their families are looked after, where they are trained and where they are equipped. I am glad that things are happening to put some of that right, such as more pay, which has been mentioned, and the improvements to accommodation. We must never let it get into that situation again.
On the question of the covenant, I have mentioned in this House before that the one thing that I am sorry is missing from the current Armed Forces is the presence of directors of public relations responsible for the projection and protection of the image of the Armed Forces. Their absence is one of the reasons why chiefs of staff have felt it appropriate to come out and say things in public. They do so for entirely understandable reasons on behalf of their soldiers, sailors and airmen. However, the fact that they do so is bound to damage their all important relationship with Ministers and Government, an undermining which we can ill-afford. I hope that these people will be brought back to do their job. I say that again because every time we stand up in this House and send our condolences to the families of anyone who may have been killed on operations overseas, we all ought to ask ourselves what we might have done to prevent it. We should do that because the covenant that we talk about is a covenant between the Armed Forces and the nation, not the Government and the Armed Forces. We all ought to see that we do as well for our Armed Forces as they do for us.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord King, for creating the opportunity for this debate. I should also like to congratulate the Minister on his promotion. I declare an interest as a member of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, which has been referred to already in this debate. I am pleased to participate in the debate because those who take part do so because they either know something about the issue or, even more importantly, care about it. I am sure that we share a common objective; that is, to ensure, as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, that we keep the covenant between the nation and the Armed Forces, ensuring that those people who are prepared either to lay down their lives or risk their lives are suitably equipped and rewarded.
Historically, complaints about funding of the Armed Forces go back a long way. Wellington argued with the Government; Kipling immortalised it in verse; and Churchill, if my memory serves me right, argued about the number of ships that were thought to be appropriate. That is not to make light of the matter; these are key issues.
I confess to being one of those who probably knew very little about the Armed Forces before joining the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. That is not to say that I was uninterested, but that I was lacking in practical knowledge. I was born a year too late to undertake national service. However, I had the benefit last year of a visit to Iraq. I owe the Armed Forces Pay Review Body a debt of gratitude for educating me about what our forces undergo in an operational theatre. Until I went there I would not have thought of the fact that they operate in a temperature of 50 degrees for most of the time while wearing equipment that weighs roughly 75 pounds. If one realises that they sit in a Warrior armoured vehicle for up to eight hours, perhaps even longer, where the temperatures can reach anywhere between 60 and 70 degrees, it certainly makes one think about the contribution that they make day in and day out, by and large in an uncomplaining way and with high morale.
I commend to noble Lords the latest report of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. If noble Lords have not had a look at it, it is worth going through. We sat in on around 320 formal and informal discussion groups, enabling us to hear first hand the views of around 4,000 service personnel and spouses. We also looked at the range of accommodation and conditions.
As we went around Basra and the surrounding areas, we were briefed by the commanding officer at Abu Naji in the Maysan province. He said matter of factly, “It is pretty tough out here. We are being shelled three or four times a week. Last week, we had continuous shelling for something like 11 minutes. It was so bad that I felt impelled to go and talk to my goat afterwards”. I thought that that was some kind of Army slang, until he introduced me to his pet goat afterwards—I still treasure the photograph of me, the goat and the commanding officer. One just could not appreciate the quality of his leadership unless one met him. The same went for some of the troops, including a young woman officer who, while they were being shelled, had rescued some of her comrades and taken them into more sheltered accommodation.
There has been a huge amount of debate about whether the forces are stretched or overstretched. They clearly are stretched: I do not think that anybody would deny that. They maintain their morale in spite of it. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, spoke of a trade-off between troops and false teeth. I share his view that we certainly should not underpay them or undervalue their contribution.
This year, the Government have responded to a view which I heard from members of the Armed Forces whom we met; that is, that they did not feel that their contribution was being sufficiently valued. They complained that other forces received operational tax-free pay. It is not a simple analogy, because one has to look at pay in the round. However, the Government have made a considerable contribution this year. There has been the tax-free operational pay allowance. The Armed Forces Pay Review Body has made a significant award this year, which I gather from recent feedback has been well received. It has been especially significant for junior ranks, where pay has gone up by 9.2 per cent. We cannot therefore accuse the Government of being insensitive to the situation. That is not to say that everything is perfect.
There has been a lot of talk about manning, recruitment and retention. I agree that is worthwhile looking at the National Audit Office report. However, we should recognise the circumstances in which the Armed Forces have to recruit these days. They have a diminished recruitment pool. When employment is at record levels, it is difficult to recruit. That has to be taken into account. Indeed, the National Audit Office did take it into account. Some progress has been made on retention, but the job is far from done, which is why we have had to resort to significant use of financial retention incentives, of which the National Audit Office in the short term approves.
Our report recognises that accommodation impacts on retention in a number of ways—not just its quality, though that is important and more needs to be done. My noble friend Lord Tomlinson reminded us that there has been significant investment, which needs to continue. There can be no complacency in that area. However, one of the problems that we encountered last year was the new maintenance contract, MODern Housing Solutions. That was not working very well at its inception; it caused a lot of complaints. Nowadays, contact between the members of Armed Forces and their homes is a lot more regular than it used to be. Mobile phones and the internet mean that problems that families of members of the Armed Forces face at home impact immediately on them. We should not underestimate the impact that that has on their decisions. There has been some improvement, but not before time.
I was puzzled when the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said that we had to be modest in what we do. No, we cannot do everything, but the global threat has increased. Are we really saying that we should not have gone into Bosnia or Sierra Leone, or that we should pull out of Afghanistan? I have deliberately not focused on Iraq, because that is perhaps a separate issue. It is not so easy just to say that we should be more modest.
I was grateful for the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, on medical accommodation, because it was a balanced assessment. There have been problems, and it would be wrong to deny them. The mixed wards, where military personnel were mixed with civilians, caused tension—we need not go into that, but they really did. Bringing troops together improves morale and avoids some of these awkward situations. Ensuring adequate accommodation for visiting families is important because they come from all over the country.
I turn to operational welfare. We provide some time for free phone calls and internet access. Sometimes, the access is limited. If we could do more in that area, then it would impact on morale. Contact with home is really important: they do not want an area where they must wait ages for the phone. We ought to take away many of those limitations—and some imaginative commanding officers have managed to achieve that, but I had better not say how in these circumstances.
I am conscious of the time, so I will end on Trident and the whole host of financial commitments that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, graphically illustrated. My concern here is that finding the funds for Trident might somehow impact on what else we can provide for the Armed Forces. If we could find no way of ensuring that was not to be the case, it would be a really unfortunate message to go around. I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement, but there are still concerns about that significant financial commitment and the impact that it might well have on Armed Forces expenditure.
My Lords, I remind the House that I am still a serving TA officer; indeed, I will be doing my annual range tests, and others, this weekend. I want to pay my own tribute to all those members of the Armed Forces who have recently served on operations or are currently doing so. I enjoyed listening to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Young. It was interesting to hear his experiences of current operations. There is nothing like seeing the operations and the high morale of servicemen in the field.
Many noble Lords have already touched on defence expenditure and I agree with most of what has been said. We must either significantly increase resources or reduce commitments. We cannot continue to operate far outside the defence planning assumptions; therefore, we cannot afford to have two brigades deployed on different operations in different theatres—a point made by my noble friend Lord King. We also must recognise that we will be deployed at medium scale—that is, brigade strength—continuously for the foreseeable future. There is no end in sight and always something else that we can do.
I find myself in some difficulty, as my party’s past record on defence expenditure is understandable. It would have been bizarre if, at the end of the Cold War, we had maintained our Cold War posture and expenditure. The situation now is completely different to what obtained in the early 1990s, but my party does not appear to be proposing either an increase in resources or a reduction in commitments—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, and others. We are good at identifying operational problems but not so good at proposing solutions.
The Government’s agreement to the Armed Forces Pay Review Body recommendations is welcome, especially for the more junior service persons who the noble Lord, Lord Young, described. However, there is a caveat to be given about it on the need to maintain pay differentials, otherwise, there will be no differential between junior and senior NCOs. I will have to look at the report to see if that was covered. I am sure that all noble Lords hope that a significant increase in defence expenditure will be announced shortly, but as one noble and gallant Lord put it, “Don’t hold your breath”.
I want to gently cross swords with the noble Lord, Lord Bach. In his excellent speech, he correctly referred to a real increase in defence expenditure by this Government. However, given his experience, he will be well aware of the effect of defence inflation—particularly in defence procurement. I also wish that I could introduce the resource account budgeting argument, but like many of your Lordships I do not understand it.
The noble Lord, Lord King, and others talked about risk; a real risk of permanent damage to our defence capability. The problem to which I believe he was referring is that we are training for “the war”—current operations, in other words—but not training for all-out, high intensity war. The reason is that individuals and formations are simply not available to train, since they are training for current operations. A senior officer told a recent meeting that force readiness, or combat power, could be shown to be something like: “logistics times concepts times manpower times leadership raised to the power of TEE”, where TEE is training, experience and education. We are currently cutting back severely on formation level training: even the Med Man exercises in Canada have been reduced. That is the long-term damage to which senior officers refer. We are building a gap into the training, experience and education of our officer corps.
My noble friend Lord Freeman introduced the topic of reserves in the TA, and I agreed with everything that he said. There are three problems: the number of officers, the number of soldiers and the number of man training days. Cutbacks by this Government and their predecessor have made many TA units and sub-units unviable. They are simply too small and/or too geographically spread out. Furthermore, changing patterns arising from greater efficiency in industry and commerce have made it harder to pursue a TA career. The noble Lord, Lord Young, described similar problems arising for the regular Army. The strength of the TA is now about 32,000, but I can remember when it was nearly double that. Nevertheless, the TA still provides about 10 per cent of our current deployed strength.
There is a pretty serious problem with junior officer direct entry, which could best be described as dire. The Minister should not take comfort from the statistics; figures do not show that a large proportion of TA officers are commissioned from senior NCO or warrant officer rank. Those are very good, committed people who attend very well; however, they are not junior direct entry officers.
My noble friend Lord Freeman touched on man training days. In my experience, which extends over 30 years, restrictions on man training days are extremely damaging for a TA unit. Every time MTDs have been restricted, unit training concentrates on mandatory training and the associated tests. Interesting, imaginative training falls by the wayside—as does retention and recruiting.
I listened with interest to the comments of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge. I visited Afghanistan over the new year with the noble Viscount, Lord Slim; I was grateful for his kind comments. The noble and gallant Lord is infinitely better qualified than me to predict success or failure in Afghanistan. However, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, who is not in his place, we cannot affect the outcome in Iraq but we can make a big difference in Afghanistan. Ministers ought to be much more frank about the timescales involved; in the case of Afghanistan, I do not think that we can expect to see significant improvements becoming apparent in fewer than about five years. So, we must be patient; the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, frightened me slightly by talking about 20 years, but I suspect—or hope—that we will not be at brigade strength then.
As for the poppy, I wonder whether we worry too much about this crop. An ill timed, ill targeted eradication programme could well cause more problems than it would solve. The challenge is to extend the influence and power of the Government of Afghanistan everywhere; we can do that with reconstruction, but that itself requires security. Military freedom of manoeuvre, however, requires evidence of progress in reconstruction and development, which is a slow process. An example is the Kajaki Dam project, where the Royal Marines are providing security so that the hydro-electric power station can be rebuilt and repaired; that will then provide electricity to improve the lot of the average Afghan. That process will eventually make the Taliban irrelevant, but only slowly.
My Lords, I never joined the Armed Forces or fought in a battle or suffered the hardships of war, and I stand humbly and in awe before those who have and do, as I believe that we all should. The gallantry of the men and women of our Armed Forces is beyond question and their courage and commitment above reproach. What cannot be questioned is the debt of gratitude that we owe to all our serving men and women and to their families.
Although I never joined the forces, I speak with a modicum of personal experience. As I have said in this House before and as my noble friend Lord Slim spoke of, my father retired as the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Central Indian Army, commanding 350,000 troops. I was privileged to have been brought up from childhood with my father’s Gurkha battalion, including two Victoria Cross holders who were living legends. As a proud member born into the Army family, I have developed an everlasting respect for the Armed Forces.
Today, as we debate our concerns about the state of the Armed Forces, we need to examine not only the preparedness of our forces for the current global environment but their preparedness in measuring up to the global challenges that we may face tomorrow. We as a nation need to do everything we can to ensure the preparedness of our forces. Are our soldiers receiving just rewards for their service and sacrifice? Are they properly equipped, from the most basic requirements to the very latest in military technology? Do they have the best training possible with a view to the future and the changing nature of engagement? Do our troops get the gratitude that we as a nation and society owe them? Is morale high? Are the Armed Forces getting the support they need? A quarter of the Army earns less than £25,000 a year. People earn far more in many other public services, yet this is one of the most dangerous and most vital public services of all and our Armed Forces’ contribution and sacrifice in my view is precious and priceless.
Our Armed Forces are stretched beyond limits across the globe today. One grows more and more angry, frustrated and upset at reading in the newspapers time and again that a young soldier has been killed because of inferior equipment or an outright lack of equipment. If we are failing our forces abroad, we are also failing them in our duty at home. Military housing is a huge cause for concern, and if one looks at hospitals, which a number of noble Lords have spoken about, we see a similar lack of provision. Seven of our eight military hospitals have been shut since the early 1990s, with the last to close by 2009. We are a wealthy nation, but even in relatively much poorer countries such as India, go to any large city and you will find military hospitals staffed by the services and offering top quality, free healthcare to not only serving troops and their families but retired troops and their families.
When my father was being treated for terminal cancer in India in 2005, the naval hospital in Mumbai and the military hospital in Deradoon provided him with the best medical care possible in an environment in which he was comfortable, surrounded by his beloved service men and women. The last thing that our soldiers need is to find themselves queuing for care in a civilian environment. They are used to hardship, but surely that does not mean they should have to suffer it at home as well. Perhaps I would not complain about this question of civilian hospitals if our soldiers received the prompt and specialised care that they require but, unfortunately, a soldier’s life is different, both in battle and at home. The fact that some of our serving men and women, people with very difficult and complex conditions, have to wait months for treatment is something that I consider to be flatly unacceptable.
A great many organisations work to support our Armed Forces. The Army Benevolent Fund does sterling work in support of our ex-servicemen, as does the Royal Hospital, Chelsea—and my noble and gallant friend Lord Walker, the governor of that hospital, is here with us today. These institutions encapsulate the essence of the Armed Forces with their sacrifice and service, and we owe them all a debt of thanks, but we must remember that these are charitable organisations and, in many cases, they depend on the voluntary support of retired service men and women. We must remember that it is the duty of the Government and the state to support our troops, not only in service and but even after they retire.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that,
“the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.
We often overlook the fact that the Armed Forces are referred to as the services.
Undoubtedly, our Armed Forces are one of the most professional, disciplined and respected forces in the world, exemplifying the “great” in Great Britain, and that is something of which we should all be immensely proud. Our national security and our very lives are entrusted to their protection each and every day, yet I worry that we are letting these brave men and women down. There has been a failure to preserve the contract between civilians and the Armed Forces.
Each and every Remembrance Day we burst with pride at the memory of the heroism and sacrifice of our Armed Forces that enabled and gave us the freedom that we enjoy today. I am proud to be the chairman of the committee that oversees the annual ceremony at the Memorial Gates on Constitution Hill, erected in 2002 to commemorate the contribution of the 5 million people from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean who volunteered to serve in the two world wars. The gates exist thanks to the efforts of so many, including the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and the tenacity and perseverance of the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. The gates serve as a lasting testament to those who gave their tomorrow for our today. As much gratitude as we offer in remembrance, surely we should also support our troops in service, and, indeed, in life today? Let us respect them today.
Our Armed Forces represent the best of what this tiny country of ours stands for. We as a country have historically punched above our weight; our Armed Forces have always punched above their weight. Most importantly, our Armed Forces stand for and represent our values and our principles, our wonderful traditions and yet our modern outlook, enabling us to always be at the cutting edge of the world. Our Armed Forces protect our freedom and liberty and yet stand for and undertake huge sacrifices for our principles, our values and for us. Surely they deserve much more than we as a nation are doing for them.
My Lords, I am well aware of the great Duke of Wellington’s view on bean counters offering an opinion on anything to do with war. His first reaction was that they should be used as target practice before they got to be any danger—and quite right too. But I am unashamedly a bean counter; I think that numbers are wonderful and beautiful things and, if you make friends with them, they can guide you to some very interesting insights.
I shall give noble Lords three numbers that I shall use as a framework for what I want to say today. They are 11, seven and 10. Eleven is the value in pounds paid to every member of the British Army on the front line per hour for every active hour that he serves. Seven is the value in pounds per hour of service of the equipment purchased by the MoD for the British Army last year which was written off because it did not work. That comes to a total of £3.1 billion.
I assure the Minister that I shall tread very carefully to not use this as an opportunity to embarrass or make fun of the MoD’s figures, as the ministry has an extremely difficult job. However, I want to see what pattern emerges from this and what lessons we can learn about what is going wrong that we should have that amount of mis-spent money, and whether anything can be done about it for the future.
The £3.1 billion that is spent on equipment that did not work—and I mean that it seriously did not work; it was not just mildly but totally useless—arises from the NAO’s report. When I got this figure, I went to the NAO and asked people there if they could reconstruct the £3.1 billion, so that I could understand what it was. Frankly, if you go to the NAO and talk to people who work in the department dealing with the MoD, cases just jump out at you from the filing cabinets to be looked at—there are so many of them. This does not add up precisely to £3.1 billion—I am not sure whether it is more or less—but if I run through the 10 or 11 I have got, some sort of pattern emerges.
The most regular factor in each of these cases—you can mark your cards on this—is that we did not do something for ourselves but relied very heavily on the participation of some foreign country in some part of the project. In each such case it seems that something goes wrong. I am very mindful that back in 1938—there is a huge precedent for this—when the war department of the day was putting together the component-sourcing plans for the Hurricane and the Spitfire, it had not occurred to anybody that the mechanical device for aiming and firing the machine guns on the wings of those aircraft via remote control could be obtained only from Siemens in Munich. The slight flaw in that battle plan was not too obvious at the time. If we had not been so fortunate as to have a German-Jewish refugee of immortal, but now forgotten, memory called Dr Budd incarcerated in the Hampstead Heath internment camp at the time, and if he had not had the design for this mechanism in his briefcase, the war might have gone rather differently.
We seem not to be immune to this mistake today. In my assessment of the actual hours I should be accused by the MoD of having cheated on my number just now, but in the actual hours of service to get to the £11 per hour I have not included the new pay rise but I have included the hours in which soldiers remain on duty when at rest where they are also on call-out. That produces 47.3 working hours per week for the average soldier, which is quite a lot.
The aggregate value of MoD equipment purchases last year which were unfit for purpose at £3.1 billion is almost exactly the 10 per cent of the entire procurement budget. It is, I also agree—this is a bit of a cheat—spread across all three fighting forces. This therefore involves not wholly the Army but the bulk of it is the Army. I have not included in that figure the additional £2.3 billion, which was written off last and appears to be almost an annual feature of the written off overrun cost of getting the Typhoon fighter into an operational mode, which would take the whole write-off of non-deliverable equipment to £5 billion per year.
Incidentally, the £3.1 billion would have been enough to buy, at a cost of £167.50 each, 151 complete sets of body armament for every member of the Army. As they have not all got a set of body armament, that focuses our minds on where we are coming from. Secondly, they have been ordered but they have not arrived yet—that is the second factor that runs through nearly all these examples. The ideas are right, the plan is right and the equipment is right, but the delivery programme on so much of this has just failed.
I turn to the other reasons why the costs have been so bad. GCHQ relocation has gone up from £1.07 billion to £1.62 billion because it has now been decided that it is not safe to rely on the new computer until it has operated until at least 2012, so they have built in an additional £450 million of cost to cover the dual-running of the old computer with full staffing until that time.
We all know about the problems with the Snatch vehicles, to which the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, referred this morning. Some 162 new Vectors, which are much better suited for Afghanistan, are on the way, as are 124 upgraded FV 430s. These were scheduled to be delivered in batches starting at the end of 2006 but that date has been put back to the end of summer 2007.
The underslung grenade launchers were despatched to the Army on 14 April 2003. A minimal amount of ammunition was made available by the manufacturers just to prove that that equipment was working. The core supply of 10,000 was not delivered until 7 May 2003 because the Swiss Government—the Government of the country in which they were being manufactured—withdrew the export licence at the last moment and would not let them come into Britain. What on Earth were we doing placing an order with a Government who were not going to allow the export to go through anyway?
Nuclear, biological and chemical detection and protection equipment has not been provided in sufficient numbers and those that were available were defective as the respirators did not function as well as expected and have not done so yet.
Bowman—the essential radio link for command and control—should have been in service by the 1990s for an estimated total cost of £1.9 billion. Five years after the contract was re-entered to a new consortium in 2000, the director of infantry reportedly told his military staff that he must now accept this equipment with all its faults “for political reasons” despite the fact that at some settings, it delivers radiation burns to personnel in the field and the set weight is 15 pounds, which is three times the weight of its predecessor, the Clansman. It also cannot work in any armoured vehicle and the weight of the control unit regular breaks the Land Rover axels of the vehicles that carry them. One store of these items achieved the unique feat of internal combustion and burning down the barracks in which it was housed.
The future rapid effect system soared in cost from £6 billion to £14 billion on what was to have been a joint project with the United States—another connection—until it was diverted to a more politically acceptable footing with European Union partners on the grounds that they were the people with whom we more likely to be fighting alongside; if only. Unfortunately, the new non-US technology is second rate and will not function adequately if or when British troops again work alongside United States forces. It will be a wonderful example of what Churchill called two nations divided by a common language.
The auxiliary landing ships, of which a pair was ordered at an estimated £100 million, are now years overdue and running at an estimated £309 million and rising.
There are 20 items at the top of the MoD procurement list which together are aggregating 31 years overdue.
My last example—I ask noble Lords please not to laugh at this; it sounds like an episode from “Minder” and definitely has the hand of Arthur Daley in it—is that of the all-terrain six-wheeled mobility platforms, which are essential for tackling sand dunes. The MoD has 65 mark III versions procured at a cost of £67,000 each. The MoD identified that more were needed due to the need to cover desert terrain when approaching Iraq from the south because sand is particularly soft there. Unfortunately, it had already sold its 30 mark IIs for £3,000 each to a dealer. Some bright spark in the MoD recognised that he had not sold them yet so he managed to buy them back for £17,000—
My Lords, the vehicles were bought back for £17,000 per vehicle. Health and safety required £18,000 per vehicle extra spent on it. When they arrived, the troops had already walked to Iraq and did not need them any longer so they were all sold for £6,500 each. I have made my point.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord King, on securing this vital debate, particularly just before the Budget and the Comprehensive Spending Review, both of which are extremely important to our Armed Forces. This is my first opportunity to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, on what has been termed his promotion. I regard it as promotion and due reward for an enormously successful period as Minister at the MoD, particularly on the defence industrial strategy.
Like other noble Lords, I wish to place on record my thanks to every member of the Armed Forces. We have in this country just over 200,000 quite extraordinary men and women, predominantly young, serving their country at considerable personal risk with great courage, fortitude and determination. I must say that sometimes they feel a great deal of cynicism at the backing they receive from the public here and Parliament itself. As a former chairman of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, I want to focus on the state of the Armed Forces from the point of view of the individual service man and woman and their families.
Our Armed Forces are stretched; I shall not get into the debate about whether they are overstretched, but they are certainly stretched. That is understandable in an environment in which new threats can appear quickly and without warning. However, it is exacerbated by the continuing imbalance between resources and commitments. Indeed, the Armed Forces Pay Review Body report which has been referred to a number of times talks about the MoD’s evidence, which itself says that the commitments have outweighed the planning regime that has been introduced.
Of course the Armed Forces are part of the general public, and we have seen changes that the Armed Forces consequently pick up. Changing expectations have an impact on why personnel join and why they go when they go. There are different lifestyles, and the buoyancy of our successful economy makes employment provision for personnel much easier. I support the calls for extra defence expenditure related to the current levels of commitment. I am somewhat sceptical about linking it to GDP, because that hooks you to a star that suggests that GDP will always grow. What happens if it decreases? There is an imbalance of resources, but the defence budget is £33.5 billion. The Government have increased it above inflation since the last Comprehensive Spending Review.
Some noble Lords have said that they are not in the blame culture, which is quite convenient when you want to forget decisions that you have taken. I am not in the blame culture either but I am in the factual history culture, because with the Armed Forces you cannot take a decision today that does not feed through to tomorrow. I was asked to be chairman of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body in 1997. I was met with the sale that had taken place the previous year of the defence housing stock. The right honourable James Arbuthnot, then the Defence Procurement Minister, said that a very good price for the taxpayer had been secured in a competitive auction and that service families would start to see the benefits. That statement was followed by several reports from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, which was chaired at that time by the right honourable David Davis, who currently holds a not insignificant position in the shadow Cabinet. That committee was very concerned about the sale of Addington Homes. We are paying millions of pounds of rent for empty accommodation. It was sold off at up to £136 million less than the MoD had valued the estate at. The nation did not get a fair deal from that sale, but the Armed Forces’ married and single personnel got an awful deal from it, and it is still feeding through.
I was faced with Armed Forces that were demoralised because their pay awards had been staged, not for one year but year on year, the impact of which is felt today in their pensions. That has to be accepted as a decision taken at that time that we are still facing up to. Because of the so-called peace dividend, which has been referred to, I was faced with a stop on recruitment so heavy-handed that you had a shortage of really good people coming through for promotion opportunities and a loss of personnel who had the qualities needed for the future in the Armed Forces; they went into the private sector.
That is what we were faced with 10 years ago. Anyone who thinks that the problem of the Armed Forces has arrived under or been brought about by this Government is living in cloud-cuckoo-land and not facing up to the facts of where we are. This Government have put a lot of money into the Armed Forces. They need to put in more, and no one will find a stronger advocate than me for a bigger defence budget for our commitments. We have seen improvements across the board: in the pension scheme, in the welfare package and, this year, in pay. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Young and his colleagues on continuing the independence of the body that it has gained its reputation for.
However, we have problems of retention and recruitment, and some serious pinch points in some key skills needed in the Armed Forces. More than in the past, we need to consider the families as part of our whole commitment to the Armed Forces. That is essential. I was disturbed to read in the report that 40 per cent of personnel in 2005 reported that they had had to change their leave plans, for instance. That may seem a small point, but imagine if you are a member of one of the three forces abroad and have your leave planned with your family to go on holiday but have to change it. There is nothing more demoralising for a family than that dad or mum will not be able to go on the holiday when they planned it, perhaps in school holidays. We need to plan better and to ensure that we get recruitment back to the levels in the MoD’s plans.
Only 32 per cent of personnel were satisfied with their opportunities to take leave. The new housing package—the opportunity to get your foot on the housing ladder—is still only a grant of £8,500 after four years in the services, and you still have to repay it in eight years. That is not good enough. We need better for our Armed Forces.
I declare that I am a vice-president of the War Widows Association, and war widows need to be part of this debate. I am concerned at some of the stories—they need examining; they may not be correct—about bodies being repatriated into Oxford and the delays that follow for a coroner’s report. That is so destructive of families’ morale. The MoD needs to do something about it. The War Widows Association provides a wonderful service. In a few weeks’ time there will be a conference of more than 400 war widows in Bristol. The noble Baroness, Lady Fookes—a friend of mine— and I will be on that weekend. We have a lot of new, young widows today. Because of data protection, the War Widows Association cannot get directly in touch with them. That is wrong. I would welcome a discussion with the Minister on how we find a way through it.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater on securing this important debate and join all others in congratulating the Minister on his promotion. I want to focus for a few moments on two important issues, upon which I am afraid I have spoken before: aircraft carriers and Army housing.
We on these Benches were delighted at the announcement—I fear that it was long ago—that heralded the first step in the construction of two new aircraft carriers, the “Queen Elizabeth” and the “Prince of Wales”. The plan is that, with the inevitable retirement of quite a number of our major naval assets, those two carriers will eventually fill important gaps in the Navy's ability to carry out its remit into the future. That plan has sadly been dogged by setback after setback, so the completion date of the first carrier—2012—is no longer a possibility, even if it remains a target. I said over three years ago that the carriers,
“are much-needed … ships which will be the nucleus of a … formidable fighting force”.—[Official Report, 17/1/05; col. 592.]
This is an increasingly urgent situation. The continual delay in the programme is opening up a huge risk in our maritime security.
I shall demonstrate that by outlining our current aircraft-carrier capability as I understand it. Of our three carriers, HMS “Invincible” was decommissioned in 2005 and cannibalised for spares for the other two ships. HMS “Ark Royal” is operational as a platform for landing helicopters only. That means that it is not equipped with any strike aircraft. HMS “Illustrious” is operational but without a dedicated strike force either, it seems. I hope the Minister can clarify my understanding of the situation of HMS “Illustrious”. In response to a Written Question on 8 March in the other place, the Minister stated that there were six Harrier aircraft embarked on HMS “Illustrious”. Technically that is correct, but I understand that the air group was embarked for two weeks’ deck training only. The ship’s newsletter described this as,
“the first operations they have undertaken with fixed wing aircraft in many months”.
That is hardly indicative of a combat-ready force.
The Sea Harrier fleet has been stood down, so any fully operational carrier now uses an element of Harrier GR7 and GR9 aircraft. However, most of those are quite rightly currently in theatre in Afghanistan. As far as I can make out, there is no dedicated air group that can undertake strike operations on a carrier at short notice. Does the Minister agree that removing the Sea Harrier from front-line service demonstrates a certain lack of foresight on the Government’s part? What assurances can he give the House about the speed with which Harrier aircraft and their crews could be redeployed if an emergency arose requiring a naval task force? If Harriers had to be redeployed for this task, most likely from Afghanistan, would that not disastrously weaken the central support that Harriers are now giving to our ground troops? Is it not true that this puts our Royal Navy in a position where it is effectively out of the carrier business until the arrival of the newly commissioned supercarriers, or a decision is made to re-equip at least one operational ship with an air group of carriers? The current state of play has left our marine security open to great risk.
The “Invincible” is due officially to go out of service in 2010, the “Ark Royal” in 2012 and the “Illustrious” in 2015. We are sure that the new aircraft carriers will not be ready by 2012, and we do not know by how much more the dates may slip. What assessment have the Government made of the possible cost of re-equipping and refitting “Illustrious” and “Ark Royal” should they need to have their service extended beyond the dates mentioned? I hope that the Minister will take time, if not to reply in this debate, to write to me on this matter.
The maintenance of Army housing can have a significant impact on recruitment and retention, as mentioned several times in this debate. It is also an area about which the Armed Forces Pay Review Body has been seriously concerned for years, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. As many of us have said before, if the family is unhappy, the soldier will be unhappy and obviously concerned for his family’s welfare. An individual with worries will often become distracted and is likely to be affected in his or her operational efficiency on active service.
A speaker at the annual conference of the Army Families’ Federation last year aptly summed it up:
“Most families feel passionately about their homes, army families perhaps more than most since they can sometimes be the only stable thing in their lives. Their husbands or partners might be on operations abroad but their home is their base, the one concrete thing in an otherwise turbulent existence”.
Yet British Army families are still faced with housing problems and increased pressures. I welcome the recognition by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, at Questions on 7 February that,
“much still needs to be done to meet the needs of our service men and women and their families”.—[Official Report, 7/2/07; col. 701.]
Credit where credit is due: a year since the somewhat inauspicious launch of the housing prime contract, there has been progress in delivery, though one could not say that it is perfect. We also welcome the additional funding pledged for this, though I note that the noble Baroness avoided questions on 7 February about a possible ring-fenced plan to upgrade older quarters. How much is to be spent on new accommodation and on upgrading old accommodation for service families?
I understand that some 21,000 service families remain in accommodation below the accepted condition and 12,000 of those are Army family houses. The Army Families’ Federation argues that there has been extensive spinning of the figures but little recognition of the urgent need to improve the condition of many houses. They are houses that we might not choose to live in, but its members have no choice. The contrast between new housing and poor old housing should be a significant social consideration. Poor housing and poor barracks can be the cause of a significant drop in morale and much distress. An example in point may be the Welsh Guards and their imminent move to Wellington Barracks. One does not have to look far beyond the façade to see that the fabric of the buildings is crumbling and that the quality of living quarters is appalling. I declare an interest as a past master of the Drapers’ Company, with which the Welsh Guards have an affiliation.
What consideration have Her Majesty’s Government given to a comprehensive repair programme that deals with the worst situation first rather than those who shout the loudest? What percentage of the funds allocated has been made available for replacing basic equipment such as boilers and cookers? Can the Minister rebut claims that, except for health and safety reasons, there has been no money for this purpose since November last year? How are Her Majesty’s Government monitoring this situation and ensuring that what funds there are will be spent appropriately and efficiently?
Accompanied service, where it is feasible, is a vital element of the Army’s operational effectiveness, now and in the future. Even with more of the Army based at home in 10 to 15 years’ time, it is still expected that some 20 per cent of the Army will be living outside the UK. Moving people on posting will still go on, to meet the Army’s needs as well as the individual’s interest, so decent affordable married quarters and single rooms in barracks are a long-term need.
It frustrates me that I seem to be referring to these two issues time and again. I hope that the Minister can offer me some positive news on progress on both fronts. However they are very important issues, each in their own way, for the security and morale of our country, and they must be addressed.
My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain, the successor to the late Baroness Strange, who was much loved by all the war widows. I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, her indignation that the Data Protection Act in a strange way prevents the association from getting in touch with new war widows. The very time when a war widow most needs help is in those frightful early days of bereavement, when they may be, emotionally and financially, in a critical state. I hope that the Minster will agree to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and, if he can bear it, to meet me too, to discuss this issue.
I declare an interest as a vice-president of SSAFA Forces Help. I mention that in view of the points made by other noble Lords about the plight of some wounded servicemen coming back and the plight of some of their families. This organisation helps current and past families, and those serving, even if only for one day, so that for the rest of their lives they may look to the organisation for help. I hope that I may use this opportunity to spread the word about the SSAFA Forces Help, because at a time when there are so many difficulties, every bit of help from such an organisation is useful. I hope that the fact that it is a voluntary organisation will not deter the state from taking its proper part in dealing with wounded servicemen, their families and all the difficulties.
I also declare a modest interest as a member of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. I am not sure how many of your Lordships are acquainted with this scheme. Noble Lords probably do not need to be because many are very well acquainted with the services and are at the top of the tree. The scheme was set up some 20 years ago to give MPs and Peers without direct service experience or knowledge a real indication of how the services work. The first course involves members agreeing to give at least 22 days to visiting shore establishments and ships, and, in particular, they agree to stay on board a ship for the best part of a week with an honorary rank and a uniform. The idea is to try to get away from the VIP visit so that they gain some inside knowledge of what goes on.
I know that, for those with a deep knowledge of the services, that will appear superficial, but it is much better than total ignorance, which, if I may say so, probably affects the other place more than here. That is why the scheme was set up in the first place. Bearing in mind all that we have heard over the past days about the primacy of the other place and, indeed, its financial controls, which we lack, it is vital that as many MPs as possible have this knowledge so that they can bring some pressure to bear on the Ministry of Defence and, above all, on the Treasury when they see that things are going wrong. The scheme is important for that reason alone.
I am on the second stage of the scheme. As such, just over three weeks ago I spent three days in the English Channel on board HMS “Illustrious”, to which my noble friend Lord Luke referred, in seas which I would describe as rough but which the officers on board described as lumpy. Be that as it may, I managed to stay on my feet, which was more than some of my fellow scheme members did.
I want to stress a point made by my noble friend Lord Luke. The last time I went on that aircraft carrier, well over 10 years ago, I was surrounded by Sea Harriers. It was a thundering experience to stand on the flight deck and see them come and go. This time, not a single fixed-wing aircraft was to be seen, either on the flight deck or in the enormous hangars underneath. The most we saw was a Merlin helicopter, and I believe that that was borrowed, but it was undertaking various exercises in landing and taking off.
That leads me on to a concern about training, or the lack of it. “Skill fade” was a term used by those on board the HMS “Illustrious”. It is absolutely necessary not simply to train but to keep in training if you are going on to a flight deck which is moving with the winds and tides and all the vagaries of the weather. Continuous practice is required. Nowhere were the Harriers, which are not now Sea Harriers but are shared with the RAF, to be seen. I think that they were on operations of war, and of course that must come first, but, to me, it is a very vivid indication of stretch. I was not allowed by the First Sea Lord to call these things “overstretch”; he would admit only to “stretch”, but stretch there is and there comes a time when you reach breaking point, as other noble Lords have vividly indicated from their deep experience of all the services.
We then come to the problem of recruitment and retention. By and large, HMS “Illustrious” seemed a very happy ship under a brilliant commanding officer, but, even there, it was obvious that people were concerned about experiencing long periods at sea and then going off again very soon afterwards—a point already illustrated. I saw and heard about that first-hand from people on board. I am not sure how they would have fared without the presence of women. I remember, as an MP in Plymouth years ago, the excitement and mayhem that was forecast to occur if women were allowed to go to sea, so I was delighted to see what a substantial proportion of the crew were women—not all in the most lowly jobs either. The senior engineer and the dental surgeon were women, and there were clearly others well up the ranks. When looking at recruitment and retention, the role of women, particularly in the Royal Navy, deserves a great deal of consideration.
I turn now to the future of aircraft carriers. It seems to me that they are so brilliantly versatile that we must ensure that the two which, we gather, are to be ordered or are on order come to fruition. If I sound slightly sceptical, it is because I remember that it took ages to get the amphibious ships, and we cannot afford that kind of timescale for aircraft carriers, which play an important and versatile part in the role of the Royal Navy. I trust that the Minister can give us a clear idea of the timescale involved and that, above all, he can assure us that these aircraft carriers will be forthcoming. I fear that it is typical of all Governments of whatever complexion to will the end but not always the means. When it comes to the armed services, that is a very dangerous path to pursue.
My Lords, like other Members of the House, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord King, for securing this debate. Also like others, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, on his promotion. I know that it will be much appreciated in the services, not only because he is held in great respect but because, for the next few weeks, he will be expected to celebrate by buying drinks in every sergeants’ mess that he visits.
Recently, a number of senior serving officers have spoken out publicly about their concerns and about the difficulties that their services are facing. In principle, I very much disapprove of serving officers doing that. It is not our way, but I am not very surprised that they now feel compelled to do so, and I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord King, said. They owe loyalty not only to their Ministers—their political masters—but also to their subordinates and their services. There is now a feeling—probably stronger than I can ever recall—that the Government are not keeping their side of the bargain and honouring the military covenant, to which others have referred. The services are suffering from years of under investment and of being taken for granted, and from a lack of understanding of what is required.
We should know that defence planning is notoriously difficult and, perhaps more than with any other department of state, the future challenges are harder to predict. One needs to remember that, practically without exception, every major emergency involving the British services over the past 25 years has been unforeseen. I include the Falklands campaign in 1982, the Gulf in 1991, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Macedonia and, now, Afghanistan. That is to say nothing about the emergencies at home—the fuel crisis, the foot and mouth outbreak, firefighting and the July terrorist attacks. Today, the ill-intentioned can wreak havoc in a way that only a short time ago would have been unimaginable. I know of no serious commentators who believe that the world will soon become a safer place. They predict that new challenges will arise, such as energy security and population movement.
Many people feel that, as a country, we are far too ready to send expeditionary forces to far-away places, but our security does not only depend on “fortress UK”. We live in a globalised world, and what happens in Pakistan, the Middle East or the Horn of Africa can affect us. It is easy to say that we have a choice and can avoid involvement, but Governments do not always have the luxury of choice. That is rarely recognised, particularly by opposition parties. It would be very unwise to predicate our defence and foreign policies and budgets on avoiding trouble.
Of course, the forces cannot prepare for every scenario, threat and instability currently imaginable. There is no equivalent of a geographical comprehensive insurance policy in today's world. That makes it necessary for us to have a balanced defence force that can adapt quickly to the demands of a new crisis. But allotting resources is extremely difficult. To many, the defence budget seems enormous and it is in comparison with many, but certainly not in comparison with all spending departments. Undoubtedly, the Ministry of Defence can be criticised for some of its procurement policies, as we have heard. Large sums of money have been wasted and serious problems have arisen, from over optimistic cost estimates to overruns. The new defence industrial strategy, driven by the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, certainly should eventually bring great advantages, but the Minister, who deserves our congratulations on his initiative, has a huge task and previous attempts to improve procurement have had very mixed results. The 1998 exercises, Smart Procurement and Smart Acquisition, were both disappointing.
Other noble Lords have and will talk about Iraq and Afghanistan. I agree with all that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said about Afghanistan. All I would add is that operations by the British defence forces are being conducted successfully today, but they cannot be maintained at their present tempo on current human and equipment resources and funding for much longer without inviting a dramatic deterioration in capability and performance, damage to the forces and risking operational failure. The defence planning assumptions have been proved to be inaccurate and need to be revisited, but many in Whitehall still feel that once the campaigns we are fighting are over all will be well and we can return to a notional status quo ante of normality, where demands on defence will be much less. To adopt that attitude at this time is wrong, irresponsible, very risky and dangerous.
I hope that Ministers and civil servants really understand the very great difficulties that commands have: new savings measures following hotfoot on previous savings measures; stoppage of programmes; cancellation of exercises or a reduction in their scope; failure to maintain housing; difficulty in obtaining spares and keeping elderly equipment running; and secondary medical care, which has been much in the news.
I am pleased to see that the Chief of the General Staff now seems happier with the treatment of our casualties, but it is worrying when he says that conditions have improved and every hospital is getting better. That is hardly a ringing endorsement. We have been at war for four years now. What has been happening in those four years? I agree with all that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said about the National Health Service and its excellent work. I am delighted that the Defence Select Committee will now address the problems. I, like I am sure many noble Lords, was deeply shocked by what some of the casualties, their wives, their partners and parents have had to say about their handling—I am not just talking about Birmingham.
We must be concerned about the future. It could get much worse in Afghanistan; we could have many more casualties. Can we really cope? What is planned? Do we really believe in the present arrangements? Like most people who have served in the Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, I come from a fairly sceptical position. So often we have been let down by the medical plan. We were promised a single hospital; we were assured we would get it, but it never happened. We were promised separate wings at hospitals around the country; the concept was changed. We were told that Birmingham would be a large facility which would be able to deal with large numbers of casualties and that there would be military wards, but that is still to happen. We can hardly be blamed for being a little sceptical.
Of course, it is not all gloom. Some equipment, as people have said, is as good as any in the world, but commanders and their staffs spend an inordinate amount of time managing crises caused by inadequate budgets and financial measures imposed at short notice. We will be in real trouble if the main preoccupation of a commander is financial rather than training and going on operations. With all due respect to the noble Lord, Lord James of Blackheath, we do not want battalions in Afghanistan commanded by bean counters.
What should be done for defence? It is quite obvious that we cannot afford, with the resources that we have today, everything that we would like. The sums do not add up. We have three options. First, we can funk it: we can count on the world becoming a safer place. Quite honestly, that would change the services and we would be too weak everywhere.
Secondly, we could keep the defence budget at much the same size but change the priorities of how it is spent. That would mean directing more money to the Army, which is too small by several thousands, and would probably have a devastating effect on the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Today, operations are manpower-intensive. We need more people and the Ministry of Defence misled us when we thought that cuts imposed on defence would be compensated by clever new technology: the Revolution in Military Affairs and Networked Enabled Capability.
My Lords, I join the thanks to my noble friend Lord King. It is interesting that we are having a debate on defence with six former senior service officers from the Armed Forces, from all three services, four of them former Chiefs of Defence Staff. Given how we spent yesterday afternoon, that confirms the talent of this House. To follow that for a second, I would like to believe—I do not do so with any confidence—that other than the excellent Minister who will answer and to whom I shall refer again, senior officials in the Ministry of Defence will read this debate in full, including the Permanent Secretary to whom I shall also refer again.
I shall briefly talk about two things: equipment and defence finance. I have nothing like the knowledge of my noble friend Lord James, but I shall refer to one particular piece of equipment; the Bowman radio system. It is perfectly obvious to anyone who knows even a little about military matters—I merely did National Service as an infantryman—that the radio is just as much a weapon as a rifle, and just as essential in modern warfare. It is sad that we have had this disgraceful situation with the Bowman.
We had a good report from the Comptroller and Auditor-General in July last year, and another published on 8 March from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, chaired by my honourable friend Edward Leigh, entitled Ministry of Defence: Delivering digital tactical communications through the Bowman CIP programme. I refer to it now because the Government have understandably not yet replied to it. The Minister is, frankly, much more qualified in his job than most Ministers in most departments, and has the skills and abilities that should make him independent of the civil servants. He is the sort of Minister who should not have to do what he is told, but be telling people what to do. That may be an optimistic statement, but it is a desirable objective. I hope that, when the Government reply to this PAC report, the Minister will personally draft that reply, calling on all the assistance he needs.
The main Bowman contract now is with General Dynamics UK Limited, which is chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Levine, who has a particular interest in all of this; he was the Chief of Defence Procurement from 1985 to 1991 and adviser to the Prime Minister on efficiency and effectiveness from 1992 to 1997. The PAC did not actually question him, because it normally calls in the departmental accounting officer, which is what it did. I dare say the Minister already has dealings with the noble Lord, Lord Levine. I do not myself know the noble Lord at all, but I assume he has great abilities in these matters or he would not have got the chairmanship of General Dynamics. He certainly has great experience of Whitehall and defence procurement. I hope that the Minister will call him in and discuss the exact nature of the reply that ought to be given to the PAC’s report, since the noble Lord has been on both sides of the Bowman operation.
It is a damning report. Due to time, I shall read only the chapter headings:
“1 Programme governance arrangements were not fit for purpose …
2 Initial decisions were not well informed to reduce later risk …
3 Through life costs were not rigorously assessed
4 Operational benefits are limited by reductions in the programme”.
One of the failures in this operation has been referred to by my noble friend Lord James: the weight of the actual kit. The piece of kit produced was too heavy for soldiers to carry at the infantry level. The right honourable Member for Swansea West, Mr Alan Williams, the Father of the House of Commons, who proved a determined terrier in questioning the failures of the Bowman system, said:
“Directors of Infantry have stated since the late 1990s that increased weight and size are unacceptable”.
The Permanent Secretary of Defence, Mr Jeffrey, replied:
“We ended up with a radio which, for specific purposes for dismounted troops, is heavier than the Army required”.
Mr Williams said that Bowman was:
“beyond ergonomic practicality for a foot soldier to cope with”.
If that is not a definition of disastrous failure, I do not know what is. When Mr Williams then referred to the huge extra costs, an extra £121 million, that are having to be paid out to try to correct this—and this was not the only fault with the Bowman—he said to the Permanent Secretary:
“Is that not an appalling waste of taxpayers’ money?”,
and the Permanent Secretary’s answer was:
“It is a regrettable additional expenditure”.
That has echoes to me of Sir Humphrey but it also has echoes of the Home Office. I wondered who the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence was, so I looked him up because I had not heard of him before. I found that he knows all about the Home Office because he came from the Home Office. In fact, he has done 25 years in the Home Office and was, during the crucial years from 2002 to 2005, in charge of the Immigration and Nationality Department of the Home Office, which I seem to remember the then Home Secretary referring to as “not fit for purpose”. I wonder what made the committee head one of its chapters in this report with “not fit for purpose”. I have said enough about Bowman but I hope the Minister will take it very seriously. It is a crucial piece of equipment. It has not been well handled and there must be real lessons to learn. It is not just regrettable, it is deplorable.
I have one further point to make. I believe we must in future share more equally the financial burdens of military operations in which we engage on behalf of the wider international community. I am thinking particularly of Afghanistan where we are spending, as was said in a Statement to this House recently, considerably more than our share in financial terms. We are, after the United States, the largest military presence there. And some of the few other countries which are making military contributions are putting severe restrictions on their forces. I believe there should be a central fund which is paid for by all members of NATO in proportion to their GDP. That would include countries that make military force contributions to the operations, but those countries would then be reimbursed 100 per cent from that fund. Even if we are going to produce disproportionately large forces to fight the NATO campaigns—and I think it is excellent that we should because we have the finest military forces in the world—at least let us be repaid rather than have other richer countries which make little contribution riding on our backs financially as well as militarily.
My Lords, last evening, about 12 hours ago, I was dining downstairs with my noble friend Lord King, to whom I am very grateful for giving us the chance to speak on defence today. While we were having dinner, the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, took ill. She normally might well be on the Benches opposite and I hope the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, will be able to convey our best wishes. I hope that she will be well again very soon and able to return perhaps to correct some of the things I want to say briefly today.
The noble Baroness and the Minister will be delighted that most of my speech has been made for me, because exactly a fortnight ago today I accompanied the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, who has spoken eloquently on the military section of the hospital at Selly Oak. I have some experience as I spent two years as a national serviceman, like my noble friend Lord Marlesford and one or two others. My career finished on 20 January 1959 with a triple fracture of the leg. All in all, I spent 32 weeks in and out of hospital over the next two years. That hospital was also visited by my noble friend Lord Astor and my noble friend Lord King spent time there as well thanks to injuries, though not quite that long. It taught me and, I suspect, my noble friends a great deal about illness, sickness and accidents. The first thing one requires is rest; the second thing is care and rehabilitation. Everything I saw at Selly Oak on a fairly brief visit went to prove that the team there under Air Commodore Batchelor, the commandant, are certainly the number one team in their discipline and I hope the Minister will be able to pass on our impression and enormous gratitude to the team and everyone connected with it who we met and saw there.
My noble friend Lord Burnett referred particularly to dedicated military areas. I think he was absolutely right. I hope the Minister will be able to confirm that that is going to be improved as far as is possible within the priorities he has in his briefings for Selly Oak. I hope that he can manage that as far as possible.
We received all sorts of details in a marvellous briefing from the commandant, but time is short and I shall not encourage the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, to practise the Mexican wave by leaping up and sitting down, because I shall take only two or three more minutes. Will the Minister confirm that there is a dedicated mess area for the military nurses and medical services at Selly Oak? If there is not, could he please see that it is very high up the list of priorities? It is absolutely necessary. I saw two separate facilities at Selly Oak, to which I think my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew referred, as did others. One was for young soldiers and the walking wounded under diagnosis. While the exact nature of their illness or casualty was being diagnosed, they were reasonably mobile. It was certainly an admirable facility. In the other facility, we found a warrant officer in the Territorial Army—my noble friend Lord Glenarthur will be very pleased about that—and two teams of four. There were also facilities for families to use while visiting their relatives who may be injured or recuperating. That very valuable arm may be called welfare, but I regard it very much as part of the Selly Oak procedure.
Time is short, and my noble friend Lord Arran is about to speak. I pay tribute to the medics in the wonderful medical team at Selly Oak. I also pay tribute to 45 Commando, who were referred to earlier and who are my local Royal Marines in the county of Angus, which alas has proved to be rather too far away for a visit by the House of Lords defence group. It is near enough to my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, so perhaps we might make a combined strike at some stage. They continually serve in Afghanistan, and many of us in Angus and the north-east of Scotland will want to welcome them back safe and sound, because they have taken casualties. We pay our tribute to them, but above all, today of all days, we pay tribute to each and every serviceman around the world who is subject to what the Minister has been encouraging us to speak about today. My noble friend Lord King has been so good as to give us the chance to say, “Thank you and well done”, to each and every one of them.
My Lords, as I am short of voice, my points will be brief. In 1989, I had the privilege to be given my first job in government. I was sent to the Ministry of Defence, where my boss at that time is now my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater, whom I warmly congratulate on bringing forward the debate. My colleagues were my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom, the late Alan Clark and one other Minister.
Out of the five Ministers at that time, four of us had done national service. Some of us had fought in campaigns such as in Cyprus, where Grivas was the terrorist of the day. It was not uncommon to be greeted by hails of bullets in an ambush at the age of 18. Thus, when as Ministers we arrived at the Ministry of Defence, we knew how the different services operated. We understood the different chains of command and we had a reasonable knowledge of the weaponry of that era. This was very helpful not only to us when dealing with civil servants, but more particularly to those who were serving in the Armed Forces. We had a good knowledge of what it was all about, as at one time we had each been one of them.
Time has moved on since then, and more than 60 years of global peace have passed since the last world war. Although I have not checked this, I am fairly certain that not one member of the present Government and only a handful of civil servants have had similar experiences, although some, of course, have served in the TA. This can make it very hard for the Armed Forces to get their message across. At times, exactly what their anxieties and requirements are and why can be a very complex message. Naturally, I am in no way advocating the return of national service, as admirable and as necessary as it was then, given that global peace was only 20 years old. Yet it is increasingly difficult for those in government to understand the genuine needs of the finest Armed Forces in the world—or is it obstinacy? It is tempting for people in government, and particularly for young people in the Treasury, to think that they can lower their guard and relax into the perception of certainty that global conflict can never happen again. Therein lies an error of enormous magnitude.
Nothing matters in any country other than the defence and protection of its own shores. This is any Government’s first and foremost responsibility. The defence of the realm is supreme above all else. This must never be forgotten. Whither the great offices of state—the Foreign Office and the Home Office—and whither health and education if we were no longer in control of our own destiny but in the hands of a foreign power? Hence, and underlining so strongly, the need for Trident.
Many noble Lords have this afternoon severely criticised the Government for lack of action and non-understanding of the needs of our Armed Forces, wherever they may be serving. This is not playing politics; these are not light-hearted jabs at the Minister. Your Lordships are profoundly and deeply worried—this verges on outright anger—at the continual reports in the media and from first-hand knowledge of talking to members of the Armed Forces. Add to that the relentless, overt and outright criticism from senior members of the Armed Forces, brave and courageous men whose loyalty has now been stretched too far—this criticism is unprecedented in modern times—and you have a very serious problem. They no longer feel that they can keep silent, for they are responsible for all the strands of the men and women under their command who are sent to fight in foreign arenas, whether on peace-keeping missions or combating forces of evil.
The most important aspect of all must be to ensure that those who are deployed on such missions are equipped with the most modern and sophisticated equipment available, at whatever cost. You do not play around with the lives of brave men and women. If you are going to send such men and women possibly to die for their country, it is imperative to be absolutely certain that they have all the resources that they need to secure their own safety, to perform the tasks that they are asked to, and to return to their families safe and sound. Not to do so is not only callous and disgraceful, but nearly an act of criminal negligence.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, for making this debate possible. I remember with pleasure serving in the Ministry of Defence during his time as the Defence Secretary. In preparing for this debate I looked at the foreword to his 1991 White Paper, in which he said,
“Our determination is to produce forces which, while smaller, are well-equipped, properly trained and housed, and well motivated”.
This is something which his successors have also aimed to do. Yet, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, described to us, things have not gone that way.
Today, after 15 years of salami-slicing and occasional, more major reviews, we are spending just under half the proportion of GDP that we tended to spend during the Cold War, and the three armed services together have a trained strength of below 180,000—about the same size as the United States Marine Corps. Yet the operational tasks are now, as we have heard from so many noble Lords, much heavier than they ever were during the Cold War days.
Ministry of Defence planners, of which I was one, have to make assumptions about the steady state and the peak tasking in order to justify the numbers of people, the structure and also the equipment programme. These assumptions drive the calculations for equipment life and logistical support needs. Assumptions are inevitably proved wrong by events, for all the reasons that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, told us in his speech. Any organisation would expect to have to modify its planning assumptions regularly in the light of experience. What is so extraordinary—and it is the real criticism that underlies all the problems that have been catalogued today—is that the Ministry of Defence does not seem to have adjusted its defence planning assumptions to match the world that it is experiencing. That has been the case for the past eight years, since the intervention in Kosovo in 1999, and is why I disagree with the analysis by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, of the approach that has been taken since that time.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, raised the question of definitions of overstretch. When we question each statement about a change of force levels—1,400 up in Afghanistan, 1,600 down in Iraq, 800 out of Bosnia—we deal with a snapshot of tasking. The real problem is the long-term effect of continuous operations at or above the defence programme’s planned level, as the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said. Remedies are short term, and the damage they do affects the long term more and more. The ways that one addresses short-term operational needs and the long-term structure of the forces are different; we need to keep that in mind. In this debate, there has been a lot of wishful thinking about the effect that great slugs of money could have. In the short term, there is not much that we can do quickly to rectify the situation with money. We cannot get recruits in quickly. We cannot train them up quickly. NCOs take years to grow. If we bring in more people, we need to take experienced people out of the frontline to do the training task. Deepcut showed us what happens if we cut supervisory levels too far. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, said, specialists are an even greater problem area. I have spoken before about the black hole in naval nuclear watchkeeper manning, which dates from the 1990s. It takes many years to replace or increase the numbers of a range of essential specialists.
Things are little better when we look at short-term problems with equipment. I have no doubt about the Minister’s repeated assurances that he is giving the greatest priority to procuring all the essential needs, including the helicopter lift. Yet we do not seem to be any closer to closing the gap between what we need and what we scratch together from an assortment of tired airframes. I hope the Minister will lay out his plans today and will give firmer dates than he has been able to give so far for giving us a robust support helicopter support capability, including the plan to get the eight HC3 Chinooks flying again. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, raised the problems of air lift, both strategic and tactical. It is another problem that the Minister regularly acknowledges, yet we still await the FSTA programme, which could provide some relief in the area of strategic lift. However, it will take time. I would also be interested to know what effect the Airbus troubles will have on the plans for A400M. The noble Lord, Lord King, raised the question of the inerting system for C130 fuel tanks. I shall not spend much time on it, but there is a difficult operational decision to be made about the number of troops put at risk by a reduction in the C130 fleet for unscheduled servicing against the risk of a slower fitment programme. That illustrates the knock-on effect of having too small a force for the tasks we are taking on. It does not matter whether it is aircraft, ships, vehicles or military personnel; we need to have some extra capability for things that turn up unexpectedly.
All this means that there is only one short-term remedy now open to the Government, given the concerns we have heard. It is no longer a matter of choice: if we wish to recover the Armed Forces, we must reduce their commitments to below the planning assumptions and we must hold that lower level of operational tasking for at least two years—my erstwhile colleague, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, says more than two years. The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, asked what we should give up, and my answer is that, despite the Government’s indication of a prospective reduction in Iraq, the commitment remains significant and continues to require all the force-enabling capabilities. Yet the UK contribution is under 5 per cent of the total multinational forces. An article in the Los Angeles Times on 28 February explained the Government’s—Tony Blair’s, as it put it—plight to its readership:
“The tragedy is that he had to rob Peter to pay Paul because Britain can't maintain 7,000 troops in Iraq and 7,000 in Afghanistan. Those are hardly huge numbers for a country of 60 million with the fifth-largest national economy in the world. Yet even as Britain has continued to play a leading role in world affairs, it has allowed its defenses to molder”.
It is right—we cannot do both. We may regret it, but that is the situation. We need to complete the withdrawal from Iraq and do it quickly, handing over to the US forces so that we can concentrate on Afghanistan. I support the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, in what he said on that.
In Afghanistan, I share the concerns of many noble Lords, including the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Bramall and Lord Inge, about the confusion of strategy between allies and the prospects of success. If we are not clear on the priorities for action the tactics will also be confused. The funding suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, that all should contribute to NATO operations is absolutely right; however, the Government do not accept that—I have raised it before. Nevertheless, we support the UK contribution, we believe it must become the focus for our main military and reconstruction effort.
I turn now to the second, longer term problem where money can make a difference. But do we really expect to get a large amount of money? I am a member of a panel organised by the Royal United Services Institute Acquisition Focus. We have just published a report, The Underfunded Equipment Programme: Where Now? The group assess the shortfall of necessary funding on the equipment programme over the next 10 years as being of the order of 20 per cent. I am told by some of my erstwhile colleagues that that may be quite an underestimate. Here, extra money from the defence budget could help. But we are talking about a sum of around £15 billion. Failing that, the UK will need to focus much more narrowly on essential capabilities for national security. The report identifies what those in the group saw as essential capabilities: strategic intelligence, the deterrent, a sustainable expeditionary force and its enablers, a maritime security force, defence of UK airspace, and the necessary network-enabled capability to tie all those together. The consequences for the Defence Industrial Strategy would be profound. Some of the effects could be mitigated by a more serious attempt to operate true European defence capabilities at the high end but I think it is unlikely to happen. In sum the future is bleak—in the long term as well as the short—and the problem is exacerbated further by the increasing number of private finance arrangements the Ministry of Defence takes on, thus reducing flexibility in the longer term.
I conclude by adding my tribute to the extraordinary men and women we have in our Armed Forces and our reserves. I was grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Freeman and Lord Glenarthur, for raising those—we must not forget the reserves who suffer in some way even more acutely from some of the problems we have talked about. As many noble Lords said, there are still questions about the duty of care, whether we are talking about those who are injured or—another area that was not raised today but in which I take a particular interest—those who are made homeless on leaving the service, where we need to do more. I also welcomed the contribution made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes; SSAFA Forces Help does good work in this area.
I trust that the Minister will tell us what the Government are doing in the two areas in terms of duty of care. I, too, was delighted by the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body report and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Young, for his contribution as a member of it. It recognises that the Armed Forces merited the larger reward, particularly for those at the more junior levels, and that the Government are to be congratulated on deciding to implement the award immediately. That increase costs £275 million. It is a 3.9 per cent average increase across the piece. Could the Minister say where the money is to come from in the longer term because as always, the higher rate of inflation on defence personnel costs has a knock-on effect for all the problems we have talked about.
I hope that the Minister will focus on the strategic questions that I have raised. How do we address the short-term and the long-term problems, given the realities of the money available? I do not think that any of us have before been so concerned about the fragility of the Armed Forces. We cannot ignore the long term as they try to cope with the overwhelming operational demands of the short term.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord King for tabling this timely Motion and for setting the scene for the debate in the way he did. I join other noble Lords in sending my condolences to the families of service men and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I also congratulate the Minister on his promotion to Minister of State.
Our debate has been wide-ranging but there have been some half-dozen recurring themes: unqualified admiration for the courage and professionalism of our Armed Forces; concerns about the eventual military outcome of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan; overstretch; equipment shortcomings; continuing medical treatment of casualties; and concerns about funding as compared with commitments. On the first of these, several noble Lords have mentioned the covenant that must exist between the Armed Forces, the Government and the wider public. Our Armed Forces risk their lives to ensure the freedoms we all enjoy. Their commitment needs to be reinforced by confidence that in return they will have the support of the Government and the public at all times. However, recent public remarks by senior officers would suggest that that has been sadly damaged.
In that context, I am concerned at the number of abortive courts martial, after unacceptable delays in preparation, relating to alleged misconduct by members of the Armed Forces. If there is such misconduct—clearly, from time to time there is—it is absolutely right that the evidence should be collected, and sustainable charges based on sustainable evidence should be brought; but it is unacceptable that in pursuance of calls for exemplary justice, unsustainable charges should be laid against soldiers, some of whom are apparently selected on account of their rank.
My noble friend Lord Luke raised important issues about accommodation. Our Armed Forces deserve the best accommodation we can provide, so why are some soldiers living in grimmer conditions than prisoners? I hope that the Minister will take on board the point made by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew about delays in troops receiving newspapers and letters.
Recent announcements of further troop contributions to Afghanistan underline the difficult task we continue to face there, added to the possible need to halt troop withdrawals from Iraq should the security situation worsen. We cannot abandon Afghanistan to become once more the haven of terrorists and drug traffickers. The NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan sadly displays a lack of burden-sharing, which should be properly inherent in an alliance, and the adverse effect of undermining unity of command that follows from national caveats.
The course being pursued in Afghanistan further gives rise to concern on three main points: counter-narcotics, the development of fully effective Afghan national forces and reconstruction on the ground. While this country takes the lead on counter-narcotics, the role and assigned responsibility of our Armed Forces on the ground in relation to this purpose is at best incoherent. We must determine the actual involvement of our Armed Forces. If they are not to be directly involved, that should be explained unambiguously to Parliament and the public. Supporting the development of the Afghan National Army must be clearly identified and stated. It must play a part in the role of our Armed Forces and should not be allowed to remain simply a pious aspiration.
Thirdly, high among our overall objectives in Afghanistan are reconstruction, development and good government. Observations I hear from many returning soldiers tell me that the people DfID has in Afghanistan are often prepared to set about these purposes only in a zero-risk environment. Could the Minister comment on that? If the British Government are to measure and report accurately to the public on what they have committed our Armed Forces to do in Afghanistan, they must stop talking as if these broader aspirations are always feasible.
Nearly one in six soldiers is being sent on missions more often than is recommended under Army guidelines. For instance, the King’s Royal Hussars have had to go straight to Afghanistan from Iraq. Some of the individual shortfall statistics are extraordinary; for example, there is a shortfall of 68 accident and emergency nurses. With this in mind is it so surprising that the forces are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit or that retention rates are so poor, which in turn aggravates overstretch?
My noble friends Lord Freeman and Lord Glenarthur mentioned the reserves and the TA. Overstretch has greatly increased reliance on the reserves. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, said, the Royal Navy is critically overstretched. Any further cuts by the Government would seriously damage what is already a strategic mismatch between our current naval commitments and our resources. The United Kingdom’s naval capability is a key national security interest. Britain, an island nation, cannot but be a maritime power. Because Britain’s well-being and energy supplies depend on trade, it has an unusually acute interest in maintaining global stability. Several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lady Fookes, have mentioned the carriers. Could the Minister update the House on progress, or maybe lack of progress, and say whether we and the French are at the point of a signature on the new carriers?
Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Arran, have expressed concerns about shortcomings in equipment for operations. My noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew mentioned the shortcomings of the Snatch Land Rover. Why have these shortcomings, shortages and inadequacies of equipment been a constant refrain in Iraq and Afghanistan? I remind noble Lords that the Prime Minister promised commanders in Afghanistan, saying,
“anything they need and ask for in order to protect our troops I will make sure that they get”.
Several noble Lords were concerned about the adequacy and appropriateness of medical treatment, particularly longer-term care for traumatic stress. I was very comforted by the positive feedback from the visit to Selly Oak by my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew and my noble friend Lord Lyell. I share my noble friend Lord King’s thoughts for the many wounded. The needs of servicemen wounded on active service are different from those of civilian patients. They must be allowed to recover from the effects of their wounds and associated trauma, surrounded by colleagues and companions who understand and can sympathise with their plight. This point was well made in an excellent speech by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, a distinguished former Royal Marines officer, whom I welcome to our number.
Several noble Lords, including the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and my noble friend Lady Park have concerns about Armed Forces funding. Our first concern must be for the efficiency, or otherwise, with which the existing defence budget is disbursed. The answer lies, in substantial part, in the straightforward better management of resources now being squandered, a point eloquently made by my noble friends Lord James and Lord Marlesford. The recent detailed reports by the Commons Defence Committee on FRES, the family of vehicles envisaged for the Army, and by the Public Accounts Committee on the Bowman communication system, mentioned by my noble friend Lord Marlesford, make it clear that work on both these long-drawn-out, multi-million pound projects has been riddled with mistaken assumptions, bureaucratic delays and a repeated inability to reach timely decisions. I therefore congratulate the Minister on enthusiastically taking up the motor sport industry’s offer to help the defence industry in innovative ways.
My noble friend Lady Fookes and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, mentioned training. The constant interruption of individual and collective training will inevitably lead to a decline in professional standards, damaging the Armed Forces’ ability to conduct war-fighting operations. Unless corrected, this could lead to catastrophic failure. It could lead also to unnecessarily high casualty levels.
There can be no surprise at the emergence in this debate of these broad themes; nor, sadly, can there be surprise at the numerous, more detailed concerns expressed and the telling evidence cited. We need not only to recognise and analyse these issues, but also, in so far as they point to the need for action, to reflect on what should and can be done about them. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said, the Armed Forces deserve the full support of the Government.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord King, on securing this debate and on the way in which he introduced it. I congratulate other noble Lords also on the quality of their contributions. After yesterday’s voting on the future of this House, listening to a debate such as that which we have had this afternoon provides no better example of this House’s value.
As the noble Lord, Lord Astor, said, the broad sweep of the debate was on two levels. The first was strategic, relating, as the noble Lord, Lord Garden, said, to the challenges of balancing the short-term pressures with longer-needs needs. On a second level were a number of individual points. I shall endeavour to answer as many of them as I can; on those that I cannot answer, I shall write to noble Lords. To some issues, I cannot respond in public, but I am happy to organise a briefing for noble Lords, especially on force protection, as soon as possible if they would find that helpful.
I welcome this opportunity to debate the state of our Armed Forces. I was in Iraq last week and had the opportunity to conduct my own mini-audit of how things are going in that theatre. Nowhere are the challenges facing our Armed Forces brought into greater clarity than in Basra.
Given that our Armed Forces risk their lives on our behalf, they deserve Ministers who speak plainly and face up to the issues, so I shall endeavour to do so today. There are some problems and I shall touch on them, but I do not believe that our Armed Forces are somehow in crisis. We need to strengthen the covenant between our Armed Forces and the people. There are significant issues, some of which are longstanding and go back across many Governments and some relatively recent, reflecting the challenges in a rapidly developing world.
I join many noble Lords who today paid tribute to all our men and women in uniform. As I saw for myself last week, their morale is high and their professionalism is second to none. They really are excellent. My thoughts, like those of the noble Lord, Lord King, go to those who were wounded in action and to the friends and families of those who have lost their lives.
I agree with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, other ex-chiefs and many others in this House who said that we need to invest more in defence. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Garden, emphasised and as I believe is the view across parties in this House, we must match that investment with reform.
The world is uncertain and changing fast. It is important that we match those challenges with Armed Forces that are fit. That involves making sure that investment and reform go hand in hand. This Government have that policy; we have invested a great deal in defence and made significant progress in that reform, but we need to do more on both fronts.
We recognise that operational success depends on the quality of our people. We acknowledge our responsibility to ensure that they and their families are properly looked after. That is why we agreed the new tax-free operational allowance and pushed hard to produce evidence for an above-inflation pay rise. My noble friend Lord Young, who is in his place, described his own experience as a member of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and in Basra. I am absolutely delighted, as are the Armed Forces, that the pay review approved earlier this month will give an above-inflation increase for all service personnel, with over 9 per cent for the most junior ranks. That is the biggest military pay rise in four years and the biggest in the public sector. It is well deserved, and I mention it today because it is a clear signal of the value that the Government and this country place on our Armed Forces.
I think that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said that we need to do more to educate the nation about the importance of our Armed Forces. He is right; we need to do more to ensure that they are better understood by the public. From meeting our Armed Forces, I know that they like to be busy; but I regret that some are busier than they and we would wish. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, highlighted her concerns about certain pinch-point trades as highlighted in the NAO report. We share those concerns and are taking action to address them.
The noble Lord, Lord King, asked about recruitment. We are operating in a competitive recruiting environment, because of the success and growth of our economy. We need approximately 20,000 new recruits a year across all three services. I am pleased that young people today have more opportunities than ever before; however, despite that challenge we have so far recruited 96 per cent of our requirement for this financial year. While recruitment levels are generally up since last year, the situation is still not as robust as we would like, particularly for the Army. We have introduced incentives in shortage areas such as the Infantry and Royal Artillery. We see some positive progress, with a 30 per cent increase in potential recruits to the Infantry and a 44 per cent increase for the Royal Artillery, but we will have to continue to put significant effort into that.
Even more important than recruiting is retaining enough of the skilled people we already have. Some turnover is inevitable, but we need to keep a close eye on retention. There are particular areas in which we are seeing retention issues and where we need to do further work as exit rates are too high: the Infantry, the Royal Marines and air crew. I noted the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, about a fourth commando unit. In Afghanistan, I have seen for myself the absolute excellence of the Royal Marines, but we need to look at the reasons for their exit rates and at how to improve them. There are targeted financial incentives to address this partially; we are spending an extra £17 million per year and taking other steps.
As highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, important in all this, and as part of our “One Army” approach, is the vital role of reservists. The noble Lord’s idea of a special appeal to employer organisations is excellent; I will speak to him about what we can do to be more effective. Importantly, we should also recognise some of the restrictions that we face in communication. My noble friend Lady Dean and the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, related their concerns about war widows and making contact with them. I will happily meet both noble Baronesses to discuss what we can do further there.
My Lords, before we leave the question of recruitment and retention, do the extended recruitment targets include a deliberate effort to recruit more people from outside Britain—non-British citizens—or is the intention to recruit more people from inside Britain?
My Lords, the intention is to do both. We are working in an imaginative way to ensure that we have the diversity of skills that we need in our Armed Forces, taking into account the increasing importance of specialist experience. That imaginative approach, some of it relating to advertising, needs to be continued.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, highlighted in the case of reservists—though it is true for all our troops—the importance of training, which came most clearly home to me last week in meeting some of our youngest recruits, who were in Iraq within weeks of completing their basic training. We all know that safeguarding training resources has been a challenge for us within the operational pressures, as several noble and gallant Lords have mentioned. We need to do further work on that.
We talk about our young people, too, in the context of learning from the mistakes of the past, some of which—at Deepcut—had tragic consequences, as the noble Lord, Lord Garden, highlighted. We have been working closely with the Independent Adult Learning Inspectorate in recent years to change and reform. Every level of the initial training organisation has been scrutinised and we are building and promoting an improved culture. A key part of this will be our new staff and leadership school at Pirbright. It is important that we continue to focus on this area. I know that the House will continue to scrutinise progress, but the recent report from the chief inspector of the ALI was a positive sign that the Armed Forces are making real progress. We are seriously committed to making these improvements.
Accommodation is an important part of the overall package and how we maintain the covenant with our Armed Forces, and it is an area in which we are making considerable investment. However, there is much room for improvement. My noble friend Lord Young highlighted concerns over the housing prime contract. He is right: this is something that has been recognised and that is now being got to grips with. The noble Lord, Lord Luke, highlighted concerns over maintenance and how the organisation of our accommodation is working. These areas are recognised by the Ministry of Defence as being unacceptable, and active measures are being taken.
New accommodation is coming on-stream. In 2005-06, we spent more than £500 million on accommodation and, in the next decade, we expect to spend more than £5 billion. However, as one of the country’s largest property owners, this is a big project and we have some way to go, as has been said this afternoon. It is an area that has been neglected for some considerable time and we must be realistic about the time that it is going to take to fix it. Noble Lords should not underestimate the commitment of this Government to fixing it. For example, some 20,000 new single bed spaces will be provided this year.
We are also imaginative in using other approaches to address these problems. For example, we have opened up opportunities for home ownership as part of our strategy, and we have lobbied successfully for the forces to be included in the Government’s key worker living programme, which makes it easier for our men and women to become home owners.
There has been tremendous coverage in the press of medical care—and, rightly, noble Lords have highlighted today that other important aspect of how we look after our Armed Forces. We absolutely owe it to the men and women in our Armed Forces who put themselves in harm’s way to provide for them the best possible medical care when they are hurt. The noble Lord, Lord King, asked whether we are overwhelmed by the numbers of wounded personnel, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, gave an overly negative impression of the situation. I have done this before in the House, but it is important to focus on the data and on numbers.
We are not overwhelmed. Last Friday we had 17 military in-patients in the Birmingham hospital for any injuries or illnesses suffered worldwide. On a typical day, we would have 75 military in-patients in all UK hospitals. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, that there is no waiting list for operational casualties going into Selly Oak.
I am sure most of us agree that frontline medical care and treatment is quite simply outstanding. Many of us have seen it; I have seen it myself on operations. I have spoken to some of the highly skilled medical personnel who staff these operations, but we should not forget that it is their work in the NHS—in hospitals across the UK—which enables medics within our Armed Forces constantly to update their skills and then use them to save lives when on operations. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, gave the hand as an example. The most important thing is that in the NHS we provide absolute state-of-the-art clinical care.
I do not understand—it is old-fashioned I believe—the rationale behind the calls for a dedicated military hospital. That decision was taken by the previous Government and it was the right decision. Military hospitals cannot, I am glad to say, because of the small number of patients, provide enough experience to support the wide range of complex medical equipment and training that is required in the 21st century and could never hope to do so. Our primary reception hospital at Selly Oak can and does do that for our people. They are treated in a dedicated clinical unit that specialises in their particular condition if that is required. Their clinical needs come first. Military patients are supported by welfare teams and we have created a military-managed ward where they can be together, if their clinical condition allows. Each individual gets full military support.
A number of noble Lords have stressed the importance of military ethos. Although it is vital, our first duty is to make sure that our people get the best possible treatment. Once they are on the mend we can then place more emphasis on caring for them in an exclusively military environment. The Defence Medical Services Rehabilitation Centre at Headley Court is such a military facility and will remain so.
I have been both to Selly Oak and to Headley Court and talked to the staff and patients there. I was inspired by the tenacity of the patients and I am convinced that they are in the best possible hands. I also recognise that there have been reports of some individual problems at Selly Oak. These are being robustly investigated. But let us not kid ourselves that occasional problems do not occur under any system. We need to ensure that we investigate any problems thoroughly. I absolutely take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Burnett. In a complex society we need to be good at tracking patients within the system. We are working on that. It is about caring for our people within the NHS system and making that system work, not trying to undermine it. That is not just my view; it is the view of the NHS and military medics that I speak to.
With his experience, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, talked about being let down by the medical plan in the future. This is not going to happen from here on. The RCDM, which is now at Selly Oak, will be moving to the new hospital in Birmingham. It is a £690 million investment. It will be the largest hospital in Europe providing acute training and care. The RCDM will be part of that project.
I know that some of the changes that have been made in medical care make some people feel uncomfortable. It is significantly different from the way things were done when we had military hospitals and change is never easy. This is what the noble Lord, Lord Garden, was referring to: the importance of managing the form in an effective way, recognising that the world does not stand still. We need to be excellent at having the agility to respond to the short-term pressures we face on operations while improving our ability to plan ahead and deliver the complex equipment that we need for our Armed Forces.
We also need to look at the role of the state and its relationship with the private sector to deliver this improvement. Many of these projects into the long term require investment over many years, retaining capabilities which once lost cannot be regained. That is what underpins the new defence industrial strategy which we launched at the end of 2005: to deliver that reform. We are now seeing the benefits of the implementation of that reform, which in itself means recognising and acting on the mistakes of the past. Defence procurement has for too long been an area of challenge within government. In this Government, we are fixing it. Let us be clear: it is about reform, not about cuts. The defence budget has risen by £1 billion a year. I take the point about the proportion of GDP, but we should focus on the amount of money invested in defence, and last year the defence budget reached £30 billion for the first time. We need to do more.
My Lords, in his usual courteous way, the Minister has dealt with many of the things that the Government are usefully doing in many fields, but does he accept the distinction made by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, about the difference between the long and short term? Does he accept that, in the long term, the Government have a massive problem that can be dealt with only by extreme means? There has to be a radical change in either funding or direction, equipment and the operational deployment of the forces. That is really the bull point.
Absolutely, my Lords. Given the planning assumptions set out in the Strategic Defence Review and the nature of the challenge that we face in the 21st century, we must recognise the need to invest more in defence, but also that we need to change the way in which we manage defence and commit to long-term projects, for example. There is no easy answer; it will not be fixed quickly, but the Government have a strategy. By setting out our priorities clearly, we put ourselves in the best position to make those reforms, implement them and drive the improvements in processes within government to deliver better efficiency and agility. The bull point is that we have to be good at both—it is about not just the absolute money that we invest in defence, but how we can most intelligently invest it and get the balance right between the short and the longer term. Part of that is the change in the structure of the Armed Forces, and the progress that we have made in, for example, collocating headquarters and reinvesting that into the front line.
Several questions have been asked about defence equipment, and I take the points made about cost over-runs in the past, and those made by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, about Bowman. Those points have been taken on board by the department and are being implemented to improve how we manage procurement. I am sure that noble Lords will judge me on the results that I achieve in procurement.
I shall clarify some points made by the noble Lord, Lord James of Blackheath, that were completely wrong. All our troops have body armour. The vehicle that he talked about being delayed—the 430 Bulldog—is already in operations in Iraq. I saw it last week and had very positive feedback on its performance. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, gave me some notice of his questions, so I will attempt rapidly to give him some direct answers—not on indirect fire, which I will have to speak to him about in private. We need a small vehicle, and the Snatch Land Rovers have been widely used. They need to be replaced in time with newer vehicles. We offer protection for our vehicles, which have been complemented by the new Mastiffs and Bulldogs. The fact that we were able to develop the Mastiff vehicle last year and get it into operation so quickly is the best evidence of agility in procurement—that we are addressing the bull point. Never before has an armoured vehicle been procured and delivered to the front line with such speed. Although it is early days in terms of operational use, the feedback is that the vehicle is seen as highly successful by our troops.
We have delivered, as we have heard, a significant investment in new equipment, but we have further work to do to improve our defence procurement processes. We are getting on with those. There is the merger of the Defence Procurement Agency and the Defence Logistics Organisation. My own appointment—I am grateful to noble Lords for their comments—as Minister of State for Defence Equipment and Support means that for the first time one Minister is responsible for all equipment and support, which is an example of the reforms in practice.
Our reforms do not stop at the boundaries of the Armed Forces. A number of noble Lords have mentioned the importance of that being balanced by the way in which we work with the Foreign Office and DfID in a comprehensive approach. I do not have time this afternoon to go into the detail of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but both of those depend on the effectiveness of that approach. The feedback that I had on operations in Basra is that we are learning from our experience. Operation Sinbad in Iraq is a good example of that, and we are applying the lessons that we learnt on operations both there and in Afghanistan. This Government have had a number of successes in implementing reforms to deliver improvements. We recognise that there is further work to do, and those reforms need to be matched by investment in our Armed Forces.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend, and I am absolutely happy to confirm that. It is important that Ministers, when speaking about aspects relating to our Armed Forces, are believed, frankly. It is important for the morale of our Armed Forces, and it is important that Ministers deliver on the things that they say. As a Defence Minister, that is exactly what I tend to do. The debate on Trident was on the basis that Trident would not come at a cost to our conventional forces, and I am happy to confirm that again.
As I said at the outset of the debate, we recognise the challenges that we face. Some of those challenges are about fixing things that have arisen from the past, but they are also about meeting the environment, the speed of change and the threats in today’s uncertain world. The answer to that is making the investment, and the Government are doing that. It is also about having the ability to implement reforms. I cannot remember which noble Lord highlighted this afternoon that it is not just about Ministers deciding on budgets and policy; it is about Ministers getting things done. The track record of this Government in defence is one that can give our Armed Forces the confidence that this Government support our Armed Forces and are doing what is necessary.
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much. First, I apologise for not realising his well deserved promotion, and I congratulate him on that. I congratulate him on his stamina. I am afraid that I missed the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Young, but I shall read it with interest. I heard every other speech. I think he heard every single speech, and I congratulate him on the attention that he has paid to this debate, which pays tribute to the seriousness with which I know he takes these issues.
That is particularly important given his responsibilities in the procurement field. As my noble friends Lord James and Lord Marlesford illustrated, some of the horrors in the procurement field that have been the Achilles’ heel of the Ministry of Defence in dealing with the Treasury on some expenditure issues. If he can sort that one out, which he seems determined to do, he will not just be promoted; he will be canonised.
Although he presented very fairly and firmly his convictions on the strength of the Government’s position, he knows from this debate that there are very great worries at present. The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, said that he had come here to congratulate the Government and not to express his alarm. I am glad that he missed the speech of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce. He may like to read it, as it may give him some cause to reflect.
More broadly, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. We share a common concern. I know, and some noble Lords have made the point, that not all the problems started with this Government and mistakes have been made in the past. There are lots of difficulties down the line. We owe it to all our Armed Forces and to the nation to address the present problems and those that are going forward into the future. I referred to the Prime Minister’s speech at Plymouth, in which he set out the future challenges. There is no question in my mind about the concern expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, who tried to separate the short term and the long term. My question is: is the short term the long term, too, and can we really know how we are going to face up to that? I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
Political Parties: Funding
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made earlier today by my right honourable friend the Leader of the other place. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, I would like to make a Statement about the report of the review of party funding by Sir Hayden Phillips, entitled Strengthening Democracy: Fair and Sustainable Funding of Political Parties, which he published earlier this morning. Copies are available in the Vote Office and the Library.
“My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, in a Written Ministerial Statement this morning, thanked Sir Hayden on behalf of the Government for his hard work over the past 12 months. During the course of his review, Sir Hayden received submissions and held discussions with representatives of all the major political parties, as well as consulting the public, the Electoral Commission and various academic experts.
“Sir Hayden’s report identifies important principles which could form the basis of a lasting settlement of the party-funding system. However, as Sir Hayden himself concedes, a number of practicalities remain to be worked out and will require further discussion between the parties. We will play a full and constructive part in these talks.
“The issue of political party finance and spending is central to the debate about the health of our democracy. There is a keen public interest in securing lasting reform in a way which curbs wasteful spending, does not gratuitously advantage any one party at the expense of others and does not interfere in the internal structures of any political party. If the various parties can agree upon a reform package which meets these objectives, then we will have a funding regime which will increase public confidence in the probity of the democratic process and help to stimulate grass-roots renewal of political parties.
“The most compelling need identified by Sir Hayden is to end the political spending ‘arms race’, which has seen expenditure spiral upwards, even as party memberships have declined. In the 1997-2001 Parliament, the Government, with all-party support, sought to tackle the problem of excessive spending with what became the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—PPERA. This reflected key recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Patrick Neill QC, now the noble Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen. PPERA introduced a national limit on campaign expenditure, created the Electoral Commission and made the funding system more transparent by requiring that all donations above £5,000 nationally and £1,000 locally be made public.
“By introducing such transparency, we all believed that public confidence in the system could be assured. But the recent revelations about unpublicised loans to parties by individuals, resulting from a loophole in PPERA, have clouded that transparency. In addition, the line between local and national spending has become blurred by developments such as political campaigning facilitated by the internet and other advances in telecommunications. As a consequence, a modest relaxation of spending controls in the 2000 Act at the local level has been exploited way beyond that intended by the legislation.
“Sir Hayden draws attention to the fact that spending by the two main parties in the 12 months before the last general election rose to £90 million, up nearly 40 per cent on the £65 million spent in a similar period in 2001. He must be right to say that the PPERA,
‘sought to control the level of spending, but it has proved inadequate to the challenge’.
“The immediate problem of transparency in relation to party loans has been resolved by means of the Electoral Administration Act 2006, which requires that loans be publicly declared in the same manner as donations. However, Sir Hayden has now advanced proposals for further reform. Crucially, he shows support for continuous spending limits at local and national level. He also proposes tighter controls on third-party expenditure and a reformed Electoral Commission with the power, capacity and practical experience to perform its role as an effective regulator.
“The importance of effective spending limits cannot be overstated. As the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee observed in its report, Party Funding, published in December, the United States offers an instructive example of what can happen when political spending is left unchecked. It said that in 1976 the total cost of all US elections was $40 million; in 2004, the cost of federal elections alone was $3.9 billion—a 97 times increase.
“Sir Hayden also recommends the introduction of caps on donations. All three main parties are agreed in principle to some form of donation cap. The Constitutional Affairs Select Committee recommended a voluntary arrangement. We agree and think this would work, by providing enough flexibility to respect the different structures and traditions of the various parties. Sir Hayden offers welcome backing to the judgment of the Constitutional Affairs Committee that,
‘any move to change the nature of party funding must not stray into prescriptive devices to require political parties to organise internally in ways that violate their democratic relationships with other institutions’.
“Finally, Sir Hayden recommends the introduction of a higher level of state funding for political parties. The Constitutional Affairs Committee came to a similar view, but recognised the need for further debate about the values and principles which should govern such funding.
“As a 1976 report on party funding showed, there has long been a degree of state funding in UK politics. All political parties have had the opportunity to claim free television and radio broadcast slots, along with free postage. Since the 1970s, the provision of Short money and Cranborne money has given millions of pounds of state aid to the main opposition parties. This funding has increased more than threefold since 1997. In 2006, the total amount of Short money was £6.3 million, with over £4 million being paid to the main opposition party.
“The Neill committee noted in its 1998 report that arguments for and against state funding were ‘finely balanced’. Although Neill did not recommend a major extension, his committee concluded:
‘We can envisage circumstances in which substantially increased State funding of the political parties—including the funding of their general activities—might become an imperative’.
Sir Hayden concludes that these circumstances now exist, and has put forward proposals for increased state funding based on electoral support and the recruitment of members.
“Our democracy could not function without the organisation of political parties of all shades and opinions, the platforms for debate and the exploration of ideas which they provide. Their work, and in particular the work of party foot-soldiers who devote time and energy to their cause, is fundamental to the health of the democratic process.
“To command high levels of public support, the funding arrangements for political parties must be fair and transparent. Through earlier legislation, Parliament has taken significant steps to put such a system in place. Sir Hayden Phillips' report has identified areas for further reform and identified some key principles. The task for the political parties is now to work out the practical arrangements of a fairer, more sustainable and more transparent funding regime. The public would expect nothing less”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for repeating the Statement. Given the importance of the debate we have just had, I hope the House agrees that it was appropriate to have this Statement at this slightly late hour on a Thursday rather than break into that debate.
At the outset, I would like to express our appreciation for the diligence of Sir Hayden Phillips, the clarity of his report and his recommendations on a way forward. These past few days, we have discussed the room and this Statement addresses the elephant in it. Public confidence in the funding of parties has been severely shaken by recent events. No party is whiter than white and none should throw stones, not even the Liberal Democrats or UKIP, which has not met the exacting standards expected of Caesar's wife recently. It is no time for name-calling; no time for special pleading; no time for prevarication.
The Conservative Party put forward constructive proposals a year ago for a cap on donations and limits on expenditure. Since then Sir Hayden has been seeking agreement from the party of Government, which so far has been unable to agree on the matter. In reply, perhaps the noble and learned Lord will tell us whether he thinks that agreement will now be forthcoming. We on this side welcome the report. We accept its main recommendations. We want cleaner and cheaper politics and we agree with Sir Hayden that outstanding issues should be addressed swiftly and by direct talks.
Do the Government accept Sir Hayden's view that we need an across-the-board cap on large donations from big business and wealthy individuals; and trade unions cannot be excluded? Does he accept that if affiliation fees are to count as individual donations then trade union members must be able to opt in to political funds, rather than them being left to opt out? Will he give an undertaking that, despite the threat by the Labour Party’s NEC that it will vigorously oppose plans for a cap on donations, the Government will consider it positively? Does the imminent retirement of the Prime Minister not present a real opportunity to achieve agreement on such a cap without pressure on the leader from elements of the Labour Party? Should he not now seize that chance as part of his legacy?
Will the noble and learned Lord also accept that, if we are to have tighter caps on local spending, it must be done at a level, and in a way, ensuring that allowances, including the new £20,000 communications allowance now proposed for MPs, do not give unfair advantage to incumbent MPs, most of whom are, naturally enough, from the Labour Party? Does he agree that if we are to increase engagement with politics, as we all wish, then grass roots participation is an important part of all of this? It is surely essential that we do not centralise control at the expense of muting local enthusiasm and local political activity.
I agree with the noble and learned Lord that, while there may be arguments for state funding in some forms, it cannot happen until public confidence is restored. Grafting state funding on to an unreformed system would increase, not diminish, public cynicism and alienation. Does he agree that any state funding must be introduced in a way that promotes more democratic engagement, like tax relief on small donations or matched funding for non-taxpayers as recommended by the Committee on Standards in Public Life?
We note, and do not disagree with, Sir Hayden’s view that the Electoral Commission needs substantial reform and improvement if it is to carry out more effective regulation. I hope that the noble and learned Lord agrees that this must not mean major extra spending. The Electoral Commission’s activities in pushing new-fangled voting systems have not strengthened confidence in democracy. We would be better served by a body that focused on securing confidence in the existing system, rather than dreaming up new ones that have proved open to fraud and abuse.
Finally, can the noble and learned Lord set out a timetable on which the Government will now pursue the direct talks with parties that Sir Hayden recommends? Our door has been open for a year. It still is.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for repeating the Statement. Before I start on the topic, the monetary terms in these proposals come to perhaps £25 million. It is amazing that we are discussing this today, yet there has been another Statement, which neither the Government nor the Opposition wish to take in this place, about the London Olympic Games rising from £2.4 billion to £9.35 billion, nearly four times what it had previously been on the guess of two years ago. Well, perhaps this Statement on political funding is more important in the long term. I declare an interest: for the past 32 years, I have been a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd, which has been involved in political funding since 1905.
We welcome the report as a basis for continuing negotiations. Sir Hayden Phillips has done a valuable job, much of it shuttle diplomacy. Will he be retained for further service? He seems to have gained expertise in the past few months of shuttle diplomacy, and his retention could be important if these objectives are to be achieved. We accept his broad analysis and principles. The number of times he uses the word “fairness” in the report is interesting; fairness is incredibly important.
There is a need to end the arms race in political spending. I see the two points that could make the whole business of trade union money difficult. But there is another point about the way in which money and big donations are used in particular constituencies. It is one thing for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to try to link us with UKIP but one of the biggest problems is his colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, ploughing money into certain constituencies and trying to buy the seat.
There is a triple objective here: reducing the national spend, stopping the buying of the political system by a handful of individuals and introducing state funding. I congratulate Sir Hayden on the neatness of his system in terms of state funding: on the one hand, linking political funding to votes polled—in votes polled you can see the support for a particular cause—and, on the other hand, just as importantly; perhaps more so, linking to a form of membership. He is suggesting that you pay £5 which is backed by a further £5 from the Government. There is, as has been indicated, the possibility of tax relief or the other possibility that the Power inquiry has suggested of ticking a box when people are in the polling station. But it is important to achieve a twin objective here of encouraging the political parties to enhance their membership, their interest in their causes and their activism.
I referred earlier to my connection with the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. This very day an opinion poll has been published. It was in the Independent newspaper and it suggests:
“Political parties should try and agree on proposals for constitutional reform, such as changes to the way parties are funded, before these proposals are voted on by Parliament”.
Some 76 per cent agreed to that and 12 per cent did not. On the other hand, it suggests:
“The party in power should develop its own proposals on significant constitutional issues, such as the way political parties are funded, and push those proposals through Parliament, even if other parties disagree with them”.
Forty-five per cent were in favour and 44 per cent against.
What is the Government’s view? How long is it going to take? What is the timetable for getting consensus? Reference has been made to the report of Lord Houghton, in 1976. He was my opponent at the first election I fought in 1970 and he asked me to put in a submission to that report. That was 31 years ago. If we are not careful, it is going get like House of Lords reform. So where is this going?
It is important that there is public backing. Sometimes the public do not realise the position. I recall some years ago putting in my return of expenses following an election and the person I was speaking to—this has happened more than once—seemed to think it was a claim. Many members of the public do not know the extent of political funding that is paid for by public sources. A vibrant democracy is important but it does cost money. These proposals in the round are modest and appropriate.
My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that it was sensible to wait until the Armed Forces debate had concluded and that we all owe thanks to Sir Hayden Phillips for his work. I agree with him that funding of our political process is important; public confidence depends on it. It was typically discreditable of him to say that the Conservative Party put forward proposals and we did not agree them. What is the Conservative Party’s position in relation to, for example, caps on expenditure? The chairman of the Tory party, someone called Mr Francis Maude, said:
“Let’s be quite clear: the reason party funding needs reform is nothing to do with how much is spent”.
It would therefore appear that the Tory party does not agree with the idea of caps on expenditure.
As the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, knows, all three main parties agree in principle to some form of donation cap. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs recommended a voluntary arrangement. We agree, and think that this would work by providing enough flexibility to respect the different structures and traditions of the various parties. That is our position on the trade union link, and it is reflected in much of what Sir Hayden says.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked about the timing. Our position on timing also answers the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said that he welcomes Sir Hayden Phillips remaining involved and he believes that further discussions,
“should begin soon and conclude before the summer recess, in order to build a platform for legislation in the next Parliamentary session”.
That is the timetable indicated. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, that one of the great concerns is expenditure buying constituencies in the course of general elections. He obviously has in mind the book Dirty Politics Dirty Times by the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, which analysed the election in May 2005. The noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, said that,
“it soon became clear that we had been wasting neither our time nor our resources. Of the 33 candidates who won seats from Labour or the LDs, no fewer than 25 had received support from the fund that I had set up with Leonard Steinberg and the Midlands Industrial Group”.
This says a lot about campaign expenditure.
My Lords, perhaps I should declare an interest as a former chairman of the Conservative Party. There is a rather delicate party dance going on in reaction to this report. The Government love talking about the political spending arms race but are not very keen to talk about caps on donations. They are particularly not keen to talk about donations from trade unions. My party is keen on donation caps but—how can I put it?—is perhaps rather more coy about spending restraints. Is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor aware that, if we are to clean up the system, we need both of these? Surely Sir Hayden Phillips is quite correct when he says that the present position is unsustainable. Surely he is also right when he says that caps on donations must include trade unions, which otherwise remain open to the charge of buying influence. Equally, there must be limits on spending. I am not sure about “rich Conservatives”, which was rather suggested. I was chairman of the Conservative Party when we fought the 1994 European election with no national posters whatever. We launched a lot of posters on vans, but we could not afford to put them up anywhere else. The odd thing is that it did us no harm whatever.
As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said, the two main parties got through £90 million in the 12 months leading up to the 2005 election. Surely if parties are to spend at this ever-increasing rate, it is entirely unthinkable that they can say to the public, “We want more taxpayer funding”.
My Lords, I greatly welcome the noble Lord’s enthusiastic support for limits on expenditure. I also take his remarks to be enthusiastic support for Sir Hayden’s proposal that national expenditure limits should be equal. That was absolutely clear from the splendid words that he used at the end of his intervention when he mentioned the £90 million. I also take it that he utterly condemns the words of the noble Lord, Lord Ashcroft, which I read out, to the effect that it would be wholly wrong to spend money outside the 12 months to which he referred in order to buy seats.
My Lords, the noble Lord heard what I said, because he was here. I do not want to be wearisome, but I repeat that all three main parties agree in principle to some form of donation cap. The Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs recommended a voluntary arrangement. We agree, and think that this would work by providing enough flexibility to respect the different structures and traditions of the various parties, including the trade union movement. I am gratified by the noble Lord’s support for caps on expenditure.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, referred to cleaning up the system. Does my noble and learned friend agree that the origin of the Hayden Phillips inquiry was nothing to do with the trade unions, the point on which he concentrated. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde referred to “opting in”. Does my noble and learned friend agree that this proposal, which was not made by Hayden Phillips, goes beyond the 1927 Act enforced by a Conservative Government after the General Strike? Does he further agree that, in regard to monitoring individual trade union member subscriptions and the right to opt out, as with many organisations such as the National Trust—I am sure many noble Lords are members of such organisations—when one joins, one signs one mandate? There is no further paperwork apart from a banker’s order or however you pay your subscription. Is the approach not totally consistent with how other organisations carry on their financial affairs?
My Lords, I welcome the Phillips report. It is one of those reports that seems to be about a detail of the democratic process but actually goes to the heart of it. First, at the heart of the democratic instinct, which is one we hope to foster in our society and which needs more fostering, is the equal value of all individuals symbolised in the votes that we cast. In a money-driven culture, there is a risk that people will feel that, although individuals are equal when they stand with their pencil in the polling booth, the real influence in the political process lies somewhere else. This report is to be welcomed, and noble Lords have addressed it with great energy.
Secondly, a problem we face is that there is the sort of public suspicion now about political parties that used to be attached to trade unions. There used to be talk of “union barons”. Perhaps parties need to recognise the degree of public suspicion that they are not really controlled by their members and no longer meet members’ aspirations. That is perhaps why membership has declined. It is important that we address party funding not by trying to find the loophole in each other’s arrangements but in recognising that in all our arrangements there is a need to recover public confidence in the parties themselves.
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes a number of very important points. At the heart of this debate is the recognition by all people that we need political parties and that the good functioning of our democracy depends both on political parties and on the public having confidence that they will appropriately reflect their views and be able to prioritise in the public interest. The political party, unlike the “one issue” adherent to politics, must try to prioritise and make choices. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that the more people trust political parties to do that in a way that reflects their interests, the more we will have their confidence and be able to lead change where appropriate.
My Lords, as someone who was a member of the Neill committee when it produced its report on party-political funding, I am very pleased with the report of Hayden Phillips. I am also pleased with the extent to which the Government have agreed to accept it.
At chapter three, on limiting donations, on page nine of the report, when discussing how to fix what the limit should be, Sir Hayden says:
“My hope is that the talks that I am recommending will lead to an agreement on a limit on which the Government will then bring forward legislation for Parliamentary approval”.
The Statement says:
“The Constitutional Affairs Select Committee recommended a voluntary arrangement. We agree and think this would work by providing enough flexibility to respect the different structures and traditions of the various parties”.
However, the Statement does not say anything about something that was originally a voluntary arrangement becoming the subject of legislation, as Sir Hayden suggests. Is it correct, as I suspect, that in this Statement the Government are indicating that the limit on donations will remain voluntary? If so, how does the noble and learned Lord expect that it will be possible to enforce it? A purely voluntary arrangement will have no sanctions—except, perhaps, that the other parties will also break the limit—and any party that is in a particularly strong financial position will be greatly tempted to break it. What value can be placed on a purely voluntary agreement that has no sanctions attached to it?
My Lords, the noble Lord identifies particular issues that have not been resolved in Sir Hayden’s report. Under the heading “Remaining obstacles”, Sir Hayden identifies where issues have not been resolved. I cannot answer the noble Lord’s questions, not because there are no answers, but because Sir Hayden explicitly envisages that the discussions will seek to address the sort of issues that he has identified; for example, the extent to which it would be enforced by regulations or legislation is yet to be discussed. I am sorry that I cannot provide a better answer, but Sir Hayden has been looking at this and suggests further discussions.
My Lords, apart from any past interests, I ought to declare a current interest as a member of the Labour Party Superannuation Society. Can my noble and learned friend confirm that, when the Statement says that any system of caps should not gratuitously advantage one party against another, it also implies that it should not gratuitously or otherwise disadvantage one party against another, as would undoubtedly be the case if the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, were accepted?
Secondly, and more importantly, on state funding, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, referred to the report by the late Lord Houghton of Sowerby in 1976. It recommended three forms of state funding: one which supported parliamentary activities, particularly those of the opposition parties, that has been acted on and funding has greatly increased under this Government; one for policy development, for which a small amount of money has been provided; and, more substantially, one for support for the activities of political parties in the country—party organisation and party education. That suggestion has never been enacted. Lord Houghton’s report benefited parliamentarians hugely, but it has not benefited the operation of political parties one iota where it matters, which is at the grassroots. Yet the grassroots have been faced with increased costs. Are we now in a situation where the Government and the leaders of the other parties can sensibly discuss state funding?
My Lords, the answer to the first question is yes; it should not unfairly disadvantage one party against others. My noble friend asked to what extent Lord Houghton’s third category is dealt with by public funding. Sir Hayden’s report envisages that, if agreement can be reached on everything, there could be public funding that could be spent not just on items one and two but on the general activities of parties.
My Lords, is it not in the interest of parliamentary democracy that the policy development work of the opposition parties and the activities of their Front Benches in Parliament should be well resourced by the citizen as taxpayer? Has my noble and learned friend found any convincing argument—I have not—in the case put forward by Sir Hayden Phillips for co-opting the taxpayer to fund the parties campaigning in the country? Why should the parties be enabled to spend more than they can raise through voluntary subscription? I know this is becoming an unfashionable view, but it is a question that we are going to need to answer.
I declare a sort of interest arising from a different incarnation. I had responsibility for co-ordinating the general election preparations of the Conservative Party in 1978 and 1979. It will be within the memory of your Lordships that the Conservative Party employed an advertising agency at that time. We had great fun working with the noble Lords, Lord Saatchi and Lord Bell. We annoyed the Labour Party something wicked; it cost us a fortune. But would the result of that general election have been any different if we had spared ourselves the expense?
What will the stratospheric spending that Sir Hayden Phillips still allows the parties to engage in on advertising, market research, telephoning voters and helicopters achieve beyond perpetuating the cynicism of electors about our politics? Should we not therefore limit the combined spending of the parties—nationally and locally—at a low level that is realistically achievable by the three main parties, without taxpayer subvention?
I add one postscript to my noble and learned friend: while of course almost everything of what we have debated in this place earlier in the week will take a long time to resolve, is there not a very strong case for proceeding rapidly to place the Appointments Commission for appointments to the House of Lords on a statutory basis as soon as possible to make clear the determination of Parliament that there will be in future no link between donations and honours? Should we not honour those who contribute money to political parties with a small “h” but not a big one?
My Lords, my noble friend posed three questions. The first was, why public funding? All I can do is refer him to page 17 of Sir Hayden’s report, where three reasons are given. First, measures in this report will restrict the money available because it will cap donations. Secondly, things are going up in price. Thirdly, there is a decline in democratic engagement in this country, manifested in falling election turnouts and falling party membership rolls. Those are the reasons he advances; I can do no better than refer to what he has said.
My noble friend’s second question was about what difference much of the party expenditure makes—helicopters, posters and so on. He is just as good a judge of that as I, but I agree that some election expenditure has the effect of turning the electorate off political parties rather than turning them on. His third question related to a statutory Appointments Commission. That is something we luxuriated in for two days at the beginning of this week. The Appointments Commission currently does a pretty good job but I can see a strong case for at the very least putting the Appointments Commission on a statutory basis and making other changes to this House as well.
Schedule 5 to the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (Modification) Order 2007
rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24 January be approved.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the draft orders were laid before the House on 24 January. The purpose of the draft Schedule 5 to the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (Modification) Order 2007 is to extend the list of controlled pathogens and toxins in Schedule 5 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act. When the Act was originally drawn up, the classical list of agents from state biological warfare programmes was used as the basis of Schedule 5 and primarily addressed the state proliferation of chemical and biological weapons. It was a familiar and logical starting point for this United Kingdom counter-terrorism legislation and was used in the absence of any other considered criteria.
Since then, there has been considerable debate within government and the United Kingdom scientific community about the pathogens caught within the scope of the legislation. Following these discussions, it has been concluded that terrorist scenarios could involve more pathogens than those currently listed in Schedule 5, so the list has been revisited by a cross-government group with the aim of placing it more squarely within the current United Kingdom context.
The Science and Technology Committee endorsed the view that the Act should be updated to be fully reflective of all materials of concern from a counter-terrorist perspective. That view was also echoed by the committee of Privy Counsellors, which reported on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act in December 2003. We added pathogens and toxins to the list only when we were satisfied that the pathogen or toxin could be used in an act of terrorism to endanger life or cause serious harm to human health.
The approach that generated the revised list is robust and will withstand wider challenge—the process is proven and auditable. Experience with lists of pathogens produced for other purposes, such as health and safety at work, is that there is always debate about the precise position of individual agents on such lists and that they need to be reviewed from time to time as more information becomes available.
There have already been a number of attacks using pathogens and toxins. For example, several envelopes containing anthrax powder were sent to addresses in the United States in autumn 2001. Some 22 people were affected and five, sadly, died. In 2004, ricin powder was discovered in the office of the US Senate majority leader. The threat posed by the possible terrorist use of pathogens and toxins therefore remains real and active.
However, I am aware that in this area, as in so many other areas associated with terrorism, there is a need to balance the protection of the public against placing undue burdens on industry. We certainly do not want to force unnecessary security requirements on industry. I do not think that this is the case here or that the way in which the provisions have operated to date have caused any problems, which is largely due to the sensible way in which they have been applied by the police.
As my right honourable friend the Minister of State with responsibility for crime reduction, policing, community safety and counter-terrorism at the Home Office said in another place, we have listened to concerns that have been raised about the orders and how they should apply in relation to genetically modified organisms. As a result of these representations, we have decided that it would be useful to have guidance drawn up in conjunction with the police on how the orders should apply in that area. We will also ensure key representatives from the commercial sector are involved in drafting the guidance and that arrangements are put in place for monitoring the implementation of the orders.
The second order is the Part 7 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (Extension to Animal Pathogens) Order 2007, which extends the legislation to cover animal pathogens. Under Section 75 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act, the Secretary of State may, by order, extend the legislation to cover animal pathogens, plant pathogens, toxic chemicals and pests. The powers may be extended where the Secretary of State is satisfied that the chemicals concerned could be used in an act of terrorism to endanger life or cause serious harm to human health, or the pathogens or pests could be used in an act of terrorism to cause widespread damage to property, significant disruption or alarm.
Following concerns being raised about the possible use of animal pathogens as terrorist agents, a group made up of representatives from the police, government and Security Service confirmed that the World Organisation for Animal Health list A of animal pathogens provided a means of identifying which were of concern. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs subsequently proposed additional animal pathogens considered to be potential bio-terrorist agents, which form the list of animal pathogens we are discussing today. Plant pathogens were not considered as suitable controls were already in place.
It is imperative to ensure that terrorists do not have access to dangerous substances. The benefit of increasing the scope of substances subject to control is difficult to quantify as it is impossible to assess to what extent greater national safety is secured and potential dangers avoided by such preventive measures. However, denying terrorists access to such substances is an important part of the preventive measures taken by government.
If the draft Schedule 5 to the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (Modification) Order 2007 is approved, it will come into force 14 days after it has been made. If the Part 7 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (Extension to Animal Pathogens) Order 2007 is approved, it will come into force two months after it has been made. I therefore commend the orders to the House. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24 January be approved. 7th Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)
My Lords, the Opposition support the need to extend the controls and to update the list of toxins and animal pathogens. The risk of a terrorist attack remains as great as ever. According to Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the current terror threat will “last a generation”. The number of individuals identified as being actively engaged in plotting terrorist acts runs well into four figures. Dame Eliza claimed that MI5 knew of no less than 30 groups plotting actual attacks. She warned that in the future terrorist attacks were likely to come from,
“the use of chemicals, bacteriological agents, radioactive materials and even nuclear technology”.
Nor has the use of such techniques been merely a theoretical threat. Ever since the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, the public have been concerned by the danger of terrorist groups obtaining chemical weapons. Such fears were only exacerbated when several people were killed in the United States five and a half years ago. In their way, these sorts of attacks are unquestionably among the most chilling. Therefore no one could possibly dispute the need for effective legislation in this field.
The orders have, I accept, the demanding task of including all the pathogens, viruses and other substances that actually or potentially give rise to concern without, at same time, imposing unnecessary burdens on those whose commercial activities involve using such substances in an entirely legitimate way. It is in the context of achieving the right balance that the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has some preoccupations about the manner in which the categories of organisms and toxins have been extended under Schedule 5. It is especially concerned about the effects of notes (c) and (d) of the draft instrument which relate to the transfer of elements of genetic material from specified pathogens to new hosts. In a letter written to the Secretary of State on 20 February the association stated:
“As currently worded, the content could be construed as suggesting that storage and use of the modified host organisms should be subject to high security measures even where the pathogenicity of the modified host is unaffected”.
As a result it argues that,
“genetically modified organisms that have low or minimal pathogenicity and which would normally safely be handled in low containment facilities with no special security measures will now have to be subject to the high security standards required for high risk organisms which require containment in level 3 or, in some cases level 4 facilities”.
The association believes that the consequential obligation to invest in higher levels of security by the enterprises concerned will prove extremely expensive. It concludes that this could deter legitimate and beneficial research into genetic modification in the United Kingdom.
I know that it is the Government’s policy to deal with this very delicate but important balance in the form of guidance. I do not know what stage the drafting of this guidance has reached. I would be most grateful if the Minister could enlighten your Lordships as to what the proposed timeframe will be. I would also like the Minister to give your Lordships’ House some idea of who will be consulted in the drawing-up of this guidance. I know that he will appreciate the importance of making sure that commercial concerns are properly involved before any final decisions are reached.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the need for these two orders. We support both of them. Matters affecting the security of our country can never be taken lightly. Almost daily, we see on our monitor the level of security risk not only in Parliament but across the country as well. We must therefore do everything possible to ensure that such risks are reduced to a minimum. There is obviously no such thing as total security, but we will fail in our duty if we do not take account of advice offered to us by experts.
I endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, said. It is frightening to think that our own citizens are involved in harming our country. I need to ask the Minister three questions. The first is based on the explanation that was given by Mr McNulty in the other place. He said:
“I am aware that, in this area, as in so many others associated with terrorism, we need to balance the protection of the public against placing undue burdens on industry”.—[Official Report, Commons, First Delegated Legislation Committee, 26/2/07; col. 5.]
What discussions have taken place with industry on this matter?
Secondly, what areas of legitimate use of pathogens will be affected by the attempt to clamp down on those who may want to use them illegitimately? It would be helpful to have some explanation from the Minister on that point. Thirdly, to what degree are the Government listening to advice and recommendations on trying to ensure that the maximum possible number of harmful chemicals will be banned from wide use with the minimum impact on those who have legitimate reasons for holding those chemicals?
My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their supportive interventions. Before I respond to the specific points that they raised, perhaps I may say a few other words in conclusion about the terrorism threat.
As I think both noble Lords recognise, the terrorism threat is real, current and serious. As they both agreed, the events of the past few years have graphically demonstrated that. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, referred to the sarin incident, which, as he said, was a truly chilling occurrence. It is essential that we do everything in our power to reduce the risk and maximise protection of our citizens. We do it in a variety of ways. Some are very visible, through changes in legislation. As we are discussing today, we are also increasing physical security in public and business places.
Both noble Lords rightly drew attention to the need to get the balance right and to ensure that we do not unnecessarily overburden those who are involved in entirely legitimate business concerns. We have gone to considerable lengths to achieve that. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, rightly raised questions about achieving that balance and some of the concerns about notes (c) and (d). We endeavour to ensure that organisms that require appropriate security are covered. The guidance will be produced to address the points that the noble Lord has made. We have been in extended discussions with the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, which was initially concerned, as the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, rightly said. Perhaps events have overtaken the concerns to which he referred, as I understand that it is now somewhat more content with the approach adopted. We have had some constructive discussions, and the issues of the potential impact on research relating to genetic modification have now been resolved to its satisfaction. I will endeavour to check that that continues to be the case.
On how the list was arrived at, we consulted carefully with representatives from the Health and Safety Executive, the Health Protection Agency, the Ministry of Defence, Defra, the National Counter Terrorism Security Office and the Security Service. They met to consider which pathogens handled in UK facilities could have the potential to cause serious harm if used by a terrorist. That group is known as the Salisbury group, and we worked closely with it to ensure that we had the list right. We therefore consulted across the industry sector, and I can advise the House that while we have not yet produced guidance it is in an early stage of development. I make it clear today, and am putting it on the public record, that we undertake to work closely with the ABPI to produce guidance—we hope, by this autumn.
I hope that answers the central point to the noble Lords’ satisfaction. This is an important duo of orders, which will enable us to get the balance about right on control and so on. If noble Lords wish to raise particular concerns with me about the two orders and their impact outside this short discussion, we will be more than happy to meet them again.
In addition, I should say that we have consulted extensively in the scientific community. Meetings were constructed involving some 100 scientists, from all over the UK, with a view to getting comments on the contents of this and future lists. In drawing up this new list, information was also drawn from the US, Canada and other British sources—some directly from leading scientists working with particular agents. I understand that the scientific advisory committee on genetic modification was also consulted, so we did go some long way to cover all the bases.
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Part 7 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 (Extension to Animal Pathogens) Order 2007
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24 January be approved. Seventh Report from the Statutory Instruments Committee.—(Lord Bassam of Brighton.)
On Question, Motion agreed to.
Passports: Personal Interviews
asked Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the introduction of personal interviews for first-time adult passport applicants.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I appreciate the opportunity to draw up certain matters causing concern regarding the personal passport interview offices. The House might not be quite as full as it has been earlier this week, but I am sure that those who are here and those who might read in Hansard the report of the debate will realise that this is an important matter. Noble Lords will be aware that a number of Questions for Written Answer on it have been answered; it has also been raised on the Floor of the House in shorter questions.
Clearly, the proposals relate not only to passports but also to the proposed plans for identity cards. The steps taken regarding passports and the network to be established will ease the way for the introduction of identity cards. We have opposed ID cards on the Liberal Democrat Benches, believing that the cost could soar to many billions and that the money could be far better spent—partly, on more and better policing. That is still our position, but the Government in their wisdom or otherwise press on. With my best regards to the Conservative Party, I am not quite sure where it stands on the introduction of ID cards.
The proposal is that we have 69 passport interview offices whose purpose will be to verify the identity of the individual applicants. Every adult making the first application will be required to have a personal interview. There will be 69 full offices dealing with about 600,000 applicants a year; they will have 200 interview positions and a staff of about 600.
My first concern is about staffing. Following the release of an IPS document of May 2006, an Answer by the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, on 12 October stated that,
“454 staff have been recruited and a campaign to fill the remaining 151 positions has started”.—[Official Report, 12/10/06; col. 360.]
Yet in a Written Answer from the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, on 6 March—that is only a week ago—I was told that only 55 people had been recruited and offered work. What has happened to the missing 400? Was the recruiting for the remaining 151 posts completely unsuccessful?
We know that the posts were advertised last summer; presumably those appointed, be it 55 or 500, have received salaries, while not one of the 69 new offices is functioning at present. In addition, there is the expense of office accommodation and equipment; this must have been paid for. We must know the cost of these developments. I know from the Written Answer only last week that the salaries for the 55 already appointed amounted to some £607,000—just over £0.5 million—and the offices have not yet been opened.
My second concern relates to those applicants who live at a distance from the nearest passport interview office. We are told that there will be a remote facility in 22 areas where interviews will be conducted by webcam. The nature of these interviews also causes me concern. To begin with, they will require only facial recognition—a photograph will be needed. Gone for the time being are the original requirements for fingerprints and iris scans, but only for the time being. In the next two years, as the centres are used for identity card purposes, this biometric detail will be needed. How is it possible by webcam to obtain fingerprints or iris scans? Eventually will not the remote areas, if they are to fulfil their function, need to be complete personal interview offices, or have we devised a new sort of webcam that the rest of the world knows nothing about?
Noble Lords were told by the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General on 2 February 2006 that the location of the offices had been designated such that the average travelling time for all one-way journeys was 19 minutes. I suggest that you cannot calculate an average in that way. If you live in Westminster there might be an office just three minutes down the road; if you live on the Western Isles or the Isle of Skye or the Orkneys and Shetlands it will take a wee bit longer than an average of 19 minutes. Tell that to the people in the Western Isles or the Lleyn Peninsula. But even on 12 October 2006 we were told that fewer than 4,000 people were likely to be more than an hour away. I question that. We were also told that the cost for travel would be at the most £3 to £4. Have the Government any idea for someone without his own private transport of the frequency of public transport in our rural areas? In some areas, if you miss the bus this Wednesday you may have to wait until next Wednesday to get the next bus—or if the ferry for some reason keeps an island isolated, you can be isolated yourself for two or three days.
The designation of remote areas itself leaves something to be desired. Aberystwyth, with 1,223 applicants last year, has a full office. Anglesey and north Gwynedd, with 1,265 applicants—more than Aberystwyth—is designated a remote area and has no office. There are other similar examples. What are the criteria when there can be such disparity regarding the provision of these offices? Why are the Government refusing to help with the travel costs of those who have to go to these offices?
Many of the first-time applicants for passports are youngsters on low incomes, or students at technical colleges or universities with low incomes, yet, in some places, they will be paying far more than £3 or £4 in order to reach a passport interview office. Is it not possible to give some help to them? I would ask—this is where my Welshness comes out—that where, in a Welsh community, there is need for passport interviews in the Welsh language that that provision be made certain.
In answering, the Minister might be able to tell us when the network of offices and interview arrangements will be under way. Last year, we were told that by the autumn of 2006 the offices would be functioning. At the beginning of 2007 we were told that it would be April 2007. This is a repetition of things we have said in the Chamber regarding other proposals; they seem to be dragging their feet, they seem to be delayed, they seem to be behind time on these things—Have the new applicants, the adults, who are supposed to have a personal interview, been informed of the starting date and the new proposals for applying for passports? Yesterday I went on the internet and found the following information:
“The requirement to attend an interview is to be introduced gradually, starting with a limited service in April, and not all first-time adult customers”—
called “customers” there—
“will be called for an interview initially”.
Neither will they have a choice of interview offices. This approach is gradual: it is as if in Wales we had decided that we would remove travelling on the left-hand side of our roads to travelling on the right-hand side but that we would do it gradually by taking the heavy trucks first, then the buses, the cars. You either do a thing properly or not at all. It is unfair to ask some people but not others to attend a personal interview. If I live in Swansea, where there is going to be a new passport interview office, they might say, “You have to come for a personal interview, but perhaps not if you live in Aberystwyth”. Does this not mean that, contrary to what we have heard before, the whole network is not ready? Does it not mean that they are just discriminating between people? And it does involve discrimination to say that one person should come for a personal interview and another does not have to perhaps because of their location or, more worryingly, their background or surname. How are the applicants to be chosen?
We were informed last year, again in an Answer from the Minister, that the interview will take 10 to 20 minutes , but yesterday I was told that the interview will take about 30 minutes and will be conducted—this is on the internet—“in a friendly manner”. I am delighted that it will be conducted in a friendly manner; that is some consolation. But very different numbers of appointments are possible in 10 or 30 minutes and the nature of an interview lasting 30 minutes is different from an interview lasting 10 minutes. A person may feel that they have other concerns but have to remember that they were allowed only 10 minutes and not 30 minutes.
The assurance we need is that this whole scheme, if it needs to be introduced at all—especially the identity card element—has been thought through thoroughly, is fair to everyone and can be effective. From what I have learnt, I do not think that that is the case.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend on raising this matter and giving your Lordships an opportunity to consider an important development, the introduction of passport interview offices, at which all first-time applicants are to be interviewed. I understood that that was to start next month, although my noble friend said that the process would be phased. When the Minister replies, we look forward to hearing over what period that will happen, how it is to be decided what offices will be opened, in what order and on what dates, and how people will know in advance when they apply for a passport that they will be subjected to an interview. I wonder whether it is feasible to adhere to anything like the original timetable, in the light of my noble friend's observations about the recruitment of the workers who will process the interviews and the large number who still have to be taken on compared with the complement needed to conduct all the interviews.
My noble friend referred particularly to the problems that would be encountered by people in remote areas, and to what is likely to happen once there is a requirement for biometric identifiers, such as a digitised fingerprint or iris scan also taken from applicants, to be included in the passport. I approve of the proposal to conduct interviews over a webcam; that is useful as far as it goes but, if there are doubts about the 69 offices and the personnel, there are still more unanswered questions about the “partner organisations” which are to be engaged to run the remote webcam links. In an area such as Anglesey and north Gwynedd, for instance, we have no idea how many remote facilities there will be, or where they are to be located. If branch post offices were allowed to bid for the provision of those services, that could provide them with an additional income, especially for those otherwise threatened with closure. However, my noble friend sent me a note to tell me that, according to an answer given to my honourable friend Danny Alexander, the post offices are to be prohibited from competing, for some reason. That seems a bizarre decision and I would like the Minister to explain it, because it could be the way to keep some post offices alive in rural areas that would otherwise have to close.
My noble friend has also drawn attention to how fingerprints or any other biometric data will be taken when this information has to be digitised and added to the passport. It would be extremely foolish to set up remote facilities if, in a few years, perhaps when we join the Schengen system or find other ways of exchanging immigration data with other EU countries, we have to close them all down and require applicants to report to the main offices, where the biometrics can be technically more easily collected. We are owed some explanation about that from the Minister. Of course, as my noble friend has also pointed out, that is connected with the ID cards that are coming down the track. If it were the intention to establish a network of local offices to collect the biometrics needed for that purpose, would that network take over from the remote facilities now being planned for passports alone? Alternatively, as my noble friend hinted, will the passport offices be expanded to undertake the work for the ID cards when they come into operation?
To conform with US requirements, all new EU passports are required to include a digitised photograph, which will be stored in a chip. Will that be taken via the webcam? If so, will the Minister be good enough to explain how that technology works? I have never heard of such a facility being available.
In the recent report by the European Union Sub-Committee F on the Schengen Information System II, reference is made to the problem of lost and stolen passports, which are to be recorded on that system. The evidence given to the sub-committee was that there were 13.7 million lost or stolen passports in the EU in 2006 recorded on the existing Schengen system. In the same year, the Identity and Passport Service processed 291,000 reports of lost or stolen passports in this country and issued 298,000 replacements. As far as I can see, the proposed system does not afford any protection against the misuse of those documents. Will the Minister comment on that? What are we doing this for? Is it going to give us some protection against the misuse of lost or stolen passports, and if so how does that work?
My noble friend is naturally concerned about the civil liberties implications of the interviews and of the biometrics that are to be collected later. What data protection regime applies to these operations? Have the Government asked the Information Commissioner to comment on those provisions? How will the interviews be stored, and for how long will the videos be retained and by whom, under what authority? Will that be under the passport service, or will some separate authority hold the DVD or whatever medium is chosen for the interviews? What guarantee does the applicant have that in the future the Government are not going to make the recordings available to other public bodies, such as Revenue and Customs or local police forces? As I understand it, the European Union has already agreed to standards that are to be applied for fingerprints for passports and identity cards used for travel purposes. Have we any scope for national decision-making on those matters, or when the time comes for us to process fingerprints for passports are we bound to follow the EU rules that have already been enacted?
As the Minister is no doubt aware from his own correspondence, there is dissatisfaction with the location of many of the 69 offices. The Lib Dem AM for South Wales West, Peter Black, has objected to the location of the office in Swansea because it is difficult for people to access without a car:
“This is a badly thought-out location … Public transport to the Enterprise Park is neither plentiful, or cheap”.
He asked why the office could not have been located in the centre of Swansea. I generalise from that and say that it appears to me that the location of the offices has been decided by someone in Whitehall without any local consultation whatever. I refer the Minister to the remarks made by my honourable friend the Member for Taunton last week about the absence of any office in the county town of Somerset, Taunton. How many people from Taunton will have to travel to Yeovil, Bristol, Exeter or Barnstaple? If the number is very much larger than that quoted by my noble friend, for example, for Anglesey and north Gwynedd, why cannot it have a webcam? Is it impossible to put one in Taunton so people do not have the hassle and expense of travelling all that distance?
Will the Minister say more about the methodology of deciding what towns or villages will have the facility of the webcam? In Anglesey, will there be one only in Holyhead, or will there be one in Llangefni, Amlwch, Rhoscolyn, or Trearddur Bay? It is important for people in those areas to be told whether they will have to travel a long distance. My noble friend has pointed out that no help will be given to people, even if they are on benefits, to undertake those journeys. Does not the noble Lord consider it unjust to heap these additional expenses on them when the cost of getting a passport is already £65 and rising? Does he think that it is fair to people with children, in particular, who will need to accompany the children to the interview and will face an even larger burden?
It appears to me that there has been inadequate consultation on these proposals. As there must inevitably be a delay before they are put into operation, the Government could make a virtue of necessity and use the delay to improve the network with a view to reducing the inconvenience and expense to which they are about to subject millions of our citizens.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Llandudno, on securing this important, if very select, debate. The noble Lord has made a strong case for Her Majesty’s Government to review the introduction of personal interviews for first-time adult passport applicants. However, the first thing that I want to do is to assure the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, that my party is, and always has been, wholeheartedly against ID cards. We agree that there are important points to be considered, and I shall try not to reiterate too much of what has already been said.
We on these Benches want to push the Government to reconsider the link between passport interviews and the national identity register and the subsequent ID cards that will come with it. In this speech, I shall look to address some of the wider related issues, as well as how the current proposals are to affect young adults.
There is no doubt that identity fraud causes real concern for those of us at risk and real problems for the victims of the fraudsters. Sadly, shredding personal and financial documents does not seem to be enough. Identity fraud costs this country more than £1.3 billion a year. I need not remind your Lordships of the débâcle last May when the personal identities of 13,000 civil servants were stolen from databases in the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That example only adds to ongoing concerns about this Government’s record on delivering IT databases on time, on budget and with adequate security.
If we look at passports in particular, 90 per cent of passport applications are currently made by post, and that leaves scope for fraudulent applications. Some 1,700 attempted fraudulent postal passport applications were made last year, of which the Identity and Passport Service—the IPS—states that three-quarters were in the first-time adult applicant category.
The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, outlined how the new interview system is to work, and it does not sound too promising. When you apply for a passport, within eight days you should receive a letter asking you to arrange to attend an interview. As the noble Lord said, this interview is meant to take 30 minutes and be conducted in a,
“friendly and non-threatening manner”.
As Philip Johnston stated in the Daily Telegraph this week,
“isn't that nice to know”.
The interview is to elicit a range of personal facts from the applicant, such as previous addresses and bank details. The Government hope that the interview process will make people think twice about committing passport fraud.
As I understand it, interviews will be introduced from April onwards in a gradual manner, meaning that not all applicants will require an interview. How will it be determined who will have one and who will not? Will it be based on set criteria or just on every third application received? What, too, is the Minister’s response to the further comments by Philip Johnston where he asks,
“what if a mother is reluctant to reveal her true year of birth, or a father had long pretended to be a foundling from Venice?”
What is to happen if someone fails their passport interview? The NO2ID campaign highlights that the UK IPS estimates that one in four people will have to cancel their travel plans because they will not get their passport in time. Will travel insurance companies pay if that is due to a delay in the application process or if a passport is refused? What appeals process is there if a genuine person fails the interview?
Of the first applicants for this process, 300,000 are expected to be young people—the guinea pigs of the system. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said that 151 had been appointed and that 454 were outstanding, but I understand the figures to be the other way round, as stated by the Minister in his response to a question last year. No doubt the Minister will tell us. Even if 151 positions are not yet staffed, can the Minister inform the House how many of those individuals have had Criminal Records Bureau checks? That is vital if they are to handle data, particularly data of those aged between 16 and 18. Can the Minister assure the House that those interviewing under-18 year-olds will have had the appropriate young person's training, and that there will be at least one person with such training in each centre?
Section 4 of the Identity Cards Act 2006 will enable passports to be listed as a designated document. In response to the Written Question from my noble friend Lady Anelay last month, the Minister stated that,
“No precise date has yet been set for the designation of a passport”.—[Official Report, 1/2/07; col. WA 75.]
I hope that the Minster can update us if there has been any change in this situation. Can he also confirm that, if people choose to renew their passports prior to the designation of passports, they will have a full 10 years to run?
There is also some confusion over whether the Government intend to adapt the passport system into the national identity register; whether a separate NIR will replace the passport system; or whether the two will co-exist, particularly in light of concerning indications that the remit seems to be extending beyond promises made during the passage of the Bill.
The costs, or rather lack of complete costing, for the NIR and ID card scheme remain a bone of much contention. The ever-increasing cost of passports is linked to that. A baby's passport is now £45, an e-passport is £77 and next year the combined passport and ID card will be at least—and probably more than—£93. Considering that in 1995 a 10-year adult passport cost £18, it is clear that passport inflation has a life of its own—a five-fold increase over that period.
On top of rising costs the National Audit Office report, released last month, states that the warranty deal that the Identity and Passport Service struck to cover the passport chips in e-passports will last for only two years, even though at present UK passports have a lifespan of 10 years. It also said that many UK ports of entry are not yet fully equipped to deal with the new technology. None of that news instils confidence in the Home Office’s approach to combating passport fraud or wider identity fraud.
I hope that the Minister will also be able to set out in his reply the situation with regard to individuals who have permanent leave to remain in the UK. I declare an interest as I have a Ukrainian daughter-in-law who has been married to my son for 12 years. She has exceptional leave to remain and is happily settled, bringing up our granddaughter in the UK, but as the only child of her widowed mother, she is a frequent traveller to Kiev. I am concerned by the lack of transparency in this area and the ever-changing ground rules. How much will this all cost to applicants and will they have to travel to the interrogation centres?
We on these Benches recognise the dedication of the people in the Identity and Passport Service. We thoroughly applaud what they have achieved despite the huge difficulties they have faced. However, there are still significant outstanding concerns about the introduction of interviews of young adults, the wider system as a whole and especially its future interaction with ID cards.
It is important that we take steps to protect our personal identity and work to reduce its fraudulent use, but this should not be at the cost of our freedoms and liberties. It should not require a “Big Brother” culture, a theme that seems to run through all government legislation. We on these Benches strive to ensure that personal data will be collected and used only in a proportionate and reasonable manner.
My Lords, although the debate has not been well attended, noble Lords have contributed to an interesting discussion. I am most grateful for the contributions that have been made, although noble Lords will not expect me to agree with everything that has been said.
I cannot agree with the suggestion that the Government should review their policy on the introduction of interviews for first-time passport applicants. It is an important process. As noble Lords will know, the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) has introduced many measures to improve the security of the passport, including the successful introduction of the e-passport last year. The current process of applying for a passport by post dates from times when identity fraud, as we all accept, was not a widespread problem, there was no serious threat from international terrorism, and illegal immigration was rare.
As one can apply by post, the identity criminal or terrorist remains hidden from view while the application form and photographs they have sent in are examined. The photograph sent in might, in fact, be a person outside the United Kingdom seeking to enter illegally. It might be the intended passport holder’s own photograph, but with an application form showing the personal details of an innocent victim whose identity he is trying to steal. The application might be one of several the terrorist or criminal is submitting in different identities. If this attempt at fraud is detected, they can always try again.
The Identity and Passport Service has various ways of detecting fraud of which your Lordships would not expect me to give graphic details. But, given the increasing threat of identity fraud and theft, it is plain common sense for the Identity and Passport Service to check that a person really exists simply by seeing him or her. It is a pretty basic and fundamental concept. Without seeing the applicant in person, however, the IPS cannot be certain that it is issuing passports to the right people. What is certain is that more and more people are attempting to get passports in false identities.
It is also hardly a radical approach, as the United Kingdom is currently one of very few western countries that do not require an in-person first-time passport application; those that do not include Estonia, Macau, Malaysia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. I argue that we must get into the real, modern world; if we do not, the problems of identity theft can only multiply in a form that will be increasingly hard to check.
The key benefits of the changes will be to help us fight passport fraud and forgery, help protect the UK and its people from identity theft and ensure that the British passport stays one of the most secure and respected in the world. The introduction of passport application interviews will mean that all adult customers applying for a passport for the first time must attend an interview with the IPS in person to confirm their identity. I stress that these changes do not currently apply to people wanting to renew their existing passport. The requirement for an interview will apply only to those adults who have never previously held a British passport in their own name. This is estimated to affect approximately 609,000 customers per year.
Many questions were asked during the debate and I will endeavour to focus on those towards the conclusion of my comments. One recurring theme related to the interview process. What has been arranged is that normally a 30-minute slot will be provided for an interview; the interview may be as short as 10 minutes and perhaps take a maximum of 20 minutes. At the interview, customers will be asked basic information about themselves—not deeply private information, but information only they will know that can be checked to confirm their identity. I should make it clear that people applying for passports will not have to give any more information than they do now. The application forms will be unchanged and the interview is not about gathering information. The information used in the interview will be deleted from IPS records shortly after the passport is issued. The requirement to attend an interview will be introduced gradually, as noble Lords have noted, and the Government will be making further information available about this in another place later this month.
The IPS is opening 69 local interview offices across the United Kingdom and the majority of customers will be within 60 minutes’ travelling time of an office from either their home or workplace. The network of 69 interview offices has been designed to provide an interview office within 15 minutes’ travelling time via public or personal transport for just over half of the population of the UK. More than 95 per cent of the population will live within an hour’s travelling time via public or personal transport of an interview office.
The interview offices will not be new passport offices. They will be used only to conduct interviews and will not handle general inquiries or take delivery of passport applications. The size of offices is related to the estimated number of interviews to be carried out at each location. Most will have three interview positions or fewer and some will not be open every weekday, but all will be open on Saturdays. For each day that an office is open, it will open at 8 am and close at 6 pm, except for the seven smallest offices which will only open two half-days per week.
Deciding on the location of the new offices was a painstaking task, needing to balance customers’ wishes for the lowest possible additional increase to the passport fee and convenient locations. Customer research was carried out in March and April 2004 and again in July 2005. The results of both surveys showed that the majority of respondents felt that a one-way journey of approximately 20 miles or approximately half an hour once every 10 years was reasonable. This research also identified that in more rural parts of the United Kingdom this expectation increased to approximately 40 miles or approximately one hour’s travelling time.
The IPS used mapping software and census data to model an office network which, over several months, was subjected to independent verification by a specialist company and to local consultation with authorities responsible for more sparsely populated areas. The work used a range of data from the 2001 census, including the distribution of people aged 16 to 34—which is the age range when most adults apply for their first passport—broken down by local authority wards. Journey-to-work data was analysed, showing the proportion of people who would use each mode of transport in different areas of the United Kingdom.
This was combined with data on travel costs and times to model journeys from a total of over 220,000 population centres of about 250 people each to 264 potential locations. The aim was to design a network that optimised the number of offices to minimise costs and maximise operational efficiency through, for example, lower fixed costs and overheads and greater staff flexibility to handle the peaks and troughs of demand, while selecting locations that maximised the proportion of UK residents who would need to travel no more than 20 miles to their nearest interview office.
From the conclusion of this research and consultation, the IPS identified 69 locations that provided the right trade-off of efficiency, public travel expectations and the needs of sparsely populated parts of the UK. More than 82 per cent of the population lives within 20 miles of an office in the network, and more than 84 per cent within a 30-minute journey. All interview offices are pleasant, modern places that comply with the Disability Discrimination Act and have wheelchair access. Our normal assumption is that an individual who is sufficiently mobile to require passport facilities can travel to an interview office. However, if the passport is required for, for example, medical treatment abroad and the applicant is too ill or insufficiently mobile to attend an interview, the interview may be waived if evidence is provided.
As I indicated, a small number of potential first-time passport customers, estimated to be less than 0.7 per cent—or 4,000—live more than an hour’s journey from an interview office. This mainly affects people living in rural Wales, as the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, and the Scottish highlands and islands. To reduce the travelling time for this group, IPS is putting in place secure video-conferencing facilities where customers will be interviewed by visiting the premises of a partner organisation, such as a local council. IPS plans to have remote interview facilities in 25 locations. However, consultations with regional stakeholders are continuing, and I think we can take it that there may be some variation as a result.
The interview offices will not initially be used to record biometrics, but they have been planned with sufficient space to allow for the future recording of fingerprints. This will be necessary for the second generation of biometric passports, which are expected to be introduced from 2009 in line with new EU standards for passport security. It will also allow passport interview offices to be used for future enrolments to the national identity scheme. The volume of first-time adult passport customers is a fraction of the volume that will need to be handled for recording fingerprints for the second generation of biometric passports, and later for ID cards. Some offices in the new network will have room for expansion, but it is clear that further premises will be needed to support these developments. Decisions on the number and location of extra offices have yet to be taken. To ensure that IPS is not burdened with premises that might prove unsuitable for the long term, premises for the first-time passport applicant interviews will be occupied on licences of three years, extendable to five years.
The majority of offices have now been acquired. All offices will be open on Saturdays. IPS is informing local MPs as interview offices are acquired, giving them details of the location and estimated number of customers. This necessary change to the application process means that first-time adult customers will need to allow more time than in the past to attend an interview and get their passport. IPS will conduct a publicity campaign to ensure that its customers are aware of the need to allow six weeks to obtain their passport and, as now, not to book any travel arrangements until the new passport is received. These measures are essential to protect our citizens from identity theft and to ensure that the British passport remains one of the most secure and respected in the world.
My time is up. With the leave of the House I will happily put on record answers to some of the questions asked. Will there be interviews in the Welsh language? Interpreters will be available to assist with passport interviews. I think I have dealt with the time available for interviews. The interview may take between 10 and 20 minutes. We have recruited some 55 staff, who are in post and are working in the project testing and trialling its development. We have a further 539 staff, both full-time and part-time equivalents, who have been recruited and will join as offices roll out throughout 2007.
I reassure noble Lords that the Data Protection Act will apply to any personal information held as the result of a passport interview, just as it does now to information provided by postal applicants for passports. The Information Commissioner’s Office has obviously been consulted, and it is happy with the arrangements. On remote community partner organisations, it is intended that local councils should provide the location for the video-conferencing interview. The number of first-time applicants in remote communities is small. We expect some 91 applicants a year from the Isle of Skye and as many as 52 a year from the Isle of Bute; so we should be able to fashion our arrangements to suit their needs.
The roll-out will be gradual, and we envisage that not all first-time customers will be called for interview during the initial introduction. We will choose people who live within a short travelling distance of the office, to minimise inconvenience during the early stages of it. There will be an inbuilt preference for those who live quite close.
I have probably answered the main questions. There was another about the security of staff. All ID and passport service staff, including those recruited for the local interview offices, will be security checked. That has, I think, answered the main points. If there are others that I have not responded to in detail, I will check the record and ensure that noble Lords are supplied with a full, written response.
Transport for London Bill [HL]
The Bill was reported from the Unopposed Bill Committee with amendments. A special report was made and ordered to be printed.
House adjourned at 6.16 pm.