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Volume 705: debated on Thursday 6 November 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether the comments by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Quentin Davies, on 3 November about the choice of equipment made by commanders on operations in Afghanistan reflect any change in the protocols relating to the relationship between Ministers and commanders in the field.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. In seeking to apportion blame to the commander on the ground, the Minister in the other place quite improperly implied that he had a choice of vehicles. So as not to cast any suspicion of doubt on the commander’s word, can the Minister confirm that he had to use Snatch Land Rover on that occasion as there were no other vehicles? Can she also give the House an assurance that no commander in Afghanistan will again be forced to use Snatch for any operation beyond base perimeters?

My Lords, the Minister in another place was in no way attempting to apportion blame. That is not a wise thing for anybody to do, especially when there is always an inquiry into any incident. Ministers provide a wide range of vehicles for deployment in theatre. It is for commanders on the ground to decide which vehicles are suitable for which operations. Ministers have been told more than once by operational commanders that they wish to retain the Snatch vehicle for use in certain circumstances. Indeed, in the Statement made in another place last month, it was pointed out that senior operational commanders consider the Snatch vehicle to be mission-critical.

My Lords, the Minister was not in post at the time but is she aware that grave concern has been shown in this Chamber and in Committee at the dilution of the authority and stature of the commanding officers in the military? At this time they need not criticism but support, encouragement, and to be given the right kit for the right job. That is not happening and I ask her perhaps to express a view on it. Is it not wrong that those who have no battle experience and have never had their hair parted by a bullet, for instance, make assumptions about what happens in combat and, in that way, criticise and show distrust of our commanders in the field who are the ones doing the fighting?

My Lords, we should all have great respect for those who are doing the fighting, whatever their level. My honourable friend the Minister, in an interview at the weekend, said:

“Our commanders are second to none in their ability to make the right decisions”.

I think that we should acknowledge what he said and should all share in the admiration of those who are working on the front line. On the kit, I know that my ministerial colleagues, and indeed Members of this House and of another place, have visited Afghanistan, have spoken to people on the ground, have questioned them about the kit, and have been told that the kit that is supplied today is second to none and is, I think, the envy of many of our allies fighting with us in those circumstances.

My Lords, putting personalities to one side, for the Falklands campaign our defence industries were mobilised to deliver equipment to the ports and airfields, working flat out, with payments et cetera to be sorted out later. Last week’s Written Statement on the upgraded Snatch Land Rover for Afghanistan, the Snatch Vixen, hardly conveyed a sense of urgency. It said:

“We have already fielded a small number of these vehicles, and we will be substantially increasing the size of the fleet over the coming year”.—[Official Report, 29/10/08; col. 29WS.]

With every day’s delay possibly meaning the difference between life and death, why is our industry not working round the clock on this and other vehicle orders?

My Lords, we have, I think, already fielded 31 Snatch Vixens, and nearly 150 more are in train. Perhaps I should explain that once we buy these vehicles a great deal of work has to be undertaken by industry to upgrade them to get them to the theatre-entry level. That work is done with great speed and determination by companies such as NP Aerospace and Ricardo Special Vehicles. Perhaps I may use this opportunity to say thank you to those in industry, and to the whole team within the MoD, who have been very responsive to the needs of our operational theatres and who have done very well working together to get a great deal of modification to our vehicles and other kit to help protect people when they are out on operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

My Lords, I do not wish to comment on the individual issue, because that is subject to an inquiry, but is not the general problem that we cannot have heavily armoured vehicles on all occasions? If we do, we play right into the hands of the various insurgent groups who want to divide the NATO and UN troops from the local community. There is a difficult judgment for commanders in the field. Of course it is right that we have hardened vehicles, but we must recognise that challenge.

My Lords, my noble friend makes a valid point. That is one of the reasons why the advice that we have been given is that Snatch vehicles have to be used in certain circumstances, and, as I said, are mission-critical.

My Lords, my noble friend asked specifically whether there was a choice of vehicles available to the commander in the field in the incident about which he inquired. I did not hear a reply to that question; I wonder whether the Minister will give it to us.

My Lords, I said that I thought that it was not helpful to speculate in this House about any individual incident, especially when there is an inquiry into every incident of that nature.

My Lords, it is obviously very welcome that better and improved vehicles are being made available to the forces in theatre, but those vehicles will require experience for those using them. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that there are adequate vehicles available for training before the forces go out into theatre and have to use them on operations?

My Lords, that is an important point and one reason why the number of vehicles that we have now decided to acquire is so large. It is important that the people who will use the vehicles in theatre can train on them before they leave this country.