My Lords, first, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Rifleman Aminiasi Toge of 2nd Battalion The Rifles and Corporal Joseph Etchells of 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, who were killed on operations in Afghanistan this week. I am sure that the whole House will also wish to put on record our respect for Henry Allingham, who died on Saturday aged 113.
Before commenting to the media on defence issues, all service personnel are required to seek appropriate authorisation. This is to ensure that national and operational security are upheld and that standards of political impartiality and public accountability are met. A defence instruction and notice and the relevant Queen’s Regulations reflect this. We encourage our service personnel to talk and write about what they do so that the role and achievements of the Armed Forces and MoD can be better understood.
My Lords, I add my tribute to the fallen and to Henry Allingham. I am deeply grateful to my noble friend for her reply. Would she agree that in this media-dominated age, it is even more important than ever to maintain a united front in dealing with ruthless and cunning enemies such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda? Was she therefore surprised at the public comments of Sir Richard Dannatt and Sir Jock Stirrup, which threaten to undermine our effort in Afghanistan and give succour to the enemy? Could my noble friend consider gently reminding those gentlemen of the importance of loyalty, particularly when we are engaged in a very difficult war where victory is essential for the future safety of this country?
My Lords, I agree that we live in a media-dominated age, and I am not sure that that always serves us well. I remind my noble friend of the statement that CGS General Dannatt made on Saturday:
“There have been a number of assertions made in recent paper and broadcast coverage that have misrepresented my actions and motives in relation to both my personal, and the MoD's, ongoing dialogue with Downing Street … I have therefore decided, given the over-politicised and often misinformed nature of this coverage, to withdraw from my planned appearance on”,
It is difficult for people to say what they are thinking in the present media climate, but I agree with my noble friend that we should all—and I mean all—be supporting our Armed Forces in Afghanistan because they are there. If we were not in Afghanistan, the streets of this country would be a lot less safe.
My Lords, I add my tribute to the soldiers who have lost their lives, many of them recently having been in my own regiment. Does the Minister not agree that what Parliament and the public expect of their military leaders is professional competence, honesty, integrity and a concern for their men? Would she not accept that, if a senior military officer is asked a straight question on a purely military matter, he is entitled to give—even publicly—a straight, honest, wholly professional answer that yes, in the current war situation, more of this or that is required if the overall aims are to be achieved and casualties restricted? If the press and sometimes politicians have contrived to make some of these things political rather than national, surely that should not inhibit the military leader doing his duty as he thinks fit.
My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is emphasising what General Dannatt said about overpoliticisation, misconstruction and being misinformed by the reporting in the press. General Dannatt was returning from a normal visit to operations and was reinforcing the priorities that we have heard from commanders on the ground—the priorities to which we are responding, as the Prime Minister pointed out in his Statement in April, when he emphasised the need to do more to counter the increasing threat of IEDs.
My Lords, I first enjoin these Benches in the earlier tribute. In May, I asked the noble Baroness to tell the House when the Prime Minister had last officially met the service chiefs. She replied, “September last year”—seven months previously. Given the degree of historical disinterest that the Prime Minister has taken in our Armed Forces and the situation in Afghanistan, while it may be very sad that the service chiefs have spoken out as they have done, does she really expect them to behave like Trappist monks given the seriousness of the situation?
My Lords, I very much regret the unusual tone of the noble Lord, Lord Lee, in asking his question. The Prime Minister, by his visits to Afghanistan and the discussions and meetings that he has had, has shown a great deal of interest and has spent a great deal of time worrying about this problem. In answer to the question in May, I pointed out the other informal meetings that the Prime Minister had had and I totally reject the fact that he is disinterested. I mentioned the Statement that he made in April, when he said that there would be increased attention to IEDs and that that was to be supplemented by increased spending from the Treasury. That shows a very direct commitment and a great awareness of the significant threat that our Armed Forces face.