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Volume 718: debated on Monday 29 March 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to improve the quality of food for British military personnel at forward operating bases in Afghanistan.

My Lords, before answering, I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering sincere condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal of Horse Jonathan Woodgate from the Household Cavalry Regiment, serving as part of the Brigade Reconnaisance Force, and of Rifleman Daniel Holkham from 3rd Battalion The Rifles, serving with 3 Rifles Battle Group, who were killed recently on operations in Afghanistan.

The food provided on operations is constantly reviewed and developed in response to views from the front line to ensure that quality and nutritional standards are maintained and to provide variety. The Armed Forces feeding project is evaluating actual food and energy intake. Gender, ethnic and cultural differences are also being considered. This study is due to report at the end of the year.

My Lords, our thoughts, too, are with the families and friends of Lance Corporal of Horse Woodgate of the Household Cavalry and of Rifleman Holkham of 3 Rifles.

On occasions, soldiers and Royal Marines are having to make do with boil-in-the-bag ration packs or tinned spam, sometimes for up to 50 days, because of helicopter resupply shortages. What assurances can the Minister give the House that everything possible is being done to ensure that FOBs are resupplied with fresh food? What research is being done to bring our field rations into line with those of our allies, such as the Americans, who have self-heating meals?

My Lords, it would be rare for our forces to find themselves having to make do with boil-in-the-bag food. Most forces are in forward operating bases of about 400 people. They will typically have chefs. About 80 per cent of the food they work with is fresh or dried, and about 20 per cent is from 10-man ration packs. On rare occasions, perhaps at patrol bases or out on patrol, one-day kits are used. They are superb. I have eaten them, and I know of a number of others who have done so, too. It is fortuitous that this month’s Defence Focus has a two-page spread on the varieties available and the cultural differences catered for. I am assured—but then I would be, wouldn’t I?—that they are the envy of our allies. I shall place a copy of Defence Focus in the Library.

My Lords, I associate these Benches with the condolences that the Minister has expressed. I had the pleasure, with a number of noble Lords, to visit our bases in Kandahar and Camp Bastion. The standard, quality and variety of food for various nationalities were remarkably good. How are those standards maintained in other forward places?

My Lords, in a sense I am slightly repeating myself. What makes a real difference to quality of food is being able to have military chefs well forward. Most soldiers will be served by military chefs in the main bases. These are the dynamic things, but most of the time that quality is maintained at the forward operating bases. They are working from fresh supplies and from the 10-man pack, which is a pack of foods that are now pre-varietised in the UK before they are sent, so we do not repeat the one unfortunate incident when they were all the same. We do an awful lot to produce the variety. The idea of these military chefs is particularly exciting; they are soldiers first—they are fighting chefs—but, at the end of the day, they provide the morale-boosting variety.

My Lords, first, I declare an interest. A young captain who is a member of our family is in FOBs in Afghanistan at the moment, so this is of particularly keen interest for me. The food is important for physical well-being, but it is also important in the operating field for the morale of our service men and women. Certainly the food has improved back at base, but we need to see an improvement in FOBs—there is no doubt about it. I would take a lot more heart if the Minister could comment on the possibility of an outcome at the end of this year, which would then take some time to implement. Is there any way that the schedule for that could be brought forward? It is not a highly technical matter, and it would certainly help if it could be.

My Lords, the situation is developing all the time so, in a sense, it would be wrong to say the end of the year. There have been considerable improvements in the recent past, with the development of the multi-climate ration pack, which is the new one-man pack. It came out of troops being dependent on them for extended periods; that is why it has developed into a much wider variety. It is nutritionally very sound, with 4,000 calories and the sort of balanced diet that we do not think about having. We have very bad diets compared with these packs. I urge people to look at the magazine that I mentioned. We are doing a good job for our front-line forces; there is good variety, good nutrition and they are very healthy on it.

Does the Minister recall the quotation in Stanhope’s Conversations with Wellington who says, effectively, “You never know what you are going to meet with. Sometimes you have to get by on a steak and a pint of claret.”?

May I refer the Minister to the Duke of Wellington’s diaries in the hope that he will learn as much about food as we have, as a consequence of visits to Wellington Barracks, about the way the Duke looked after his men when they were in barracks?

I am not precisely familiar with the quotation and I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me for that. However, looking at history, Wellington was so successful because he took his supplies with him. He did not rob the countryside; he planned ahead and took his impedimenta with him for cooking and so forth. Frankly, nothing has changed over the generations, except that in periods of new challenge we have not been well adapted. We are now adapted to Afghanistan and we are in Afghanistan doing exactly as he did—not the claret though; no alcohol in Afghanistan. Apart from the claret, we are trying to improve and maintain morale through a large variety of good food.

Is the Minister suggesting that, like Wellington, our troops should live off the countryside? Would it be mostly dope?

I am not the first, and I shall probably not be the last, Minister to be misunderstood by the noble Baroness. I am saying the very opposite: Wellington succeeded by not living off the countryside, but by feeding his troops properly. It has been a tradition of the British Army; it is probably in its finest hour now in Afghanistan.