Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I begin by giving a warm welcome to my noble friend Lady Garden in her role on the Defence Front Bench. I am very much looking forward to working with her, just as I enjoyed a very good partnership with her predecessor, my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire.
The title for this debate is wide-ranging, and deliberately so. It will allow noble Lords and the noble and gallant Lord to speak on a wide range of subjects, from the welfare of our service personnel to their equipment; how our Armed Forces are structured and funded; and the operations that they are on now, and those that they will be prepared for in the future. I start by paying tribute to the men and women who now serve in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Their selfless commitment, dedication to service and professionalism is inspiring to us all. They do not choose where they are sent, but they are willing to risk life and limb, on our behalf. As a country, we owe them a great deal. In this period of remembrance, let us pay tribute to all those who have served in the past, particularly those who have paid the ultimate price to keep our nation free.
Next year will mark the centenary of the start of the Great War. The ranks of those who fought in the trenches have now passed away, but we remember them in the poppies we wear and in the way in which we honour those veterans of other battles of the 20th century who are still with us—and, in this century, all those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our Armed Forces exist to protect our country and provide the ultimate guarantee of its security and independence. Everything we do in defence is directed to that aim and, in the globalised world we inhabit, that means projecting power abroad to protect our national interests, demonstrating our determination and our values. In the uncertain and rapidly evolving security environment of today, we need to be prepared to meet a complex range of threats and challenges. We will always use our influence to reduce the risk of conflict, but we must be ready to fight and win on difficult and dangerous operations against determined opposition. We cannot do everything on our own, so we must work effectively with our allies and partners. That is what we are doing today in Afghanistan.
The mission in Afghanistan is the first priority for the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence. The reason we are in Afghanistan is to protect our national security and to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for international terrorism, as it was under the Taliban before 9/11. Our goal is not a perfect Afghanistan, but one able to maintain its own security and prevent the return of international terror groups. The plan is clear: training the Afghan forces to take on the burden of security so that we can bring our troops home while ensuring the gains that we have made. The reality on the ground is that Afghan forces are increasingly taking the lead. This is allowing us to gradually reduce our force levels; we will have reduced them by 500 to 9,000 by the end of the year, and we expect to make further, significant reductions by the end of next year, with all UK combat operations finishing by the end of 2014. We are firmly committed to the strategy and timescales agreed at Lisbon and to the principles of “in together, out together”.
As the NATO Secretary-General set out earlier this year, the decisions made at Lisbon,
“will remain the bedrock of our strategy”.
When the ISAF mission completes in 2014, it will be for the Afghans to manage their own security. This is how it should be. But the end of our combat mission does not signal the end of our support to Afghanistan and its people. NATO will establish a new non-combat mission in Afghanistan, in which Britain will play its part, on top of the bilateral relationship which we will maintain with the Afghan Government and armed forces. Although Afghanistan will continue to face many complex challenges, the agreements for financial and other practical support made in the summits at Chicago and Tokyo will help to underpin Afghanistan’s security and future.
As we move towards the end of our mission, we need to plan for the post-Afghanistan environment and the transformation of defence to meet the challenges of the future. Operations and standing tasks aside, the past two years since the publication of the SDSR have been dominated by the urgent need to implement its vision: to ensure that our forces are prepared for the very different challenges they will face in the future; to eliminate the black hole in the MoD budget; and to learn lessons from the failures of the past so we do not repeat them in the future. Not everyone will agree with every decision we have made, but at least we have not ducked them. None of the ministerial team at the MoD came into politics to cut the defence budget or to reduce the size of our forces.
I regret some of the decisions we have had to make, particularly the redundancies and the retirement of some of the platforms, but in May 2010 we were faced with one of the biggest deficits in the developed world. We had to make some tough choices: tough choices that were necessary to set a sustainable course for the transformation of our Armed Forces to ensure they are structured, supported and equipped effectively to protect our national security in the face of the threats they will encounter in the decades to come. They were necessary, too, to tackle a forward defence programme that had been allowed to grow way beyond the resources available.
Budgetary discipline has to continue to be the supporting foundation of the transformation to Future Force 2020 or the tough decisions we have had to make will come round again. The defence equipment programme needs to be balanced and sustainable if the Armed Forces are to have the confidence that the capabilities promised will actually be delivered on time and to requirement. Thanks to the hard work and tough decisions taken over the past two years, we in the Ministry of Defence now have a balanced budget with an affordable equipment programme, backed by the world’s fourth largest defence budget. This changes the dynamic. By maintaining discipline we can begin to release the contingencies that have been built into the budget to support further investments in capability, confident that there is a sustainable funding stream to deliver them. For instance, since the beginning of this financial year, the new discipline in our budgetary regime has allowed us to give the go-ahead for a series of equipment projects above the committed equipment programme. This includes 25 extra Foxhounds for Afghanistan, enhancements to Merlin helicopters and new targeting pods for fast jets.
Earlier this year we received the first Joint Strike Fighter. This state-of-the-art, fifth generation fast jet will be flying from the deck of the new aircraft carrier HMS “Queen Elizabeth” in just over five years’ time. New vehicles, new helicopters, new aircraft, new ISTAR, new ships, new submarines, new cyber capabilities—the advanced, adaptable and powerful forces of Future Force 2020 are being built piece by piece. It is smaller than before but able to reach across the world and operate across a spectrum from high-intensity combat to enduring stabilisation activity, deploy overseas and sustain a brigade-sized force indefinitely or a division-sized force in time of need. It is able to command in the coalition context and is more interoperable with our main allies. It is fully integrated between regular and reserves, with predictable obligations for the reservists that will require a real commitment to service, and with a more systematic use of contractors for support and logistics, allowing greater focus of military manpower on fighting tasks. This is the shape of the future force we are building.
I turn to the issues we will be facing over the coming year to help make this a reality. By the latest reckoning around a quarter of the commitments in the SDSR involving defence have now been completed. The rest of the headline targets are on track. Now the Army has set out its future structure in Army 2020 we can begin to deliver on another part of the jigsaw—Reserve Forces. We will be publishing our Green Paper in the coming days. At the heart of this will be renewing the proposition for both reservists and employers, ensuring that the contributions of those individuals who serve are recognised and properly supported and that the mutual benefit the reserve service provides to the state and to employers is grounded in a new, open and tailored relationship.
Despite the incredible contribution they make to operations, the reserves have too often in the past been the forgotten part of our Armed Forces: no longer. They will be larger, receive new equipment and be better integrated with their regular colleagues. I know that there are those who doubt we can achieve our ambition for the reserves but this betrays very short memories. The new levels we have set are well within historic norms. In 1990, the TA was 76,000-strong: the Army reserve we are proposing is modest in comparison. I accept that the new targets are ambitious in the current climate. We will need the support of employers, reservists, their families and society as a whole to make the changes we need in the right way. The Green Paper consultation will be all about establishing how best to do this.
The work we are doing on the reserve is part of the process of providing certainty for our people and transforming the structures that support them and their families. We will announce, by the end of the year, a rebasing plan so that families will know where their future homes will be. We will accelerate work on the new employment model to make service terms and conditions more flexible to better reflect the complexity of modern family life. We will do what we can to make a reality of the Armed Forces covenant because we want our service men and women to know that this Government and the British people recognise the debt of gratitude that we owe to them and to their families.
We will soon publish the first annual report on the Armed Forces covenant, setting out the progress we have been able to make since we enshrined the key principles in law last year. We will therefore, quite rightly, be held to account for what is done to make the covenant a reality. I am particularly pleased about how entrenched the covenant is becoming across all departments of Government. There has been a cultural change in Westminster, driven by the Prime Minister, with Ministers from other departments approaching the Ministry of Defence with ideas on how they can help. The Education Secretary has found money to increase the level of the service pupil premium and extending its reach. The Chancellor has proposed to hand £35 million of fines levied on the banks after the LIBOR scandal to service charities. There continues to be limited financial room for manoeuvre; we will have to prioritise strictly and only make promises we know we can fulfil.
However, these initiatives say that where the Government can act we will, not just in the MoD but as a whole. Underpinning all this work is the reform of the management of defence itself. Procurement has been dogged for years by weak relationships between parts of the department. We have lacked the right business skills and capabilities to manage capital and infrastructure projects that are among the largest in the public sector. We are, therefore, putting in place a new blueprint for the management of defence, as recommended by the report of the noble Lord, Lord Levene, on defence reform. We are creating a leaner, more strategic head office, empowering the service chiefs to run their individual services and their delegated service budgets. By pushing accountability down the chain of command, we are encouraging innovation and budgetary responsibility. This last message is underpinned by introducing a stronger financial and performance management regime across the whole department. The materiel strategy being put together by Bernard Grey and his team in Defence Equipment and Support is the next big piece of that puzzle. This will set out how we will sharpen the boundaries and align incentives internally to ensure consistent, focused decision-making. We are seeking to instil private sector skills and disciplines into our acquisition process, driving up productivity by bringing a private sector partner into the process.
Ultimately, it is the people of defence who deliver the battle-winning capabilities which protect and defend us. As we turn to face the Cenotaph this coming weekend and as we listen to the strains of “Oh God our Help in Ages Past”, as we remember those who have given their lives in the cause of freedom, let us together reaffirm our debt of gratitude to the men and women of our Armed Forces and show them how proud we are of their service.
I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his remarks, and I associate myself and, I am sure, all Members of the House with the comments he laterally made about remembrance. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to the Front Bench. She has a long and illustrious history on these subjects, and I remember her and her husband, the late Lord Garden, being great supporters of British defence and the issues surrounding it.
As the Minister said, it is the time of remembrance. We wear poppies with pride and with meaning. We show respect for lives lost and for survivors whose lives have been shattered by wounds. We remember sacrifices made and service delivered, and it is right to pay tribute to the courage, professionalism, dedication and commitment of those who serve in our Armed Forces. Out of the present turmoil in the Government’s business programme, we are in many ways lucky to have this opportunity at this time for this debate.
It is right and proper, and worth remembering, that today we speak in our own language, enjoy a parliamentary system of government, have a free press and the rule of an independent legal system because—in many ways, only because—of what was done in our country’s name in past conflicts. I once walked through the park at the bottom of Park Lane, where a number of war memorials are all too unnoticed because they lie on a roundabout, and it is therefore dangerous to get to them. However, there is a huge monument to the Royal Artillery, on which it is stated:
“They died with the faith that the future of mankind would benefit from their sacrifice”.
Some 49,000 men of the Royal Artillery died in the First World War, and 30,000 died in World War II, some 79,000 men who gave their lives in both wars in order that we would benefit; and there is no doubt that we have benefitted.
However, tributes to those who wear the Queen’s uniform, the civilians who support and back them up, and the way that they go about their dangerous and difficult business, lack one thing that is critical to them—full-blooded support for the missions that they have been sent to carry out. Wars such as the conflict in Afghanistan are not won or successful through military means alone. They are won when the enemy knows that you will not give in, when the enemy knows that your cause is mightier than theirs, and when those who fanatically want to impose a brutal, illiberal, theocratic and undemocratic regime on a population simply will not be allowed to prevail. We will succeed in Afghanistan when our troops know that they fight for a noble cause and that the enemy, in contrast, fights to enslave its own people. Our troops have a right to know that the people of this country and those of the other 49 countries in the NATO-led ISAF mission are behind it and those who risk their lives and limbs every day to deliver it. However, that requires leadership in our nation. It requires that the political leadership of the United Kingdom—all of it—asserts day and daily why that mission in Afghanistan is about our security here at home, and that its success or failures matter to the safety of our citizens in this country.
The great United States journalist, Edward Murrow, after the Second World War said the following of Winston Churchill:
“He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.
Churchill knew instinctively the power of rhetoric in order to get the people of Britain behind the war effort, of the need to build confidence at times such as in 1940, after Dunkirk, when we were militarily powerless and when his Cabinet was enfeebled by division. He rallied the British people, galvanised the troops and, much more importantly, he convinced Hitler that we would never give up and that he would be defeated. He used, in public and in private sessions, the platform of the House of Commons to deliver the message to the people and to the enemy that we were, irrespective of the facts on the ground, invincible. It worked. We know that and we benefited from it. That is why today we speak in English and in freedom in this House.
What would Churchill have made of the fact that, with 9,000 British troops committed to fight in an ongoing war in Afghanistan, the last time that our Prime Minister made a speech about Afghanistan in the House of Commons was on 4 July last year? It is nearly a year and a half since the Prime Minister made a speech about Afghanistan. It is difficult for any of us to put thoughts into the minds of the great Churchill, but he might have said, as I say now, “We seem to have lost the will to win”. Where is the mighty and necessary psychological assault on the Taliban today? Where are the stirring speeches designed to intimidate the insurgents in support of our mission to normalise a country that was brutalised by the medieval criminals who filled the vacuum left in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union left in 1990? Where are the arguments which should be put to the British people, the arguments that I used to make regularly in NATO, as have my successors and Ministers at the Ministry of Defence, about having to go to Afghanistan or Afghanistan will come to us?
We have an exit strategy that appears to be all exit and no strategy. It signals to the Taliban to wait two more years and then we will all be gone. It signals to our troops that, although they see progress on the ground, as they risk their lives to consolidate it, they get little backup or encouragement from the political leadership of this country. We admire and rightly value their guts and their professionalism but we say to them, “Just hang on because in a couple of years’ time this mission”, which is rarely spoken of here, “will be over and you will be back home”, in some cases, as the Minister has admitted, to redundancy notices instead of the thanks of a grateful nation. It signals to the British people that their weariness at the deaths and injuries and the Treasury cost are justified as it appears that no case is being made for why we went, why we stay and why it matters to people on British streets.
I recently heard a very senior American officer with responsibility for that area say that the closer he got to Afghanistan the more he saw progress but the closer he got to Washington, Brussels or London the more pessimistic he was about it. The picture in Afghanistan shows signs of success, hard and expensively achieved as it has been. Last week, Secretary General Rasmussen laid out the progress made: 80% of insurgent attacks take place in areas where only 20% of the Afghan population now live; and in Kabul and its immediate surrounding areas the number of enemy-instigated attacks declined 17% in the first eight months of this year.
In the first six months of 2012, Afghan troops led 80% of all operations. They do 85% of their own training. Afghan troops and police, trained in their thousands, now take the lead for security in areas where 75% of the population live. Schools are open. Women are being educated again. Even in Helmand province, street markets are being reopened. Many of us had the opportunity to talk to soldiers during the Olympic Games, where again they performed with professionalism. They can see, and will talk about, the progress that is being made. They are proud of their success and we, too, should be proud of it.
We all know why we went into Afghanistan. The move was popular because it was universally seen as necessary to rid Afghanistan of the medieval regime of the Taliban that had incubated the criminal terrorists responsible for the attacks of 9/11 and for many others before that. It was also about making sure that Afghanistan would be sufficiently normalised and assisted so that it would never again host the kind of criminal terrorism that we saw in the early part of 2000. However, the job is not over. Leon Trotsky said, about another war at another time: “You may not be interested in this war, but this war is interested in you”. The job in Afghanistan is not yet over, and if we leave with it only half done, the carnage that may follow will not stop at the mountains of the Hindu Kush or at the national boundaries of central Asia; it will come to us. The lesson of history remains that we should finish the job properly or we will face bleak prospects as a result of failure.
My Lords, first it must be said from these Benches that our Armed Forces have contributed magnificently both at home and abroad to the well-being of this country—often in difficult and dangerous situations, and with our soldiers, sailors and air men and women under tremendous military and political pressure. These hard facts are brought home to Members of your Lordships’ House each time my noble friend the Minister rises and offers sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who have been killed or wounded on military operations. Both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, referred to Remembrance Day, and the Minister referred to the First World War. I had not thought for some time, until he mentioned that war, about an uncle who died as a teenager in the Middlesex Regiment. We are not talking just about Afghanistan; men and women have been serving this country for many years.
There is strong support for our Armed Forces among the British public. Armed Forces personnel have contributed to the successful resolution of large-scale emergencies by supporting the civil authorities. Their achievements include the protection of life and the rescue of those in danger—for example, during the floods in the West Country, the foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001, the national fire strike of 2002-03, the Cumbria floods of 2005 and 2009, the floods in Yorkshire and Gloucestershire in 2007, and the big freeze in 2010; we may have another one coming towards us now. They have also worked with the police in operations on British soil where the level of force they could bring to situations was necessary to defend our national security. The military was deployed in Northern Ireland in support of the civil powers until 2007, supporting the police and managing public order. As a result, military personnel were trained in public order tactics. The Armed Forces have contributed also to protecting people in more routine situations. They have long provided a large part of the search and rescue capability around our coast.
Members of the public have written in their thousands to thank the Armed Forces for their contribution to the London 2012 Olympic Games. During the Games, they played a key role in providing additional specialist support to the police and other civil and Olympic authorities, to ensure that the Games were safe and secure. Of course, support was also provided at the Paralympic Games. The support and appreciation shown by members of the public for the way in which the Armed Forces conducted their duties has been overwhelming and gratifying for service personnel, I am sure. For many people, it would have been the first actual contact with our Armed Forces. What a great achievement and public relations triumph it was. It goes on. Only last week we were informed that in the event of a strike by prison staff, who would step in but the Army to help maintain our prisons?
I now turn to the Armed Forces’ contribution to international stability. At the end of the Cold War, international peacekeeping for military forces took on a new significance as the end of superpower rivalry allowed suppressed regional tensions around the world to reappear. In the 1990s, conflict in the Balkans challenged European and NATO countries to find ways to restore stability, and similar challenges also arose in Africa.
In the new millennium, particularly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, western nations and their allies found themselves in a range of operations, from Iraq and Afghanistan, which other noble Lords have spoken about in detail, to the counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa. The UK has adapted its use of the Armed Forces to meet these challenges, reflecting its responsibilities for global stability as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The MoD, in concert with the FCO and DfID, contributes to ensuring the tenets of the Building Stability Overseas strategy by jointly working for peace and stability in post-conflict and transitional states. Many people are doing that at this very moment.
The MoD is working to improve its upstream conflict prevention skills by honing its intelligence capabilities and contributing to Partnership for Peace initiatives. In Libya, for instance, the MoD has identified areas for targeted assistance that will deliver strategic effect, which was requested by the Libyan authorities. Will my noble friend confirm that with any cuts or reorganisations proposed we will, as far as possible as a nation, continue our support for international stability?
The Armed Forces contribute to UK resilience through their protection and promotion of the UK’s national interests overseas, the provision at home of a number of guaranteed niche capabilities—such as search and rescue and explosive ordnance disposal—and a process of augmenting civil authorities and structures where civil capability or capacity is exceeded. When the military augments civil capability, it will be in response to specific requests for planned response or to a crisis.
The important point is that military operations overseas and augmentation of civil authorities at home are not guaranteed, as they are dependent on the capabilities and availability of troops to undertake such work. Those deciding the size and shape of the UK’s Armed Forces must take their vital operational roles into account when making decisions on the Armed Forces’ future strengths and capabilities. Overall, if the military is to be reduced in size and capability, the roles that it is expected to undertake must be similarly reviewed and adjusted so that they do not exceed the capabilities available to undertake them. But in making those decisions, which my noble friend referred to in passing, we must decide what the priorities are. When there are so many calls, one must decide on the priorities.
Other noble Lords have not yet spoken about what Britain wants from its military communications. What do we want in terms of our satellite technologies? Will we replace the current fleet of communications satellites? When I investigated it, I found that so much of what the Army, Navy and Air Force do is utterly dependent on the new communications technologies that have emerged and are emerging and may well need to be replaced. We know of the Army we have but we have to decide on the Army we need. We know of the weapons and equipment that we have—the Minister detailed these and the new weapons and equipment that are coming on line—but are these what we will need for conflicts which may or may not take place?
I was going to talk about the reserves and the territorials but there was a good debate last week which covered that issue in great detail. However, there were press reports today—in at least one newspaper—of the problems of people who wish to serve in the territorials and whether their employers will give them time off and so on. It is a real problem because many commercial firms do not want the upset of people leaving after being called—at times without warning—to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan or wherever it may be.
I refer finally to the Armed Forces Act and the Armed Forces covenant contained within it. I spoke in detail at various stages during the debate on that Bill and, given what we owe our members of the Armed Forces, we have to ensure that their housing is suitable and adequate for those returning to this country. The Minister referred to that in passing. There are problems with how the properties have been leased and maintained. We owe a tribute to those people and should provide them with proper housing. Indeed, we have a duty in terms of how we treat our veterans. I have spoken in the House on a number of occasions on the issue of their medals and whether we can allow members of the Armed Forces to accept medals from other nations, such as Commonwealth nations. I hope that we will discuss that issue as well. The Minister referred to the Armed Forces Act and the Armed Forces covenant and how they will be reviewed. In that review we have to consider the ways in which we are failing as well as the ways in which we are succeeding. We owe a duty to those who fight for us and stand for us in the Armed Forces.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, for arranging this debate. He has been most assiduous in keeping your Lordships’ House aware of defence issues and this is yet another example of that. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, to her new responsibilities. She has proved to be an excellent Front-Bench spokesman on other subjects and I am sure that that she will be equally good, or better even, on this subject, of which she has much background knowledge.
In this Remembrance Week, many families and friends of the fallen will be thinking of their loved ones—loved ones who served in the two world wars and in a variety of combat operations since 1945. Along with many others, I shall be honouring their memory next Sunday as I march past the Cenotaph with the Not Forgotten Association contingent, of which I am the senior president. While the majority who served in the two world wars or on national service were called up, causalities in more recent conflicts were volunteers. They joined the Armed Forces as a career choice, accepting that in the course of their service they could be exposed to real danger. Public support for Remembrance Sunday, as in your Lordships’ House, is thankfully large.
The recovery of the Falklands following Argentina’s invasion was ultimately a matter for combat operations and, importantly, enjoyed overwhelming national support. However, I fear that our more recent efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have not enjoyed the same national understanding or backing. Many reasons are suggested for this. The rationale for committing so much treasure, for sacrificing so much in lost lives and limbs, and for continuing over so many years—double the years that it took us to win through in World War I and World War II—is complex, difficult to explain simply and difficult for the public to grasp. But unlike with the world wars or even the Falklands, it is not easy to engender a sense of real tactical successes or even ultimate victory. Media coverage is largely confined to reporting casualties in Afghanistan, and much more needs to be done about that. Minds are now focusing on getting out of Afghanistan, and hopefully enough will have been done by the coalition to enable Afghanistan to look after itself.
However, the so-called war against terror has yet to succeed. There are limits to the contribution that military forces can make in the fight against terrorism. The enemy is not like a state, which is a geographic entity. It can and does threaten from many widely dispersed areas and in numerous different forms. This presents Governments with far more difficult choices for the involvement of their forces in support of other diplomatic and political initiatives.
The current approach is based on two incompatible assumptions. On the one hand there is the size of the financial commitment to defence, not just for day-to-day functioning but also for the future size and shape involving programmes that take many years to realise. For shorthand, let me characterise this as a commitment of 2% of GDP. The other assumption, now shown to be incompatible with the first one, is that the Armed Forces are to be structured to meet a certain level of immediate and ongoing enduring commitments without an honest costing of what that might mean for defence funds.
Most telling now is the number of criticisms of the MoD and Government by coroners dealing with inquests about the lack of life-saving equipment or inappropriate kit for the tasks expected of the casualty. This serves to highlight the mismatch in the public’s mind—their perception of a mismatch between the 2% GDP and what capabilities can be procured and operated on an enduring basis with such funds. Ministers would do well, if the 2% of GDP is not to be increased, to realise the risks of relying on urgent operational requirements and backing from the contingency fund in future engagements. They must never lose sight of the fact that those who will fight for them are volunteers who are prepared to pay the ultimate sacrifice. So service men and women have a right to reasonable expectations that they will get not only political and moral support but the right equipment in the right place at the right time when they are ordered into conflict in a war of choice.
There are two other particular constraints that do not seem to figure as strongly as they should, and attract little or too little attention in the ability of our Armed Forces to take on new operational commitments. The first is that no matter how much current equipment—ships, aircraft or armour—has advanced in hitting power and accuracy, these improvements provide no recompense for meeting geographically widespread commitments.
Noble Lords will recall the endless arguments about frigate/destroyer numbers over the years. My first exposure to this was half a century ago when a force of at least 55 of these ships was deemed to be the absolute minimum. Without going through each of the soon-to-be-breached irreducible minimums in defence reviews in the intervening years, we now expect to stand up a mere 19 of such vessels. Of course, each of the 19 will be more powerful than any of their predecessors, but you cannot cut any of the 19 in two to spread the coverage on worldwide commitments. The Falklands guard ship, the Caribbean drug-busting task force, combating piracy in the Indian Ocean and safeguarding the deterrent are just a few examples of worldwide enduring commitments, as of course are training and ship repair schedules. These could leave too little available for mounting any wars of choice with a maritime contribution. Air power has the flexibility and reach to move rapidly afar, but it, too, can become overcommitted on enduring operations, as we have experienced in the combat air support of Afghanistan—and that was before the most recent cull of front-line fast-jet numbers.
Another factor that has a bearing on numbers is the risk of losses in combat. Since the Falklands, our forces have been fortunate to operate in benign or near-benign air environments. Consequently, losses to opponents have been non-existent or very small. It would be all too facile to assume that future operations would take place in a benign air environment, with no serious loss of ships or aircraft or other major equipment. Experience in the Falklands against an enemy of only limited air power capability cost us dearly, particularly in ships sunk or badly damaged.
Losses in a fight with a better equipped enemy than we have had to face in the past two decades could be infinitely more serious today. Indeed, the very limited cover we might be able to mount for a carrier task force, particularly as we now lack the protection of any maritime patrol capability, could restrict its use to operations facing benign threats and an opposition without any serious strike capability. The Exocet type of threat has not gone away.
A defence budget of only 2% of GDP, which will include the replacement boats for the nuclear deterrent—requiring 25% or more of the equipment budget during the peak stages of that programme—has to be the driver for calculating the variety and mix of short or enduring capabilities that the Armed Forces could mount. This must be constantly reviewed so that Ministers are able to reach judgments on the use of the Armed Forces in the expected threat environment. What this produces must be the yardstick used by Ministers before embarking on any future war of choice.
Surely it should be part of the military covenant that our young men and women are sent on combat operations only when adequately armed and equipped for the task. It should not be acceptable that they have only additional support from the contingency fund but do not have the strength and depth of equipment and back-up for losses in conflict. Such losses cannot be made good overnight, no matter how much money is thrown at them. Unless Ministers are guided in this way, there will be more avoidable casualties in the nation’s thoughts on future Remembrance Sundays.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, with whom I had the pleasure of working for a considerable period of time when he was Chief of the Defence Staff.
As the noble and gallant Lord was speaking about the present state of the equipment programme and the facilities and funds that are available to my noble friend the Minister—which he set out very clearly and fairly in his speech, for which I and the House thank him—I was thinking about the criticisms that were made in our time of what was called Options for Change, and the facilities and the range of manpower, equipment and, in the Navy, platforms that were then available, but what we had was positively lavish compared to the situation now, after Frontline First and the various other proposals that followed it.
We listened with great interest to the Minister’s speech. These are very challenging times for the Ministry of Defence. He has inherited an extremely difficult situation, with a huge deficit on the budget. We are told that that has now been met. I congratulate the Secretary of State, the Minister and his colleagues if that has really been achieved and we certainly wish that result well and hope that it will stand the test of time.
I rise to speak on this occasion which, as other noble Lords have said, comes so close to Remembrance Sunday. I noticed in my post today, and other noble Lords will no doubt have received it, the annual report of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which offers the clearest reminder of the sacrifice that so many have made for the security of our country over the years.
As we remember these tragedies of the past, it is always said—the Prime Minister said it in introducing the commemoration of 1914 which will come in 2014 and in which the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and I will have some involvement—that we must learn the lessons of each war and hope that they will perhaps prevent future wars. It was said that the 1914-18 war would be “the war to end all wars”, but, some 20 years later, we found ourselves at war again. The phrases often used are “wars of necessity” or “wars of choice”. I do not think that anybody would challenge that 1939 was a war of necessity, a war for civilisation against Hitler and the Nazis, who threatened the stability of the whole world at that time. After that war, we saw Korea; we saw Malaya—I was myself involved in the Mau Mau incident in Kenya—but, after that, there was a period of relative calm. It was not a very happy time perhaps, with the Cold War and nuclear deterrence, but it was a time of relative peace, certainly compared to the situation in more recent years. The world was divided into spheres of influence, the Soviet bloc and the western powers, and a certain policing took place at that time.
As people looked then at the old war memorials, I remember them seeming less relevant. A lot of people wondered whether the modern generation would be prepared to go and fight for Queen and country, to endure the hardships and sufferings that in the First and Second World Wars had been so manifest and memorable. Subsequent events have given the clearest possible answer to that. There was the continuity of service and conduct of our Armed Forces over 30 years or more in Northern Ireland during that time of great difficulty in fighting terrorism in that Province and in this country. There was then the Falklands war, mentioned by the noble and gallant Lord, and the liberation of Kuwait. Those events showed that there was nothing wrong with the new generation of our young men serving in the Armed Forces and that they were every bit as capable as their forebears of showing fortitude, endurance and good humour—so manifestly displayed most recently, as many have said, at the Olympics, but obvious to anybody who meets them in the front line or in any other of the active service activities in which they are involved.
They are ready to serve and they do their duty, but, for us, there is another question: have we always done our duty? Have we always shown the fullest responsibility before we call on the willingness of the young people of this country to serve? I come back to my distinction between “wars of necessity” and “wars of choice”. I accept the necessity of our initial involvement in Afghanistan and the absolute commitment to deal with the challenge of al-Qaeda and bin Laden—I say with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, that it was not the challenge of the Taliban at the time—and to make sure that Afghanistan did not become a training ground and a base for terrorist activity in other parts of the world.
I would have thought that that has been pretty magnificently achieved. I think that al-Qaeda would now find any attempt to relive its previous occupation of Afghanistan extremely difficult after all the suffering that it has brought on that country. I certainly think that it was essential to go in, in the first phase, to deal with that threat, but we have now been there for 11 years. We commemorate a Great War that lasted four years and a Second World War that lasted six, if one includes Japan, but we have had 11 years in Afghanistan.
I echo something that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, said: there is a very heavy responsibility on the Government and on leaders in all parties—the bipartisan situation we inherited from the previous Government carried on by the present Government—to ensure that people understand why they are serving there and what is the objective. There are many people who have served here in your Lordships’ House. One cannot think of a nastier campaign to be involved in than when you face not the ordinary, what you might call conventional war but suicide bombers or IEDs; when you never know whether the next step you take down the track will be the end of you or the loss of two or more of your limbs; where you now have the ghastly prospect of the people you are trying to train, who are serving with you in uniform, killing you in turn.
That is a very demanding challenge. When we consider the people who have laid down their lives in the service of their country in Afghanistan, those who have suffered grievous injuries—there is a new phrase that I had not heard before called life-changing injuries—and, to come, post-traumatic stress of one form or another, there is no doubt that there will be big challenges to meet.
I believe that the objectives of Afghanistan have effectively been achieved. It is obviously important that the move which the Prime Minister has announced, which I strongly support—the gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan—is achieved with honour and great care. I fancy that it will not be achieved without great difficulty, not least with the question of withdrawing equipment from those territories, but that should be done.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, referred to the problems of equipment. If we have a duty, it is our duty to ensure that, if we ask our forces to embark on campaigns or undertakings of one sort or another that are deemed necessary by the Government and the nation, they are properly equipped, properly trained and have good leadership. In that, I make a plea to both previous Prime Ministers and the present one. It is not impressive if your Secretary of State for Defence changes every year. Our forces are entitled to see that that position is given seniority in the Cabinet and a measure of continuity. No business could run with the leader, the boss, changing every year.
I understand entirely why the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, was guilty of one departure ahead of time. We respect that it was important for the United Kingdom that he should go to be Secretary-General of NATO, but he will know that, more recently, we had five Secretaries of State for Defence in five years. For difficult reasons, as the House knows, we have already had one change under this Government. I hope that there will now be real determination to get some continuity so that people can know who their Secretary of State is and see the leadership that they expect.
On top of that, and this has already been mentioned, if we have a duty to those who serve, we have a duty to their families who encourage them to serve, and we have a duty to those who have served. The importance of the covenant, to which the Government have given suitable prominence, must be fully seen through. The challenge will be great. That covenant will apply not just to serving forces and the Regular Forces; the biggest challenge that the Government will face in maintaining the numbers that we need for our defence is how we are to get reservists of the right calibre and ability to serve. It is much more challenging than it used to be when the TA was a much more part-time activity. Asking people in the TA and others to go for six months —to be taken out of their businesses, as the noble Lord said, and to be willing to serve in that way—will be a major challenge but they must be made part of the military family in every possible way, so that every encouragement is given to that service.
We owe a great debt to those who have served and we shall recognise it this week, on Sunday, but our debt is not just to remember those who have fallen. It is to try to ensure that those who have served already have not died in vain and that the lessons are learnt for us in the future in the most serious way.
My Lords, it is indeed an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord King, in this debate. Unsatisfactory though the circumstances have been that created the space for the debate, I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor, for securing this topic. I am sure that there must have been some competing issues but to have secured this very important topic for a debate, which is not timed, enables those who are able to do so to contribute and is very welcome. I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to this debate too. I remember well that when the noble Baroness joined the House, defence was one of the issues that she first picked up. I look forward to working with her in the future and wish her much success.
We are in a week when the country and the nation come together to pay honour and respect and, somehow, to pay the due debt that we have to those who have fallen in the wars that our Armed Forces have taken part in. That is very much manifest in the poppy that we all, rightly, wear. It is a way of recognising the enormous price that so many of our citizens have paid. Within the various ceremonies taking place this year there are still many hundreds of war widows who, throughout the rest of their lives, have paid the price for their loved ones having fallen in defence of this country. They are joined now by young widows—widows of an age that we all hoped, as in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord King, that we would not be faced with. However, we are because of the unsafe world that we live in. Perhaps I should declare an interest: I am vice-president of the War Widows Association and very proud of the work that the association has done. They have not forgotten the debt that their loved ones are owed by the nation over the years.
We are reminded regularly in this House of the price that our Armed Forces continue to pay in defence of the realm and in carrying out the responsibilities that we give them. At home in the south-west last Friday night, we had on television the service from a tiny church in a small village in Cornwall where people came together to pay respects to Corporal David O’Connor, a young man from 40 Commando who had had three tours of duty in Afghanistan. He was 27, having been killed at the peak of his young life. We were also reminded of the increasing contribution of women to our Armed Forces because when he met his death, alongside him was Corporal Channing Day of 3rd Medical Regiment. She was out there to help and support our service personnel. As we know, our medical people do not just serve those personnel; any civilians who need their help get it. She was aged 25. It is a hell of a price that those young people are paying, day in and day out, in the service of this country.
The nation respects our Armed Forces. That is brought home continually now, not just by the remembrance services that we have but in the other interaction that the Armed Forces have. It is good that they are able to return to their home towns as a regiment in their uniforms. I welcome that. It is good that they come into Parliament in their uniforms and are welcome and respected; we can pay our thanks to them. As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, mentioned, we also turn to them for help when civil services fail, whether that is because of foot and mouth disease, a firefighters’ strike or indeed the Olympics. I am sure that I am not alone in saying that there was an almost tangible sigh of relief nationally when we were told that the Armed Forces were going to work on security. They were not the backstop; they were the security of first choice for many people in this country, and what a proud job they did for us.
They know when they sign up that they are not going to make a fortune; they know when they take that choice that the ultimate prize could be paid. They know the ultimate sacrifice that they are going to make, but in exchange for that they are given to understand that they have security, stability, welfare support and a cohesive force—whether their regiment, their ship or, in the RAF, their group—that works together. The Armed Forces do not work as individuals but as groups. That is a topic that I shall return to later on in my contribution.
The Armed Forces also expect that when they are on operations, their families will be treated properly. It is the issue of families that I would particularly like to cover today. They also expect that, if they pay the ultimate price, their employer—the nation—will do good by their dependants who are left behind.
The service covenant, which we have had a number of debates on in this House, is a good policy commitment and has good intentions, but we are very short of delivering. I welcome very much the words that I believe were sincerely given by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Astor, today, about plans in the coming months. Our Armed Forces are pretty straightforward in their view, and I can hear them now saying in my ear, as they used to when I chaired the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body, “We’ve heard it all before. Come on, start delivering in the areas where you haven’t delivered”. And there is quite a list of those areas.
I have spoken to some personnel in preparation for this debate. The big issue now for them, and this is referred to in this year’s Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body report, is the uncertainty and the insecurity that they feel about the future—where are they going to live and what is the housing going to be like? Nearly 40% of complaints to the forces’ family federations are about housing—the quality of it, the lack of choice and where people are going to be. This issue has been ongoing for a number of years and does not lie just with the present Government, but it will be exacerbated by the fact that we have personnel returning from Germany.
I gather that we now have a situation where, although people may be in one group in one of the three services, they are not all going to be able to live in the same area. I heard of one case of three commanding officers of the same group living in entirely different areas. In such cases you lack cohesion but, more importantly for the families, it is then very difficult to give welfare support when the serving personnel are off on operations. It is difficult, for instance, to bring military wives together to enjoy life and give each other moral support while their spouses are away serving their country. Probably for the first time, this year the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body referred to low morale in some areas, which it is very concerned about. I hope that it will be following up on that in its report next year.
A two-year pay freeze does not help in any situation. When you are putting a lad or a girl on a plane to go and fight for their country in Afghanistan and possibly pay the ultimate price, as quite a number of them have done, it does not particularly help for them to be told, “By the way, we really recognise what you’re doing but you’re not going to get any pay increase for the next two years”. Our Armed Forces should be treated differently from the rest of us in this country. Why? Because we have the covenant which says that the country will look after them. They do not have the option of just walking away, as so many other people would if they found it difficult.
A small number of the redundancies which have already been referred to were very badly handled. The problem is that that poor handling radiates out through huge numbers in the Armed Forces. The 16-year rule on pensions is that if you have been there 16 years and leave, at a certain age you can then get some of your pension. To be made redundant a few weeks before 16 years and therefore not getting it is pretty cack-handed. I do not believe that it was done deliberately—well, I hope it was not—but we must be careful of it.
On housing, in the previous Budget £100 million was announced for the upgrading of housing: £100 million in, £140 million—I gather—taken out for the upgrading of housing for 2013-15. It does not make sense. They can see through this. None of it helps the cohesion that we are looking for. A family which has been overseas in the Armed Forces cannot get a credit rating when they come back. They cannot get a mortgage. They cannot go and buy a car on hire purchase like the rest of us. They cannot buy big items, because they do not have a credit rating. The banks should be called in to help in that situation. It is not that they have been off somewhere doing nothing at all. They have been working for their country, and we should address that.
Along with the changes in their pension scheme that I mentioned, all this creates uncertainty. I very much welcome what the Minister said in his opening speech, that we will have some policy announcements over the coming months. However, they must have timelines with them. It is not good enough just to say, “This is our policy”. The policies have to be delivered. They cannot give with one hand and take with the other. When the Minister replies, please can she respond to the points about morale, which is an issue?
The austerity measures in the country do not give the Government an opt-out on the responsibility that they carry for all of us to our Armed Forces. They are a special case. No Government can ask us in a debate here to take note of their contribution and then walk away from that responsibility. One or two quotes have been given around the period of remembrance we are in at the moment. One that always strikes home to me is, “Lest we forget”. We forget at our general peril if we do not face up to our responsibility to our Armed Forces and their families.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever for bringing this debate to us today. I, too, add my welcome to my noble friend Lady Garden to the Front Bench; I have been working with her on the Front Bench in the past two years, but this is her coming home to a subject that she knows so well and a life that she has been part of for some years.
It is thanks to the contribution of the Armed Forces that I am able to stand here today and speak, a free-born English woman, a citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and, I am delighted to say, a member of the All-Party Defence Studies Group that is so ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, where she managed to bring the leaders of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to us so that we, in our ignorance, can learn and understand better what is needed. I fully echo her words today, certainly on those things which are needed for the families.
I come from the seafaring city of Plymouth in Devon. My family has fought, fished or traded for over 400 years. We face seaward, so it is with the Royal Navy that I am mainly familiar. I grew up during the Second World War in a frightening, fighting city of sailors, marines and commandoes; a city where the women ran everything ashore while their men were away at sea. This debate has provoked keen memories for me, including of standing as a little girl on the cliffs at Mount Batten, of the marine bands on Plymouth Hoe and of waiting to see our mighty ships, some of which were battered and scarred, arrive home. I watched with my mother in the crowded dockyards as thousands of men, some of whom were badly injured, came down the gang-planks with anxious eyes searching for loved ones. What homecomings those were. Union Street teamed with sailors on shore leave who were scooped up by Black Marias at midnight to be taken back to the safety of their ships.
I remember my grandmother’s sitting room. It was a very special room and we did not go in it very often. But when we did, that was where the pictures of the men of the family who had died in action were honoured. My grandmother talked with pride of the men our family had given while fighting for their country. As children, she told us the tales of their brave actions and showed us the maps. Geography meant something to us and we never forgot it.
Between 1939 and 1945, the enemy bombing raids searched out Plymouth docks and they devastated our city. Little of it was left, but our port was safe, the seas were ours and the war was won. The skies had become a battleground for new aircraft, and submarines, soon to be nuclear, gave us new access to our sea. It was our nation’s leaders, our Armed Forces, our use of strategy and, above all, our inventiveness and technology that brought us through. They were very different days from those of Drake and Nelson, and these are different days from Cunningham and Leach.
Britain is a maritime trading nation. I have spent 10 years on the board of the Port of London Authority and I know that more than 90% of our exports and imports come via the sea. In World War II, we would have starved if the Navy had not been able to protect at least some of our merchant fleet. Much of our prosperity depends on the free movement of goods and resources across the oceans. Deployed globally, the Royal Navy is constantly driving forward our interests worldwide. It has the capacity to inflict violence on the enemy through recently used effects, such as naval gunfire support. But, probably just as influential, and certainly more enduring, is the constant development of wider regional relationships in every port of call—from the Caribbean to the Far East and from South America to the Baltic Sea.
However, much of what the Royal Navy does goes unseen and unheard as it works thousands of miles from home in distant waters. This lack of day-to-day visibility has inexorably led to a certain amount of “sea blindness” within the general public as they become increasingly divorced from any association with our maritime activities. I thank the Minister very much for the new Armed Forces day, which I believe will start next year on 29 June. I will encourage every parent and grandparent to take their children along so that they can learn and understand what our forces are doing everywhere.
This naval blindness is unfortunate because not only is the naval contribution to our collective well-being a world-wide effort, there are increasing demands on our sailors much closer to home, whether it is the 11th-hour failure of private security companies for the Olympics or threats of strike action by fuel tanker drivers or prison officers. As we have already heard from my noble friend Lord Palmer and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, the Armed Forces stand ready to step in and are becoming increasingly the nation’s insurance policy.
These emerging demands place even more strain on our sailors. While they are used to being away for long periods, they quite rightly expect a level of stability when they are back at home. Ships are generally deployed overseas for six months in every 18 months. However, preparations and training for the next operation start as soon as a unit returns.
As our country moves out of recession, our national prosperity and freedoms are increasingly vulnerable to events across the globe. The Royal Navy is uniquely able to respond in a variety of ways in line with the Government’s intent. With 40 Commando fighting in Afghanistan, as I speak, and many other naval personnel also on the front line, from airborne surveillance to bomb disposal, the contribution of the Royal Navy to United Kingdom interests is undeniable. To maintain this contribution, a wide range of capabilities will be required for the foreseeable future, from the soft effect of a warship visiting a far-flung port to develop partnerships to the higher-end war-fighting skills that are likely to be needed to ensure the freedom of movement for shipping should global events take a turn for the worse.
I welcome this debate as a means of highlighting the ongoing resolve of our Armed Forces to meet our existing and emerging commitments, at home and abroad, and to be prepared for whatever contingent activities may be required in areas such as the Arabian Gulf and the eastern Mediterranean. I am truly grateful for the freedom to speak here today, in this time of remembrance, to remember those men and women of our Armed Forces who died so that we may continue to live in safety in these green and pleasant lands, and I commend our Government for trying to do all that they can to shape and equip our Armed Forces for the future safety of us all.
I start by endorsing the tributes that have already been made in this House to our Armed Forces. I know, as everybody in this House knows and I hope the country knows, that those tributes are not ritualistic but deeply felt on both sides of the House.
I also thank the Minister for giving us this opportunity. He is extremely conscientious and serious in his duties to the House, and he has done very well by the House today in getting us this opportunity. I am not going to allow my great respect for the Minister to muzzle the things that I am about to say, but I want to say at the outset how much we appreciate that. I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to her new role on the Front Bench. Those of us who knew him, and all of us today, will be very sad that her husband, who had one of the most brilliant and original military minds that I have ever encountered, cannot be with us this afternoon to see her there, sitting on the Front Bench with those new defence responsibilities.
I am going to be very frank, because the situation requires frankness. The state of our Armed Forces is very depressing and worrying. All the serving officers and men whom I have had the opportunity to speak to recently—it so happens that I have not had the opportunity to speak to any servicewomen recently—are all of one accord. They say that morale is worse than it has been for at least 20 years, since the excessive cuts undertaken by the previous Conservative Administration in the 1990s, to which the noble Lord, Lord King, has already referred. In parenthesis, I may say that I opposed those cuts at the time in a pamphlet called Facing the Future, which I published jointly with a number of then Conservative Back-Bench colleagues, including Andrew Robathan and Julian Brazier. My views on defence have not changed since they were expressed in that pamphlet.
I used to think that the Conservative Party among all British political parties was the one with the best understanding of the importance of defence and the greatest sympathy for the needs of our Armed Forces. That was certainly true when I joined the Tory Party in 1974 and remained indubitably true, in my view, for quite a number of years after that. But in the 1990s, I began to wonder whether that was still true, and I wondered even more when I read the Defence White Paper of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, in 1998. It is very difficult indeed to imagine that anybody would come to the conclusion that it is true today.
As the Minister said, the Government have made some tough choices; the trouble is that in my view those choices were completely wrong. For example, the Government decided to continue to give India £300 million in aid a year, a country that is building aircraft carriers and buying aircraft to fly off those carriers, while deciding that we could not afford to have a carrier strike force at all for the next 10 years. I think that was profoundly wrong. It might have been tough but it was absolutely wrong and a betrayal of the national interest. The Government have produced a situation in which our Army is now being reduced by 20%. That means that we can now deploy on a sustainable basis only something of the order of a brigade—say, 2,000 men and women with full supporting arms, as opposed to the 10,000 we have deployed in Afghanistan for many years past. That is a good example of the negative gearing effect of cutting your defence forces. I fear that our defence forces have now been cut to a point where they would simply not be able to respond to a whole range of all too easily conceivable scenarios.
The other problem with doing this is that you send quite the wrong signal to those people around the world who might be tempted to breach the international peace or even have designs on our own territory. I do not suppose for a moment that the Argentinians are at this moment planning to attack the Falklands. Cristina Fernández or Cristina Kirchner—I do not know which she prefers to be called—has said that she wishes to resolve the matter peacefully, but aggressors always have a way of saying at the outset that they intend to resolve the problem peacefully. I equally have no doubt at all that the raising of this issue in Argentina, and the terms in which it has been raised over the past couple of years, has not been coincidental. It is not unlinked to the fact that it is now clear that for 10 years we will not have a carrier strike force which would be required if ever the Argentinians succeeded in taking over the Falklands again. We would now be incapable of retaking the Falkland Islands in the way we did in 1982. It is a very serious matter which the whole country needs to take very seriously. That is why I am not muzzling the words that I am using this afternoon, as I believe that they are entirely justified.
The question arises of what you do about a situation like that. It is very easy for me to say, “Vote Labour at the next election and get rid of this awful Government”. I have said that and will continue to say it. However, I recognise that in reality you cannot entirely go back. It would be absurd to make a promise that we could entirely reverse the cuts that have been introduced and go back to square one. You can never entirely go back in history; we all recognise that. We need to think very carefully about what we do to try to make sure that we have the means to continue to make a positive contribution to the world’s peace. As several speakers have mentioned —I would say almost a majority of those who have spoken on both sides of the House this afternoon—we have played a decisive part in that in these many operations and difficulties over the past 60 or 70 years since the Second World War.
As I contemplate this matter, I think increasingly that the solution must be to do something which I know is counterintuitive for some people and would not be welcome to many distinguished members of our Armed Forces, but they might prefer it to having no effective defence at all: that is, to take very seriously the prospect of a European common defence policy. If such a policy is ever to produce any real savings and address the financial issues, which, of course, are real issues, it would have to be based on defence specialisation. You would no longer have everybody, including ourselves, having MBTs, light tanks, reconnaissance vehicles and utility vehicles or large helicopters, medium helicopters, small helicopters and so forth. There would have to be a degree of defence specialisation. That means that you would have to be certain in advance that everybody who was required would be there on the day when you needed to deploy within one coherent command and control system, which, of course, requires common foreign policy. These things are difficult pills to swallow for a lot of people and impossible, I think, for the Conservative Party because it is incapable of taking rational, pragmatic decisions on this subject as it is so imprisoned by its own emotional and ideological opposition to anything European.
Yes, indeed. First, it would not be a common defence force in the sense that you would have people from different countries serving in the same unit. That would be absurd. However, a common defence policy would require a guarantee on the part of all the other members of the EU with regard to all our domestic territories, including overseas territories. That would apply to the French, the Dutch and others who have overseas territories. That would be an essential part of the deal. I have no doubt about that at all. The noble Lord realises that that raises all sorts of issues but all of us need to look at these matters with a greater degree of realism because the alternative is impotence. We will all be spending a lot. The total defence spending in the European Union is in the order of about €200 billion, which sounds a lot but is very small compared with the United States. It must be something like a quarter of the United States defence spending. I cannot get the arithmetic completely right while speaking on my feet but it is a large amount of money. A lot of it is being spent completely ineffectively for the simple reason of the negative gearing effect to which I have already referred. These matters need to be considered. I cannot go into the detail this afternoon but we need to go into the detail on these matters. We need to consider them. I realise that this is considered in some quarters a revolutionary and, indeed, very obnoxious suggestion, but I have put it to the House that the alternative will be impotence, and that cannot be the right solution for Europe as a whole and for the future of a civilised world.
I would like to say a word or two about defence procurement. I say frankly to the Minister that I was pretty astounded by one of the things he said. I am sure that he was loyally mouthing the current government propaganda on the subject; that is what you have to do sometimes when you are a Minister, as I know. He referred to new equipment. I think that he said there would be new submarines, new ISTAR and new helicopters. What did he mean by that? As regards new submarines, as far as I know the Government—thank God—are continuing with the Astute programmes and the Successor-class submarine programme but are delaying both. That is not exactly new equipment. I suppose that by new helicopters the Minister means Wildcat and Chinook. It so happens that I was responsible for promoting, pushing through, negotiating and concluding both those projects. They are not new in any way. Far from adding to them, the Government are actually reducing them. They cancelled 10 of the 22 Chinooks that I ordered, so it is pretty rich to describe that as new equipment and put it to the credit side of the Government. I suppose that by new ISTAR the Minister meant the Predator system, for example, which we bought more of, and Watchkeeper, which again goes back to Labour’s time in office. One needs to be cautious about listening to some of the extraordinary government propaganda that comes out on this subject. We need a reality check from time to time.
We particularly need a reality check as regards the great deficit that the previous Labour Government are supposed to have left behind—the so-called £37 billion or £38 billion black hole. My next comment has been said before but it needs to be said again, because we continue to hear this dreadful piece of black propaganda. There is no such thing as the figures I have mentioned. You get to figures of that kind only if you make two assumptions which you cannot possibly make in good faith. One is that everything on our prospective procurement list would be procured. That never happens. I cancelled several things myself. I cancelled the medium helicopter project in order to finance the Chinooks, as the noble Lord no doubt knows. I cancelled the MARS tanker programme. One is always cancelling things for good military reason and switching to higher priorities in defence procurement.
The second thing which one can accept in good faith even less is the assumption, which has to be made to get to the figure that I have mentioned, that there would have been no cash increase. In other words, there would have been an enormous real-terms reduction in our military budget and our procurement budget for 10 whole years. In fact, the previous Labour Government increased defence spending by 1.5% per annum in real terms after inflation. Although the coalition will hold defence spending within a cash ceiling for the first five years it has always said that in the second five years it would increase the cash spending, so even the coalition is not pursuing a policy which would have led to the £37 billion or £38 billion figure. Therefore, it is time that we ceased to hear about the £37 billion or £38 billion.
I want to say something positive and helpful. I mean that sincerely. I hope it will be in the interests of the country that I say it now. You can always improve the defence procurement process. I think that we did so in my time, working very closely with General Sir Kevin O’Donoghue. We reduced the bureaucracy substantially, particularly the assurance process, and developed new models of open-book co-operation with some of our major defence suppliers, but you can always go further. However, there is one big problem that I identified which I was not able to resolve: namely, that we do not do procurement spending and procurement evaluation on a present-value basis. Noble Lords who have experience in the private sector will know that, in all significant-sized companies, investment appraisal and procurement is done on a present-value basis. In other words, what counts is the present value of the future stream of expenditure or the future return from investment and you compare that present value with alternative approaches or solutions to the same problem. That is not done in defence spending. In defence spending certain amounts of money are allocated to certain years and you have a limit you can spend within a particular year, which means you completely lack flexibility.
I will give the House two examples of where, in my time, we lost hundreds of millions of pounds for no good reason but the existing Treasury rules. One was during the shipping crisis in 2008. I realised that we could probably buy the MARS tankers that we had in the programme for two or three years later very much more cheaply by simply purchasing tankers on the open market rather than building them at enormous expense, which had already been examined and provided for. We had £1.2 billion in the budget for six tankers. I spoke to several shipping brokers and discovered that we could actually buy, on the second-hand market, tankers of the right capacity—30,000 to 50,000 tonnes, capable of refuelling at 15 knots at sea and so forth—for $50 million apiece. If you then spent some money putting on a helicopter pad, one or two bells and whistles, some armaments and so forth, it could not cost you more than $75 million as opposed to the £200 million which we had in the budget for each one of those tankers. It was a no-brainer but I was not allowed to do it. I went to the Treasury and said that we could save public money but it said, “No, no, no, that’s the rules, we can’t do it. Sorry, but you have to wait two or three years”. I told it that in two or three years’ time the shipping market would have revived and we would not be able to get that sort of deal. “Sorry, too bad”, it said.
The same thing happened with the Astute class. I wanted to buy the components and a lot of the systems for Astute-class boats 4. 5, 6 and 7 together in bulk, getting a considerable discount. I was told, “You can’t do it because all these things are allocated to individual years”. I worked up, with the National Audit Office, a proposal for the Treasury to change this and we had meetings with the Chief Secretary, Liam Byrne. I explained all this to my successor, Mr Luff, who was sadly sacked—I do not know quite why—at the recent reshuffle, but nothing has happened about it so I put it on the table now. This is something that needs to be examined. It can be done and I could go into great detail if I had the time. This is an opportunity and prospect which we cannot afford to ignore in the context of any genuine attempt to save public money and provide a more efficient basis for defence procurement.
My Lords, I should start by saying that I work for an American defence company called Curtis Wright. The Wright in Curtis Wright was the Wright brothers. Curtis Wright supplied many fighter aircraft to the US Air Force during the last war. After the war somebody came along and said, “We think you should look very closely at the whole idea of jet propulsion for fighter aircraft”. Curtis Wright looked at it very carefully and said, “No, this is not the answer”. Your Lordships will not be surprised to know that Curtis Wright are not in the production of fighter aircraft any more, but they are involved in a number of other technical areas in defence supply. It is always a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, because—let us face it—he does not lack chutzpah when it comes to defending the actions of the previous Government.
I will deal, firstly, with the question of defence specialisation. This has a certain allure to it because what it means is that different countries in Europe would take over the sole supply of the capability of certain bits of defence. The very obvious answer to that would be that armour should be in the hands of the Germans. If the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, talks to his honourable friend in the other place, Gisela Stuart, who is German, she will tell him that the Germans have become completely pacifist. If we had this arrangement, and we decided we wanted to fight an armoured conflict somewhere, we could not do it because the Germans would not fight. There seem to be enormous problems. The noble Lord says that when this great unification of European forces was put together, they would have to sign up to looking after our colonies. The Spanish are extremely hostile to the idea of us defending the Falklands at all, and I am not sure that they are going to sign up to that in any way. There are enormous shortcomings.
I will move on to the great debate, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, about the size of the deficit inherited by this Government. Was it £37 billion or £38 billion of unfunded procurement over 10 years? Or was it a smaller figure? It must have been a pretty massive figure because otherwise we would not have had the devastating review of our whole procurement programme, cutting out ranges of procurement. The Harriers had to go, as did the maritime patrol aircraft and so forth. That would not have happened if there had not been a very serious problem which this Government had to address. I do not expect the Minister to answer this when she sums up, but perhaps she could write to me about it. Last Tuesday, my noble friend Lord Trefgarne gave lunch to Sir Clive Whitmore, who used to be the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Defence when I was there and in the time of my noble friend Lord King. Clive Whitmore, who understood politicians very clearly, was famous for saying all the time, “I have to remind you, Ministers, that I am the chief accounting officer of the Ministry of Defence, and if you want to spend money you have not got, I want a ministerial override”. As your Lordships know, a ministerial override is something that comes from the Permanent Secretary and has to be signed by a Minister. It basically says that “I, as a Permanent Secretary, advise against this particular procurement because the funds are not available and they have to be signed off by a Minister”.
The final signing off of the aircraft carriers was in 2009. The roof had fallen in on the whole economy, and we had complete disaster in every direction. It was obvious to a child of five that there was going to be no more money coming into the defence budget. At the same time, two aircraft carriers were ordered at a cost of around £5 billion. That was on top of a mass of other equipment which had been ordered but for which there were no funds whatever. What happened in the Ministry of Defence? Why were there no ministerial overrides? We look to our Civil Service to guarantee the continuity and solvency of departments of state. What went wrong that that did not kick in? What provision has now been made in the Ministry of Defence to ensure that this sort of thing does not happen in the future? Perhaps that could be put in a letter. We should be seriously concerned if we reach a position where things are being ordered in this way. This is always going to happen in political life as politicians believe they can buy people’s votes by putting out enormous orders and there could be no better way of buying votes than to have two aircraft carriers being built simultaneously in every shipyard in the country so the largesse could be spread as widely as possible. Why was there not a ministerial override saying, “The funds are not available for this, I therefore do not recommend it, and I am doing it only because I am ordered to by the Minister”?
Perhaps I can help the noble Lord and also defend civil servants whose reputations might otherwise be tarnished by what he has just said. We had the most conscientious and able Permanent Secretary and finance director in my time. There was no ministerial override because there did not need to be one as the carrier programme, like other parts of our programme, was funded and properly provided for within our defence budget.
That no doubt explains why the first thing this Government tried to do when they got in was to cancel the carrier programme, only to find that it could not be cancelled because BAS is very good at tying up such incredibly tight contracts that it would have cost more to cancel than to go ahead with it. I do not totally buy that: there is something seriously wrong here, and I do not think we would have the current difficulties if there had been a few more ministerial overrides in the past. Critics of my right honourable friend, Philip Hammond, the new Secretary of State, say that he is just a number cruncher who does not know anything about defence priorities. He understands very well the first defence priority, which is that you do not order kit if you do not have the money to pay for it. His second priority is balancing the budget, and he therefore takes total care that we are not going to run into any major crisis, such as the one we have experienced recently. His business experience will be valuable, and he is the ideal man to be holding the position of Secretary of State.
It is not just a shambles that we find in the administration of the Ministry of Defence. We used to be able to rely on men in uniform to do the right thing, but what have we seen? We have seen the humiliation of the retreat from Basra, which raises serious questions about the intelligence given to our military commanders before they went in. Was it a complete surprise that the Iranians decided to get involved in all the Shia militias there? The result was that we had to pull out. In terms of safe passage to get back to the airport, we had to do a deal whereby we would not go back in. The Americans were, to put it mildly, dismayed, and eventually the Iraqi Government took the view that such was the appalling shambles left behind in Basra that they had to go in with the Iraqi Army and US Marine Corps. Once they went back in, they certainly sorted out the problems there, and there has not been much of a problem there since.
Almost as a reaction to Basra, the British Army afterwards decided to deploy 3,500 men in Helmand province. What was the intelligence there? Did they not know that the Pashtuns in Helmand loathe all foreigners, and the foreigners they loathe more than any others are the British, because they still have not forgiven us for the wars we fought against them in the 19th century? The result was that we nearly lost that whole force of 3,500 men, but for the fantastic air power provided by NATO, which pulverised all the mud villages in front of it but would not have done an awful lot for hearts and minds in Afghanistan.
I am actually seriously worried about where the Ministry of Defence has gone in the past. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has a serious problem of getting this thing back into some sort of order, both in terms of finances and, I hope, in getting involved in operational matters, because serious problems have been created for which we are paying a hefty price. I wish I could say that I looked to the future with confidence as regards the serious challenges facing my right honourable friend. He has an awful lot of work to do.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever for initiating this debate. I am particularly grateful for his reminder that this debate is wide-ranging, because what I am about to say is not in the mainstream of what has been discussed—so far, certainly.
I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Three weeks ago, we undertook a fact-finding visit to Belfast in connection with the decade of commemoration of the centenary of seminal events that took place in Ireland between 1912 and 1922. In the course of this visit we in the group were impressed by the growing interest on both sides of the border in the contribution of the Irish regiments in the Great War. The history of the 36th Ulster Division is well known and commemorated by the Ulster Tower on the Somme battlefield. Of the two divisions raised in southern Ireland—the 10th and the 16th—much less is known. It became clear in the course of our inquiries that for many nationalist families until very recently the service of great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers in the British Army in the First World War has been treated as a guilty secret never to be discussed and to be airbrushed out of the family history.
My honourable friend Conor Burns, Member of Parliament for Bournemouth West, is a Roman Catholic who was born in Belfast and raised largely in Great Britain. He is a colleague on the British-Irish parliamentary group and kindly agreed that I could quote his family as an example of the ignorance in which younger generations were kept, until very recently, about the service in the British Army of their forbears—in his case, his grandmother’s family, several of whom served in the Army.
However, in the recent past, there has been a perceptible change of attitude. What has caused this? Certainly, the internet has played a part. Records in places such as the National Archives in Kew and Dublin have become more readily accessible, and with the various ancestry search programmes there has been increasing curiosity about family histories, including regarding some aspects previously regarded as taboo. There continues to be research particularly on the five Irish regiments that were disbanded in 1922. In some cases, this has extended to individual battalions. For example, the 6th Connaught Rangers, a Kitchener or New Army battalion, was raised in Catholic west Belfast, and its recruits would have been almost to a man Redmond nationalists. The battalion fought on the Somme with the 16th Irish Division. Its history is the subject of a meticulously researched and well produced book, which in its appendix lists the careers and ultimate destinations of every member of the battalion, many of them sadly killed in action. This is but one of a number of initiatives of this nature in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
This significant change of attitude to a subject treated hitherto as an embarrassment by many an Irish family is part of the transformation of British-Irish relations in recent years. Much credit for this must go to the leadership shown by two successive Presidents of the Republic, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, and continued by President O’Higgins. It of course culminated with the visit to the Republic by Her Majesty the Queen in 2010, the impact of which on the people of Ireland is even now not fully appreciated on this side of the Irish Sea. Tangible evidence of this new outlook is the increase in the number of visitors from the Irish Republic to the battlefields of France and Flanders, in many cases to visit the graves of forbears of whose military history they were previously unaware. The defining moment of the Irish contribution in the Great War came with the Battle of Messines in 1917, when for the first time the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division fought alongside in an action that many military historians regard as the most significant tactical victory in the whole of the Great War.
In the time available, I have not been able to research the detailed statistics of those who served and were killed in the First World War, but about 149,000 volunteered from the whole of Ireland, and just under 30,000 were killed. It is difficult to break down the figures of the war dead from the various provinces, but when one considers that there were one Ulster division and two Irish divisions, it is clear that the suffering must have been fairly widespread throughout the whole of Ireland.
I am very moved by what my noble friend is saying. It so happens that just a few weeks ago I visited the Somme—as I mentioned to him the other day—and was struck by the fact that Irishmen from both sides of what is now the border were standing side by side, with great courage and tenacity, particularly in the July Somme attack, as well as later in the 1914-1918 war. I visited a number of cemeteries because my three uncles were killed during the war, and I was moved when I met young people from both sides of the current Irish border who came together in coachloads to see some of these cemeteries. I entirely endorse what my noble friend is saying, and I am very pleased to be in the House to hear him.
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Tyler for that intervention.
I should also mention that a large number of Irishmen, particularly from the south-east seaboard counties of what is now the Republic, would have served in the Royal Navy. It is against the background of all this that I should say that there was no conscription in any part of the island in either of the two world wars.
This debate, initiated by my noble friend, is timely, coming as it does on the week before Remembrance Sunday. I suggest that it is appropriate, within this debate, to place on record the contribution and sacrifice of so many Irishmen in the Great War, which for far too long has remained largely overlooked. The noble Baroness, Lady Dean, mentioned the phrase, “Lest we forget”. It is particularly comforting that this increasingly embraces the families of many of our friends in the Republic of Ireland at this time.
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Bridgeman. While he was talking, I recalled my visit to some of the cemeteries and memorials when, last year and in the early part of this year, I undertook a most moving walk across Europe to promote the Olympic truce. In January, we arrived at the island of Ireland Peace Park, which is now a memorial on the western front which commemorates the fallen on both sides who came together there. It is now a centre for peace and it will be a focal point for centenary celebrations and commemorations of the First World War. It is a fitting tribute.
I am also privileged to take part in this debate in which immense expertise has been brought to bear. I thank my noble friend Lord Astor for introducing the debate and I welcome my noble friend Lady Garden of Frognal to her role. After the moving speech of my noble friend Lady Wilcox, I wonder whether it is traditional to welcome someone back to the Back Benches but, even if it is not in order, I do so because I thought hers was a particularly moving speech and one that I welcomed.
For me, this debate has hinged on two contributions, one from my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater, and the other from the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. Their contributions have been very significant, particularly the point about the reception that our Armed Forces receive when they return to the United Kingdom. I have had a couple of encounters recently. I was devastated to hear about how people are treated, when in uniform, on their return, having sacrificed so much and given such incredible service. There are two points to this. One is that we need to make a case for the mission, but more fundamentally we need to bear in mind that no member of the Armed Forces has ever gone to war of their own volition. They go to war and engage in conflict because Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government dispatch them to do so. They serve the Executive and they serve the legislature. That point needs to be made. They do not question it; they go out and serve.
That leads to another point, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord King, which is how the military service is doing all that it can and so it behoves us in Parliament to do all that we can to communicate that message and to scrutinise it. I would like to flag up one point before going back to the First World War reminiscences and some comments on the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I do not wish to get into a debate about the rights and wrongs of conflict but I would like to make a more general point about the role of Parliament in making the decision to go to war. That point has been widely debated and there have been significant reports on it by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee in 2004; by a House of Lords committee which produced a report in 2006 called Waging War: Parliament’s Role and Responsibility; and most recently by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons in its eighth report of Session 2010-12. They were all saying that there needed to be a systematic and constitutional way in which Parliament is consulted before forces in this country are deployed. That relates to the prerogative powers and it is a very good thing to do. When that report came out, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, when leader of the Opposition in 2006, said that he felt that in order for there to be trust in MPs, MPs must be consulted before, not after, military forces are deployed overseas. That is a very important principle. I noticed that when the report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was published, there was a debate and the Foreign Secretary said in the House of Commons on 21 March 2011:
“We will also enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/3/11; col. 799.]
That was a strong, clear undertaking and it would be good to get an update from my noble friend on the Front Bench on how that discussion is progressing. Of course, we all appreciate that situations are fast moving and that these are immense issues with which Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State for Defence and Ministers of Defence have to wrestle. I do not envy them for a second but this place should put wisdom, expertise and learning at the disposal of people who make decisions on grave matters as to when to deploy our courageous forces overseas.
I return to the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is my principle theme. This Sunday, I shall return to the Menin Gate, Ypres, where I shall take part in an act of remembrance. I am reminded of the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which, I have to confess, I knew little about until the early part of this year. As I walked from Paris to Arras and on towards Ypres in Belgium, along the western front, and Passchendaele, I saw by the roadside meticulously kept cemeteries, with striking white Portland headstones, commemorating the fallen in the First World War. When I arrived in Ypres on foot in January, there was a very cold snap in continental Europe—it was about minus six and the wind was blowing madly. I met with Ian Hussein, who runs the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in northern France and Flanders. He looks after about 980 war cemeteries across France and Belgium. I also met John Sutherland from the British Legion and Benoit Mottrie, who is the chairman of the Last Post Association, who organised this remarkable event.
Every night, at 8 o’clock local time in Ypres, the Last Post is sounded under the Menin Gate. I was invited to go along and I wanted to go. I was slightly puzzled because it was blowing a gale and absolutely freezing, but none the less I showed support because they were delighted that a parliamentarian happened to be passing through town and could attend. I expected to see a few hardy souls but I saw a few hundred hardy souls. They have turned up every night from 11 November 1929 to sound the Last Post at the Menin Gate memorial in all weathers. The only exception was during the four years of the occupation of Ypres from 20 May 1940 to 6 September 1944, when the daily ceremony was continued in England at the Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey. I went to see that daily act of remembrance, and found it incredibly moving. Perhaps in her closing remarks the Minister might send a message to the citizens and organisers of the Last Post Association, the British Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who undertake to ensure that the sacrifice of 54,000 men around the Menin Gate is remembered.
The day after visiting the Menin Gate, Ian Hussein took me to visit some of the cemeteries, including Tyne Cot. It is one of the largest, where 11,894 soldiers are buried, most in unknown graves because people were trampled into the mud and drowned, such was the hell of the 1917 battle of Passchendaele at Ypres. I struggled to think of the right emotion when faced with this vast sacrifice. Should I feel immense national pride for the service and sacrifice of our courageous Armed Forces, including my great-grandfather and his two brothers? Was that the right emotion? Was it regret at the sacrifice? As I looked around, I came across a plaque recording the words of King George V when he opened the cemetery in 1922. He captured the correct emotions, and I will close my remarks with his words. The King said:
“We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than the massed multitudes of silent witnesses to the desolation of war”.
My Lords, it is always a real joy to follow the noble Lord. He brings a very interesting and important perspective to our deliberations. Like others, I warmly welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden of Frognal, to our debates. She has more than proved herself as a very effective member of the opposition Front Bench and now of the Government. There is also a personal reason for welcoming her, which I am sure she will not mind my mentioning. I was fortunate to get to know well, as a friend, her late husband. I had great affection and admiration for him. He brought tremendous professional experience, as well as a great deal of wisdom and perspective. It is good to see that tradition being followed, even if I might wish that it were being followed from another position.
The noble Lord, Lord Astor, started his characteristically businesslike speech with a very human dimension when he paid a warm tribute to those who had fallen or suffered grievous wounds, and to their families and the bereaved. He was echoed, in what I am sure those of us who heard her will believe was a particularly powerful and moving speech, by my noble friend Lady Dean—speaking again with all her experience of consistent work with the people of the services. It is right that this debate should have that context set out clearly at its beginning. This is indeed remembrance week. All those to whom I referred are the responsibility of every one of us, whether we are in the House of Lords or the House of Commons. We are all responsible, and we must never forget that.
We also have a responsibility to the countless civilians who die in conflict. It must never become acceptable to say—as one American general foolishly did—that we do not do body counts. Every innocent individual who died in conflict is a person who matters every bit as much as the members of our own society. Furthermore, we would be misguided not to realise that that kind of attitude plays inevitably into the hands of the agitator and the extremist. We have to demonstrate consistently our concern for humanity.
War must always be a last resort. We must not slide into a new philosophy in which war becomes an alternative management option. The slide could be accelerated by the development of remote, high-technology warfare techniques. It is easy to talk about collateral damage, but it means individual men, women and children and their relatives. We have to remember all the time that peace and stability cannot be imposed if they are to endure. They have to be built by the people of the regions. Our role is to support those people in finding the right solutions. There is a fatal flaw in the concept that somehow the world can be managed by the powerful. It cannot. The powerful are utterly dependent on solutions rooted in the people of the world who are building their own future.
In all this, hearts and minds—although it is an easy phrase to use—desperately matter. We must be vigilant about the dangers of counterproductivity. I will spell out one issue that increasingly preoccupies me. We talk about how we are defending the rule of law. That should be demonstrable all the time. What is the significance of that in the trend—I hope that I do not oversimplify—of rendition, of Guantanamo Bay, and now of drones? Are they not a means of circumnavigating the rule of law? Are they not a means in the end, if we are not careful, of not only accepting but utilising the technique of extrajudicial killing?
If we are about the rule of law, we are about the operation of systems that can be seen to be totally in line with that principle. Of course, the same can be said about torture and the mistreatment of prisoners. They are wrong and obscene—but also counterproductive because they play into the hands of the extremists who are orchestrating those on the other side. It is another easy thing to say in this House, but we have to be consistent, in the midst of all the acute human pressures on our service men and women, and on those in the security services, in demonstrating that they are upholding something different, and that we are about something different.
I hope that noble Lords will allow me to indulge in personal memories. One of the privileges of my political life—I really enjoyed the experience—was that in my first full ministerial post I was one of the last Ministers to be responsible on a dedicated basis for the Navy. We had service Ministers in those days. I am not sure what I was able to contribute, but I learnt one hell of a lot and I came to admire the services greatly.
In those days, a group that fascinated me was called “the future shape of the fleet group”. I am not sure whether it still exists in one form or another. I used to tease them in conversation and say, “You guys should go off to a country house somewhere with a blank sheet of paper. Forget about all the involvements in which we find ourselves, all the equipment and arrangements that we have inherited. Analyse what the real threats are and then say what we need in the United Kingdom to meet those threats and counter them”. Then, of course, as realists we come back to what we have inherited. We see how we can make the best and most constructive compromise between that and what we should ideally have, and we see how we can move forward in the most effective way. I am sure that that is as true as ever.
If we are making predictions about the future, two things are fairly obvious. First, that as we shall always operate within an international context we should constantly ask ourselves how far our personnel are being prepared for international operations in their training and education. How important a part does language play in training and education? The quintessence of the high-flying officers should be an ability to make a contribution at the centre and to be at a premium when they get back to their own service with that experience of the centre. Do we have that culture? I hope the Minister can reassure me. It is a struggle constantly to achieve it, but it is vital.
Secondly, we can predict that intelligence and security operations of a different kind will always be indispensable. We must always realise the importance of good intelligence and analysis in making the work of our services effective. Of course, those services themselves must all the time demonstrate in the way that they operate a commitment to something that is different from the evil forces that we are combating.
I finish with a couple of more immediate observations. One is that as a former Minister responsible for the Navy, I can see that in the future we will need flexibility and the ability to deploy rapidly. We will need independent, freestanding bases from which to conduct operations of that kind. Therefore, carriers are absolutely indispensable in the future. We can argue about how sophisticated they need to be and we can certainly all agree that they are useless unless we have the appropriate aircraft to operate from them. But the carriers are indispensable to our future if we are serious about international co-operation in security and the rest.
I hope that I can be forgiven for being a bit of a Greek chorus here. I have never been able to reconcile our analysis that they would be absolutely indispensable in 10 years’ time and our present security situation that meant for 10 years we did not have that capability. That is absolutely inexplicable. I do not hold the present Government solely responsible: it is a collective responsibility that we should face in that context.
I have never been a unilateralist: I have always been a multilateralist. In the imperfect world in which we live, I accept and endorse that there has had to be a nuclear deterrent. But I also recognise that one of the most important elements in a sound defence strategy is the cause of disarmament. The less armed the world is, the less likely severe conflict will be as long as one’s arms are concentrated on the real security task. We do not want lots of surplus arms circulating around the world and we do not want to encourage proliferation in any form of arms.
We need to remember that when the non-proliferation treaty was achieved, a solemn pledge was given by the existing nuclear powers that they would embark on a programme of consistent and demonstrable nuclear disarmament. As we move into the next generation of deterrent, how do we reconcile that commitment with what we are doing? If in an imperfect world we take the approach that we have to have a nuclear capability for the time being, why are we talking about perfecting and increasing our nuclear capability? There are all sorts of ways of maintaining a nuclear capability—God forbid that we should ever have to contemplate using it—that would not be as costly and extravagant as the one on which we are embarked.
I know that there will be honestly held different views and I can see my noble friend Lord Robertson, for whom I have unlimited regard, dissenting from my analysis very strongly. Of course he brings a great deal of personal experience in the very directions in which I have been arguing in my remarks tonight, so I take his objections seriously. But we must beware of drifting into an inevitability of a self-generating expense when there are so many other pressures on our defence system that desperately need proper financing. There is nothing worse than putting people in defence in situations in which they are not properly sustained and supported. That therefore means that we must look very sharply all the time at the disproportion and immense cost involved in this form of next-generation nuclear weapon.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I believe that I was still serving when he was Navy Minister, and I assure him that he made a great contribution. He was an excellent Minister. However, I dissent from his views about the Trident replacement, which I hope will happen in the near future. Steps are being taken along those lines as we speak. I do not think that my comments are necessarily always welcomed by my own side.
I wish to pay tribute to Sir Nicholas Harvey who, unfortunately, in the recent reshuffle, has been moved from his role as Minister of State for the Armed Forces. He was an excellent Minister according to those who dealt with him in the Ministry of Defence. His move out of that department was and remains incomprehensible to me. We are, however, very fortunate to have my noble friend Lady Garden to take on the defence portfolio in this House. She is experienced, able and committed to defence, and I welcome her in this role. I join the Minister and other noble Lords in paying tribute to our Armed Forces. This is a particularly appropriate time of year to remember the sacrifices that our Armed Forces have made and continue to make for us.
In a typically powerful speech, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, voiced the fears of many. We and our allies have taken terrible casualties in Afghanistan. The Afghans have endured years of tumult, misery and chaos, but thanks to the bravery, discipline and commitment of our forces, those of our allies and the Afghans, considerable progress is being made to bring peace and stability to that country. I hope that our Prime Minister will seek to persuade whoever wins the next presidential election in the United States to stay the course in Afghanistan for the benefit of this country, our allies and the Afghan people themselves. The prospect, for example, of Afghan women having to revert to a cruelly discriminatory regime should fill us all with horror.
I want to say a few words about manpower and equipment. The Minister in his opening remarks spoke about global power and said that we must be able to fight and win in different terrains and on different operations. Quite rightly, much of the burden of fulfilling these roles will fall on our expeditionary or amphibious forces. My question to my noble friend is this: will full Army support for 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, be secured? I refer to our Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers and logistic support. My noble friend will be aware that there is no shortage of individuals who wish to be seconded to the Commando Brigade, which is good for Army recruiting. It is an interesting confidential statistic that the level of success of individuals who pass the commando course—and have, as it were, the Lympstone DNA—and then go on for Special Forces selection is surprising. It would be interesting if the Minister could find out what that statistic is.
On the matter of our expeditionary capability, did I hear the Minister tell us that the first aircraft carrier, “Queen Elizabeth”, will come into deployable service within the next five years? In this context, will the aircraft then be ready and deployable as well?
Like many, I am concerned at the level of cuts in the Army. I note that there will be a Green Paper on the reserves published later this week. There will have to be a major culture change in this country if this policy is to be successful. If an individual is to sign up for the reserves, that individual and his or her employer will, I hope, be entering into an irrevocable contract. There must be no resiling from the training and active service commitments, which are to be at the demand and absolute discretion of the Government of the day. We cannot have reservists marching out when they have made these commitments, and we cannot have employers discriminating against them, in any way, shape or form, if they take on the responsibility of joining our great reserve forces.
The Armed Forces have taken cuts over the past years, and the reasons for them have been explained. However, the first duty of every Government is to defend this country and its people wherever they happen to be. We owe it to our Armed Forces to ensure that they are properly manned and equipped and that they and their families are decently looked after and housed. I am pleased that we have a military covenant; it is now up to our Government to live up to it.
My Lords, on 22 October, in the third presidential debate, Mitt Romney said:
“Our Navy is old—excuse me, our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917 … That’s unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy. Our Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in”—
he got the date wrong—
“1947 … we’ve always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we’re changing to one conflict. Look, this, in my view, is the highest responsibility of the President of the United States, which is to maintain the safety of the American people. And I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars … That, in my view is making our future less certain and less secure”.
President Obama responded:
“I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers”—
we do not—
“where planes land on them. We have these ships that go under water, nuclear submarines”.
Long may they exist. We need them. He continued:
“And so the question is … what are our capabilities? And so when I sit down with the Secretary of the Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we determine how are we going to be best able to meet all of our defense needs in a way that also keeps faith with our troops, that also makes sure that our veterans have the kind of support that they need when they come home”.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and the noble Lord, Lord Davies, have said, morale in our Armed Forces is very low. There is no running away from that. I have heard it first hand from all the services. I am glad the Government have made the military covenant a priority, but are we honouring it? With the cuts that we are making, are we diminishing esprit de corps? The services are called the “services” because they serve and continue to serve us.
Peace in our time is a utopian dream that has never existed and, sadly, probably never will. As we have heard, we have been in Afghanistan since 2001, which is now longer than the First and Second World Wars combined. In his brilliant speech, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, spoke about the whole debate of why we are there. Why are we there? What is achieved? What will people say about us when we leave? Are we leaving too early? Did we get the job done? We are meant to be securing the UK that is why we went there in the first place. We were right to go there in the first place, but were we right to stay there all this time and are we right to leave when we are going to leave? Are they going to laugh and say, “Oh well, the Russians were here and they left and look what happened. Now they have come, they are going, look at what is going to happen”? It is tough.
What is the role of the Armed Forces? We are a wonderful, caring nation. I have been privileged to support and be involved with institutions such as the Army Benevolent Fund, a soldiers’ charity that does amazing work; I have been a commissioner of the Royal Hospital; we have got Help for Heroes, we have got the Gurkha Welfare Trust—we are fantastic. We have Remembrance Sunday coming up where we remember not only the fallen but those who have served and sacrificed and those who continue to serve and sacrifice today. I was president of the commemoration committee of the memorial gates at Constitution Hill, and I continue to serve on its committee, founded by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather. The gates commemorate the sacrifice and service of the 5 million volunteers from the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Caribbean. Without those 5 million individuals, we would not be sitting here doing what we are doing today; we would not be a free world.
In my tiny community of Zoroastrian Parsees, which now numbers fewer than 70,000 in India, my late father, Lieutenant-General Bilimoria, was commissioned into the Indian Army. His father, my grandfather, Brigadier Bilimoria, was commissioned from Sandhurst. My father’s cousin, Lieutenant-General Jungoo Satarawalla, from my father’s regiment, the 5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), was awarded the Military Cross in the Second World War, as was India’s first Field Marshal, Sam Manekshaw, also a Zoroastrian. My maternal grandfather, J D Italia, served as a squadron leader in the Royal Indian Air Force during the Second World War. I could on with a long list of Zoroastrian Parsees from this tiny community who have served in the British Armed Forces.
As to the Gurkhas, what an amazing contribution they have made to Britain over centuries. My father’s battalion, 2nd Battalion 5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force), was awarded three Victoria Crosses in the Second World War—and those three names are inscribed in the roof of the pavilion at the memorial gates on Constitution Hill. I am so happy that the previous Government eventually recognised the contribution of the Gurkhas, allowing Gurkhas who wished to settle in this country after they retired to do so.
We now have Future Force 2020 and we had the SDSR in 2010—but the SDSR was all about means and not about ends. We have heard passionately from the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that we do not have any aircraft carriers. We got rid of our Harriers for a song and we do not have our Nimrods. What happened straight after that? In autumn 2010, I spoke in the debate on the SDSR and said that we are short-sighted. We did not predict the Falklands. No one predicted 9/11. We do not know what is going to happen or what is around the corner. What happened around the corner? We had the Arab spring and Libya. What we needed was our aircraft carriers. We were sending Typhoons all the way from Coningsby in Lincolnshire. When are we going to learn that we need these aircraft carriers?
Now, two years later, what do we have? We have troop cuts. When my father commanded the central Indian Army, he had 350,000 troops under his command. When he commanded a corps before he became an army commander, his corps was comprised of over 100,000 troops. We announced the troop cuts, and what happened? There was a problem with G4S and the security of the Olympic Games. As we have heard in the debate, who stepped in? Our wonderful troops stepped in. When I went to the Olympics and saw our troops, I thanked every one of them personally because they saved the day. We are now to have a British Army of fewer than 80,000 troops.
This country is famous for its soft power. We are so lucky because we have the BBC, the Royal Family, our history, London, which is the greatest of the world’s great cities, our tourism and the Olympics. We publish the Economist and the FT; we have the City of London, and we have Oxford and Cambridge. I could go on. We are one of the top 10 economies in the world, but soft power is useless without hard power. In terms of population, we rank 22nd in the world, and yet however we are ranked as an economy or a defence power, we are in the top 10 in the world. We punch above our weight the whole time, and yet today we are devoting half the percentage of our GDP spending on defence than we did 30 years ago, in 1982—the time of the Falklands war. You could argue that there was the Cold War back then, but we are in a war that is far more uncertain. We do not know what is around the corner. We did not know how long we would spend in Afghanistan when we went there. No one, however much we debate Afghanistan, should ever say that even one of our troops has made that sacrifice in vain. The troops have been doing their duty. They have been attempting to help a nation and to help our security over here. We should always be grateful for that and inspired by what they have done for us.
I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, to the Front Bench, and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor, who is a true champion of the armed services; I have seen that for myself. His heart is in the right place and we always appreciate what the noble Lord does.
Our Armed Forces are the best of the best in every way. Our regiments are the elite, and their history is phenomenal. I asked one of our legendary sergeant-majors at the Royal Hospital Chelsea what he felt about all these cuts. He was dismayed and said, “What people do not know is the term ‘espirit de corps’. Yes, we fight for our country, but we also fight for our regiment and for the comrade who is right next to us. We fight for each other”. When you amalgamate regiments, cut out battalions and then lump them all together, you are cutting away history and espirit de corps. Backing for the Armed Forces in this country is almost at an all-time high; it is fantastic. Yet in many ways I feel that the Government’s support for the forces is low. That is both frightening and disappointing when we look at the sacrifices that are made.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, said, it is not just the soldiers and service people who make a sacrifice, it is also their families. I remember as a 10 year-old that when my father went to fight for the liberation of Bangladesh, I would read the papers every single day, terrified that my father’s name would be in them. That is how I remember being a child in an army family; I know what it is like. I also know what my mother felt like. Do we really look after the families well? The noble Baroness spoke passionately and stressed that what leads to low morale and problems is the uncertainty. It was the word she used most often. What are the Government doing about it? Putting our hand on our heart, are we fulfilling our side of the military covenant?
In his excellent speech, the noble Lord, Lord King, said that nowadays we talk about wars of necessity and wars of choice. We had to go to war in the Falklands, and we had to go to war in Kuwait. We had to go to Afghanistan in 2001. With hindsight, Iraq in 2003 was a huge mistake, but let us think of the practicalities. The United States, our biggest ally, went to Iraq. We regret having gone, but did we have that much of a choice? The bottom line is that we have to be prepared for the unexpected. The noble Lord, Lord King, also talked about conventional wars and unconventional wars. When my father took over command of the central Indian Army just over 20 years ago, one of the first things he did was to go to Sri Lanka, where there were a lot of his troops, and in his view that was resulting in conflict. Within two weeks of returning from his visit, the Indian troops were withdrawn. It has taken more than two decades for the issue to be resolved by the Sri Lankans themselves.
In many cases, we do not know what is going to happen. We might intervene, but then we do not know how long it is going to last. The noble Lord, Lord King, also talked about defence being the number one priority, yet we have had five defence Secretaries in five years. I am sorry to say that under this Government, we have had two in just over two years. You cannot say that you are taking defence seriously if you do that. It is one of the most important jobs in government. Cutting is easy, but training up troops again is difficult. I have full respect for the Territorial Army, but should we rely on it? The Territorial Army should be there as a support, not as something to be relied on. We have to rely on our main Armed Forces for the security of this nation.
Let us take a look at international comparisons just within NATO. I am using the 2010 figures, from before the cuts. In 2010, France had 234,000 service people, while Germany had 246,000. We had 198,000, while the Italians had 193,000. Soon the Italians will have more service people than us. The Americans have 1.4 million service people, and we are never going to compete with them. I think that we are cutting too much and that is not right for the safety of this country.
I am going to conclude by quoting from a poem sent by my mother’s cousin in honour of my father. There is no name for the author, so I shall just quote an extract from it. It is called “The Final Inspection”:
“The soldier stood and faced God,
which must always come to pass.
He hoped his shoes were shining,
Just as brightly as his brass.
The soldier squared his shoulders and said,
I’ve had to work most Sundays,
and at times my talk was tough.
And sometimes I’ve been violent,
Because the world is awfully rough.
And I never passed a cry for help,
Though at times I shook with fear.
And sometimes, God, forgive me,
I’ve wept unmanly tears.
If you’ve a place for me here, Lord,
It needn’t be so grand.
I never expected or had too much,
But if you don’t, I’ll understand.
There was a silence all around the throne,
Where the saints had often trod.
As the soldier waited quietly,
For the judgment of his God.
‘Step forward now, you soldier,
You’ve borne your burdens well.
Walk peacefully on Heaven’s streets,
You’ve done your time in Hell’.”
We can never thank our troops enough for their service and sacrifice or show them enough gratitude for what they do for us every day. All we can say is thank you, thank you, thank you.
My Lords, I feel a bit like a tail-end Charlie in this debate. However, it is a pleasure to be able to participate because it is an important debate about an important subject in very difficult times. I am grateful to my noble friend for ensuring that this debate was possible and I add my welcome to my noble friend Lady Garden. She will continue not only to adorn but to invigorate our Front Bench.
There have been many hugely important contributions, some of which I have endorsed entirely, and some of which I have disagreed with. The remarks I want to pick up on most are those of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, on the importance of the military covenant and how much more there is still to do. But I have to admit to a sense of compelling inadequacy because so many speakers are far better equipped to contribute today than I am. I have not served in the Armed Forces, but today I am wearing a Pathfinders tie in memory of my uncle, Pilot Officer Sandy Saunders, who did—and whose tie this was.
This Sunday, in my role as president of the Langford and Wylye branch of the Royal British Legion, I shall lay the wreath and pronounce the exhortation in memory of those who were left behind on the fields of war. In that exhortation, we promise that, “We will remember them”—and that is the theme I want to take for my brief remarks.
There is a simple headstone in the churchyard at Wylye dedicated to Ivy Pretoria May Hibberd. She was born at Hope Cottage next to the railway crossing just along from the station—in the days when we had one. Ivy was a volunteer in the Women’s Royal Air Force during World War I. She was one of so very few women in the WRAF at that time, and yet she became one of so very many: nearly 1 million British men and women gave their lives during that conflict and Ivy was one of them.
Ivy was not the first of her family to die in the Great War, but she was the last: aged 19, on 6 November 1918, less than a week before the 11th hour of that 11th day of that 11th month when the armistice was declared and the fighting stopped. She died in this country, not on the battlefront, but it does not matter where or how they died; what matters is that Ivy and all those others who were waved farewell by their families from their doorsteps never returned.
As my noble friend Lord King said in his very interesting remarks, it was supposed to be the war to end all wars, but of course it was not. This is still a dangerous world and we rely on our Armed Forces to keep us safe. Thank goodness, we no longer have to send an entire generation of our children to march, fly or sail off into the teeth of the storm, as Ivy and her comrades had to. As a father, I can find no words to express the depth of gratitude I feel for what they did and for what the members of our Armed Forces continue to do today.
However, in too many ways we have let them down. In the past 15 years all too often we have sent them off to fight with inadequate equipment, leaving behind families forced to live in inadequate housing. There has been inadequate planning, so we have been forced to make thousands of them redundant, even while some of them were serving on the front line. Now, as several noble Lords have mentioned, we offer them the absurdity of aircraft carriers without any aircraft.
It was inevitable that Chancellors of whatever party should look at the defence budget. It is a great pity, however, that this was not done at an earlier stage, years ago, when the damage that has been done by inevitable cuts could have been reduced. Far too many of our Armed Forces who return to this country end up with mental and social problems, sleeping rough on the streets or finding themselves in prison. Many others return gravely wounded, with life-changing injuries, and despite the efforts of the Royal British Legion, ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, Help for Heroes and many other charities there is still so much more that needs doing.
“We will remember them”—that was our promise. It has not helped that we have sent them off to fight wars that, in my view, we should not have fought: a war in Iraq that I always believed was unprincipled, politically ignoble and probably illegal; and a war in Afghanistan that I believe can never deliver the promises that politicians originally made. If we are to remember Ivy Hibberd, her brother and all the others, as we have promised, we must never forget the political lessons of recent years that have committed too many new names to our war memorials and threatened the well-being of so many other soldiers and their families.
As we mark and remember their service to us, let us not forget the enduring service that we owe to them. We owe them more than we have given and, in all too many cases, more than we can ever repay.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for allowing me to speak for a few moments in the gap.
I would like to cast a fly over the Minister. By cutting the numbers in the Army, which a number of noble Lords have discussed already, we are starting to get a problem of recruitment, selection and volunteering into the Special Forces. As the pool gets smaller and smaller, getting the right people in the right numbers is becoming—I will not say acute, but it is becoming tricky. There are whispers in the corridors that perhaps the standards are too high and perhaps you could lower them a bit, and that is very dangerous talk. If you dilute the product, you are not special. You become ordinary.
Something somewhere has to be done about this. We must not lower the standards of selection within the Special Forces. I say this very quietly but in public. I do not expect a reply. It is not something for public discussion. But I am forewarning the Minister that the standards and the success of the Special Forces, as we have long experienced, lie in the concentrated selection of the volunteer individual. That is what makes the exceptional operational efficiency of the Special Forces.
My Lords, I am sure that all your Lordships who have spoken are pleased, as the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said, to have had the opportunity to discuss and comment on the role and contribution of our Armed Forces. However, I fear that today’s debate, in the name of the Minister—timely though it is, this close to Remembrance Sunday—has rather less to do with a collective government desire to discuss defence issues for a second sitting day running and rather more to do with a collective government desire not to discuss the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, and any troublesome amendments, for even one day running.
I hope that there are not too many Members of your Lordships’ House who would have wished to speak in this debate but have been unable to do so because of the very short notice. Our Armed Forces deserve debates on their role and contribution that are properly and jointly agreed in advance, not least because our military personnel continue to be engaged in major operations on our behalf at a time when they are also facing considerable change.
Unfortunately, all too often in your Lordships’ House we have those sombre moments when we express our sincere condolences to the families and friends of serving members of our Armed Forces who have been killed in operations in the service of our country. We also remember the courage and fortitude of those who have been wounded, particularly those who have suffered what we describe as life-changing injuries. It is only appropriate and right that we should use this debate to pay tribute once again to our Armed Forces and the whole service community.
The main centre of combat operations for our Armed Forces is Afghanistan. My noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen powerfully expressed his concerns on the present position. We should all be determined to ensure that when combat operations by our forces cease and the majority of our personnel return permanently to these shores, they will leave an Afghanistan that is able to function as an effective state, governed by elected representatives in the interests of the population as a whole, and at peace, with a respect for law and order. That would be an appropriate legacy for all our personnel who have been involved in operations in Afghanistan, not least for those who have lost their lives and suffered significant injuries.
Our Armed Forces face major change, and not only as a result of the reduction in their number. New threats are emerging. Weak and failing states outnumber strong states by two to one. Non-state actors are also on the rise. The United States of America is attaching greater emphasis in its approach to military and diplomatic policy to the Pacific region and the Middle and Far East and less to Europe. That has potential implications for our defence strategy. The nature of warfare is also changing, with nuclear proliferation, increased terrorism, more use of unarmed aircraft and the increasing sophistication of cyberattacks.
Maximising security and influence today demands coalition-building. We have argued for greater burden-sharing and deployability of assets within NATO, and exploration of how a “coalition of cuts” between European NATO nations can co-ordinate reductions in defence spending. The practice of allies fighting conflicts together but preparing for them individually is surely no longer the way to proceed.
The Government’s intention, as the size of our Regular Armed Forces contracts, is to increase the strength of our Reserve Forces to be able to meet laid down military objectives. We had a debate on our Reserve Forces last Thursday, and one on defence and Europe the week before. The Minister said that he would respond in writing to the many points raised in the debate last Thursday to which he was not able to reply at the time. Obviously, he has not yet had a chance to prepare and send that letter in time for this debate, which would have been ideal, but I suspect that this debate came almost as much of a surprise to the Minister as it did to probably everyone else.
However, on a crucial part of the Government’s strategy—namely, the increase in our Reserve Forces—we have read in one newspaper this morning, as the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, reminded us, that a problem with the recruitment of part-time soldiers, including a backlog of applicants, threatens to undermine plans to expand the Territorial Army.
I repeat that we support an enhanced role for the reserves, whose skills must be maximised and who can be an important link between military and civilian communities. We have to ensure that the system to encourage and enable service leavers and those made redundant to join our reserves is effective, that we support businesses in employing members of the Reserve Forces and that any unnecessary bureaucracy is removed.
With a Green Paper apparently just around the corner, the noble Baroness the Minister, whom we welcome to the Government Defence Front Bench, may not feel inclined in her reply to go further than did the Minister in last week’s debate, although I invite her to do so in the light of the newspaper report this morning.
Since meeting our military objectives in the future is reliant on an expansion of our Reserve Forces as the Regular Army is reduced in numbers, could the noble Baroness be precise about the timescale in which the reserves, with the increased level of commitment required of them compared to today, are being built up and Regular Army numbers drawn down in order to address concerns that there may be a period where the territorial contingency will be too small to cover the capability gap?
This is an important issue, since even the Secretary of State has admitted that these proposals constitute a risk against a background of falling morale, to which my noble friends Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde and Lord Davies of Stamford referred. Recent figures show that the three-year trend of declining morale has continued, with only 18% of soldiers questioned reporting high morale across the Army and only 33% feeling valued. Even the Secretary of State has admitted that government actions have hit morale.
We are clear that there must be some reduction in the overall number of service personnel, but does the noble Baroness believe that those reductions are being appropriately borne? The percentage reduction in the number of senior officer posts in all three services has been considerably less than the percentage reduction in junior ranks. The Armed Forces must be reshaped to make them as effective as they can be in the light of future numbers and future planned objectives and assumptions. It is right to demand painful efficiencies of those at the bottom, but not while appearing to give greater protection to those at the top.
It is all of a pattern that started with the strategic defence and security review, which was rushed and rendered out of date by events in Libya—not even mentioned in the review—where British forces used some equipment that Ministers had planned to scrap. Ad hoc decision-making appears to be all too common. The fact that Ministers have further reduced Army manpower on top of the cuts outlined in the SDSR shows just how rushed and incomplete was that original document. Perhaps the noble Baroness could say whether the SDSR defence planning assumptions that applied to an Army of 95,000 can be guaranteed by a Regular Army of 82,000.
Until all these issues are addressed or clarified, it will be difficult to overlook the impression that this Government’s defence policy largely adds up to a deficit reduction proposal and policy statements and objectives that have not been thought through, either as far as their relevance and consequences are concerned or the logistics and practicality of their implementation.
Ministers regularly claim the financial situation as justification for the speed and depth of the cuts that they have made. We are continually told by Ministers of a financial “black hole” that was bequeathed, but the National Audit Office, the Defence Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee have all described the figure as “unverifiable”, which says it all.
The Secretary of State has said that he has balanced the equipment budget, but we have seen no detailed figures to support this and how it has been achieved. When will the National Audit Office report on the core equipment programme in the light of the Government’s claim?
Defence reform is not simply about cutting Armed Forces personnel and prioritising the pursuit of savings above all else; it is about aligning present and future capabilities with present and future strategic threats within realistic budgets. We do not believe that that has been this Government’s approach in at least some areas, whatever their intention may have been.
However, in two areas, we are at one with the Government. We supported and welcomed the Royal British Legion’s campaign on the military covenant, albeit that it took a bit of a push to persuade the Government to enshrine it in legislation. It provides a clear duty for us all, as my noble friend Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde reminded us, to ensure that members of our Armed Forces and their families are cared for and are not penalised or discriminated against as a result of their service in the forces, and as members of the military community, on behalf of our country. We have proposed greater resources to tackle veterans’ long-term mental health issues and believe that we need to rebalance the system of allowances in favour of the low paid and those on the front line.
The other area where we are at one with the Government is in our support and admiration for our Armed Forces and in our united backing for them in the military operations that they have undertaken, such as in Libya, and in their current operations in Afghanistan. We know that they are risking their lives to ensure the security of our nation and the protection of our people and our interests, and that, in doing so, they are seeking to give others the opportunity of enjoying the freedoms which we take for granted.
My Lords, it is a privilege to wind up this informed and insightful debate. I thank my noble friend and other noble Lords for their kind words of welcome and I thank them, too, for their tributes to my late husband, who was a military pilot, policymaker and strategic thinker. For the three years before his death, he made a great impact in a short time as the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman in your Lordships’ House. Would that he were still here. He was always the one who flew the aeroplanes, but for more than 40 years I had the good fortune to share his life and thinking, which has given me an understanding of the matters raised today.
The commitment, professionalism and courage of the Armed Forces were much in evidence during the Cold War. How much more these qualities have been tested during the operations of recent years. Defence of the realm remains the first duty of government and its importance has been reflected in the speeches today. I have listened with great interest to the contributions made and I welcome the expertise, insight and analysis from all sides of the House.
Before I address specific issues, let me repeat this Government’s priorities for defence. Our current number one priority is operations in Afghanistan. That is where the men and women of our Armed Forces are making the greatest sacrifices and that is where we must focus our main effort. Transition is under way. The plan, although difficult, is on schedule and combat operations will end in 2014.
We are also forging ahead on transformation in defence. Many difficult decisions have already been taken—difficult but necessary decisions. The defence budget has been balanced for the first time in a generation; a new fiscal discipline has been brought to bear; and the structure for our future Armed Forces has been laid out. Future Force 2020 will be leaner, more adaptable but still formidable. At its core will be the talented and dedicated people of our Armed Forces. Looking after them will be central to ensuring their effectiveness. The new employment model will make service terms and conditions more flexible, better reflecting the complexity of modern family life and helping to reduce the burdens on our service personnel and their families.
I turn now to specific points raised during the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, who brings great expertise to these debates, reminded us of the great losses in past conflicts and the power of Churchillian rhetoric. Perhaps we do not make orators like Churchill any more. He talked about success on the ground in Afghanistan, saying that we must not let the messages in this country detract from the real successes and advances in Afghanistan and that we must not leave with the work half done. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, also mentioned the lack of media coverage of what is actually being achieved in Afghanistan.
As the NATO Secretary-General said earlier this year, the decisions made at Lisbon will remain the bedrock of our strategy. This will involve UK and ISAF forces continuing to operate in a combat role, albeit a reducing one, in support of Afghan forces until the end of 2014. ISAF troop contributions will be made in a co-ordinated and cohesive manner and will be aligned with the Lisbon principle, but our firm commitment is to support the Afghan National Army officer academy and help the Afghan forces in their transition to a more peaceful existence.
My noble friend Lord Palmer asked a number of questions—I may not be able to answer all of them—about the covenant. Several other noble Lords rightly mentioned its importance, including the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, who brings great wisdom to these debates. It is essential that we ensure that our people serving in difficult places and times are properly looked after and valued when they are returned home. My noble friend also asked what our priorities for defence are. I emphasise that preventing conflict upstream is a central tenet of our approach to safeguarding national security. It is important to recognise that, alongside the capability and credibility of our Armed Forces, we seek to strengthen the UK’s diplomatic, economic and development assistance and technological and cultural influence, all of which contribute to a more peaceful and prosperous world.
My noble friend Lord Palmer and many others talked about the Reserve Forces. My noble friends Lord Palmer, Lord King and Lord Burnett and the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Rosser, all referred to the importance of the Reserve Forces. We know that, at this time, the importance of the reserves is becoming ever greater to the effectiveness of our Armed Forces. As part of the drive better to align the Territorial Army and the Regular Army, the recruitment system was updated in April to ensure that all soldiers, regular and reserve, are selected and trained to a consistently high standard. The new system is more rigorous and ensures that those who successfully complete the selection process are physically and mentally ready for the challenges of being an Army reservist. As with any new process, it will take time for a new system to be introduced, but the signs are that, broadly, it is working well. We are certainly working hard to ensure that reserves are well recruited and well trained for the tasks that they will be asked to perform.
On the matter of problems for employers, we are offering a number of financial rewards to ensure that they are not penalised when the reservist is mobilised on operations, along with guidance and support on how those funds can be accessed. Of course, the closer the civilian role to the military role, the greater the mutual benefits and value of service will be to the civilian employer.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, mentioned the equipment costs of 2% GDP for procurement and questioned whether we were relying on urgent operational requirements. He will be aware, as are many others, that we are having to balance the defence budget, and that distribution will be monitored carefully. He and my noble friend Lord King also queried whether people were being sent into combat without being adequately equipped and trained. Once again, we are setting great store on adequate equipment, training and good leadership, which is another vital element, before we send troops into zones of conflict.
My noble friend Lord King mentioned the importance of continuity in relation to the Secretary of State for Defence. We, too, welcome coherence and continuity within a department of this nature. He also mentioned post-traumatic stress treatment. In general, mental health in serving personnel is as good as and, in many areas, higher than in the civilian population, but that is not in any way to underestimate or minimise the real despair of post-traumatic stress. I pay tribute to the work of Combat Stress, which works so incredibly effectively with people who are the most troubled by traumatic stress.
I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, for all the work that she has done in support of the Armed Forces; her contribution has been invaluable. She mentioned in particular the war widows. I shall have the honour of representing the Government at the war widows’ commemoration on Saturday at the Cenotaph. Once again, this aspect of the Armed Forces is sometimes overlooked, yet we all know of the grief and the strength of women who have lost their partners and of families who have lost loved ones in conflict. She stressed a number of aspects of delivering the covenant; I do not have time to pick all of them up today, but I will of course write to her.
The noble Baroness and the noble Lords, Lord Bilimoria and Lord Rosser, also mentioned morale. In many parts of the services, morale is incredibly high, but of course we are aware of the uncertainties on which she laid great stress and how difficult it can be. I certainly remember that, when I was a military wife, one of the most difficult things to contend with was not knowing where you might be living, where you might be going and where your children would be going to school. Those problems of planning can undermine the effectiveness of our Armed Forces. That is something that we are looking at very closely under the military covenant: supporting families with operational welfare, extending priority for affordable housing and trying to ensure that an all-round package is there to support our military forces both when they are serving and when they transfer to civilian life.
My noble friend Lady Wilcox had vivid memories of Plymouth and stressed to us the importance of the Royal Navy for securing the seas, for protecting trade routes and, indeed, for building friendship in far-flung places. I link that to the mention made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, of drug busting in the Caribbean and tackling piracy, notably in the seas off Somalia. That, too, is work that we should not overlook.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, mentioned the reserves and the European common defence policy. Of course there is a very strong case that we should work very closely with other European countries in collaborative projects to the benefit of us and our neighbours. Indeed, the alliances of which we are members play a key role in the effectiveness of our troops. The noble Lord criticised the coalition Government for reducing some defence orders. Despite what he said, the previous Government’s defence orders were not fully funded, alas. We have had to cancel some projects; the coalition is determined not to spend money that it simply does not have. I also assure the noble Lord that the Falklands are well defended and that we keep that constantly under review.
My noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom mentioned the aircraft carriers, which were also mentioned by my noble friends Lord Dobbs and Lord Burnett and by the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I assure noble Lords that, as a result of the decision to revert to short take-off and vertical landing, we now plan to start initial JSF flights from HMS “Queen Elizabeth” in 2018, once she has completed her sea trials, with expected operational capability in 2020. As my noble friend Lord Hamilton reminded us, the contract for the aircraft carriers was phased such that there was no way that we could retreat from it once we came into office.
The noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, reminded us of the British-Irish parliamentary group and the history of the Irish in times of war. A number of other noble Lords referred back to the sacrifices of British and Irish soldiers in the First World War. The Prime Minister spoke at the Imperial War Museum three weeks ago about preparations now under way to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Discussions are under way with Commonwealth countries and European Governments and a cross-party advisory board has been established to oversee commemorations within the United Kingdom. I am told that there are also active discussions under way on an all-Ireland basis about the appropriate way to remember the impact of the First World War on Ireland as a whole. Once again, we should not forget the contribution and sacrifice made by Irish troops.
My noble friend Lord Bates, whose work I commend in support of the Olympic Truce, reminded us that the Armed Forces serve the will of Parliament and that Parliament should be aware of its responsibilities before they are deployed. I, too, remember visiting Commonwealth war graves and the very moving experience of seeing the rows upon rows marking where people, often very young, had fallen in the service of their country. He made mention of, and I would commend, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Royal British Legion for their commemorations, particularly of the last post sounding every evening at the Menin Gate, which is an extremely moving and effective reminder of the sacrifices that were made.
I commend, too, the noble Lord, Lord Judd, for his tireless work in support of peace and justice. He reminded us of the importance of upholding the highest standards in any deployment. I trust that I can reassure him of the importance that the Government, and indeed the Armed Forces, place on integrity as well as professionalism in all their actions. I also say that those returning from operations may well be reassigned to pass on their expertise at training establishments. We would have no wish to lose the expertise of those coming back from operations in enabling the next generation of our Armed Forces to act within conflict zones.
My noble friend Lord Burnett mentioned our joint right honourable friend Sir Nick Harvey. I, too, join in with the tributes to his work, particularly the work that he has done—and, I hope, may continue to do—in connection with Trident. My noble friend asked a number of specific questions. I will not go into all of them today but he asked specifically whether the Government will give support to 3 Commando Brigade. Future Army 2020 has withdrawn 24 Commando Engineer Regiment, which is currently based at Royal Marines barracks Chivenor. The Army will continue to provide the support required by 3 Commando Brigade from within its new structure. Time does not permit me to go into the detail of the other questions that he asked and I will reply later.
The noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, reminded us movingly of the Zoroastrian Parsees serving in the Armed Forces and of the Gurkha record of courage, which of course includes Victoria Cross gallantry awards. Once again, the Gurkhas are a force that we do not forget readily in this country. My noble friend Lord Dobbs, too, mentioned the military covenant and the efforts that we must make to ensure that our military personnel are properly looked after. He gave us a graphic story in support of that. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, mentioned the recruitment, selection and volunteering of the Special Forces. I note his concerns and assure him that we have no plans to reduce the standards of training for the Special Forces. They are often the jewels in the crown of those who serve us.
The noble Lord, Lord Rosser, reminded us of new threats and of the value of joint preparation with allies, which is increasingly important given the expense of and the demands on the deployment of our troops. He asked a number of other detailed questions. I shall need to come back to him in writing about the guarantees of the SDSR defence planning assumptions and the reductions being appropriately borne across the services. By and large, the reductions in the services are going to be proportionate across the ranks. However, I note his concern that senior officers seem to be managing rather better than the junior officers. I assure him that that is certainly not within the Government’s plans, which are to end up with proportionate and balanced forces that we are working.
In preparing for this debate, I read again a book that my husband wrote 20 years ago, entitled The Technology Trap. I will quote one passage from it:
“The key issue is, with limited resources, how can the technologies which offer the greatest promise for military use be exploited, and hence increase national security. This is a difficult problem, and any analysis must depend on assumptions about the nature of the future security concerns, the prospects of technological progress in particular areas, the character of international relations, national and global economic prospects, and a host of unquantifiable social and political factors”.
Twenty years on, this is no less true. Resources continue to be limited, the costs of major projects continue to rise, the international situation is no less unpredictable and, as we have heard in examples around the House today, natural disasters or national emergencies can also require the deployment of Armed Forces at little notice—be it flooding or the Olympics.
I am conscious that I have not addressed all the points raised in the debate and I shall undertake to write to noble Lords. I thank all those who have contributed to the debate today. As ever, when we are discussing our Armed Forces, the debate has drawn on personal experience and the understanding of many Members. One thing is clear: we all share a respect for the determination, professionalism and bravery of our Armed Forces. They perform their duty under difficult and dangerous circumstances with extraordinary selflessness. We owe an immense debt of gratitude for the sacrifices that they and their families make and, in this time of remembrance, we must never forget that they and their predecessors are, and have been, willing to make the greatest sacrifice of all so that we might deliberate and make considered decisions in a free and safe country. Your Lordships have expressed your admiration for those who are serving. For those who have died or been wounded in the service of the country, we must, and we will, remember them.