Cookies: We use cookies to give you the best possible experience on our site. By continuing to use the site you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more
House of Lords Hansard
x
Armed Forces: Foreign Language Speakers
27 October 2016
Volume 776

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether the United Kingdom has sufficient speakers of foreign languages serving the Armed Forces and defence services.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My Lords, “Parlez-vous Brexit?” was the eye-catching headline in last weekend’s i newspaper after suggestions that the designated EU Brexit commissioner, Michel Barnier, might insist that the forthcoming EU/UK Brexit negotiations are conducted in French. Twice I took our EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee to Brussels to interview M. Barnier in his role as financial affairs commissioner, and I took care to address him in French. Speaking to someone in their own language is not only a mark of respect and welcome, manifesting an eagerness to listen and learn, it is also downright common sense. We have lost that art and our self-inflicted defenestration from the European Union will only further impair our ability to make and influence friends, nowhere more so than in our engagement with partners in the defence of the realm, in the armed services, diplomatic corps and intelligence services.

As a recent copy of the Soldier magazine declared:

“Many of our forebears would have been embarrassed to see how little knowledge we arrived with in Iraq and Afghanistan … our great grandfathers … spoke the language and knew the people”.

That was quoted in the Daily Telegraph. It goes on to suggest that the Government will not entertain promotion in the Army above the rank of captain for those without a foreign language. The programme started in 2015 and comes into full play in 2018. Could the Minister confirm that that is the case? What numbers of personnel have embarked on such training? What level of language skill—passing, competent or fluent—is expected? What particular languages and what numbers are envisaged over the next 10 years? Will the Minister further confirm that the method of achieving success in language acquisition will be part of an exchange programme between nations where UK personnel are encouraged to go on exercises to learn languages at the same time that we help to train the receiving country?

Before we can make an effective judgment on Britain’s capacity to defend itself through language competency, we urgently need facts and figures. These have been conspicuously absent despite numerous Written Questions from me. I hope the Minister can provide us with real and verifiable figures. He told me in a Written Answer earlier this year that some 700 armed services personnel hold a language qualification but there is no notion of how that compares with 10 or 20 years ago. Similarly, the category of expert speakers is but 132 out of that 700. How does that compare with 20 years ago? Crucially, does it match our current operational needs? How is it assessed and who by? We are told that the services hold competency in 48 languages but how does that compare with the past? What and where is the distribution of these languages, and where is the flexibility to learn new languages as changes happen? Is that 48 sufficient?

When discussing this topic with my noble friend Lord West, he told me that we need to use the Army and services’ reservists more to build up language competency. Does the Minister agree and does he have plans to do so? Indeed, what assessment and analysis has been made of the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture in terms of its capacity to meet the real language needs of the services? How does this compare with our erstwhile partners in the EU where languages are commonly learned and spoken as compared with the UK, a “proud nation of monoglots”?

HMG have recently replied to the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power. They are lukewarm to the suggestion that there should be an audit of language skills of civil servants across all departments, as proposed by the committee which,

“would bring sizeable advantages for officials working overseas or with foreign counterparts”.

Can the Minister tell us what the funding is for the FCO’s language centre and what we are going to do about this gaping hole of spoken languages acquisition? Are we increasing the budget to try to fill it? Similarly, are there sufficient funds to enable the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture to fulfil its crucial job? I highlight in particular its Operational Languages Award Scheme to incentivise MoD personnel in language skills. We urgently need more knowledge and transparency about our language holdings. Given that for cultural reasons the British have never revelled in language skills, Britain lacks the home grown linguists which most countries have.

Having said that, what greater efforts might the MoD make to recruit from our indigenous communities found here in Britain, especially from the subcontinent? Similarly, we are told that London is home to some 300 spoken modern languages. How many are mobilised to serve our defence and intelligence services? GCHQ, our largest employer of linguists, insists on recruiting only United Kingdom citizens, but is that wise? Are we not cutting off our nose to spite our face when we enforce that? Indeed, will the Minister tabulate the shortages in GCHQ of certain crucial languages, known to be Mandarin, Russian and Arabic? How much retraining of modern languages graduates does GCHQ do for the scarce languages which have to be used from time to tmie? Again, may we have the numbers, please?

In our universities is it time that we followed the example of UCL in requiring a foreign language GCSE as compulsory for all entrants? When I was at school, entry to Oxbridge required Latin, thereby breeding a generation of brash, bumbling Borises. At grammar school in Oxford I was taught to speak a dead language, Latin, while French was unspoken and confined to reading the texts of Racine and Corneille. Given the many unfortunate policies of successive Governments, must we not concentrate on in-house tuition in the armed and intelligence services while radically remodelling the primary and secondary long-term contribution?

Finally, on the role of the FCO in supporting our defence and armed services, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, tells how when he was Permanent Secretary, some 500 people spoke Arabic, but now the figure is 131. Is that not sheer madness? Embassies are now increasingly geared to promoting trade and business, all needed in the lonely post-Brexit world, but our foreign embassies still need to do their regular job of intelligence gathering for the defence of the realm—a Government’s first duty to the people. On a parliamentary visit to Estonia in April, I met General Wes Clark and General Sir Richard Shirreff, also visiting NATO’s local HQ as well as the Russian border and the college serving the Russian-speaking minority of Estonians. We heard the good news today that the UK is posting 800 personnel to help our Estonian colleagues inhibit a Russian incursion but can the Minister find out for us how many of those 800 are language experts in either Estonian or Russian?

The news this morning that sixth form colleges are axeing French, German and Italian from their core curricula is deeply disappointing, but my task in today’s debate is to suggest that HMG must rely on the defence and intelligence services to plunder home-grown language skills. We must make do and mend because we cannot wait for the schools to do the job. Before I came into this debate I was stopped by one of the Doorkeepers who told me that when he was on pre-deployment in the Army, he learned languages from people with language skills here in the United Kingdom. After that they could go on to the Army language centre. This is an important issue which has not been covered and I am very pleased to begin today’s debate.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My Lords, I remind the Committee that I still hold a commission in the Reserves, although it is extremely unlikely that I will ever be active again. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for initiating this QSD.

There are many difficulties with engaging local interpreters on an operation. It is hard to be sure that they are reliable and secure. It puts the interpreters in a difficult position when we eventually withdraw, and even when they go home, perhaps at the weekend. Noble Lords have frequently debated the difficulties that we have incurred with regard to honouring our moral obligations to locally employed interpreters from our operations in Afghanistan.

Another difficulty with local interpreters is that the other local party will try to negotiate with the interpreter rather than the British officer. It is of course possible that the discussions that the interpreter and the local party are engaged in are nothing at all to do with what the British officer thought they were supposed to be talking about. Fortunately, I assure the Committee that in my personal experience, pre-deployment training in the British Army includes how to use an interpreter. It is not like what we see in films when an interpreter has a long chat with the other party; in fact, you carefully let them use only one sentence at a time. It is therefore much more difficult for them to start going off-piste.

Being able to speak the local language is a huge advantage. When I was engaged in international work in Rwanda, I will never forget the look of horror on the face of the government official when I turned up without a local interpreter and started speaking French. I expect this was on two counts: first, the lost advantage for him of working through a local interpreter and, secondly, my not particularly good French. On many occasions they suddenly remembered that they could speak English after all. If one does have to use a local interpreter, only a basic working capability in the local language will be needed to ensure that the interpretation is reasonably reliable and not going off-piste.

The short answer to the noble Lord’s question is no. The first reason is that we do not know which local language will be applicable to the next major operation, or whether it will be enduring or just a short intervention. Of course, as the noble Lord indicated, there is a need to have modern European languages, but I am talking particularly about the local language of the operation. It is simply not worth investing in huge amounts of language training that may never be needed. All that I have said is perfectly understandable, and I think the noble Lord agrees.

The second reason is not so good, and it is that we are very poor at putting in place a language capability even for enduring operations. So far as the regular Army is concerned, incentives for service people to acquire a capability in the local language of current operations are available, but I am not convinced they are sufficient to encourage so many to take it up that the need for local interpreters is significantly reduced.

How much overall do we pay service people to maintain the capability to deploy by parachute drop, and how does this compare with how much we pay in incentives to have the capability in the local language of any operations? I asked a Written Question about when we last deployed at company strength by parachute drop. Apparently it was the second most unhelpful Question that the MoD could be asked. The first is something to do with the RAF, although to be fair the answer to that question has a lot more to do with a successful defence policy over many years.

It is not just officers who could benefit from language training. A full corporal in the regular British Army is an extremely capable person but it may be that his trade, or his type of unit, is not required for the current operation. If they are any good, they will be desperate to “go on tour”, as they say. Being an interpreter for, say, a local liaison officer would be a fabulous opportunity for a junior NCO. Only a fairly modest financial incentive would be needed to encourage regular NCOs of any service to acquire a language of a current operation, and, of course, a certain proportion of service people will turn out to be gifted in languages.

I turn to the Army Reserve, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. To be honest, a junior direct entry reserve infantry officer with no previous regular service would find it hard to get the chance to deploy in role on an operation; it really does not happen that much. I will spare the Minister’s blushes by not asking how many such officers we have.

Suppose that in 1993 a junior TA officer, on his own initiative, learned to speak Serbo-Croat at conversational level—possibly achieved by engaging with a local diaspora. In the mid to late-1990s, he or she would have been able to deploy in operations almost as often as desired. The military skills of such an officer would be perfectly adequate for the role of interpreter or local liaison officer, and they could have a very fulfilling tour.

My counsel is that we should have much better financial incentives for regular service people at junior level, both officer and enlisted, who acquire an operational local language as directed. We should also very strongly encourage reservists to acquire the operational local language with the clear expectation that they would be able to deploy. It needs to be managed. If we had this policy in place, we could increase our operational effectiveness and reduce reliance on local interpreters, with all the ensuing problems. Finally, I say to my noble friend the Minister: good luck with the Treasury.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for raising this subject, a very important one indeed. I declare an interest relating to one language at least: Chinese. I am president of the Scotland China Education Network, which, under the energetic leadership of Dr Judith McClure, promotes the teaching of Chinese in Scottish schools.

I do not know how many noble Lords here this afternoon have read a 1950s book by Eric Newby called A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush; there are some who have read it. It is the most wonderful account of a journey to the Hindu Kush, the formidable mountain range between Pakistan and Afghanistan, by a very amateur group that included Eric Newby and one Persian-speaking young diplomat. At the end of their expedition, as they are coming down, they meet, coming up into the mountains, that very great traveller, Wilfred Thesiger. He insists that they should stay and have supper with him. In the exchange, Thesiger says, “Slight problem here. I can’t speak a word of the language. Still, it’s not really necessary”. Then he turns to the cook, who has only just been employed that morning and has never met another Englishman in his life and certainly does not speak English, and says in a loud voice, “Make some green tea, a lot of chicken and rice—three chickens”, and it is done.

I suggest that there are two morals to this story, which is a caricature of that very great traveller, Sir Wilfred Thesiger. He was a real expert. He had twice crossed the Rub al-Khali—the Empty Quarter—in Arabia. He travelled in the country with the Marsh Arabs in Iraq; he travelled extensively in north Africa. He really knew the Arab world. But the second moral is: it is no good if you are outside your area of language comfort, relying on speaking English in a loud voice. It does not do, as has just been said by the noble Earl, Lord Attlee.

As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, has said, an interpreter has to be used on some occasions but an interpreter is not enough. It is not simply a question of whether your interpreter is having a different conversation from the one you want him to have; it is that only by knowing a language do you really have an understanding of the culture, the history and the customs of the people you are dealing with. That is key. It seems that in recent conflicts in Iraqi and Afghanistan that sort of expertise and local understanding was badly needed, and surely it is equally true of the highly complex situations in Syria and Libya that we need real expertise and understanding. That is as true for the intelligence services and GCHQ as it is for the military.

Unfortunately, as has just been said, we are increasingly bad at teaching foreign languages in schools, and we seem to have taken it as perfectly normal that we should reduce the amount of effort that goes into learning foreign languages. There are one or two bright spots, thank goodness. I mentioned the Scotland China Education Network. Two weeks ago I went to a meeting of that body at a school in Perthshire, and every person in the entry year was learning Chinese. They did not have to go on doing so but they did have to go on learning at least two languages throughout their time there. It was giving them an introduction to a difficult foreign language and its culture, which is as important as it is to learn the language itself. We need much more than can be taught at school. We need, in our intelligence services and our Armed Forces, experts in the hard languages that are never going to be taught in our schools.

We had a debate earlier this year on the funding of the Foreign Office in which I asked the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, to give me figures, which he later gave in writing, about the number of people who had studied hard foreign languages in the Foreign Office. The figures he gave were very interesting; they were slightly better than those given by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. For instance, 14 people were studying Mandarin and the Foreign Office had 44 registered speakers of it, while 34 were studying Arabic, with 51 registered speakers. That is encouraging, and with it comes a greater concentration in the Foreign Office on local expertise and taking it seriously. It would be interesting to know whether that is true of the Armed Forces as well.

It would be useful if the Minister could give figures, perhaps afterwards, for some of the key hard languages. The ones I am thinking of that are going to be needed over a considerable period are Afghan Persian, or Dari, and Pashto, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan, and Arabic. I do not think we can legitimately ask for the figures of those in the intelligence services who speak hard languages, but it would be useful to have an assurance that having a sufficient number of people in command of those key foreign languages in the intelligence services is seen as essential.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on securing this debate. I must declare various interests: I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, president of the Speak to the Future campaign and vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

I want to put on record at the outset, before I go into a more critical tone, my huge admiration for the work being done by both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office language centre and the Defence Centre for Languages and Culture. As the British Academy’s report Lost for Words put it, these two establishments are,

“potential beacons of commitment to language learning across government”.

I hope this debate today will result in that commitment being strengthened even more.

There is a great deal of robust evidence about the need for, and the lack of, language skills in the Armed Forces and defence services. For the purposes of this debate we should include security and diplomacy within our terms of reference. Indeed, Sir Richard Ottaway MP, former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place, said that the language skills issue had been highlighted in almost every inquiry his Committee had undertaken since 2010. Similarly, in your Lordships’ House, the issue has been raised in a number of important Select Committee inquiries. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, referred to the report on soft power in 2014. Evidence to the EU Committee’s inquiry, The UK and Russia: Before and Beyond the Crisis in Ukraine, on which I had the privilege to serve, included a remark from a former UK ambassador to Russia that UK diplomacy had,

“suffered because of a loss of language skills, particularly in the Foreign Office”.

This view was echoed last year by the report of the House of Commons spending review of the FCO, saying that,

“the FCO has lacked the expertise, analytical capability and language skills to manage the fallout from the Arab Spring and the crisis in Ukraine”.

Publications from highly respected non-parliamentary and non-governmental sources have reached similar conclusions. The British Academy’s Lost for Words report said:

“It is clear that the lack of language skills among British officials and armed forces is both embarrassing and risks putting the UK at a competitive disadvantage”.

The University of Cambridge’s report earlier this year, The Value of Languages, said that:

“The crucial role of language and cultural understanding in the work of the armed forces was brought home in recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

Our forces’ reliance on locally employed interpreters is well known, including some controversial issues to do with their treatment post-conflict. However, as Lost for Words points out, over-reliance on native translators carries significant risks for patrols as well as, in some cases, the locals themselves. Language needs can be highly specific and exacting. Getting the accent or dialect variation wrong can have significant consequences.

Nevertheless, the Army certainly seems to be ahead of the game compared to the other armed services. The Cambridge report that I quoted from earlier, for example, refers to the fact that the Army has a comprehensive languages policy which includes identifying personnel with language skills including so-called heritage language speakers. The Army is developing an effective examination system for identifying language competences that can then be called on and used at short notice whether for operations or urgent tasks. Languages are valued, literally, with an award scheme that pays out supplements on a scale depending on usage. The Army is now funding 2,500 soldiers a year to acquire a basic language skill, equivalent to the A2 level of the common European framework.

Will this commendable and comprehensive approach from policy to payment be adopted across the other armed services? Will the Minister commend the Army’s example of auditing personnel with language skills as an exercise that should also be conducted comprehensively across the Civil Service? This was one of the British Academy’s recommendations—as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned. It has always struck me as a no-brainer, and a relatively cheap one at that, if we are serious about needing to find out what language skills we already have at our disposal. Quite apart from the ambit of today’s particular debate, this is a crucial resource to know about in the context of Brexit and post-Brexit negotiations.

Could the Minister also confirm that there will be no reduction in the budget allocated to the FCO for its language centre and that there will be more rigorous attempts to improve on the target level attainment for languages in key regions such as the Middle East and north Africa? The low targets achieved here seem to somewhat undermine the good work being done by the language centre and to fly in the face of the very positive launch given by the then Foreign Secretary—now the noble Lord, Lord Hague—when the centre was reopened in 2013. I also question whether the FCO is drawing in as many civil servants from other departments as originally envisaged, as I understand that the centre was meant to be a resource for the whole of government.

Finally, I would like to say something about the supply chain of language skills in the UK. It is all very well that the FCO and the Defence Academy are doing what they can to plug the immediate gaps that they face—and thank goodness that they are—but we also need to change the whole culture around learning foreign languages in this country and vastly to increase the number of school pupils and university students who are doing so. GCHQ, for example, suffers from the shortfall in our education system, which produces too few people competent in Mandarin, Arabic and Russian. Only six state schools currently teach Arabic on the timetable and only 16 universities out of 130 teach it. Only 1% to 2% of state schools currently offer Russian and only 14 universities offer Russian as a single honours degree, with none at all in either Wales or Northern Ireland and only three in Scotland.

The irony is that in the UK we have over 1 million school pupils who are bilingual, but all too often this is seen as a problem, not as the asset that it really is. Far more of these children should be encouraged to pursue academic qualifications in their other languages. I ask the Minister whether he will work with the Department for Education to look at ways in which the languages considered to be of particular importance to the armed services and defence and security needs more generally can be made more mainstream, so that more children study them to a higher level.

All the major studies that have looked into this issue have concluded that there needs to be government-wide co-operation on language skills. We should build on the existing cross-Whitehall language focus group, which already includes GCHQ, the Defence Centre and the MoD. Such a cross-cutting approach would also meet the call from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, which last week published a checklist for Brexit negotiators, pointing to the language needs of business and research, as well as security, defence and diplomacy.

Language skills and cultural knowledge are now deemed essential not just in military operations but in peacekeeping, post-conflict and conflict prevention. Language skills are everybody’s and every department’s business and it would be doing the UK a great service if the leadership already shown by the Army could be the catalyst for a truly national strategy for all ages and stages of education and learning.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for introducing this debate and for his contribution, which among other things centred on the availability of information. The contribution of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, about local interpreters was very useful. He seemed to conclude that we cannot do more to have our own capability, but I certainly take the view that we should. The noble Lord, Lord Wilson, stressed the importance of real expertise and noted the increasingly bad performance in schools. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for pointing to the light among the gloom, particularly in relation to the Army, and for making the important point that there is an intrinsic skill in our population, an issue to which I shall return.

The protection of the British people is the first priority of government. We, as the Opposition, remain committed to Britain’s NATO membership and to spending 2% of GDP on defence. We will stand up for our Armed Forces and ensure that they have the best support. That means leadership, equipment and training, and it is a particular aspect of training and support on which this debate centres.

War has changed. State-on-state wars ending with unconditional surrender and unresisted occupation, as in the Second World War, are becoming an out-of-date concept. The Cold War kept the ideas alive for some time, but recent wars or, perhaps more correctly, armed conflicts have been messy affairs. Enemies have been unclear. Sometimes they have been of the people; they have frequently been among the people and indistinguishable from the people. Targeted aid and diplomacy—winning hearts and minds—have been at least as important as the ability to deliver lethal force.

A key barrier to success has been communication and language. Therefore, I ask the Minister to what extent he agrees with my analysis and to what extent the Government have conducted a lessons-learned exercise into recent conflicts. In particular, have they been able to determine the extent to which better local language capability might act as a force multiplier in future “boots on the ground” deployments? Further, would such language capability improve performance if extended to DfID operatives and diplomats working in crisis situations?

To flesh that out slightly, we have an Army, what is it there to do? If it is fighting a tank battle in East Sussex, something has gone terribly wrong. Yes, the Army must be capable of offering a credible conventional opposition on NATO’s borders, but the overwhelming probability of the future is that the Army will be deployed in very messy situations—insurrections and potential civil wars—working in a local environment where English is not the language. Consider the difference in performance between a unit arriving with its own local language capability, compared with all the problems of recruiting interpreters, getting to know them and getting to work out whether you can trust them.

I have to admit, somewhat ashamedly, that I have no residual foreign language capability. However, this has not stopped me thinking about language and the role it plays. I believe that it probably has three roles. The first is direct communication—giving orders and warnings, and seeking simple intelligence. The second is understanding the society and culture in which one finds oneself, and the third—this is the bit that eluded me as a young person—is understanding how people think. At one point I was responsible for all British Airways overseas staff. When I visited them, they would constantly explain to me how the fusion of language and culture would influence local people, officials, diplomats and politicians. Does the Minister agree that, as soft power and foreign aid merge, greater language capability will pay back the investment with significantly enhanced effectiveness?

Teaching a foreign language takes many forms. My own, traditional experience led to a marginal O-level in French with barely any conversational capability. On the other hand, peers of mine went on to do modern language degrees. My charming German neighbour learned her English in the age-old way. She was a young lady in war-torn Cologne who met a young Royal Air Force meteorologist, part of the occupying power. Magically, she learned to speak English and he learned to speak German. They were married for 50 years. I give these examples to illustrate the range of different ways of teaching a language and to make the point that careful analysis of what capability is required, particularly verbal—or conversational—capability, and to whom it is being taught, may lead to more efficient training than traditional methods. Are the Government planning to increase language training, and will they make a careful analysis of available techniques?

The United Kingdom, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, noted, enjoys a rich and diverse cultural base. Immigration over centuries has created this. Many recent immigrants whose mother tongues are from areas where problems may arise have themselves struggled to learn a foreign language—English. Most will not have any formal teacher training, but they speak their native language. Particularly, they speak the language of the streets. These may be the streets and fields where our troops and aid workers may need to be deployed in future. Surely, those immigrants and their children should be recruited into any enhanced language training facility. In the longer term, should we not be recruiting individuals with useful mother tongue languages into our Armed Forces, security services and aid agencies? To fully utilise them, the military, in particular, would have to develop a more flexible approach to their deployment, but they would, surely, significantly add capability. The concept of a special reserve corps, where individuals were trained with basic “look-after-themselves” infantry capability and could be deployed in support of overseas deployments, using their native language skills, should surely be looked at as a way of increasing this capability.

This has been an interesting debate about an important aspect of the United Kingdom’s weakness in language skills. Sadly, there is little sign of the traditional methods meeting that need. It is good to hear that the Army, in particular, is making progress. I hope the Minister will find some merit in the ideas put forward by noble Lords and will be able to persuade colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and other departments that change is necessary.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

My Lords, I anticipated a constructive and interesting debate, and I have not been disappointed. I take this opportunity to thank all noble Lords who have taken part for the valuable insight and experience that they have brought to bear on this vital subject.

I shall start by directly addressing the question with which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, opened this debate—do we have sufficient speakers of foreign languages serving the Armed Forces? The answer to that is: as of today, yes, we do. The totality of defence’s operational and diplomacy requirements are being met. Furthermore, if we take as a starting point the strategic defence and security review of 2010, since then we have significantly improved the way in which we recruit, identify and train the linguists we need to achieve our defence aims. We currently have the capability to train in more than 40 languages. That is not to say that we are in any way resting on our laurels. As my noble friend Lord Attlee pointed out, our requirement for foreign language skills is ever-changing. As with many other aspects of defence, such as the purchase of ships and aeroplanes, we are trying our best to look ahead not just months but years, while retaining the ability to respond at very short notice to events as they occur.

On the one hand, there are languages that will be required no matter where—or, indeed, if—we are conducting operations. Those skilled in the major languages of commerce and diplomacy, such as French, German, Russian and Arabic, will always be required as defence attachés, training teams, exchange officers and members of headquarters and formations, and we will continue to ensure that sufficient such-skilled personnel are available. On the other hand, who would have thought that, prior to the dark events of September 2001, we would within weeks have need of expert speakers of Dari and Pashto, and require such skills in large numbers and for many years?

We now work hard to ensure that we can balance the longer, top-down requirements—those that are mostly foreseeable—with such shorter-term tactical needs that are much harder to envisage. Our systems must be flexible enough to allow for both, and we believe that they are. Also, as the noble Lords, Lord Wilson and Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, pointed out, this is about more than being just a skilled linguist. The Armed Forces recognise that any future operating environment is highly likely to present personnel with a diverse mosaic of audiences, actors, adversaries and enemies, meaning that, in the recent words of President Obama,

“in the 21st century, military strength will be measured not only by the weapons our troops carry, but by the languages they speak and the cultures that they understand”.

The Armed Forces also recognise that the breadth and depth of their understanding of these audiences need to be improved, and that culture and language skills are a key enabler in preparation for these contingencies. It is of note that the emphasis is now on both the language and the culture in which that language is used. As the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said, that is an important ingredient of UK soft power. We recognise that in order to operate effectively in such an environment, defence requires personnel with highly developed intercultural expertise. The ability to understand what is termed the “human terrain” is now rightly seen as essential to successfully operating and achieving our aims in almost all overseas operations.

To deliver those aims, defence has taken a number of strategic steps to strengthen its organisational structures, including setting the pan-defence strategic capability for culture and language. We have a joint influence board with two-star representation from across the armed services. Below that is a steering group reporting to the board, which tasks a working group responsible for staffing, development and delivery functions of the capability programme. The Defence Centre for Languages and Culture is a world-renowned training facility, parented by the Defence Academy. There is a separate authority for capability generation. These interlinked arrangements ensure that the system is capable, responsible and flexible enough to meet defence needs as they arise.

Defence can certainly not be accused of failing to take this matter seriously. I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, that in the Army, within the next few years, it will become essential for any officer wishing to make a success of their career to have skills in a foreign language. He asked what we are doing to find out who can speak what language. The Armed Forces are even now running a trawl to identify those already serving who have been hiding their linguistic skills under a bushel, and encouraging them to register these accomplishments so that they may be used not only for the benefit of defence but for themselves—as the noble Lord said, there are substantial financial rewards available for those with the skills we need. The incentives commended by my noble friend Lord Attlee are certainly there; for example, I can tell him that the daily rate of extra pay for a qualified paratrooper is £5.69, but a serviceman on operations with a valuable language skill is paid up to £70.20 per day.

The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.
The edit just sent has not been saved. The following error was returned:
This content has already been edited and is awaiting review.

It is quite a significant sum of money. We are employing many methods to ensure not only that we are harnessing existing talent within both Regular and Reserve Forces but that we can attract people into both the regulars and the reserves who already have specific linguistic talents, or who have the potential to learn languages. We will also continue to look at those already within defence to find those suitable to undertake such training.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, was—if he will forgive me for saying so—a veritable Gatling gun of questions, and I will need to take many of them away with me and write to him about them. Some of them, such as those relating to GCHQ and our agencies, I may not be able to answer on security grounds. Others, such as detailed questions relating to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which was also the subject of a number of questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, I shall need to seek advice on. However, I assure all noble Lords that I shall study their speeches after this debate and ensure that I address in writing those questions I have not answered but which are capable of being answered.

I turn to a number of those questions now. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, asked about the apparent reduction in language skills in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The FCO, like the Armed Forces, currently has sufficient linguists to achieve its objectives and aims. I will, however, get a readout from the FCO as to how it views its situation and what it is doing to address it. He asked about Army officers and language training—first, what level of skills are required and, secondly, what languages are acceptable. The Army now insists that officers must have a survival level of speaking and listening to a foreign language prior to the appointment of command at the rank of major. The level of skills required ranges from expert to functional. The Armed Forces maintain skills from across the spectrum in more than 30 operational languages. Those languages deemed to have an operational requirement are reviewed by a two-star board and a senior responsible officer on a yearly basis.

Across defence, there is a total of 655 personnel recognised as holding a functional level of qualification. The numbers that I will quote represent those individuals who fall within the examination currency period, which is three years. The actual number of personnel with language skills is almost certainly considerably higher than the figures I will give, as it includes those who have not renewed their qualification and those with a latent skill that has not been declared. I do not have figures relating to 20 years ago, which the noble Lord asked me for, but we have, for example, 108 Arabic speakers at functional, professional or expert level, and 217 French speakers, of whom 48 are expert. Of the specific languages mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Tillyorn, we have 22 speakers of Dari, of whom four are expert; 39 speakers of Farsi, of whom seven are expert; and 29 speakers of Pashto, of whom one is an expert. I emphasise that those figures do not include many others who may have fallen outside that three-year period to which I referred.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, asked how flexible defence is in responding to new language demands. I believe that we are more flexible than we were, but that is not to say that we cannot do better. We maintain a pool of linguists who can respond to contingent operational demands. The Defence Centre for Languages and Culture has an agile structure that allows it to use the commercial sector to respond to short-notice language teaching demands and, next year, the DCLC will instruct more than 370 individuals to a level of functional to expert, and a further 550 to a level below this.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, made some important points about the teaching of languages in schools and I undertake to bring them to the attention of my ministerial colleagues in the DfE. She asked whether the measures adopted by the Army will be extended across the other services—the answer is yes. All measures that I have highlighted are common across all defence personnel, both regular and reserve, and the language competency award schemes are in play here. We are, as I say, conducting a 100% audit of all personnel with a latent language skill.

I have exceeded the time allocated to me. I will, as I promised, write to noble Lords on those areas that I have not been able to cover. In the meantime, I repeat my thanks for a series of very constructive and helpful speeches.

Sitting suspended.