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8.3 p.m.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Vivian for initiating this debate on the Armed Forces and for his, as always, enjoyable and interesting speech. It is always a pleasure to me to take part in a defence debate, however often we have them, because there are so many knowledgeable and eloquent speeches to savour, although by the time I get round to saying anything, everything has already been said.

Anyone who watched the handover of Hong Kong on Monday's television could hardly have done so with dry eyes--not so much because of the end of a glorious chapter of the British Empire, although that too, of course; not so much because of uncertainty of the future of the Hong Kong people, although that too; but because of our pride in our armed services--the Black Watch lowering the British flag despite the rain, the aeroplanes flying overhead and "Britannia" sailing solemnly out into the distant oceans. We at home salute our Armed Forces and in this House particularly we battle for their interests and their welfare.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to go with the Defence Study Group to Catterick--a large military garrison initiated by Sir Robert Baden-Powell and begun in 1915. It is now the headquarters of the 19th Mechanised Brigade, with Challenger 1 tanks, Warriors and Saxon armoured vehicles. It also has an amazing, new bridge-building machine, which we saw in action. Some of them have just come back from Bosnia. Next month they are off again on unaccompanied tours to Bosnia and Northern Ireland.

One of the many interesting things we saw was their battle training school, much of which was carried on indoors with the use of the grown-up-equivalent of toy soldiers and computers. Approximately 38 groups of 100 people each can be accommodated here throughout the year. Although the battle itself is fought inside, with enormous saving to the environment, the antagonists walk beforehand through the surrounding terrain to assess where and how the battle will be fought. This they do with support and help from the local farming community over whose land they are walking. Recently, the local farmers have been writing to MoD to inform it that, if there is any ban on hunting in the future, the military will no longer be welcome on their land.

Another very interesting development, as my noble friend Lord Vivian has said, was the interaction of the military with the local community. The military are planning to build a new supermarket in the centre of their camp, which would also be available to all the local inhabitants. The nearest town, Richmond, has no suitable space available for building a new supermarket. There are also plans for the development of a restaurant, cinema, bowling alley and an all-weather sports gymnasium for the mutual benefit of military and civilians. This rapprochement between the military and the civilian environment seems to me to be the way forward for defence in the next century.

Unfortunately, it does not seem to be happening as much as they would like in the absolutely splendid Duchess of Kent Military Hospital, which is very

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anxious to have more civilian patients. Although called affectionately "The Military" by the locals, since the advent of the dread tentacles of the Defence Secondary Care Agency, it is now called the Duchess of Kent Hospital. It is still an absolutely splendid hospital with lovely doctors, nurses, wards and a very friendly atmosphere. It just would like more civilian patients. It seems to me that the Defence Secondary Care Agency is a monumental quango. It was founded in April 1996 and we were unlucky enough to observe its effects in both Haslar and Frimley hospitals, which we visited last year.

It reminds me very much of my uncle's horse, Poulet, who lived on a lovely farm in France. In the winter he ploughed his one field. In the spring he sowed clover and alfalfa in it. In the summer and autumn he harvested it and for the whole of the year he lived off the very good hay he had grown for himself.

Everyone who has spoken in this debate has spoken passionately in defence of our Armed Forces and the maintenance of their level at the moment at least. I hope that the noble Lord the Minister, whom I congratulate and welcome to his new appointment, will carry away in his heart what we have all said.

8.8 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we have indeed been discussing whether and why we need the defence review. I start from a different perspective from many who have spoken in this debate. We need to justify the current level of money spent on our Armed Forces against a sceptical public. The reason why defence was not an issue in the election campaign was because most of the electors were not thought to be interested in it. If we wish to maintain a level of defence expenditure which is considerably above the current European average, we are going to have new justifications for that which we can explain to our younger generation are as important as those which our older generation remembers.

I therefore welcome the defence review. We have had radical changes in our strategic environment in the past eight years. We have had the withdrawal of 1 million Soviet troops from central and eastern Europe; the collapse of the Warsaw Pact; the Partnership for Peace, in which British troops have become active, and within the next week the announcement of the first three, four or five candidates for the eastern enlargement of NATO.

The whole context of British defence policy has changed. That has been evident for some years. I remember during the 1992 election campaign taking the opportunity to talk to a number of senior Ministry of Defence officials about how they saw the context of British defence policy. One of them remarked that the puzzle was what British defence was now for. He said, "There is less of an evident threat to Britain now than at any time in the past 500 to 600 years".

If there is no threat to Britain, we must ask what we need our Armed Forces for, for which tasks and in conjunction with which other countries? What foreign policy objectives should Britain's defence now serve?

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As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, said, that requires us to ask what sort of a country we think we are and at which weight we wish to punch in the world. How much do we wish to spend in order to maintain a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council? Do we wish to get caught up in the argument over who has which NATO command and how many forces one wants to commit in order to maintain that? If the only argument for maintaining the First Armoured Division in Germany is so that we can maintain command of the Rapid Reaction Force, I submit that that is not a very strong argument. The French Government have got very badly hooked on the question of which NATO commands should be shared among which states. Indeed, their whole reintegration into NATO has now become caught up with the argument over the NATO southern command. That is not the sort of argument over which we should now be pursuing the question of what forces we need and for which tasks.

I can remember two previous major defence reviews. I can just remember the 1957 defence review which saw the ending of conscription and which made a radical change in our regimental system, taking away from most of our regiments their second battalion. I remember also the 1967 defence review, over which my late noble friend Lord Mayhew resigned from the then Labour Government--I very much miss his advice on defence matters. As a result of that review, economies were made and during the course of it, it was finally accepted that the British Government had been defending India for 20 years after Indian independence. We had continued to spend money on a task that was no longer worth while. We must ensure in this defence review that we do not continue to spend money on tasks which no longer exist. If the main function of our Navy is to keep open the transatlantic sea lanes to enable US reinforcements to reach central Europe against a Soviet threat which no longer exists, we must find another rationale for the balance of the Navy that we need.

We must ask ourselves the following questions: how far beyond Britain do we now wish or need to project force? As far as the Mediterranean? Further than the Mediterranean? On our own; or do we always assume that the Americans will provide us with the long-range airlift that will get us there? Are we really going to need aircraft carriers if we can expect to be able to use the airports of friendly powers in the Mediterranean in order to provide the air cover that we need?

The question of defence equipment also raises a number of large issues. Do we really need a long-range fighter aircraft--a long-range strike craft to replace Tornado--or is the long-range role for which Tornado was designed not necessary in the post-cold war world? Are we sure that a tank designed for heavy fighting in the centre of Europe is what we need for the very different tasks that we now face in this post-cold war world? Incidentally, before anyone defends Challenger--the areas of Britain in which I have been politically active have made bits for Vickers to use in Challenger--I should point out that the United States is now making one tank when the Europeans are making

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three. The question of what happens to our defence procurement industry is a very important part of the defence review.

I should like to focus in my remaining few minutes on the question of personnel in the services. Evidently, there are changing demands on our military personnel who are also drawn from our changing society. We face a problem with overstretch, most particularly in the infantry and the medical services. Two questions need to be posed on that: first, how do we more usefully use our reserves; and, secondly, what do we need to do about our regimental system? I know from last year's defence review that there were nearly 700 reserve personnel in Bosnia at any one time last year, with a number of others serving in the Falklands and elsewhere. That is a heavy use of reservists. I am conscious that our medical reservists have been particularly heavily used. Perhaps the Minister can tell me to what extent we shall continue to do that--or even to expand on it--as we move towards a military environment in which we can never be quite sure how many forces we need to use and in how many different peace enforcement operations abroad.

I should like to question the Minister on the regimental system, given that the current situation with single battalion regiments going through a complex arms plot over a series of years is not the most effective use of manpower. The regimental system, as designed by Lord Haldane, was a multi-battalion regimental system, which enabled reservists from the same regiment to be added to those on the front line. We could save a great deal of manpower in our overstretched infantry if we moved back more self-consciously to a multi-battalion regimental system. That is not to go all the way towards a corps of infantry, but it seems to me that the defence review must now consider that.

Given the changing structure of our society, we must also ask ourselves whether we can maintain a professional armed service in which the majority of those men are married and have families and yet are asked to serve abroad in repeated tasks for repeated three to six-month tours. We may have to move further towards having young, unmarried soldiers as the core of our active forces, with those who are married with family commitments being in reserve.

I echo the noble Lord, Lord Judd, in remarking, sadly, on how little our Armed Forces yet reflect the multicultural nature of our society. I noted the answer that was given to my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich last week and the information that in the six regiments of the Household Division there are currently five soldiers from our ethnic minorities. The good thing about our regimental system is that it gives a sense of belonging; the bad thing about it is that it sometimes leads to a more exclusive, clubbish atmosphere than one necessarily wants in a modern society.

We need a rethink and I welcome this defence review. We have to make changes to our Armed Forces to fit them for a changed technological and military environment and to changed demands. We are not entirely sure what those demands should be, which is

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why the foreign policy dimension of this defence review is important first, before we decide what forces we need for the tasks that we wish to fulfil.

8.18 p.m.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I too should like to express my gratitude to my noble friend Lord Vivian for tabling this debate and for introducing it so ably. If he will allow me to say this at the risk of my being assailed from behind, I have always found my noble friend, whose professional experience we all recognise, to be a very wise head in defence matters. The House is lucky to have him. I naturally associate myself with all that he has said today.

My noble friend pointed out, as did other noble Lords, that this debate is taking place under what can only be seen as the shadow of the Government's strategic defence review. A lot of us feel that a review of this magnitude is unnecessary, is damaging to morale and is liable (if the Treasury were by any chance to intervene) to lead to an extremely damaging diminution of this country's military capability. I do not want to repeat the fears that I expressed in the debate on the gracious Speech a few weeks ago, but my fears still stand.

The key questions to be asked in this review, to summarise what a number of noble Lords have said, are these: does the UK wish to step back from its responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council? Is the UK's commitment to NATO any less relevant or important than before? Are our interests overseas any less relevant or important? Are the defence roles and mission types that we have defined for the forces in need of redefinition? I am clear that the answer to all four of those questions is: no. Nevertheless, the Government, as is their prerogative, have embarked on this extended review.

For our part, we wish to impress upon them our belief, so effectively pointed out by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne in his remarks on power projection--which was in different ways echoed by many noble Lords--that it is a grave error to remove any of the fundamental building blocks of our defence and war-fighting capability at a time when international tensions and sudden crises can spring up without warning to surprise us. The fine speech of the noble Earl, Lord Effingham, about the Royal Navy and joint operations deserves close study. It was worthy of his distinguished ancestor.

I referred to morale. If the services believe, as surely they must, that changes are in prospect for them, and if they are asked to be more efficient, as surely they will be, they must continue to feel valued and not just costed. They must believe that budgets and money are not the only measures of performance but that there is an underlying wish on the part of government to give them stability in return for their service and commitment. Change for any organisation is inevitable, and the services have always recognised this. I am sure that these arguments will not be lost on the Minister of all people. Indeed, the purported aim of the defence review is to make stability possible. But after so many recent changes, however necessary those may have been, the

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risk to long-term morale is obvious. We should never forget that in the end morale is the commodity that wins battles.

The second part of my comments relates to public perceptions. The title chosen by my noble friend for his Motion may appear to be a touch formulaic:

    "To call attention to the importance of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom".

That title acts, as we have seen from this excellent debate, as a hook on which to hang a wide range of defence-related topics. But to call attention to the Armed Forces and the importance of their work is the essence of what needs to be done both inside and outside Parliament, because when in due course the Government come forward with proposals arising from the strategic defence review, it is important that everyone understands their significance for the defence of this country, for the NATO alliance and our place within it and for our wider interests overseas. My noble friends Lord Vivian and Lady Park made this point effectively.

The trouble is that I doubt whether there has been a time within living memory when the armed services have been so little seen or understood by the public at large. The reasons for this are obvious. It is 50 years since the country has been involved in a major war. The percentage of families with direct experience of the military is low. Ironically, the very circumstances that have led the forces for 28 years to play a prominent and vital role--those in Northern Ireland--have obliged them to adopt a much reduced public profile in mainland UK. For reasons of security one does not now see military uniforms on the streets, and that is regrettable.

Looking back over my time at the Ministry of Defence, I am conscious that a large proportion of the correspondence that crossed my desk involved in one way or another building bridges with the general public on the activities of the armed services. Undoubtedly, the issue most frequently complained of was low flying. When I arrived at the MoD I did not know what "Minister for Low Flying" meant. My staff told me that I would soon find out--and I did. No one pretends that low flying by fast jets is an environmentally friendly activity. It can be very unpleasant for those who experience it on the ground. But the public must understand how absolutely essential it is for the RAF to fly at low levels and for the air space over the country as a whole to be available to them. The United Kingdom is simply not big enough to allow numerous avoidance areas to be created other than over conurbations. We rely on the RAF to perform to the most exacting standards when it matters. We must allow them the scope, provided they do not utilise it more than is strictly necessary, to keep these skills sharpened.

All this underlines the importance of maintaining such simple initiatives as the forces' three presentation teams and encouraging responsible television documentaries such as the "Defence of the Realm" series broadcast last year. I hope very much that the Royal Tournament will not fall victim to budgetary cheeseparing, because that show is surely one of the best and most enjoyable ways of keeping the skills and professionalism of the three services in the public eye.

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My noble friend who so ably chairs the all-party defence study group does much to promote knowledge of service issues in your Lordships' House and in the other place. But I was not surprised to hear him acknowledge the general ignorance of defence issues that exists in Parliament, particularly among MPs. One of my more pleasant responsibilities as a Minister was for the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. It was an inspired idea on the part of Sir Neil Thorne and a wonderful way of bringing service life alive to Members of Parliament. With the extent of the new intake in the other place at the election, I believe that there is a case for expanding the numbers of scheme participants during the next few years.

But let us not forget two important links that happily do exist between the services and the public: the reserve forces and the cadets. More than is now the case with the regular army, the TA maintains its regional, county-based ties. Today, 130,000 youngsters take part in the cadet movement. Upwards of 55,000 men and women from all walks of life honour a commitment to military training with the TA, some in very valuable specialist disciplines. Many thousands more serve with the RNR, the RMR and the RAF reserves. The Reserve Forces Act 1996 should give those reservists greater opportunity than before to go on active service alongside the regular forces.

A few years ago a great deal of thought was given to what the optimum size of the TA should be to meet today's needs. I believe that the current establishment of 59,000 is about right. Certainly it should not be any lower. If the Government are ever tempted to cut them I trust that they will remember that for the flexibility they give us and the centres of expertise that they embody the reserve forces are a relatively inexpensive insurance policy against the unexpected. I hope that the Minister will feel able to acknowledge their value when he comes to speak, despite the constraints under which he operates as a result of the ongoing review.

To judge the importance of the Armed Forces, look around the world at what they are doing for this country, from the Falklands to Bosnia, from the Caribbean to Iraq, to protect our interests and those of the civilised world. Look at the skill with which they do it. Look at the compliments paid to them by our friends and allies overseas, from the French President downwards. Those who look at these matters are in no doubt that the Armed Forces perform an essential role on behalf of us all--a role in which we as a country can take real pride.

8.28 p.m.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I have no difficulty whatever in joining all of your Lordships in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, for initiating this debate. As a very new recruit to your Lordships' House, if I ever had any doubt about the wisdom of leaving the other place and coming to this House it has been removed by being able to listen to the quality of debate that I have heard today. I say frankly and not with tongue in cheek that this evening I have learnt a very great deal from this wide-ranging debate. It has illuminated many of the questions that the Strategic Defence Review will have to consider.

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I recognise that not all noble Lords welcome the review. I also recognise that there is concern, some of it sceptical and some of it even cynical, that it will be Treasury led and just another excuse for cuts. The assurance I give is that it will be led by Foreign Office Ministers and not Foreign Office officials. The Treasury will of course probably try to get involved in it, but it is up to us, the Defence Ministers, to justify the present resources that the country devotes to its own defence. I hope that we will have little difficulty in doing so.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, for recognising that the Labour Government have made a commitment to strong defence. That is unambiguous. If any noble Lords doubt that, I recommend, in particular noble Lords opposite that they go back to their files of the Daily Telegraph and read the article that the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister, wrote on the subject of defence. I believe that they will be satisfied with the Prime Minister's attitude to the importance of proper defence of this country.

The noble Lord asked also about dependent territories. I can give him the unequivocal assurance that he wanted: of course it will remain our policy to be responsible for the defence of the dependent territories. I am in the habit of teasing my American friends on that subject by pointing out that even though we have just lost 95 per cent. of the population of what I still call the British Empire this week, the sun still does not set upon it if we take into account our islands in the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the north and south Atlantic and the Caribbean. One's American friends are quite teased by that revelation.

Many noble Lords have raised concerns about undermanning and over-stretch. It is no secret that that is a problem in all three services. I cannot invite noble Lords to be optimistic that those problems will be solved overnight. Recruitment is a problem; premature voluntary retirement is a problem; and retaining recruits is also a problem. In that last respect, noble Lords may be interested in an experiment that is being conducted by the Royal Navy in which, because it was so concerned by the proportion of recruits that it was losing during initial training (up to 25 per cent.), it has introduced an imaginative new scheme whereby it identifies at an early stage of the training process which recruits are likely to be slow learners, and which might need special handling because of their backgrounds. It has separated them into different streams for training, and it is finding the results encouraging. I hope that we may be able to expand such an approach to recruitment in the other services.

I recognise that there is some apprehension about the need for the review. I can assure your Lordships that it is supported by the chiefs of staff. It was at his own insistence, not that of the Secretary of State, that the Chief of Defence Staff sat next to the Secretary of State at the press conference when he announced the review. In case your Lordships are worried about the principles of these matters, I should point out that in the USA--I do not say that they do things better there--they are used to having quadrennial defence reviews, and no one becomes too agitated about them.

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The main thing about the review that I hope everyone in the House and outside will recognise is that we want everyone to be heard. I have written to many noble Lords with a defence interest. If I have overlooked any, I apologise. I extend to all noble Lords an open invitation to write to me about the defence review. Several noble Lords have already done so. I am extremely grateful to them for the contributions that they have already made. They will receive a response in due course.

Many questions have been asked about the regimental system. I cannot give unqualified guarantees that at the end of the review the regimental system will be the same as it is today because if one kept on giving guarantees that this would not be changed, that would not be changed, and something else was sacrosanct, there would be no point in having a review. I assure your Lordships that the Government recognise the value of the regimental system. I took seriously the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, in his thought-provoking speech, about the type of regimental system. Those will be matters which we shall of course be considering. I hope that the noble Lord will be contributing to the review. I do not know whether he is invited to one of the seminars.

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