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House of Lords

Tuesday, 17th December 2002.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Portsmouth.

Royal Assent

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Consolidated Fund (No. 2) Act,

Appropriation (No. 2) Act.

Strategic Defence Review

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress they have made in implementing the Strategic Defence Review, particularly in respect of the capability to engage in expeditionary warfare on land.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach): My Lords, since 1998 we have implemented over two-thirds of the key Strategic Defence Review (SDR) measures. We have made good progress towards more flexible and rapidly deployable expeditionary forces. The New Chapter work built on the Strategic Defence Review. It looked at countering international terrorism and asymmetric attack, and at building network-enabled capability. Our Armed Forces will need to continue to evolve to meet the needs of the 21st century. Next year's defence White Paper will set out how we plan to take this forward.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. In so doing, I remind the House that I have an interest in this area. The SDR is a very detailed, and, indeed, a very good defence plan. However, can the Minister say what progress is being made as regards the detail? For example, what progress is he making in establishing—and, most importantly, equipping—a Royal Logistics Corps water transport squadron?

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Bach: My Lords, noble Lords seem to think that I do not know the answer to the noble Earl's question, but I do.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Bach: My Lords, we are in the process of procuring a new fleet of water tankers and fuel tankers. If the noble Earl will be patient, a decision will be made

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very soon. By 2004, that fleet of tankers will provide highly capable and reliable capability. Before then, prudent contingency planning will ensure that we have sufficient off-road fuel carrying capability to meet any likely operational requirements.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, the SDR expeditionary strategy relies heavily on aircraft carriers. In view of HMS "Ocean" being in refit for the foreseeable future, can the noble Lord say what measures the Government are taking to ensure that aircraft carriers are available?

Lord Bach: My Lords, aircraft carriers will be available if they are needed. There is no question of any shortage in that field. As the noble Lord will know, by 21st January of next year we intend to choose which of two competing companies will be responsible for the construction of two new aircraft carriers that emerge straight out of the Strategic Defence Review, the first one of which we hope will sail in 2012.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, is the Minister able to tell the House to what extent the Defence Medical Services will be able to meet the possible challenges of the coming months?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we have acknowledged the manning and equipment shortfalls in the DMS, and are addressing those matters. We are committed to manning the services fully. Recruitment into training is generally satisfactory. Retention of experienced personnel is the main problem facing the DMS. Improved retention is the key element in our plans. We recognise that both financial and non-financial measures have a part to play in the process. Up until now, the Defence Medical Services have met all the operational commitments placed upon them. I am sure that they will continue to do so in the future.

Viscount Slim: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House the current position in the Ministry of Defence regarding the sustainability of a force for a longish period of duty in the field? Is it not a fact that we are short of medium and heavy lift? Further, can the noble Lord say what we are doing—and, if so, where—about training the Armed Forces for war?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we believe that the capability and sustainability of UK Armed Forces to engage in expeditionary warfare on land was demonstrated most successfully during Exercise Saif Sareea II last year, as well as in operations in recent years; for example, in the Balkans, in East Timor, in Sierra Leone, and in and around Afghanistan. I can tell the House that the strategic sealift service will provide six ro-ro vessels for routine freighting, three of which are already in service with a fourth being not far away from that stage. As

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for strategic airlifts, as the noble Viscount will know, pending the introduction of the A400M aircraft we have leased four C17 aircraft that are doing a fine job.

Lord Clark of Windermere: My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister advise the House what part it is intended that the British Armed Forces will play in the 25,000 strong NATO rapid reaction force?

Lord Bach: My Lords, we have led the ambitions for such a force. We have played an important role in ensuring that such a force becomes a central part of NATO policy. It follows, therefore, that we shall play an important part in such a force.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, in the event—

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, can the Minister confirm—

Noble Lords: Cross Bench!

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I do not believe that there has been a Conservative questioner since the original Question was put.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, can the Minister confirm, or otherwise, that ships are being chartered in readiness to take troops to the Gulf, and that tanks are being prepared for desert warfare?

Lord Bach: My Lords, as to the noble Lord's first question, I cannot confirm, "or otherwise". The answer to his second question is, yes. It is true that work is being carried out on the Challenger 2 tank as we speak.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, in the event of a major conflict, to what extent will the Defence Medical Services be dependent on reserve personnel called up from the Territorial Army? What effect is that likely to have on an understaffed National Health Service?

Lord Bach: My Lords, if a medium-scale war-fighting force were needed to be deployed on operations, the Defence Medical Services would need to call out reservists in order to meet the operational commitment. As to the second part of the noble Lord's question, that is currently a matter for discussion between the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, the noble Lord said that tanks are being prepared. How many tanks actually are prepared?

Lord Bach: Enough, my Lords.

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NHS: Staffing

2.43 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they intend to take to recover the staff who have been persuaded to leave the National Health Service to join the private healthcare sector.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the Government are implementing a range of measures to improve the recruitment, retention and return of staff in the NHS, including improved pay, more flexible and supportive family working conditions, greater access to childcare and more training.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Did he see the newspaper report of 27th November on the Secretary of State's speech to the CBI? It states that the Secretary of State said that,

    "when the Civil Service did find someone with the right skills and experience for negotiating . . . he was frequently poached by the private sector".

Does the Minister think that anything can be done to improve the return of private dentists, for example, who went private because they could no longer continue in the health service?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: Generally, my Lords, in most of the professions, we are not aware of overt poaching by the private sector from the National Health Service. However, I am well aware of the issues which the noble Baroness raises in relation to dentists. I think that the number of dentists with GDS contracts with the NHS has in fact increased, although the amount that each does has probably decreased. I believe that the solution lies in the discussions between the department and the profession to look at the current contract and get dentists off what they feel is the treadmill of NHS work. We seek to give them a more rewarding career in NHS dentistry, and we are very keen to work with the profession on that.

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