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Lord Garden: My Lords, providing security was a strong theme of the gracious Speech and the noble Lord, Lord Bach, rightly spoke of the challenges we face, particularly in the defence field. We have often said in this House that our armed services have continued to operate impressively in all they have been asked to do. We are indeed fortunate to have such dedicated and professional service men and women to call on for an extraordinary range of tasks.

However, it is often said that, when it comes to the battle for resources, the armed services are their own worst enemy. Despite successive cutting of force levels, problems over equipment and under-strength units, they manage to complete each and every operation with distinction. In the hard world of public sector funding, there is no reward for such success; the reverse is the case. Failed enterprises are top of the list for extra resources. Defence resources since 1997 have just about kept level with inflation and we are grateful for that, but of course every other part of the public sector has done much better than that. I would caution Her Majesty's Government to think hard about the long-term health of Britain's Armed Forces. In that respect, I would like briefly to address three linked issues: commitments, personnel and, as the Minister did, future policy.

On commitments, the Defence Select Committee, in its June report, stated:

Overstretch is an often misused concept. The military can react to surge demands and deliver 110 per cent effort. Indeed, that is what the military ethos is all about. The difficulty comes when such efforts are called upon repeatedly, with little time for broader training between demanding operational tours. It is cumulative and insidious. There are few signs that Her Majesty's Government are facing up to this problem.

On our commitments, we have Iraq as a central priority for some time to come. We need to manage that commitment wisely. In Afghanistan, we again have a responsibility as we have heard. Our contribution to the NATO force is relatively modest, but looking forward to when the ACE Rapid Reaction Force headquarters deploys to Afghanistan next year, we will, as the framework nation, presumably find ourselves with a larger commitment. In the Balkans, we appear to expect to take a lead role as NATO hands over to the EU in Bosnia at the end of the year. And Kosovo is not going as well as we might have hoped.

Presumably, we would also wish to be involved in any international security arrangement that flows from progress over peace for Israel and Palestine. In Africa, the tasks continue for all our military. The excellent news that the European Union is to develop a number of battle groups for rapid deployment comes with extra commitments for our troops. We will expect our Armed Forces to deal with many other tasks and contingencies. I look for reassurance from the
 
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Minister that we have a strategic, long-term approach to keeping our global commitments more in balance with our force size.

Your Lordships have much debated the changes inherent in the Government's latest defence White Paper. The Defence Select Committee has stated:

That has been a refrain in earlier speeches. But it is going to happen and will exacerbate the over-commitment problem for the sustained stabilisation operations in which we find ourselves engaged. Bizarrely, it means that, at a time of overstretch, we are looking yet again at redundancy in the services. This will be the third major downsizing since the end of the Cold War. I am sure the Prime Minister has now been briefed that we are looking at real reductions in the numbers of people in each of the three services.

It appears that compulsory redundancies will be needed only in the Royal Air Force—and there is a significant reduction there—and that natural wastage will be used in the other two services. I would ask the Minister to take a personal interest in how the process is handled. It is a question not only of sensitive management of those who are asked to leave, or who are not to be re-engaged—often after many years of loyal service—but also of the effect on those who remain. We have seen redundancy schemes in the past which, because of poor handling, have had a long-term adverse effect on morale. A second aspect of the draw-down is ensuring that its phasing does not make worse the shortfalls in units and compound yet again the overstretch problem.

Finally, I address the question of future defence policy. We are still equipping to meet the framework that was set out in the Strategic Defence Review of 1998, but we have had to rebalance that given the emphasis of, and the changes described in, Delivering Security in a Changing World. Getting that balance right is extremely difficult for any government. No defence White Paper of which I am aware in the past 25 years has stood the test of time.

The Government are making long-term plans for an uncertain future. Past experience suggests that we will always have to be flexible with our Armed Forces and use them with whatever capabilities they have to hand on the day. For this reason, it is vital not to be too prescriptive, but to look for general-purpose capabilities. I am concerned that we may find ourselves in a futile chase to keep up with novel, American approaches to warfare. The gracious Speech looked for the continued effectiveness of NATO. That will come from working with our European Union partners to develop capabilities to contribute more effectively to global security needs.

On this occasion, I am going to refrain from picking over the bones of the National Audit Office's concerns about procurement cost overruns. I am sure that the Minister will be grateful for that. Such rises in costs as come from defence procurement are endemic to the
 
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system. My real concern is that successive governments bail themselves out of those problems by cutting back on personnel. The latest NAO report, of last week, on urgent operational requirements for Iraq 2003 shows that we can actually do quite well and get much of the equipment we need at relatively short notice in an emergency. I offer my congratulations to the Ministry of Defence on how well it did in that circumstance. However, what we cannot do is whistle up trained and experienced service men and women at short notice, whether they are helicopter pilots, sappers, sailors, or military doctors. If the Armed Services are provided for emergencies, they must have some slack in their establishments.

The gracious Speech was strong on the threat to the UK from international terrorism. The Defence Select Committee, in its fifth report in June, worried about the fact that the Ministry of Defence presumes that its role in homeland security will be undertaken by whatever is not being used for other tasks. I tried, and failed, to get a specific duty in this respect to be put on the Ministry of Defence in the Civil Contingencies Bill. The Defence Secretary has said that it would not be sensible to have,

I believe that that is exactly what we need. If there were to be a large-scale terror attack in the UK which perhaps involved CBRN agents, we would see a very marked reappraisal of where our defence priorities lay. Will the Government undertake to review the contribution that they require of the Armed Forces in the direct defence of the United Kingdom?

Providing security is more than just a defence policy; it is a balance between foreign policy, international development and defence. I look forward to listening to the views of other noble Lords in those areas.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, with a list of 48 speakers, I shall try not to irritate your Lordships by speaking for too long. First, I thank my noble friend Lord Bach for all that he has done for the war widows and for his kind and generous words about them and myself on Wednesday 17 November, when I was not able to be in the House.

I shall only reiterate what many noble Lords have already said—although I am sorry that we shall not hear the authoritative voices of my noble and gallant friends Lord Bramall, Lord Boyce, Lord Craig of Radley, Lord Inge and Lord Vincent. However, I shall say it differently, like the man on the blue guitar. I shall speak on defence, and I have only two points to make.

First, although we have fewer people than many other nations and we are only a small island—well, lots of small islands—we are still a major player in the world's foreign policies and can still punch above our weight. We have given to the world our system of justice, our constitution and our language. Although the first two seem to be cracking considerably at the seams, the English language remains one of our gems. So do our Armed Forces—and it is because of their total excellence that we have for so
 
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long been able to contribute so splendidly to world security. However, they are now under considerable strain. The regimental system is being attacked at home, while they are fighting abroad. Vast and unpalatable changes are being made. It is like when the Government tried to get rid of counties and make huge amorphous areas. That did not work, and we had to go back to where we were, more or less. Change should be like the tide or the seasons: there, but imperceptible.

My noble friend the Minister has painted a bright picture of new equipment and more money for the defence budget. That, of course, is all very nice—but on what is all the new money to be spent? Without frontline people, properly equipped, trained and rested, no number of civil servants in the MoD or sophisticated new weapons are any use at all. Some years ago, I was in an aeroplane with Sir John Betjeman and his teddy bear, Archie, and we talked—and, because I was Scottish, he jotted down a little Scottish verse he had written on a piece of old paper. It ran something like this:

I never knew what "boluses" were, but "policies" was used in the old Scottish way, meaning gardens and ornamental land around mansion houses. Policies need people to preserve them. They need people to cut the lawns, to sweep the leaves, to trim the hedges and stop them becoming a wilderness. So do foreign policies, in the more ordinary sense of the word, need people. They need—which we still have—a magnificent force of service personnel to support them. Whatever we do, we must not cut down our regiments. We need all our regiments, especially our Scottish regiments, and particularly my local regiment, the Black Watch.

Even this afternoon, in No. 10 Downing Street, the Lord Provost of Perth and other important people are telling the Prime Minister how many people in Scotland will vote for the party that retains the Scottish regiments as they are now.

For the past fortnight, many of your Lordships, as I have too, have attended memorial services, laid wreaths of poppies for the fallen, comforted the widows and orphans and prayed for the living. I think the time has come to listen to our hearts.


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