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Lord Garden: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, on his appointment as the Minister in the hot seat at the MoD and thank him for his kind remarks as I take up position as his opposite number on these Benches. We are all only too well aware of the difficulty that successive governments have had in trying to improve our defence procurement. We wish the noble Lord every success and hope that his business expertise will be put to good use in improving this key area of military capability. I enjoyed sparring with his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and I wish him well in his new ministerial appointment. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on his arrival. I have already thanked the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, for her contributions when she had that slot.

This debate on foreign affairs, defence and international development aspects of the gracious Speech is particularly important. As the Minister said, they are interdependent factors: you do not get just a military or foreign policy solution; you must weave them together. Inevitably, I will focus on the defence aspects, but that is not to say that the others are not equally important. Other speakers will deal with our wider role in Europe, for example, while I confine myself to security. Development assistance in Africa has been a recurring theme but we must consider the security situation and the military implications of what is happening in Darfur. There are many foreign policy challenges in the wider Middle East but we still have a deep military practical problem in Iraq.

As usual, the gracious Speech was a little short on detail on future defence policy, apart from the undertaking to establish a unified system of service law, the principle of which we support. I therefore delved into the Labour manifesto to get better guidance. Chapter seven gives little detail on the way ahead. It congratulates our Armed Forces and justifies the cuts already announced, but there is little detail on future programmes.

The most encouraging pledge in the Labour manifesto was:

We agree with those fine sentiments. We shall hold the Government to account against those standards and hope that they will be more successful than they were in the first two terms.

The lack of public debate during the election over the place of defence in our national priorities was unsurprising. There are many issues to consider. I commend the analysis by Michael Codner that appeared in the journal of the Royal United Services Institute—I declare an interest as a council member of the RUSI—and that was reprinted in The House Magazine just before the election. It reminds us that in defence we cannot have everything and do everything. Our responsibility as politicians is to make the best judgment about the balance of risks and costs. We now have much less certainty, as we heard from the Minister, about the
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international framework within which we will need to use our military capability. We have heard in the gracious Speech about the need to strengthen commitment to the continued effectiveness of Nato. Yet we perhaps need to consider whether we are putting enough thought into where Nato itself is going. I understand that the alliance is formulating a comprehensive political guidance document. We need to know what will be in it. What is the Government's position on the elements for a future Nato?

The post-Iraq strains between Nato members have not disappeared totally. There are particular problems of Nato and EU relations since the accession of Malta and Cyprus to the European Union. Will the Government be using their presidency of the EU to make progress in getting NATO and the EU to talk more together?

Our other major military co-operation project is within the EU. We welcome the emerging work of the European Defence Agency and that of Mr de Vries, the European Union counter-terrorism co-ordinator. In his wind-up speech, will the Minister indicate how intelligence sharing arrangements are progressing for military and counter-terrorism aspects of EU security?

The transfer of the Bosnia responsibility from NATO to the EU appears to have been made without major problems. Work is also going on on the new EU battlegroups. How many of those are now operational? In what EU training have UK forces been involved? Is there now a proper evaluation and standardisation system in place to measure readiness and operational effectiveness?

The gracious Speech concluded with an undertaking to deepen and develop the strong partnership between Europe and the United States. I am sure that other noble Lords will comment later on the wider challenges implicit in that undertaking.

In the defence area, we are ever more closely hitched to the accelerating American wagon. That gives added strains to the budget as we try to keep up with a nation spending such colossal amounts on research. Not only is our close relationship providing those difficulties of funding, we also have a difficulty of technology transfer, which we have discussed on many occasions. I hope that we will see some efforts from the Government to get over the technology transfer problems that we have had. In that context, the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, might want to reconsider our position on lifting the EU embargo on arms sales to China, which is compounding that difficulty.

I now turn to operations. There are so many of them that we cannot deal with them all, although I am sure that other noble Lords will speak about them today. Iraq hangs over all of our defence planning at present. I urge the Government to push for a clearer strategy for the future of our military contribution in Iraq. Now that we have a transitional Iraqi Government, a political timetable and a UN resolution, although they may have to be delayed, the components are there. We need a plan that brings together the military, the economic and the
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political so that we can judge where we are making progress, where we are not making progress and where we need to put resources.

If we allow strategic drift and leave it to the Iraqi Government to tell us when they do not need us any more, we are putting our strategy in the hands of the insurgents. An agreed timetable for overseas forces to reduce as Iraqi security capabilities increase, coupled to the political process over the coming year, would provide a challenge and a degree of urgency to get resources where they are needed. Such a plan would need to be revisited regularly. It would highlight where the strategy was succeeding and where it was failing. It would help to keep some of the wavering allies aboard. It would give hope to the Iraqis that the occupying forces will leave in due course.

I call, as I have on previous occasions, for the Government to publish objective, regular and comparable statistical data on the security and economic situation in Iraq so that we can see where we are succeeding and where more effort is needed. I congratulate the UNDP on its efforts in trying to fill that gap, which is so important.

The Minister talked about the Afghanistan commitment, which of course is another continuing commitment. It would be helpful if the Minister could update us on the plans for using the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps headquarters. What additional scale of British troop involvement will come out of this, given that we are the framework nation for the headquarters? How will it relate to the continuing fighting operations that the US is leading in Afghanistan under the banner of Operation Enduring Freedom?

Of course, the Balkan situation is by no means over as a military operation. It would be useful to hear what the Government's strategy is for Kosovo on the political, military and economic fronts. Do the contingency plans for a worsening situation there assume that we have yet more British forces available?

When the Minister winds up, I am sure that he will refer to our plans for helping Africa. The gracious Speech referred to the continuing conflict in Darfur. Resolution will need some form of peacekeeping forces. Given our focus on that issue, is that yet another commitment on which we will see some significant British contribution from the military? In any event, when it comes to those forces, do the British Government advocate them going out under a NATO or an EU banner?

The final operational theatre that I have time to mention is Northern Ireland. The Labour manifesto highlights that the reduction in infantry battalions has been made possible because of the improved security situation. Do the Government accept that, while the security situation can change in a matter of months, it takes years to replace forces once they have been disbanded?

Even that brief survey of the commitments with which we expect our Armed Forces to cope shows how the continuing operational tempo is remorseless for them. Given that the numbers of Armed Forces are declining, our level of risk is increasing.
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As regards equipment, I am sure that there will be plenty of chances to debate that in the months ahead. The Minister has defence procurement as his prime task. The Government have indicated that they need to consider the replacement of Trident during this Parliament. Such forward planning is entirely sensible, even for a system with a lifespan of 30 years where the capability came into service only in the period 1994 to 1999. It will be a discussion that we will welcome on these Benches. I am sure that the wider public will wish to debate it. I welcome the assurance yesterday from the new Defence Secretary, Dr Reid, that he will make this an open and inclusive process. That is an important decision which Parliament needs to address.

Time will not allow me to go through a detailed list of the delays and difficulties with various equipment projects, to which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, also referred. Those of us who have been involved in fighting the recent general election are only too well aware of the problems when the electorate expects us to secure jobs in local industries. In nearly all industries apart from defence governments have encouraged the benefits of greater competition. Indeed, the Minister referred to wanting a competitive defence industry within defence industrial policy. But defence tends to be an exception, partly because of a wish to keep a national defence manufacturing capability, partly because of exemption from EU competition policy and partly because of the political imperative to retain jobs.

I trust that the noble Lord will look carefully at the way things appear to be going. Under the new defence industrial policy, we appear to be putting in place systems that are less competitive rather than more competitive. Lack of competition will lead to increased costs, delays in delivery and reduced military effectiveness. Perhaps most importantly, the short-term apparent kindness of over-protection leads to a long-term decrease in international competitiveness and a decline in our industrial base.

Finally, I turn to the question of people; namely, those in the Armed Forces, the civilians who support them and all the families who make so many sacrifices. I have said before that the dedication of the Armed Forces in one sense makes them their own worst enemies. As they are expected to do more and more with less and less, they strain every sinew to do a good job. But it is at a price. I cannot remember a time of such cynicism in the services.

The remorseless grinding down of the defence inflation effect means that, regardless of the welcome small real increases in defence budgets, the Ministry of Defence has a big financial problem which reaches down, because of the budgetary process, to the lowest level. The infinite irritations of penny-pinching measures, coupled with the decade of downsizing, is sapping the life out of our Armed Forces.

I follow closely the detailed statistics provided by the Defence Analytical Services Agency, which show the rising exits under premature voluntary retirement from all three services. While recruiting may be
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adequate, helped by the large-scale inputs from Fiji, the costs in terms of loss of experience, training and capability are great.

The Armed Forces are this country's last line of defence in so many areas. We need them to cope with emergencies, both manmade and natural. We want them to be at the frontline of making the world a better and safer place, yet it is difficult for them to voice their concerns and they feel support is ebbing away.

Nor do our Armed Forces feel connected to this place, to Parliament. Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, and I sat in the Gallery in the other place watching the debate there. It finished early because there were not enough Members interested in speaking on defence and foreign policy matters. Happily, that is not the case for today's debate in your Lordships' House.

Our servicemen have difficulty with parliamentary representation given their itinerant lifestyle. The difficulties over service voting have, I hope, raised this as an issue which we need to address later. I have written to the chairman of the Electoral Commission, copied to the Defence Secretary, with a series of proposals which we need to take forward to make the Armed Forces feel that they have some proper representation of their interests. I trust that the Ministry of Defence will support this initiative.

In every debate and every defence Question, your Lordships rightly pay tribute to the dedication, loyalty, courage and competence of the men and women of our Armed Forces. They are the ultimate public servants, giving up the easy life for the exhilaration, adventure and personal satisfaction of serving in the Armed Forces. The sacrifices that they make are real in terms of family stability, risk of physical and, indeed, mental injury and lack of personal freedom.

It is a volunteer, professional force, and each individual member of the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force will weigh the pluses and the minuses of military life in deciding whether to stay or go. The Government have a responsibility to the nation to make sure that the balance does not tilt so far into the negative that we lose our unique military capability.

12.2 pm

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