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Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I must start by declaring an interest as honorary colonel of a Royal Engineers TA regiment and as patron of a Sea Cadets unit which carries out wonderful work in training young people in maritime awareness skills, very ably supported by the Royal Navy.

I also warmly welcome the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, to his appointment to speak for defence in this House and as the Minister for defence procurement. The noble Lord will find that this House is very interested in defence and is very well informed. We are very grateful that the noble Lord offers his services unpaid. Is that a very generous gesture by the noble Lord or perhaps an absolute necessity, given the increasing strain on the MoD's budget? We shall miss the noble Lord, Lord Bach, who has moved from the battlefields of defence to the greener pastures of rural affairs and agriculture. As with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, will find that we shall support him when he is right, but we shall oppose him when he is wrong.

I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, on his new appointment. He came to this House with a reputation as a shrewd political administrator, a reputation that he has enhanced here. I congratulate him on successfully making that transition, while saying how much I shall miss the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, on the other side of the Dispatch Box.

I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Garden. I had a very constructive working relationship with his predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and I very much hope that we can continue that.

As my noble friend Lord Howell said, I shall focus on the defence aspects of the debate. My noble friends Lord Howell and Lady Rawlings have covered important aspects of foreign affairs and international development. It would be impossible to comment on
 
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every speech, but I want to say how grateful we were on these Benches for the warm words that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, said about our late friend Lord Campbell of Croy, who always spoke with great authority on defence matters.

My noble friend Lord Lyell mentioned the Lords Defence Group. What he failed to say was that, with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, he runs that important group very capably and we are very grateful to both of them.

I pay tribute to the commitment and dedication of our Armed Forces wherever they are deployed. We thank them for their loyalty.

Today's debate has illuminated many of the distinct threads that constitute a coherent international policy. It is the quality and reliability of our Armed Forces that guarantees our country's security and its ability to play its particular constructive and stabilising role in the world.

The British Prime Minister has a great advantage in international negotiations. For, when it comes down to it, no one will underestimate the value of the British Armed Forces, what they can do and what, if necessary, they will do.

Defence policy under Labour seems dangerously adrift. The SDR and successive White Papers have done little to put us back on course. Repeatedly, there has been a gulf between the Government's promises and their delivery, between analysis and solutions, and between what is being asked of our Armed Forces and the resources at their disposal.

The SDR declared its intention to put security and foreign policy needs at the heart of our defence policy. Those who warned at the time that the invisible hands of the Treasury would shape the outcome have seen their fears realised. One of the review's premises was the understanding that change might be for the worse, not just for the better, and that the so-called peace dividend, following the end of the Cold War, might only be temporary. There has been change for the worse as our Armed Forces, including, as my noble friend Lord Freeman said, the reserves, have been required to deploy further afield and far more frequently than was ever envisaged.

Contrary to logic and best practice, this has not prompted a revision of the planning assumptions. We have instead witnessed an insidious programme of Treasury-led cuts, using the genuine need for modernisation as a stalking horse, while the central problems—among them overstretch and under-manning—have been allowed to snowball.

It seems to me that the Government are turning their back on their own lessons and those of history. Our Armed Forces are our insurance against the unexpected. We are, in the words of the First Sea Lord, "taking on risk on risk". Surely the lessons from the operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and, particularly, Iraq are that numbers matter, particularly infantry numbers.

Our Ministers face critical choices about the future rule of our troops in Iraq, especially as later this year we will see the withdrawal of our allies, the Polish
 
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forces, from the multinational division central. Our other allies may expect us to cover this gap, but will we be able to do so? Do we have enough troops to take on that commitment? Do we have enough troops to continue the important training of the Iraqi security forces, not mentioned in the gracious Speech? Until they are properly trained and equipped, the reconstruction and rebuilding of the country will not progress as it should.

The Minister pointed out that we remain committed to Iraq for as long as it wishes our assistance, but we have now committed ourselves to move large numbers of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan to meet our forthcoming lead NATO role in ISAF. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, on the importance of our Afghanistan commitment. Do we have enough troops to continue indefinitely to garrison Afghanistan and Iraq?

The Royal Navy provides a graphic example of the plight faced by all three services. The 200th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Trafalgar will highlight Britain's importance as a maritime nation, but Her Majesty's Government appear to have forgotten that we are a maritime power.

The Royal Navy's available resources are now so slender that it is unable to discharge its full complement of duties. As my noble friend Lord Ashcroft said, the frigate and destroyer fleet is in the process of being slashed from the 32 ships envisaged in the SDR to a mere 25. That is despite the warnings of the First Sea Lord, who deems a fleet of 30 the absolute minimum needed to protect our shores, shipping and fulfil its standing tasks, let alone respond to the unforeseen.

Ninety-five per cent of Britain's traded goods are transported by ship, rather than by air or land. That represents a combined value of £440 billion per annum. British merchant shipping has started to thrive again just as the Royal Navy has declined in size. Its front-line operating costs of £3.6 billion appear a very modest insurance premium to keep our island nation's economic arteries open, particularly when piracy is a $16 billion growth industry.

The deployability of the shrunken fleet and the morale of those who serve with it are being jeopardised by a chronic shortage of spares, and parts being cannibalised to support ships deployed on operations. In other areas we are hiving off capability and know-how irretrievably, such as the decision to speed up the scrapping of the core of the mine-clearance fleet. We risk falling beyond critical mass in traditional areas of excellence which cannot be revived in an instant should the need arise—in this case, should terrorists or others turn to the mining of shipping routes to disrupt trade. The future carriers are vital to our future expeditionary capability, where we will go to the crisis rather than the crisis coming to us.

What are we to infer from the fact that one third of the staff seconded to the alliance building carriers have been stood down, and that we have yet to reach main-gate approval? Failure to proceed with the carriers would be a devastating blow to our air and sea power, since almost half the planned RAF will be "carrier
 
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capable" and the overall utility of the reduced RAF rests on the assumption of mobile bases. I therefore look forward to the Minister's replies to the excellent questions by my noble friend Lord Luke on carriers and the JSF.

The procurement process is in crisis. Projects identified eight years ago in the SDR have yet to be delivered, among them the Joint Casualty Treatment Ship and FRES. Difficult decisions must be made. The planned procurement timetable is untenable—late, hugely over budget and lacking a clear industrial strategy. As a concerned Opposition, we will seek clear answers on the difficult spending choices facing the Ministry of Defence, including decisions on UAVs.

Reference was made in the gracious Speech to the tri-service Armed Forces Bill. That measure is clearly essential and long overdue. It will be, we are warned, a massive Bill. We will certainly listen carefully to the views of former members of the Armed Forces, who bring first-hand experience of the issues and understanding of the real practicalities.

The SDR White Paper was at pains to stress that the Armed Forces,

There is little doubt that the country continues to respect and prize the unique sacrifice made by the Armed Forces but there appears to be a new and more potent danger: that the Government themselves risk not valuing them properly. We require our soldiers to switch seamlessly from war-fighting to peacekeeping operations, sometimes almost overnight, with little thought to what that represents.

Our soldiers cannot go to war fearing that they risk prosecution and civilian courts for split-second decisions made under unique circumstances—decisions that they are trained to make. The fact that in the Trooper Williams case the judgment of a commanding officer was overturned in court has terrible consequences for soldiers' confidence in the officers who lead them.

As earnestly as we would wish to be proved wrong, we have grounds to fear that Labour is presiding over an unprecedented decline in our Armed Forces. If the Government want them to continue to be a force for good, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, pointed out, our Armed Forces must be properly supported, manned, resourced and housed.

5.40 pm


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