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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My Lords, I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, for bringing these important issues to the House and for the even-handed and calm way in which he made his points, which he expressed with tremendous authority. I welcome the opportunity to respond to the points that he and other noble Lords have made. It is very important for us to consider these issues in a balanced way. There is no doubt that there are considerable challenges in how we meet the threats that this country faces, but to say that there is a crisis is simply not correct. It is important for us to focus on the specific issues, and I will attempt to do that in answering noble Lords' points. Before I do so, I add my voice to those of other noble Lords who have rightly paid tribute to the men and women of our Armed Forces in the tremendous job that they do. I completely disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes; it is very important for Ministers to continue to do so at every opportunity.
A number of noble Lords, such as the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, raised concerns over the image of the Armed Forces and the role of the public relations offices in the Ministry of Defence. It is important to look at the data. The latest MORI polling on the public's view of the Armed Forces says that 80 per cent of people in this country regard each of the services as among the best in the world, and 3 per cent of the population do not. That suggests that there is no crisis in the confidence in which our Armed Forces are held, which speaks to the effectiveness with which the Ministry of Defence handles its public relations.
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I stress that the changes to the handling of media relations made by the previous Secretary of State led to a coherent, single voice and involve active participation of serving officers in all the services to provide that voice.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, raised questions about morale, which also led to the question of a defence federation. It is important, again, for us to look at the data. There is no evidence of worsening morale in the Armed Forces. Recruiting is steady and manning remains overall in balance; we have more than 98 per cent of the troops that we need. The figures for personnel going absent without leave are steady. It is important for us to focus on the areas where we recognise and have evidence of serious problems. We have the existing mechanisms for personnel to express their views. I absolutely agree that we must do nothing to undermine the chain of command, but we must be open-minded about, and look at, modern ideas of how we can find and facilitate new ways for people to do so.
I want briefly to highlight the fact that we recently had in this country the first Veterans' Day, which was an opportunity for us all to honour those who have served in our Armed Forces in the past and the contribution that they make today. This weekend we will commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Somme. As so often in the past, our servicemen and women are helping people less able to help themselvesas they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistanand some of them have made the ultimate sacrifice, including the two soldiers who died in Afghanistan this week. We owe them a great debt.
I remind the House why we are in Afghanistan. We have about 4,500 service personnel there in support of a UN-authorised, NATO-led mission, ISAF, and are part of the US-led, international coalition that involves 40 countries. We are there to help the Afghan people to rebuild their country to prevent it from again harbouring terrorism. We believe that we have the force package necessary to carry out that task as part of that coalition.
The mission is clear. There can be no security or stability in Afghanistan unless the Taliban and other illegal groups are tackled. Without international help, democratically elected government in Afghanistan will not take root. We are sending 3,300 personnel to Helmand province as part of the long-planned expansion of ISAF into the south, where government authority and rule of law today do not run. That force will reach its full operational capability this weekend.
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, raised a concern, highlighted last week, about fears that the ISAF expansion would lead to a US withdrawal. We are confident in the United States' commitment to Afghanistan, NATO and ISAF. We believe that that confidence, based upon continuation of the United States' provision of key and often unique capabilities to the alliance operations in Afghanistan, will continue.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, asked me when Her Majesty's Government knew that no theatre reserve for Afghanistan would be put in place. Initial
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discussions, scoping the deployment of forces into southern Afghanistan, took place in 2005. We believe that we can make the greatest contribution in that area; it makes the ISAF expansion possible, but within a collective NATO framework. The provision of a reserve within Afghanistan is a decision for NATO.
The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, asked whether we were there to keep the peace or to defend drugs farmers. I wish to be absolutely clear that we are there to ensure that the rule of law and democratic government can be established in that country. This is a country that depends absolutely upon the drugs trade. We must pursue our aims in partnership with NGOs and other government departments to ensure that those people are provided with an alternative livelihood. This is a form of international development. Because of the nature of Afghanistan's environment, that has to be fairly muscular international development, but we believe that we have the combination across the three government departments to deliver that.
The noble Lord, Lord Owen, said that there had been an extraordinary degree of incompetence in Iraq. I respect the noble Lord's great experience, but that is simply not correct. It is important to look at the progress taking place today. We have a real opportunity to build upon the fact that Iraq has a democratically elected Government. We now have a strong relationship with the governor in Basra province. People who live in southern Iraq today will tell you that the proportion of the time for which they have electricity has gone up significantly. The data on oil production in Iraq show that it is improving. The Iraqi security forces are strong. Progress is becoming established. That is not to say that we are complacent or that we are underestimating the challenges; the changes are really having an effect and there is no doubt that, by continuing our efforts, we are transforming the country.
It is not correct to say that we rampaged into Iraq with no proper explanation, as the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, said. The Government would not have taken that action unless we were satisfied that it was lawful. It was taken as a last resort, due to Saddam Hussein's continued defiance of UN resolutions, and the United Kingdom obviously takes its own decisions based upon our security needs.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, asked me to clarify the Government's strategic goals in Iraq. He and other noble and gallant Lords, with their deep experience as ex-chiefs of staff, know how important it is for us to be clear about our strategic goals. We are absolutely clear: we are in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Government under a United Nations resolution. We are there to do a number of things: training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, and supporting the Iraqi Government with their political and economic reform, which has clearly been done. We are there for as long as the Iraqi Government need us to be there and we are achieving that by working with the coalition and the Iraqis. The evidence that that is taking place is there.
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Of course we recognise the challenges. In Basra there has been a deterioration of late, due to a vacuum in the period taken to form a Government of national unity. In that period, sectarian rivalries and strife in the area have increased. However, now that we have a Government of national unity and a good working relationship with the governor in Basra, we believe that that together with the Basra security plan and the establishment of a state of emergency there by the Government will make a significant difference. We are beginning to see that.
Lord Bramall: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has painted a rosy picture of the Iraq occupation, but am I not right in thinking that the American Secretary of State recently said that thousands of mistakes were made in the occupation phase in Iraq? Does that not amount to a large level of incompetence?
The noble Lord, Lord Garden, asked about the effect of the withdrawal of certain coalition partners' forces, including the Italians and the Japanese. We are confident that the process of handover by states within the regions for which we are acting will not have a negative impact on our troops. We are going through a transition process. We have seen recent progress in al-Muthanna province, and that is what we need to build on through this year.
Noble Lords have highlighted issues relating to the balance between the resources provided to our Armed Forces and the commitments that they are asked to undertake. We continually review the commitments that our forces undertake, both at home and abroad, to ensure that they are appropriate to the task. The British Armed Forces are exceptionally good at what they do. That means that they are significantly in demand by coalition partners, and I am sure that our friends and allies recognise that a British presence in any coalition operation is greatly valued. As a result, the operational tempo is high and our people are heavily committed.
This is a challenge which we accept. This is a challenge on which we as a Government are actively working. But I stress that, as the noble and gallant Lords will know, as ex-chiefs of staff, the decisions relating to deployment levels are judgments made by the chiefs of staff. Their judgment today is that these deployment levels are manageable.
We recognise that we are operating beyond the planning assumptions. Therefore, we are carrying out the necessary changes and reforms to manage that, with a focus on the way in which we go about defence equipment procurement and on the structure of the Armed Forces. Making the Armed Forces appropriately equipped and structured to meet that challenge is a reform which, as a number of noble Lords have said, has been needed for some considerable time. Many of the issues relating to
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equipment and the structure of our forces go back decades, but this Government are tackling them and we can see that significant progress has been made in a number of areas.
The effect of all that on recruitment and retention means that we require some 18,000 new recruits each year. This is an environment where the economy is strong and therefore the competition is in itself strong, but our recruitment is good and the retention levels are satisfactory. During the past financial year, we recruited 96 per cent of our requirementthe same as in the previous year. There is no manning crisis. Last year, the Armed Forces were 98.2 per cent manned. However, a number of noble and gallant Lords mentioned the pinch points relating to medical personnel and some logistics personnel, and we recognise those. They require us to respond to those areas and to make progress, and, on another occasion or in writing, I should be happy to provide noble Lords with updated details.
When I took on the role of Minister for defence procurement, I was struck that a comparison of the level of funding for defence is made on the basis of the proportion of GDP spend, but I do not think that that is the right test to apply. We should be looking at the absolute level of investment within our defence resources but not as a proportion of the country's GDP. We have seen an acceleration of GDP growth over recent years. The absolute level of investment that this Government have made has been the longest consistent increase in investment in the Armed Forces. The record of the previous Government shows that there was a decrease in the level of investment in the Armed Forces. Under this Government, starting from 1997, we have consistently spent more on our Armed Forces, and we have maintained that level of spending.
Of course, that needs to be balanced with an emphasis on driving efficiencies to ensure that the Armed Forces are provided with the funding, and that they use that funding, in the most efficient way. We have been able to identify £2.8 billion-worth of efficiency savings within the Armed Forces, and that money is being reinvested in defence.
When we talk about the level of commitments and the significant operations in which our forces are engaged, it is important to recognise that the Treasury funds specific additional costs arising from operations on top of the defence budget. That amounted to an extra £1.25 billion in the last financial year.
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