Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

We have touched on other important areas of conflict and potential conflict during this debate. My noble friend Lord Ashdown reminded us of unfinished business in the Balkans. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford and the noble Lord, Lord Patel, reminded us of Africa and the problems there. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, focused on the continuing tragedy of Darfur. Do the Government support the establishment of a no-fly zone there as one possible answer? The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester also reminded us of the possibility of conflict again in the DRC.

Many noble Lords reminded us of the other unresolved key issue: Israel and its neighbours. The events in Lebanon have not made the region more secure, and the task for peacekeepers is not an easy one. My noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby described the terrible plight of the Palestinians in Gaza. Tensions are rising, and the rumours of large-scale Israeli military action in Gaza in the near future must add to our concerns.

I find it depressing that the United Kingdom is now seen as so flawed in its foreign policy that France, Spain and Italy did not even feel it necessary to inform the FCO of their new peace initiative. In this area we would do well to heed the view of my noble friend Lady Northover and the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, that we need to be prepared to talk with Hamas and Hezbollah.

20 Nov 2006 : Column 213

This debate has been a bleak litany of global security problems. As the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, said, hope is in short supply. The gracious Speech singled out concerns over North Korea and Iran. The North Korean nuclear test and the continuing concerns about the Iranian direction in their nuclear programme both indicate a need to re-energise the international non-proliferation regime. As the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, argued, the answer will not be through the use of military pre-emptive attack. However, there are still those in the US and in Israel who argue that the situation in Iran may come to require a military solution. I trust that the United Kingdom will not support such a strategy, which would serve only to destabilise the region further and deepen the divide between the West and the Islamic world.

The gracious Speech was strong on domestic security issues, but light on defence policy. However, it said that the Government would work to strengthen NATO. The alliance is holding a summit in Riga at the end of the month. With my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, I shall look forward to hearing what the United Kingdom Government expect to achieve at this summit, in their new quest to strengthen NATO. Certainly it will not be about a new strategic concept, much overdue though that may be, or even about further enlargement. I imagine there will be a celebration of the operational status of the 20,000-strong NATO response force, although that sits slightly oddly with NATO’s inability to provide 2,000 troops to bolster forces in Afghanistan. The noble Lord, Lord Drayson, talked about the importance of NATO and EU co-operation, which provoked a little murmur of excitement from the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert. I hope we will also hear how the continuing difficulties between the EU and NATO are to be resolved.

I want to focus on the problem that we have in sustaining our Armed Forces for the future to meet all the challenges that we have been talking about, and others, such as the humanitarian assistance needs of which the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, reminded us. We had a very useful debate on the defence industrial strategy on 17 October, and for that reason I shall not dwell on equipment issues, but I support the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Luke, raised on various equipment issues. I will instead highlight our real concerns about the people who serve us so loyally and courageously in the Armed Forces.

In Answers, Ministers always assure us that the Armed Forces are stretched but not overstretched. Yet the Chief of the General Staff has warned us of the risk of breaking the Army. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, thought that the Minister was overoptimistic on this, and I agree. On 1 November, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, told us not to worry because soldiers’ morale was up by 14 per cent since April of this year. That provoked a number of exchanges about spin and a subsequent letter to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, in which the Minister corrected his figure from a 14 per cent to a 16.7 per cent increase in morale. In fact, I have examined the relevant attitude surveys from which the data were gathered, and it is clear that at

20 Nov 2006 : Column 214

the 95 per cent confidence level the difference between the two results may be as small as 2 per cent. I am quite happy to exchange my calculations with the Minister. How much more honest it would have been to say that the latest survey—these very figures—shows that only half the soldiers reported their morale as high or very high. That is the proper figure that we need to know.

These attitude surveys paint a detailed picture of sentiment in the three services. They show, for example, that more than a third of respondents in the Army do not feel valued by the Army. That confirms the view of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, that the services feel that they are being taken for granted.

That brings me to the report of 3 November by the National Audit Office on recruitment and retention in the Armed Forces. The newspaper headlines following the publication of the report focused on the 5,170 shortfall between the requirement and the trained strength for all three services. However, that figure is a gross understatement of the scale of the problem. The report also shows that every year, without respite,

The chart it shows goes back to 2001, but the problem is older than that. These assumptions are clearly wrong, and this means that the defence programme is based on assumptions that are wrong and have been wrong for at least the past six years. No wonder we are short of people, that harmony guidelines are broken, that there are—as the NAO reports—88 operational pinch points, that logistic support is fraught with difficulty and that equipment is showing its age. I urge the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, to pin up the NAO chart in his office and use it to argue for a recasting of the defence planning assumptions to reflect reality rather than hopeless optimism.

Although personnel issues are not part of the portfolio of the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, he perhaps needs to look at his equipment programme as a complete system. He procures extraordinarily expensive capabilities, each and every one of which needs specialist trained personnel to operate them. The National Audit Office survey of pinch-point trades reports that 60 per cent cited dissatisfaction with inadequate resources to do the job, and 45 per cent of our Armed Forces in these trades cited dissatisfaction over the quality of their equipment, both of which are in the Minister’s area of responsibility.

I draw your Lordships’ attention to just two of the 11 case studies by the NAO. One is naval and the other is air force, as our debate has been, as always perhaps, predominantly army-centric. The first is on Royal Navy nuclear watchkeepers. At April 2006, there was a shortfall of 29 per cent in this category. This is the specialisation essential to the operation of our nuclear-powered submarines—we have no other sort of submarine. They take years to train and gain sufficient experience at more junior levels at sea. The NAO report shows how the problem can be tracked

20 Nov 2006 : Column 215

back to recruitment and redundancy following Options for Change in the early 1990s. The situation cannot be recovered before 2014—and that is if everything goes well. At the same time, we are procuring expensive Astute submarines that will depend on having enough of those people.

Similarly, in the Air Force, the Nimrod R1 is a key intelligence-gathering platform, but it needs enough linguists in the air. Their strength in April was just 35, a 50 per cent shortfall. The NAO demonstrates that only because those people are continuously working twice as hard as they should be in very difficult circumstances do we manage to sustain operational capability

There are no easy answers to these manning problems. We are, however, seeing a progressive reduction in the effectiveness of our Armed Forces as a result. In some cases, money cannot buy experience, time is also needed; but if the money is not available to support the level of tasking which has now become normal, some difficult decisions need to be taken about how to reduce the number of commitments. We have talked about the large commitments in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But whatever the geopolitical arguments, the manpower problems of the Armed Forces are not sustainable in the long term if we continue our current commitments. If we do not match our commitments more closely to our force size, we may find that we have an equipment programme that is buying capabilities that we shall not be able to use because the experienced specialists needed have left for a better life elsewhere.

The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, in his opening speech reminded us of what we owe the members of the Armed Forces and paid tribute to them. From these Benches we also pay tribute, particularly to those who have died in the service of their country. But, after today’s debate the Government need to reflect on the strength of feeling around the House and make sure that these are not just fine words to be said on Remembrance Sunday.

9.46 pm

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, my noble friend Lord King started his excellent speech by drawing attention to the sombre atmosphere in which this debate has taken place. I am still reeling from listening to some of the most powerful speeches that I have heard since I entered the House. This has been an historic debate, and I do not say that idly. It will make uncomfortable reading for the Prime Minister tomorrow, particularly as few, if any, speakers were prepared to come to the defence of the Government.

My noble friends Lord Howell and Lady Rawlings in characteristically well thought-out speeches have covered important aspects of foreign and European affairs and international development. I shall focus my remarks primarily on defence. It is, after all, the quality and dedication of our Armed Forces in action that give the hard edge of realism to the policies that, so the gracious Speech tells us, it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to pursue. I pay tribute also to the professionalism and bravery of the men

20 Nov 2006 : Column 216

and women in our Armed Forces. We on these Benches remember those troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is one notable omission from the gracious Speech—namely, a measure to register and set a framework for regulating private military companies. The groundwork for such a measure has been undertaken. There is wide agreement on the value of a statutory framework; indeed, some of the leading UK security companies have been calling for this. There may be difficulties in precise and effective drafting, but that does not excuse the Government from failing to set about the task, at least in the form of a draft Bill. The future of our nuclear deterrent was also omitted from the gracious Speech but will undoubtedly come up in our proceedings in the new year.

It is not surprising that the recent change in the political balance of the United States and the possibilities of new and, I hope, more successful policy directions there have attracted considerable comment by speakers today—not least because the implications of a policy adjustment by the US will relate directly to the continuing deployment of our Armed Forces in Iraq. We all understand something of the key part that the committees of both houses of the US Congress, particularly their chairmen, play in developing and applying policies. Noble Lords may well feel that time and effort on the part of Members of this House in establishing cordial personal relationships with incoming chairmen, particularly of the Senate committees, will be of real assistance in refurbishing Anglo-American understanding. The future of the British participation in the Joint Strike Fighter project may well rest in the hands of incoming chairmen. I wonder whether the Minister could touch briefly on the JSF. I understand that the first flight will take place some time before the end of the year.

Like other noble Lords, I congratulate the maiden speakers on four really excellent speeches. I refer to the noble Lords, Lord Patel of Bradford, Lord Browne of Belmont and Lord Jay of Ewelme, and to my noble friend Lord Leach of Fairford. I very much look forward to hearing them again on numerous occasions in the House.

Mention of the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, leads me to foreign affairs. Time does not allow me to refer to all speakers, but a quick global tour d’horizon reveals issues requiring attention including the Middle East and the Gulf, which were addressed by many noble Lords who have a great deal of concern about our strategy in that region. My noble friend Lord Jopling and the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, talked about Syria. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, stressed the importance of serious diplomatic engagement with Syria, Iran and Lebanon and the hope that the Prime Minister will drop his personalised diplomacy and leave it to the professional diplomats. I shall read the noble Lord’s speech tomorrow with very great interest.

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, spoke of Argentina and offered the Government some consolation: warm praise for their Gibraltar policy.

20 Nov 2006 : Column 217

My noble friend Lord Patten asked which Minister is responsible for policy on cruise liners. I await that answer with great interest. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, spoke eloquently of Darfur and North Korea. I commend him for his very hard work to help the downtrodden in that totalitarian state.

Our relations with the EU were covered by many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Leach, who made an eloquent maiden speech. NATO, the Riga summit and the United Nations—the last covered in detail—were discussed by the noble Baroness, Lady Jay. We on these Benches welcome the new Secretary-General of the UN and wish him every success in office. He has a demanding agenda, not least in the preparations for reconstructing the organisation’s headquarters and strengthening its ability to intervene quickly and effectively wherever its supranational authority is properly required. The Commonwealth was mentioned—I share the support of my noble friend Lord Howell—as were the FCO and Britain’s place in the world. I listened very carefully and with great interest to the point that my noble and learned friend Lord Howe made about the perception of the FCO. My noble friends Lady Hooper and Lord Patten mentioned the downgrading of many of our embassies abroad. My noble friend Lady Rawlings pointed out how much larger the DfID budget is than that of the FCO.

Iraq was covered by the noble Lords, Lord Jay and Lord Ashdown, and, in a very powerful speech, by my noble friend Lord Hurd. That speech encapsulated what many other noble Lords said today, and it should be required reading. The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, spoke optimistically of the Kurdistan region of Iraq and the lack of a British presence there. My noble friend Lord Selsdon spoke of the terrible loss of life in Iraq.

The DRC was covered by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester and Rwanda by the noble Lord, Lord Cotter. Turkey was mentioned by the noble Lords, Lord Maginnis and Lord Gilbert, and Iran was discussed by my noble friend Lord Lamont. Interestingly, Burma and Zimbabwe were not mentioned. I particularly missed hearing another powerful speech by my noble friend Lady Park of Monmouth, who was unable to be here tonight.

All assumptions made a year or so ago by the Government on Afghanistan were at the optimistic end of the spectrum. The warnings, which I remind the House were uttered from these Benches and by my colleagues in another place, were brushed aside. The conflict has been out of all proportion to that promised by Ministers when they announced the deployment. In Afghanistan, troops have been engaged in the hardest sustained fighting since the Korean War, with a steady stream of casualties and many instances of real heroism.

We must not fail in Afghanistan. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, said that we have failed in Iraq. To lose Afghanistan, too, would look like carelessness. The consequences of any failure will be felt on our own doorstep in the equally lethal forms of increased heroin supply and increased domestic terrorism. Can the Minister assure the House that commanders in

20 Nov 2006 : Column 218

Afghanistan will get what they have requested, including more men and armour, and heavy armour if that is what they require?

Visible, practical reconstruction on the ground is essential if we are ever going to convince people that the UK’s intervention was beneficial. We were told that this was a reconstruction force—serious warfare was not anticipated. Are the local population any better off than they were? They have seen troops in place for five years, but they have seen little or no improvement in even the most basic facilities. Returning members of the Armed Forces are very critical of DfID, which they say is only interested in reconstruction in a zero-risk environment.

Let me turn back to the what-do-we-do-next questions of Afghanistan and Iraq. At the heart of our difficulties lies the fact that the Government have committed the nation’s Armed Forces to a two-front war without adequate forethought and without allocating—or possessing—the resources needed to sustain them. The House has heard about this from my noble friend Lord King and from the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Bramall, Lord Inge and Lord Guthrie.

When we send our brave men and women to fight on our behalf we owe them a fair, transparent mission objective, the best kit, the right budget and complete support before, during and after combat. But British troops are having their lives put at risk by ageing or inadequate equipment. Drastic further cost-cutting measures are now being forced on them by the Government amid fears that defence spending is running out of control. That has resulted in the cancellation of critical military exercises in Kenya and Canada. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, was right to point out the importance of training to our Armed Forces. My noble friends Lord King and Lord Lyell drew attention to the importance of family life and up-to-date barracks.

Over the past year, I have had the privilege of meeting many soldiers who were returning from Iraq. One issue that always comes up is the shocking delays and unreliability of the air bridge to Iraq. As the House of Commons Defence Committee said, it is unacceptable that service men and women—many of whom are serving greatly in excess of harmony guidelines—should have their leave disrupted by the MoD’s inability to provide a reliable air bridge. I have raised this issue before. I am aware that it is not always the fault of the RAF, which has to operate some really antiquated aircraft—there are younger aircraft in the RAF and Imperial War Museums. Once again, I ask the Minister to look into this issue, which is important to thousands of service men and women, and to write to me, placing a copy in the Library.

We have followed with profound interest and a certain amount of approval all that the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, has said about a defence industrial strategy. This has implications of the most profound importance for the longer term, but it does not take sufficiently into account the immediate problems.

Turning to the Royal Navy, my noble friend, Lord Luke, mentioned the delay in the commencement of

20 Nov 2006 : Column 219

the carriers, and I look forward to some assurance on this point from the Minister. Maybe he can say something about the Type 45 destroyers. Does the commitment for eight still stand? The Royal Navy will become ever more important for energy security. We receive most of our crude oil by sea, and we will become increasingly dependent on open sea lines for imports of LNG.

Can the Minister tell the House something of the progress with the future strategic tanker aircraft, which is so important for the Royal Air Force? I share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, on the C17.

With the exception of the last century’s two world wars, our Armed Forces have never in modern times been so stretched and so hard worked as under this Labour Government. We cannot continue indefinitely with the level of overstretch and the inadequacy of equipment. We cannot go on attempting to fight extended conflicts in distant theatres by relying on reservists to plug gaps in the Regular Forces. I join the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, in paying tribute to our Reserve Forces.

The Government must decide whether to increase the resources to match our commitments or to reduce our commitments to match those resources. As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, said, we cannot carry on muddling through. The manner in which this Government seek to meet the challenges, which they properly recognise, places at risk the quality and morale of their essential agents—our Armed Forces.

10.02 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My Lords, today’s debate illustrates most vividly the extraordinary complexity and interdependence of the international challenges that we face. Foreign policy has always been central to our defence of our security, to the protection of our interests and the growth in our prosperity, and it is so today.

There has never been a greater need to work with friends, allies and partners to promote our shared values against those who would destroy them. Working with friends demands constancy in hard times as well as in good times.

I applaud the analysis by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, of our location in our alliances and his understanding of our interdependence with allies. It demands a mature not a capricious stance with key allies, including the United States, even when discussing differences as critical friends with them. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, was right when he said that we need to engage with the new personalities on the Hill to make that effective. It demands engagement with the mainstream of European politics and not flirtations with some of its extreme right-wing fragments. The tougher the world, the truer this is.

The noble Lord, Lord Howell, was consistent in his pessimism, and a good deal of the House has joined him in that. The United States relationship is not

20 Nov 2006 : Column 220

shallow, as he knows, and I do not think that it would be right to describe our work with Europe as a flop.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page