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We on these Benches were delighted at the announcement—I fear that it was long ago—that heralded the first step in the construction of two new aircraft carriers, the “Queen Elizabeth” and the “Prince of Wales”. The plan is that, with the inevitable retirement of quite a number of our major naval assets, those two carriers will eventually fill important gaps in the Navy's ability to carry out its remit into the future. That plan has sadly been dogged by setback after setback, so the completion date of

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the first carrier—2012—is no longer a possibility, even if it remains a target. I said over three years ago that the carriers,

This is an increasingly urgent situation. The continual delay in the programme is opening up a huge risk in our maritime security.

I shall demonstrate that by outlining our current aircraft-carrier capability as I understand it. Of our three carriers, HMS “Invincible” was decommissioned in 2005 and cannibalised for spares for the other two ships. HMS “Ark Royal” is operational as a platform for landing helicopters only. That means that it is not equipped with any strike aircraft. HMS “Illustrious” is operational but without a dedicated strike force either, it seems. I hope the Minister can clarify my understanding of the situation of HMS “Illustrious”. In response to a Written Question on 8 March in the other place, the Minister stated that there were six Harrier aircraft embarked on HMS “Illustrious”. Technically that is correct, but I understand that the air group was embarked for two weeks’ deck training only. The ship’s newsletter described this as,

That is hardly indicative of a combat-ready force.

The Sea Harrier fleet has been stood down, so any fully operational carrier now uses an element of Harrier GR7 and GR9 aircraft. However, most of those are quite rightly currently in theatre in Afghanistan. As far as I can make out, there is no dedicated air group that can undertake strike operations on a carrier at short notice. Does the Minister agree that removing the Sea Harrier from front-line service demonstrates a certain lack of foresight on the Government’s part? What assurances can he give the House about the speed with which Harrier aircraft and their crews could be redeployed if an emergency arose requiring a naval task force? If Harriers had to be redeployed for this task, most likely from Afghanistan, would that not disastrously weaken the central support that Harriers are now giving to our ground troops? Is it not true that this puts our Royal Navy in a position where it is effectively out of the carrier business until the arrival of the newly commissioned supercarriers, or a decision is made to re-equip at least one operational ship with an air group of carriers? The current state of play has left our marine security open to great risk.

The “Invincible” is due officially to go out of service in 2010, the “Ark Royal” in 2012 and the “Illustrious” in 2015. We are sure that the new aircraft carriers will not be ready by 2012, and we do not know by how much more the dates may slip. What assessment have the Government made of the possible cost of re-equipping and refitting “Illustrious” and “Ark Royal” should they need to have their service extended beyond the dates mentioned? I hope that the Minister will take time, if not to reply in this debate, to write to me on this matter.

The maintenance of Army housing can have a significant impact on recruitment and retention, as mentioned several times in this debate. It is also an

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area about which the Armed Forces Pay Review Body has been seriously concerned for years, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Dean. As many of us have said before, if the family is unhappy, the soldier will be unhappy and obviously concerned for his family’s welfare. An individual with worries will often become distracted and is likely to be affected in his or her operational efficiency on active service.

A speaker at the annual conference of the Army Families’ Federation last year aptly summed it up:

Yet British Army families are still faced with housing problems and increased pressures. I welcome the recognition by the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, at Questions on 7 February that,

Credit where credit is due: a year since the somewhat inauspicious launch of the housing prime contract, there has been progress in delivery, though one could not say that it is perfect. We also welcome the additional funding pledged for this, though I note that the noble Baroness avoided questions on 7 February about a possible ring-fenced plan to upgrade older quarters. How much is to be spent on new accommodation and on upgrading old accommodation for service families?

I understand that some 21,000 service families remain in accommodation below the accepted condition and 12,000 of those are Army family houses. The Army Families’ Federation argues that there has been extensive spinning of the figures but little recognition of the urgent need to improve the condition of many houses. They are houses that we might not choose to live in, but its members have no choice. The contrast between new housing and poor old housing should be a significant social consideration. Poor housing and poor barracks can be the cause of a significant drop in morale and much distress. An example in point may be the Welsh Guards and their imminent move to Wellington Barracks. One does not have to look far beyond the fa├žade to see that the fabric of the buildings is crumbling and that the quality of living quarters is appalling. I declare an interest as a past master of the Drapers’ Company, with which the Welsh Guards have an affiliation.

What consideration have Her Majesty’s Government given to a comprehensive repair programme that deals with the worst situation first rather than those who shout the loudest? What percentage of the funds allocated has been made available for replacing basic equipment such as boilers and cookers? Can the Minister rebut claims that, except for health and safety reasons, there has been no money for this purpose since November last year? How are Her Majesty’s Government monitoring this situation and ensuring that what funds there are will be spent appropriately and efficiently?

Accompanied service, where it is feasible, is a vital element of the Army’s operational effectiveness, now and in the future. Even with more of the Army based at home in 10 to 15 years’ time, it is still expected that

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some 20 per cent of the Army will be living outside the UK. Moving people on posting will still go on, to meet the Army’s needs as well as the individual’s interest, so decent affordable married quarters and single rooms in barracks are a long-term need.

It frustrates me that I seem to be referring to these two issues time and again. I hope that the Minister can offer me some positive news on progress on both fronts. However they are very important issues, each in their own way, for the security and morale of our country, and they must be addressed.

2.57 pm

Baroness Fookes: My Lords, I declare an interest as president of the War Widows Association of Great Britain, the successor to the late Baroness Strange, who was much loved by all the war widows. I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, her indignation that the Data Protection Act in a strange way prevents the association from getting in touch with new war widows. The very time when a war widow most needs help is in those frightful early days of bereavement, when they may be, emotionally and financially, in a critical state. I hope that the Minster will agree to meet the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and, if he can bear it, to meet me too, to discuss this issue.

I declare an interest as a vice-president of SSAFA Forces Help. I mention that in view of the points made by other noble Lords about the plight of some wounded servicemen coming back and the plight of some of their families. This organisation helps current and past families, and those serving, even if only for one day, so that for the rest of their lives they may look to the organisation for help. I hope that I may use this opportunity to spread the word about the SSAFA Forces Help, because at a time when there are so many difficulties, every bit of help from such an organisation is useful. I hope that the fact that it is a voluntary organisation will not deter the state from taking its proper part in dealing with wounded servicemen, their families and all the difficulties.

I also declare a modest interest as a member of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. I am not sure how many of your Lordships are acquainted with this scheme. Noble Lords probably do not need to be because many are very well acquainted with the services and are at the top of the tree. The scheme was set up some 20 years ago to give MPs and Peers without direct service experience or knowledge a real indication of how the services work. The first course involves members agreeing to give at least 22 days to visiting shore establishments and ships, and, in particular, they agree to stay on board a ship for the best part of a week with an honorary rank and a uniform. The idea is to try to get away from the VIP visit so that they gain some inside knowledge of what goes on.

I know that, for those with a deep knowledge of the services, that will appear superficial, but it is much better than total ignorance, which, if I may say so, probably affects the other place more than here. That is why the scheme was set up in the first place. Bearing in mind all that we have heard over the past days about the primacy of the other place and, indeed, its

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financial controls, which we lack, it is vital that as many MPs as possible have this knowledge so that they can bring some pressure to bear on the Ministry of Defence and, above all, on the Treasury when they see that things are going wrong. The scheme is important for that reason alone.

I am on the second stage of the scheme. As such, just over three weeks ago I spent three days in the English Channel on board HMS “Illustrious”, to which my noble friend Lord Luke referred, in seas which I would describe as rough but which the officers on board described as lumpy. Be that as it may, I managed to stay on my feet, which was more than some of my fellow scheme members did.

I want to stress a point made by my noble friend Lord Luke. The last time I went on that aircraft carrier, well over 10 years ago, I was surrounded by Sea Harriers. It was a thundering experience to stand on the flight deck and see them come and go. This time, not a single fixed-wing aircraft was to be seen, either on the flight deck or in the enormous hangars underneath. The most we saw was a Merlin helicopter, and I believe that that was borrowed, but it was undertaking various exercises in landing and taking off.

That leads me on to a concern about training, or the lack of it. “Skill fade” was a term used by those on board the HMS “Illustrious”. It is absolutely necessary not simply to train but to keep in training if you are going on to a flight deck which is moving with the winds and tides and all the vagaries of the weather. Continuous practice is required. Nowhere were the Harriers, which are not now Sea Harriers but are shared with the RAF, to be seen. I think that they were on operations of war, and of course that must come first, but, to me, it is a very vivid indication of stretch. I was not allowed by the First Sea Lord to call these things “overstretch”; he would admit only to “stretch”, but stretch there is and there comes a time when you reach breaking point, as other noble Lords have vividly indicated from their deep experience of all the services.

We then come to the problem of recruitment and retention. By and large, HMS “Illustrious” seemed a very happy ship under a brilliant commanding officer, but, even there, it was obvious that people were concerned about experiencing long periods at sea and then going off again very soon afterwards—a point already illustrated. I saw and heard about that first-hand from people on board. I am not sure how they would have fared without the presence of women. I remember, as an MP in Plymouth years ago, the excitement and mayhem that was forecast to occur if women were allowed to go to sea, so I was delighted to see what a substantial proportion of the crew were women—not all in the most lowly jobs either. The senior engineer and the dental surgeon were women, and there were clearly others well up the ranks. When looking at recruitment and retention, the role of women, particularly in the Royal Navy, deserves a great deal of consideration.

I turn now to the future of aircraft carriers. It seems to me that they are so brilliantly versatile that we must ensure that the two which, we gather, are to be ordered or are on order come to fruition. If I sound slightly

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sceptical, it is because I remember that it took ages to get the amphibious ships, and we cannot afford that kind of timescale for aircraft carriers, which play an important and versatile part in the role of the Royal Navy. I trust that the Minister can give us a clear idea of the timescale involved and that, above all, he can assure us that these aircraft carriers will be forthcoming. I fear that it is typical of all Governments of whatever complexion to will the end but not always the means. When it comes to the armed services, that is a very dangerous path to pursue.

3.06 pm

Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank: My Lords, like other Members of the House, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord King, for securing this debate. Also like others, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, on his promotion. I know that it will be much appreciated in the services, not only because he is held in great respect but because, for the next few weeks, he will be expected to celebrate by buying drinks in every sergeants’ mess that he visits.

Recently, a number of senior serving officers have spoken out publicly about their concerns and about the difficulties that their services are facing. In principle, I very much disapprove of serving officers doing that. It is not our way, but I am not very surprised that they now feel compelled to do so, and I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord King, said. They owe loyalty not only to their Ministers—their political masters—but also to their subordinates and their services. There is now a feeling—probably stronger than I can ever recall—that the Government are not keeping their side of the bargain and honouring the military covenant, to which others have referred. The services are suffering from years of under investment and of being taken for granted, and from a lack of understanding of what is required.

We should know that defence planning is notoriously difficult and, perhaps more than with any other department of state, the future challenges are harder to predict. One needs to remember that, practically without exception, every major emergency involving the British services over the past 25 years has been unforeseen. I include the Falklands campaign in 1982, the Gulf in 1991, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Macedonia and, now, Afghanistan. That is to say nothing about the emergencies at home—the fuel crisis, the foot and mouth outbreak, firefighting and the July terrorist attacks. Today, the ill-intentioned can wreak havoc in a way that only a short time ago would have been unimaginable. I know of no serious commentators who believe that the world will soon become a safer place. They predict that new challenges will arise, such as energy security and population movement.

Many people feel that, as a country, we are far too ready to send expeditionary forces to far-away places, but our security does not only depend on “fortress UK”. We live in a globalised world, and what happens in Pakistan, the Middle East or the Horn of Africa can affect us. It is easy to say that we have a choice and can avoid involvement, but Governments

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do not always have the luxury of choice. That is rarely recognised, particularly by opposition parties. It would be very unwise to predicate our defence and foreign policies and budgets on avoiding trouble.

Of course, the forces cannot prepare for every scenario, threat and instability currently imaginable. There is no equivalent of a geographical comprehensive insurance policy in today's world. That makes it necessary for us to have a balanced defence force that can adapt quickly to the demands of a new crisis. But allotting resources is extremely difficult. To many, the defence budget seems enormous and it is in comparison with many, but certainly not in comparison with all spending departments. Undoubtedly, the Ministry of Defence can be criticised for some of its procurement policies, as we have heard. Large sums of money have been wasted and serious problems have arisen, from over optimistic cost estimates to overruns. The new defence industrial strategy, driven by the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, certainly should eventually bring great advantages, but the Minister, who deserves our congratulations on his initiative, has a huge task and previous attempts to improve procurement have had very mixed results. The 1998 exercises, Smart Procurement and Smart Acquisition, were both disappointing.

Other noble Lords have and will talk about Iraq and Afghanistan. I agree with all that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, said about Afghanistan. All I would add is that operations by the British defence forces are being conducted successfully today, but they cannot be maintained at their present tempo on current human and equipment resources and funding for much longer without inviting a dramatic deterioration in capability and performance, damage to the forces and risking operational failure. The defence planning assumptions have been proved to be inaccurate and need to be revisited, but many in Whitehall still feel that once the campaigns we are fighting are over all will be well and we can return to a notional status quo ante of normality, where demands on defence will be much less. To adopt that attitude at this time is wrong, irresponsible, very risky and dangerous.

I hope that Ministers and civil servants really understand the very great difficulties that commands have: new savings measures following hotfoot on previous savings measures; stoppage of programmes; cancellation of exercises or a reduction in their scope; failure to maintain housing; difficulty in obtaining spares and keeping elderly equipment running; and secondary medical care, which has been much in the news.

I am pleased to see that the Chief of the General Staff now seems happier with the treatment of our casualties, but it is worrying when he says that conditions have improved and every hospital is getting better. That is hardly a ringing endorsement. We have been at war for four years now. What has been happening in those four years? I agree with all that the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, said about the National Health Service and its excellent work. I am delighted that the Defence Select Committee will now address the problems. I, like I am sure many noble Lords, was deeply shocked by what some of the

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casualties, their wives, their partners and parents have had to say about their handling—I am not just talking about Birmingham.

We must be concerned about the future. It could get much worse in Afghanistan; we could have many more casualties. Can we really cope? What is planned? Do we really believe in the present arrangements? Like most people who have served in the Army, Royal Navy or Royal Air Force, I come from a fairly sceptical position. So often we have been let down by the medical plan. We were promised a single hospital; we were assured we would get it, but it never happened. We were promised separate wings at hospitals around the country; the concept was changed. We were told that Birmingham would be a large facility which would be able to deal with large numbers of casualties and that there would be military wards, but that is still to happen. We can hardly be blamed for being a little sceptical.

Of course, it is not all gloom. Some equipment, as people have said, is as good as any in the world, but commanders and their staffs spend an inordinate amount of time managing crises caused by inadequate budgets and financial measures imposed at short notice. We will be in real trouble if the main preoccupation of a commander is financial rather than training and going on operations. With all due respect to the noble Lord, Lord James of Blackheath, we do not want battalions in Afghanistan commanded by bean counters.

What should be done for defence? It is quite obvious that we cannot afford, with the resources that we have today, everything that we would like. The sums do not add up. We have three options. First, we can funk it: we can count on the world becoming a safer place. Quite honestly, that would change the services and we would be too weak everywhere.

Secondly, we could keep the defence budget at much the same size but change the priorities of how it is spent. That would mean directing more money to the Army, which is too small by several thousands, and would probably have a devastating effect on the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Today, operations are manpower-intensive. We need more people and the Ministry of Defence misled us when we thought that cuts imposed on defence would be compensated by clever new technology: the Revolution in Military Affairs and Networked Enabled Capability.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is three minutes over his allotted time.

3.17 pm

Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I join the thanks to my noble friend Lord King. It is interesting that we are having a debate on defence with six former senior service officers from the Armed Forces, from all three services, four of them former Chiefs of Defence Staff. Given how we spent yesterday afternoon, that confirms the talent of this House. To follow that for a second, I would like to believe—I do not do so with any confidence—that other than the excellent Minister who will answer and to whom I shall refer again, senior officials in the Ministry of Defence will read this debate in full, including the Permanent Secretary to whom I shall also refer again.

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I shall briefly talk about two things: equipment and defence finance. I have nothing like the knowledge of my noble friend Lord James, but I shall refer to one particular piece of equipment; the Bowman radio system. It is perfectly obvious to anyone who knows even a little about military matters—I merely did National Service as an infantryman—that the radio is just as much a weapon as a rifle, and just as essential in modern warfare. It is sad that we have had this disgraceful situation with the Bowman.

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