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As regards support, I need not reiterate to noble Lords the importance of the military covenant between our fighting forces, a citizen army of volunteers and the nation, and the way it is being breached. When we address the needs of the defence establishment we are dealing not only with the men and women serving in the Armed Forces, but with their families, whom they are not here to care for. It is a major constituency which has no MP and has major problems, not least the disgraceful state of much of the housing. The forces see support for their families in housing, health and related areas as the clear manifestation of whether we mean it when we say that the country has a major asset and that people are important. The service families, whose steadfast support for those who are serving away from home and whose approach to their own problems is both practical and brave, need to be recognised and rewarded. The covenant is that the forces fight for us and we help their families when they need it most. Yet year after year the families live in very often disgraceful conditions. Their needs are ignored, and year after year promised funding for housing does not materialise because it has been diverted to some other “more important” objective.

In the families federation report for 2002, housing problems accounted for 25 per cent of all calls for help and action. One example of the failure to provide support was the cancellation, on grounds of cost, of a promised rebuild of an estate where families were living in terrible conditions. The DHE said it had no money, and nothing was done. At the 2004 conference of the federation, a main issue was housing. In 2007, the dominant issue is housing.

The admirable Royal British Legion, to which I am indebted, makes two important recommendations: that the local connection rule, which discriminates against ex-service families applying for social housing, should be removed at once, and that there should be ring-fenced, affordable housing for veterans where MoD land has been given over for housing development. The Treasury should not be allowed, as it is reported to be doing, to sell off a helicopter base and an RAF training base to raise money at this critical time.

I am indebted to the legion for the statistics that I now cite and for some of the recommendations. The legion deals with 4.8 million veterans, with an average age of 64, the majority of whom, 83 per cent, served in the Armed Forces. There are 3.6 million adult dependants and 1.7 million children. Of the 189,000 troops and 200,000 reservists serving in the Armed Forces, 18,000 are women. There are 1.3 million widows or widowers. We are dealing with a great number of our citizens. Harmony guidelines on separation, which are a major concern of both the NAO and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, are frequently breached for large parts of the services, often with serious effects for marriages.

The legion is fighting many battles; here are some of them. Sadly, one large group of veterans, the 1991 Gulf War veterans, have had a long battle for fair treatment, which has often been debated in this House. About 7,000 finally received compensation payments, but those veterans should also receive an ex-gratia payment. More research into the result of

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the war pensions review for Gulf War veterans is needed. The onus should be put on the Government to prove that the service was not responsible for causing or worsening an injury or illness when compensation claims under the Armed Forces Compensation Scheme are being considered. The Government should also remove the time limit on claims under the AFCS, including the five year cut-off point. The legion urges—recent examples of this have been publicised—that there should be full compensation for each and every injury sustained in a single incident.

The Government should pay for the accommodation of families of injured service personnel, whose presence is an important part of their treatment and rehabilitation. We have all read about the new accommodation that is to be built by the SSAFA from charitable funds, including money raised by a national newspaper, for the families of those being treated for severe injuries at Headley Court. That should be public money. At last, we have a long-awaited dedicated military ward at Selly Oak, and excellent work on post-operational stress and trauma is being piloted and evaluated at the King’s Centre for Medical Health Research. We now need a regime of surveillance of those who have been deployed for long periods and who may be vulnerable to mental health problems. We are building up great trouble for the future if we do not do that.

Resources must be made available to ensure that priority treatment for veterans by the NHS is delivered. That right was established in 1953, but it is now no longer effectively provided or, if it is provided, it is much delayed. The legion makes a strong case for health surveillance in the services. There needs to be proper access, as the NAO urges, to resettlement services for those who are retiring, and mandatory vocational assessments should be provided. Those who are leaving the forces are, incidentally, potentially extremely valuable to civil society.

The legion is concerned, as we should be, about veterans and their dependants living in poverty, for whom we have a continuous duty of care. It urges the Government to improve disabled facilities grants. That scheme should be better funded. The legion has often to step in and fill the gap. It urges that war pensions should be uprated in line with earnings from 2008, in advance of the proposed changes to the uprating of state pensions.

We have to recognise that service families cannot but be dysfunctional when the head of the family is in action abroad and/or is prevented by overstretch, and by the consequent failure to observe harmony guidelines, from seeing his family. He and they lose out in almost every area of life because of that separation when it lasts too long. The legion urges that service people who were mis-sold endowment mortgages by UK firms when posted abroad should have access to compensation schemes, as those in the UK do. Not least, there is strong pressure to clear the present backlog in military inquests and for service families to be provided with legal advice and advocacy at public expense in those inquests.

I see that I have a little more time and shall be happy to recount something that I missed out. It is about the Treasury, my favourite subject, and an

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incident some years ago that some of you will remember, when the contract for the complex updating of the Tornado and the Hercules had to be placed with an incompetent, inexperienced small contractor because the tender was the lowest. The resulting damage to the aircraft by that firm was discovered, fortunately, by the RAF when the aircraft were returned to St Athan before proceeding to operational service in the Gulf. The RAF found that such damage had been done that if those aircraft had flown, they would have crashed. Not only would we have lost the aircraft, but the crews. I suggest that this was one of the occasions when it is rather important how we judge what savings are. The Treasury does it with money and figures. We should be doing it with human lives.

I return to my speech, which is nearly finished. The defence strategy that the services are expected to carry out without enough equipment, without enough training time and with little regard for the whole life of a soldier, is like a householder who buys an expensive microwave on the instalment system but fails to give his wife any money to buy the food or the chance to learn to cook. No one doubts the high morale of our forces in the field, made up of comradeship, courage, pride in their profession and battle skills, and their families do all they can to support that morale. Nevertheless, a stretched elastic can break. We know from the NAO that the impact of service life on family life and the feeling that the work of the services is no longer valued accounts for 65 per cent of the reasons for leaving. The NAO and the Armed Forces Pay Review Body are concerned about the increasing breaches in harmony and the steady loss of essential skilled personnel serving at the pinch points.

It is in the interests of the country as a whole, not just the defence family, to deliver proper care and support to a significant part of our people who are engaged in the defence of the realm. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, in a defence debate quoted Thucydides on the importance of morale. The noble Lord also quoted Field Marshal Montgomery when he spoke of the importance of a contented Army and said:

I beg to move for Papers.

11.57 am

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on securing this debate and on a powerful and telling speech. She mentioned the military covenant whose words I would like to quote:

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The same covenant must apply to all three services in equal measure. Do Her Majesty's Government accept that, too?

Every day individual service men and women on operations overseas are making personal sacrifices—and some the ultimate sacrifice—in the service of the nation. Since 2003, some 257 have been killed in action. Larger numbers have been wounded, some most horrifically, but thanks to their medical treatment they live—albeit severely disabled in many cases. Others who have no physical disabilities are traumatised by their experiences and may never be well again. Almost all are young, in the first few years of their adult life; some not even out of their teens. No one can claim that today's service men and women are not fulfilling their part of the covenant, as also did the 16,000 who have died since World War II on operations and whose names are recorded on the Armed Forces memorial in Staffordshire.

How are the Government and the nation responding? How well are they keeping faith with their responsibilities to so many service personnel and dependants in this contract? Keeping faith is not just a matter of financial reward for a job well done. It must go deeper to uphold this unique contract. The Royal British Legion recently launched a well researched campaign drawing attention to government failings in meeting the covenant. There is more to add.

No amount of repetition of respect and admiration for the Armed Forces will outweigh the impact of government inactions or perceived lack of interest in the activity and feelings of service personnel. Do the Armed Forces not merit even one line in the gracious Speech when they are deployed on operations far from home? Where is the support in that? It hollers blinkered lack of interest.

How can the Armed Forces feel that the Government are four-square behind them with both the Secretary of State and the Minister for defence equipment and support only part-time holders of their important positions? A part-time Minister signals a part-time interest in the forces, a part-time responsibility for representing their interests in Cabinet and failure to get adequate funding in the CSR settlement; a part-time Minister, with key responsibilities for their equipment needs, being answerable to two Secretaries of State. Surely a son of the manse knows his Bible: “No man can serve two masters”. Does all this not undervalue the Armed Forces?

I welcomed the Written Statement, 10 days ago, by the Secretary of State for Defence. This promises a Command Paper on what has been done to support service personnel, their families and veterans, and the Government's vision for further support. But this work is not going to be published before spring 2008. Is that the best that a near-invisible Secretary of State can do, tied up as he must be with the problems of Scottish devolution and talk of independence? Can the Minister assure the House that there are funds earmarked in the defence budget to meet the cost of the further support that seems to be anticipated by the Statement? Or is this vision of further improvements just spin, no more than a virtual mirage on a far-off shore?

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Ministers have repeatedly acknowledged that we are committed—and have been for some time—way beyond defence planning assumptions. Admitting it, but then doing too little to correct the situation, or only belatedly, is another example of a failure to fulfil their part of the military covenant. In wars of choice, is it not highly immoral to commit forces that are underprovided and inadequately equipped for their tasks? A Government must limit their global aspirations to what they have provided the services, or they fail to honour the military covenant.

The noble Lord, Lord Drayson, made a belated apology to your Lordships for failings in MoD treatment of Gulf War I veterans. He said:

But the Minister for Veterans still refuses to accept the Pensions Appeal Tribunal determination that Gulf War illness is a valid label to merit compensation for sick veterans from the first Gulf conflict who do not have an established pathology.

Gulf veterans who have had their claims refused should be contacted by the MoD and told that they can appeal if they have not already done so. This would be the least that the MoD can do to make good on its admitted failings and to bring this long-running issue to a satisfactory closure.

I was encouraged to learn that the Hull Teaching Primary Care Trust has written to its healthcare professionals to say that, in addition to fast-tracking treatment for veterans in receipt of a war disability pension, other veterans should be given the same access as the war pensioners if their doctors suspect that their condition may be associated with their military service. Can the Minister confirm that fast-track treatment is a nationwide arrangement—throughout the United Kingdom—for all veterans? Indeed, does fast-track treatment mean giving priority to treatment?

A number of your Lordships challenged one of the critical changes introduced into the new Armed Forces Compensation Scheme 2005. As the noble Baroness, Lady Park, mentioned, the scheme requires the claimant to prove, on the balance of probabilities, that the injury, illness or death was caused mainly by service. Under the former war pensions scheme, in place since 1942, the onus was on the Secretary of State to prove that conditions were not caused by service, and the service person was given the benefit of the doubt. This change disadvantages serving personnel and veterans in poor health, who may be ill prepared to argue their case in any dispute over the cause of their injuries. What an inappropriate time, when we have casualties almost daily, to impose such a change designed, it seems, to save money on compensation.

I have not completed my list of concerns, but I hope that I have said enough to challenge the Government to mend their ways. There is a world of difference in dealing with service personnel as though they were comparable with non-combatants when so

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many are now serving in operational environments. It is an abrogation of the Government's responsibilities under the covenant. Let them resolve instead to sustain it wholeheartedly, and not just by grudging, belated responses to media and other pressures that embarrass them.

The military covenant is not only between the forces and the Government of the day, it is between the forces and the nation. I have remarked before in debates how impressed I have been by the willingness in the United States to honour and reward service men and women and veterans. If they produce their service identity card, most retailers will willingly give them a discount on their purchases. Would that our national businesses would do the same for our Armed Forces. How better could they indicate their support for the military covenant? Will the Government take that idea forward?

12.07 pm

Lord Chidgey: My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, has made a telling contribution to this debate based on the wisdom of his own experience, on which we should dwell throughout the hours to come. I am sure that your Lordships' House will want me to pass on good wishes for the speedy recovery of my noble friend Lord Lee of Trafford, while he recuperates in hospital. He will be disappointed not to be here today to follow the speech that he made in the debate on the gracious Address when he focused on the key issues, as appears to be well known.

From almost every quarter in the defence and security world, whether from defence analysts, think tanks and institutes or military personnel, warning bells are ringing. There are growing concerns that our Armed Forces are unable to sustain the tasks required of them to respond to government policy. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, made the point that the covenant with the Armed Forces is an essential part of our relationship with them. If we choose to have Armed Forces that are prepared to engage in this difficult, tough and challenging campaign—to be war fighters as well as peace makers—then, in recognising that this is a new situation for our Armed Forces, we must recognise that new commitments are necessary to make it work and to make it fair. The covenant between the Armed Forces, the Government and the people must be renewed. For our part, in government, our former Prime Minister said that it will mean increased expenditure on equipment, personnel and the conditions of our Armed Forces—not in the short run, but for the long term.

That is the nub of the debate today: whether the commitment made by our Government on behalf of the nation, and subsequently endorsed by both the former and current Prime Ministers is being met in reality. An increasing body of informed and expert opinion is telling us that it is not. British forces are now suffering critical overstretch due to the mismatch between resources, capabilities and commitments. They were suffering even before the Iraq war and, we are told by many, are now stretched to breaking point. For example, General Sir Richard Dannatt said in July:

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and that reinforcements for emergencies or operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are now “almost non-existent”.

That was in late July, and of course the Government may well now claim that the situation has moved on, with troops being withdrawn from Iraq and reinforcements being deployed in Afghanistan and so on. But the bald facts, according to the RUSI Acquisition Focus of spring 2007, are that the Government's defence planning assumptions, on which the defence budget is based, have been exceeded for at least the past seven years. Experts will of course tell us that it does not matter too much if we exceed the planning expectations for maybe one or two years. But this has been a continual problem for at least seven years, which suggests that our lack of capacity to react to the unexpected or emergencies is not just a one-off but is becoming systemic and endemic.

It is almost 10 years since the Strategic Defence Review in 1998 set out the Government’s vision for the future. Since then, global security has changed significantly, particularly following the terrorist attacks of 2001, the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan against the Taliban, and the campaigns against Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda across the region. Those are in addition to our continuing roles in the Balkans, Bosnia, Africa and Sierra Leone and, more widely—as the noble Baroness who introduced this debate said—working with the EU, the UN and AU peacekeeping efforts.

Although the SDR was largely welcomed at the time, the global security situation has moved on; added to which, many of the problems that the SDR was supposed to solve—a posture more suited to the Cold War, undermanning and overstretch—remain a major concern today. The SDR set broad benchmarks that visualised, for example, either a response to a major international crisis that might require a military effort and combat operations of a similar scale and duration to the Gulf War—I am advised that, in broad terms, that means deploying an armoured division, 26 major warships and more than 80 combat aircraft—or undertaking a more extended overseas deployment on a lesser scale, as in Bosnia, for example, while retaining the ability to mount a second substantial deployment, probably involving a combat brigade and appropriate naval and air forces, if this were made necessary by a second crisis. The SDR did not, however, expect both deployments to involve war fighting, or to be maintained simultaneously for longer than six months.

In that context, it is worth emphasising the point made by my noble friend Lord Ashdown in a recent article, that only one 25th of the troop numbers and one 50th of the amount of aid is being put into Afghanistan per head of population that we put into Bosnia and Kosovo. Yet the war in Afghanistan is seen as the conflict in which we must succeed if we are to contain and defeat international fundamentalists launching their terrorist campaigns across the world. It is therefore worrying to see reports in our national papers that, according to the MoD’s own performance report, almost half of Britain’s forces

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are ill prepared to be sent on operations because of equipment shortages; this in spite of the MoD's previous rebuttals of claims from the military that even troops training for Iraq or Afghanistan have inadequate equipment.

I hope that the Minister will address the claims that paratroopers preparing to go to Afghanistan in April have only half the required number of Challenger tanks and Land Rovers fitted with machine guns available for training. Will she respond to claims that the report states that 42 per cent of UK forces have critical or serious weaknesses in their ability to be ready to deploy and that 35 per cent stated that they could not even be certain of meeting their basic peacetime requirements?

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