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A further concern has to be that, in spite of reassurances from NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the tensions between members over the mission in Afghanistan have not been resolved and still threaten progress. It transpires that at a recent meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in Holland, up to nine nations might have offered to increase their contributions to the mission in response to US pressure, but there were no responses to the call from the US for major reinforcements. In fact, the possible offers appear to be of more soldiers to help train the Afghan national army, not of troops to take on the war-fighting aspects of the mission. Countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain continue to be constrained by what are called national caveats, which restrict their forces to non-combatant roles away from the war-fighting zones. These are political decisions that they should surely find increasingly difficult to sustain, particularly when time is running out to get the mission right and when reconstruction is progressing more slowly than hoped and the Taliban are regaining some hold in the south, in parts that the Afghan national army is as yet unable to protect.

Reports from the British American Security Information Council—BASIC—last week reinforce that view. They record that, after the NATO chiefs of staff meeting on 14 November, General Ray Henault, the chairman of the alliance's military committee, confirmed that shortfalls in troop levels have slowed progress in Afghanistan. He added that even though forces have grown by 8,500 troops, military commanders are still in need of helicopters and other resources. We need to be reassured that all NATO members are still agreed that the mission in Afghanistan cannot be allowed to fail. It cannot be allowed to fail because not just the future of Afghanistan but also the credibility of NATO is on the line. NATO members must be prepared to provide the means and not just to wish for the outcome. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the Government are sending to our allies the message that all members have an individual responsibility to provide the means to achieve a successful outcome for the good of the alliance, their citizens and the success of the campaign against international terrorism, and that the burden has to be shared or it will become unsustainable.

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In the mean time, our Armed Forces continue to suffer overstretch from unsustainable commitments, inadequate resources, inappropriate equipment and insufficient trained personnel. In that context, the Armed Forces’ continuous attitude surveys record that overstretch and frequency of operational tours are now cited as major reasons for service personnel of all ranks deciding to leave the forces. Not surprisingly, there are now acute shortages of qualified personnel in key areas, in particular in military medical services. For example, we have less than 65 per cent of the nurses needed, less than 50 per cent of the surgeons and only 20 per cent of the radiologists. I speak from experience as one who has had every reason to be grateful for the level of healthcare provided by military medical services at Haslar hospital, now sadly closed, and at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey. I feel very strongly about the need to maintain the morale and capabilities of our Army, Navy and Air Force medical services.

The impact on the Armed Forces is aggravated by the number of personnel exceeding the harmony guidelines meant to ensure a reasonable lifestyle for our troops. The figure given by the MoD to the Public Accounts Committee in July this year was still around 12 per cent—one in eight—of Army personnel. We would like to hear from the Minister where the statistics are today and how the Government intend to respond more urgently to the eventual loss of these and other key personnel and to restore the covenant with the Armed Forces that is clearly so close to foundering.

12.20 pm

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, for securing this important debate today. I have been associated with the Armed Forces on personnel issues for the past 15 years. My view is that we are at a critical stage in the compact and the relationship with our Armed Forces. We all remember when, under the Administration of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, she had to instruct that a pay increase in double figures be awarded to the Armed Forces because they had fallen so far behind in the years before and that was affecting morale, recruitment and retention. That was a pretty simple and straightforward situation, which should not have been allowed to arise and had to be corrected by more money being found. The situation today is different and more complex, but we come to the same conclusion: more money is needed to help to resolve some of the issues that we have.

In preparation for the debate, I looked at personnel issues from the time I was a member and chairman of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and, indeed, the period of this Government’s administration. I came to the conclusion that the review body’s view that pay is not the key issue is absolutely right. This year, for instance, the review body awarded a 3.3 per cent basic increase, but, because of other allowances, that put 3.9 per cent on the overall wage bill, which is approximately double what the Chancellor of the Exchequer was looking for. The increase was not

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staged and it was met in full. That was not the case with other pay review bodies, so the particular circumstances of our Armed Forces have been recognised.

The improvements in the pension scheme that we all considered a couple of years ago are certainly costing money and are a major improvement for the Armed Forces. The removal this year of the 100-day wait to qualify for the longer separation allowance is a major step forward, as indeed was the announcement made by the Secretary of State last year that from April 2006 there will be a tax-free bonus to personnel on operations of in excess of, say, £2,200 pounds. That is all very welcome.

So, if it is not pay on the personnel side, what is causing what I would regard as a lack of morale—and I do not mean morale on operations; anyone who visits personnel on operations knows that they are more than 100 per cent committed and that morale is high—in the overall feel among the Armed Forces? Why is that so with the current pay situation? With my background, the first thing that you look for when you have that situation is whether pay is too low. If it is not necessarily pay, if, as the review body report says, between April last year and October we saw a doubling of the money deficit to well over 3 per cent, and if we have in the past year—2006—seen nearly 6 per cent of personnel in what are called general ranks leaving and nearly 4 per cent in officer ranks leaving, we have to do something about that. The situation is unsustainable, not only in the long term, but in the short and the medium terms.

I remember when we were dealing with overstretch. Every one of the review body reports in the past 15 years has referred to overstretch. The MoD has had difficulty accepting that word; indeed, we tried to find other words to put the same case across. When considering overstretch and the time between operations, you are looking at the services as a whole, but that is misleading. You have to hone down into the operational services, which are only a proportion of that. Dealing with overstretch in overall percentages is in my view very misleading.

We are having problems with recruitment, although I must say that the MoD’s method of marketing and recruitment has improved beyond recognition. I know that people are attracted to join the services when we are on operations. That is good, but we are missing out on younger people joining the services in the same numbers as they did. Perhaps for the first time for a very long time, we have our Armed Forces working in what are called operations but which I regard as a warfare situation. We are having to become used to reading and hearing on the news every day about people in the Armed Forces being killed. I know that when they sign up, they sign up to the fact that they may have to pay the ultimate price—with their lives—but to have this in increasing numbers in what is supposed to be a peacetime situation is very challenging.

That spins off on the families, as the noble Baroness, Lady Park, rightly said. I think that that is one of the kernels of the problem, quite apart from the equipment issues, with which other noble Lords will deal. The families issue is increasingly difficult. I

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entirely recognise that the Government have done many things to improve the situation, but, unfortunately, we live in a changed society. People’s expectations are different and what families will now put up with is not what they would have in the past.

There are areas in which we have not made as much progress as we should. For instance, accommodation is a running sore. The Government have put a lot of money into accommodation, but since 1997 rent for a lot of the lowest grade of service families accommodation has not been increased by the review body. Why? Because it did not feel that it could justify it; it was too embarrassed to ask for it. Since 1998, there has also been no increase in the basic grade, the lowest grade, of single living accommodation. So we are talking about a decade during which some accommodation has been absolutely appalling. That does not detract from the fact that a lot of investment has gone in and a lot of accommodation has improved, but that is no consolation to Armed Forces personnel who, unlike those in many other sectors of employment, are there for only a short time. For many of them, we are promising that we will invest, but they will be long gone before they benefit from that. We found that that was certainly an issue.

The issue of access to social housing was raised. Personnel and their families move around. On access to health care, dentistry and schools, a lot has been done by the MoD in conjunction with the Department for Education and the Department of Health, but social housing is a real issue. It is a real issue because the £8,500, or just above, that people are now getting as a contribution to buying their own accommodation is totally inadequate and needs to be looked at. There, the MoD will be tied up with the rules on taxes and whether that is a benefit in kind. Ways must be found around that, because the civilian population’s access to social housing is also an issue and service personnel are often pushed to the back, so many of them have poor housing when they are in the services and no chance of social housing when they come out.

I am a vice-president of the War Widows Association. We thought that we had a diminishing number of members, but that number is now going up. We are concerned—we have discussed this with the MoD, although it is not totally its responsibility—about the delay in inquests and the whole issue relating to coroners’ courts. We are discussing that with Ministers at the MoD and will continue to raise it.

During the past couple of weeks, I have been in the United States, where I came across a disturbing situation. I met in a café what I thought were a load of bikers. One of them had the word “Patriots” on his motorbike. We asked what that meant and he said that, in the States now, when bereaved families are burying members of the Armed Forces, there are demonstrations at the funerals against those people having ever gone to war. Service personnel have no control over being sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, where some of them are killed. Their families then face demonstrations against them. The bikers were forming a protective barrier. Thank goodness we do not have that here. However, I know that our Armed

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Forces personnel and their families are criticised quite severely in the local pub or in their own town.

I was delighted last night not by the outcome of the football match, although I know that the Minister is a football fanatic, but to have those 30 personnel at Wembley. We need to show more public support for our Armed Forces and I very much welcome the statement by General Dannatt in that regard. We in this House have a role to play in that support.

I ask the Minister to take the following into account in the Government’s considerations. In the Falklands conflict, defence was apparently 5 per cent of GDP. It is now 2 per cent. Improvements that have been made since then for Armed Forces personnel have been taken from the general budget. I know that departments have to manage their budgets, but they cannot carry on doing that. In the current review, there needs to be recognition that the defence budget must increase and that an appropriate proportion of that needs to go to Armed Forces personnel and their families. Otherwise, the situation is unsustainable in the short, medium and longer terms.

12.31 pm

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lady Park on her excellent choice of debate for the House. I am particularly pleased to follow the powerful and extremely well informed speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, to which I shall refer in a moment.

It is two weeks since we debated defence as part of a jumbo debate that included foreign affairs and everything else under the sun. Noble Lords will recall that there was a sense of shock when the Minister who was due to open that debate suddenly disappeared at an hour or two hours’ notice and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, bravely stepped into the breach. We have now had a chance to reflect on the situation and on the views that were expressed in that debate. I expressed my concern, following the comment that I had heard made by others, that our present Prime Minister was not interested in defence. Obviously we shall judge as we see and as it proceeds, but he has made a disappointing start. In my judgment, he has lost the two best Ministers that he had in the Ministry of Defence. I am sorry to see the departure of Mr Adam Ingram, and I am particularly sorry to see the departure of the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, who I thought was an excellent Minister, as did many noble Lords.

It is being said in the Ministry of Defence and certain other quarters that this is the weakest defence ministerial team that they can remember. It is for others to make that judgment, but I must say yet again that, as other noble Lords have felt, it is almost an insult to our Armed Forces and a grievous mistake by the Prime Minister, as I have said twice before in this House, that at a time of such a test for our Armed Forces and the dangers that they face the Secretary of State for Defence is thought to have plenty of time to double-hat himself as Secretary of State for Scotland. I hope that someone will recognise that at last and do something about it.

I was not there myself and I hope that I am not quoting him out of turn, but I understand that

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someone asked the Chief of the General Staff whether soldiers currently notice what is happening in the ministerial team, and was told, “Yes, they do”. That answer does not surprise me at all. If they do not appear to be getting the attention and respect in the ministerial team, the soldiers will draw their own conclusions. Does this really matter? There are times when it has been pretty peaceful, when it would not really have mattered very much and when weaknesses in the ministerial team might not have been a critical factor. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, fairly said that the Armed Forces are now busier than at any time since the Second World War. On the scale of casualties, I received, as other noble Lords may have done, a letter from Major General Webb-Carter, the controller of the Army Benevolent Fund, in which he said:

He recognises that,

that was in 1981-82 pounds—

This is a tragic situation, and is exactly what the noble Baroness was referring to.

When we know, as Major General Webb-Carter says, that:

the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, has already spoken in this debate, and I think I am right in saying that the casualty rate in the first Gulf War was 0.2 per cent—that just shows the severity, challenge and much greater danger faced by our Armed Forces.

I know the answers that we will get or in part can anticipate. We shall be told that the defence budget has gone up by 1.5 per cent in real terms. I hope the Minister recognises—I hope that she has been long enough in the job to know—that that answer fools no one. Everyone knows that the defence index runs at a significantly higher level than that; the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, has made that argument for me. I agree very much with what she said about morale. On the front line, led by good determined officers with a regimental spirit and all that, morale will always be good. I hope that we shall never see that change. However, what happens to those officers who have played their part on the front line and then come home only to leave under the pressure of family or unhappiness? Damage can be done.

I have tried to be bipartisan because we are talking about a national asset that must be handed on intact from Government to Government. Whoever is in power, we depend on and must have strong and capable Armed Forces. I remember that one of the most difficult things in the first Gulf War was doing a proper battle damage assessment. The difficulty now is to do a proper damage assessment of what is actually happening to our Armed Forces. Someone made the very telling remark that it is very difficult to

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recognise the brink until it is too late. We are very close to that situation. We are in a very dangerous situation when the Chief of the Defence Staff says that it is unrealistic to think that we could take on any other commitments at the present time because there is no reserve, and that it will take a significant period to recover from the position that we are in. I hear the Foreign Secretary newly and bravely in his job saying that one of the arms of his policy will be hard power, as though it is some sort of electricity supply that can simply be turned on and is limitlessly available, when realistically no hard power is available at the present time for anything else except trying to deal with the two current crises.

I ask again whether this really matters, but we are living in a serious and dangerous world. At the end of the Cold War—the noble Baroness, Lady Park, referred to this—there was a strong feeling during the Options for Change programme that people were looking for a peace dividend. They were saying, “That is the great threat that we have been facing for the past 45 years, and now we can relax”. I remember that the questions from the Opposition Benches in the House of Commons when I made the defence Statement were not about why we were cutting our Armed Forces but why we were not doing a lot more, why the peace dividend was not bigger, and what threat we thought we were facing. As the 1990s progressed, we progressively saw greater dangers emerging.

More subsequently, I, like the Minister, was involved in the Intelligence and Security Committee. Our reports consistently said that the world was becoming a progressively much more dangerous place, not a safer one, after the end of the Cold War. Against that background is the present stand-off between Russia and the United States, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Park, referred, on the defensive missile shield, and the increasing determination of Russia to flex her muscles. People are now talking about energy security and food security. This may be the first year—it is certainly a developing trend—in which the world has eaten more food than it has produced. We are rapidly approaching the moment at which the world consumes more oil than it can produce. The potential tensions of that and the population explosion in certain parts of the world, along with climate change, may be making certain parts of the world virtually uninhabitable. I do not want to be too apocalyptic, but all this certainly results in risks that any sensible and responsible Government would need to take very seriously.

Let us look at NATO and the difficulty of getting our allies to step forward and share in some of the challenges we are facing. Noble Lords may well agree with a quote I heard: “The more Europe talks of defence, the less it is willing to spend”. Against that background, therefore, I believe that our defence provision is now seriously out of balance with the challenges we face.

I have every sympathy for the Minister. She is an experienced parliamentarian, but as everyone in the House knows, she has been doing this job for precisely two weeks. She has taken on an incredibly tough assignment at an extremely difficult time, with

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responsibility for the procurement budget, the scope of which she may only just be beginning to grasp. If, as I understand, she is in charge of procurement, that budget is worth £9 billion a year and is therefore not something that has been particularly within her area of experience until now. We understand the difficulties that she has to face, but Members of this House have a responsibility to speak as clearly and loudly as we can.

A certain Minister in this House—I will not say who it was—had been fairly recently ennobled and was then invited to the join the Government as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence. His Secretary of State said to him, “I’ll tell you the good news and the bad news. The good news is that you are going to the House of Lords. It is a nice place and the people are polite. They will be much nicer to you than they would be in the House of Commons. The bad news is that in the House of Lords you have more people who know more about the subject of defence than anyone we have to face in the Commons”. If that is right, my message is simply this. The noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, referred to the previous Prime Minister’s speech made on HMS “Albion”. At the very end of his farewell tour, the penny dropped that defence needed a lot more effort and expenditure. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, has referred to the challenges.

I have only one request for the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor. She will do her best and as a good parliamentarian will wind up this debate and answer the arguments successfully. I would like her to do one thing, if she will. Will she make sure that a copy of Hansard for this debate goes to the Prime Minister and that she encourages him to read it? Then—because I believe he claimed that this would be a listening Government—he might like to talk to a few of the contributors and see whether we cannot find a way forward. We need to get him to understand the seriousness of the situation. I say this as someone who cares deeply about our country, our Armed Forces and the threats that we face in the world. If we do not face up to this and get a proper bipartisan approach to tackling these challenges, I will be seriously concerned about the future.

12.43 pm

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