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I will take this opportunity to give noble Lords an update on Wellington Barracks, an issue that has been raised with me on the Floor of the House. I have acknowledged that the barracks are in need of improvement, but plans are being developed to do everything possible to bring such improvements about. Work is already in hand to improve the standard of the accommodation, with showers being refurbished, junior ranks’ communal areas being redecorated and site-wide heating repairs and upgrades. Additionally, a band rehearsal block is being built to replace facilities that were lost with the disposal of Chelsea Barracks. In total, it is anticipated that over £10 million will be spent on making improvements at Wellington Barracks over the next two years.

However, we do not only focus on the accommodation that the MoD provides. We are also improving access to the property ladder for service personnel and those leaving the forces. Next year, we expect to launch a £20 million pilot scheme to promote home ownership. These are some of the things that we are doing in that area.

Those who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf must be assured that if they need medical attention it is of the best quality possible, both on operations and here in the UK. In Afghanistan, our forces have access to world-standard care provided at Camp Bastion—some colleagues will have seen that facility. There is a deployed hospital with all the associated support elements, including emergency medicine, primary surgery, an intensive care unit, medium and low-dependency nursing care beds and diagnostic support, including a CT scanner. The skills that medical professionals pick up in that field hospital are proving extremely beneficial; medical staff return to work in the UK with valuable experience. As well as that centre, additional facilities are deployed at local and unit levels to provide front-line medical support as well as an airborne evacuation in-theatre capability.

Here in the UK, the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine at the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust is now recognised as one of the best in the world for military medical attention. The military ward within the Birmingham New Hospital will ensure that service casualties continue to receive the same excellent level of care but in the greater privacy of single-bedded and four-bedded rooms, which all patients in that hospital will enjoy.

The inspirational recoveries made by our injured personnel show the incredible spirit and determination of those individuals and what can be achieved with the right support. That is why we are now investing a further £24 million to maintain and enhance the first-class facilities that we have at Headley Court and why we are also working to improve regional and primary care rehabilitation facilities across the UK. However, it is obvious that our most urgent responsibility is to those on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why we are spending billions of pounds on new and improved equipment, both for the short and the long terms.

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Of course, money alone does not give the full picture, but in the past three years we have delivered more than £10 billion-worth of equipment to the Armed Forces, £4.5 billion of it in the past financial year. I think that these figures demonstrate how seriously we take equipping those on the front line. As a result, our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are now better equipped than ever before, both for their own protection and for carrying out their missions. Commanders on the ground have told me first-hand that they have never had so much good-quality kit. However, if you asked any commander if he would like more, he would probably say yes, just as any Minister would always want more for their department. None the less, that does not mean that commanders are short of what they need to achieve their objectives.

When things go wrong—as they will in an operational situations—questions are asked. Obviously, the Snatch Land Rover has come under a lot of scrutiny, so I want to say a few words about this vehicle. The nub of the issue is that commanders need a wide variety of vehicles. Sometimes, for certain tasks, a light, manoeuvrable and/or low-profile vehicle may be the most suitable. What is most important is that commanders on the ground have access to a range of vehicles. It is their prerogative, not ours, to choose the most appropriate vehicle for any given task; we cannot second-guess what they should be doing. We have done a great deal to ensure that commanders have a variety of vehicles at their disposal—vehicles that provide varying degrees of protection, mobility and firepower. Although we have invested heavily in personal protection vehicles, there will still be situations when commanders use Snatch as part of their mixed force. The Chief of the General Staff said recently:

“There has always been and there remains a requirement for a small, agile vehicle to get to some of the places both in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the larger and protected vehicles, like Warrior, Bulldog and Mastiff, can’t get to ... If there was a better vehicle, a smaller vehicle, out there that we could get our hands on quickly, or could have got our hands on quickly, we would do so or would have done so”.

That is a very clear statement of the need for that vehicle in some circumstances.

We are spending more than £30 million to upgrade all our Snatch vehicles on operations to the Snatch Vixen, which provides the same level of manoeuvrability with increased protection. These modifications, developed in response to operational pressures, will give the Snatch Vixen the highest levels of protection for its size and weight class compared with other vehicles out there on the market. However, we realise that the new generation of heavily armoured vehicles is also proving very useful and, indeed, vital. Therefore, last month we announced an extra 700 vehicles to further improve the safety of our people in theatre.

Although we are investing billions of pounds in equipment for both the short and the long terms, there are those who still argue that we are not providing the right kit. Sadly, there have been casualties and each death is a huge loss. Obviously, it is right that independent authorities look into every death in an endeavour to avoid such events in the future. If bad practice or policy is apparent, we will change it. I hope that the

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investment that I have mentioned, and the reports from commanders that I have quoted from, put these issues in proper context.

I am not suggesting—and nobody in the Ministry of Defence would suggest—that there is no more work to be done. We always want to improve our kit, our vehicles and the overall service that we provide. We are, at the moment, in the process of finding more helicopters from our allies and getting them to the front line as quickly as possible. The UK-French helicopter initiative, launched in May, has already brought several countries to the table to secure funds and to increase our helicopter capability. So far, Australia, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Norway are all helping in this respect and the fund currently stands at €20 million. In response to the initiative, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Ukraine have offered helicopters for Afghanistan, provided that they can secure funding for essential refurbishment, the equipment that is needed and the training that would allow those helicopters to be deployed.

I hope that noble Lords will accept that the Ministry of Defence is committed to providing the best possible support for the Armed Forces, whether at home or on operations overseas. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the work that they do on a daily basis, because that work is to maintain our security. Our men and women on current military operations are showing exactly the same kind of steel and resolve that their forebears had, so it is right that, this month, when we honour the memory of those who protected us in the past, we should also honour and acknowledge those who protect us today. Part of what we are doing is committing ourselves to ensuring that service personnel, their families and veterans get the recognition and support that they deserve. The recognition study and the Command Paper have been significant steps forward in clarifying that relationship and in enhancing the entitlement of those in the Armed Forces. I therefore believe that real progress is being made and hope that we can continue to improve the lot of those to whom we owe so much. I beg to move.

Moved, That this House takes note of matters relating to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and the service personnel Command Paper (Cm 7424).—(Baroness Taylor of Bolton.)

4.42 pm

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I join the Minister in paying tribute to our Armed Forces who are serving on our behalf, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to their families who support them. I also join the Minister in paying tribute to those who have given their lives for this country in earlier wars and campaigns. I thank the Minister for facilitating this long-awaited debate, which is, I am sure, welcomed by all sides of the House.

In opening this debate, the Minister commended to the House the White Paper, The Nation’s Commitment: Cross-Government Support to our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans. This side of the House welcomed much of the White Paper, in particular the admission that the bureaucratic process, as a whole, operates to the frustration of service families, and of where that

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process can be adjusted. However, real enthusiasm escapes me for three main reasons. First, parliamentary debate about the Armed Forces needs to go much deeper and wider than the matters addressed in the White Paper. My second ground for concern is scepticism, born of experience, over the extent to which, and how soon, the Government will succeed in bringing about their promised changes in the working of the bureaucratic machine. My third reservation relates to the general tone of the document. While it explicitly recognises, at several points, the human dimension of the sacrifices which our soldiers, sailors and airmen are expected to make in the course of their duties, it seems to regard what needs to be done as largely mechanical matters of process and not matters of people talking to, listening to and helping others.

I found no real acknowledgement of the key role that voluntary organisations such as The Royal British Legion, SSAFA, the Army Families Federation and the War Widows' Association can and do make in supporting veterans and families. The only recognition that they receive is acknowledgement in the list of consultees at the end. It is likewise for the old comrades’ associations, to use a generic term, which do so much to help with welfare issues.

A further curiosity of the wording of the White Paper is that, as far as I can see, it does not refer at any point to the military covenant, yet, in ordinary conversation and debate, that phrase encapsulates the subject matter of the White Paper. I was therefore very pleased to hear the Secretary of State, giving evidence recently to the Defence Committee in the other place, use precisely the phrase “the military covenant” in answering a question on the matter from my honourable friend Bernard Jenkin. The commitment that the Minister then gave was that the military covenant is a vital part of the whole deal. That is how it is rightly perceived by my right honourable friend David Cameron, and that is why he appointed a commission to advise him on precisely that brief. I commend that commission for its work and its interim report entitled, Restoring the Covenant.

There must be an acceptance by government of a duty of care and support for those willing to die and be injured, often with life-changing injuries, on behalf of their country. That was recognised three centuries ago by the Duke of Marlborough. He told this House after his victory at Blenheim that the best way to celebrate was to do right by the soldiers who fought so bravely with him.

With that in mind, I shall concentrate on three points that are very relevant to the military covenant and morale. First, for the past few years, I have been raising in this House the totally unsatisfactory position of the air bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan. Each time, Ministers gave me assurances that something would be done, but when I speak to troops, which I do quite often, I am told that that is not the case. The air bridge problems are a continuing cause of real resentment for those service men and women travelling to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. I make no apology for returning to that again today, as it is having a serious effect on morale.

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New figures show that so far this year, only 56 per cent of flights returning from Afghanistan have been on time or delayed by less than an hour. Moreover, the number of flights delayed by six hours or more has increased to 17 per cent. Given that new figures from the Military Covenant Commission show that only 47 per cent of the fleet is fit for purpose, perhaps flight delays are not surprising. The Royal Air Force’s fleet is, on the whole, very old, so delays are not always its fault.

In America, leave starts at one minute past midnight the day after service personnel have arrived at their destination. In this country, however, leave starts when waiting for the flight home. Here, as the Chief of the General Staff’s briefing team reports, plane delays, sometimes as long as 24 hours, mean that loss of leave is still widespread. Service personnel get only two weeks’ leave during their six months in theatre, so that precious time with their family and friends must be protected as a very high priority. It is astonishing, therefore, that this seems impossible to achieve. What plans do the Government have at this time to improve the air bridge and what is the latest news on the A400M?

The sending of unsolicited parcels to service personnel from well-meaning members of the public should be an occasion for good cheer. They are signs of gratitude and a mark that those in Afghanistan and Iraq are not only in the minds of their families but also of those members of the general public who acknowledge their debt to the Armed Forces. However, because of the strain these parcels put on the air bridge, the Ministry of Defence has decided that this practice must cease. Do the Government understand what a damaging impact this will have on morale?

The second grievance that is fully justified is the sub-standard housing for service men and women and their families. Real resentment at the incompetence and lack of motivation of MHS, the company responsible for service accommodation, is apparent at many units I have visited. The strength of feeling is considerable. There is little confidence in the approach of MHS or in its service. In his recent report, the CGS said that he was,

He went on to acknowledge that efforts are being made to improve these standards. Can the Minister assure us that MHS is now focusing sustained attention on improving its performance and customer satisfaction?

A few weeks ago the Lords Defence Group visited Wellington Barracks. To say that we were all shocked by what we saw is an understatement. It is quite wrong that service men and women are forced to accept these very sub-standard living conditions. I was grateful to hear the Minister’s assurance in her opening speech that there are going to be considerable improvements to Wellington Barracks. Admiral Timothy Laurence, Chief Executive of Defence Estates, recently spoke to the Lords Defence Group. I was heartened by his address and I am confident that he will get a grip on the problems of service accommodation. Will the Minister assure us that further instalments of payments

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for Chelsea Barracks are secure and have been ring-fenced, as we were told they would be, for defence accommodation?

Thirdly, I am concerned at the premature voluntary retirement of too many service men and women in all three services, particularly middle-ranking officers and NCOs who we can ill afford to lose. One area for downward adjustment of spending lies in programmes for the future provision of technologically advanced kit. I will not venture into that today but of one thing I am certain: our most important resource, our most valuable capability, is our people and the Government must stop short-changing them. It is well recognised today that through-life capability management is a key objective where kit is concerned. The same should and must apply to the capability that is our people. The White Paper and the interim report of our covenant commission are the necessary first steps to that end.

4.55 pm

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, we on these Benches also welcome the White Paper. My party, like the others, has done considerable work and published on the military covenant and support for our Armed Forces, and there is a great deal of common ground in this White Paper with which we can all agree—provided that it is fully implemented.

We are all concerned about the degree of overstretch from which our Armed Forces have been suffering through heavy commitments over the past few years—“running hot”, as Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman in the other place, wrote in an early paper, Our Nation’s Duty, published in December last year. The strains on our forces, on their families, on reserves called up far more frequently than anticipated and on our equipment—and thus on the military covenant as such—have been acute. After the cuts which the Conservative Government made after 1990, thinking that we could cut back on our Armed Forces post the end of the Cold War, when I heard a Minister say in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, that cuts in the probation services were going to affect not the front line but merely the tail, I was reminded of the problems we got into with Front Line First, which cut Defence Medical Services most sharply, from which we have been suffering since.

We have had wars of choice for the past 10 years—what John Kampfner unkindly called “Blair’s Wars” and what the White Paper refers to as using our forces for good—in Kosovo, where there was a major operation in which we were prepared to commit almost half our effective army; in Sierra Leone, where a small commitment did a world of good; in Afghanistan, a necessary commitment though badly delayed with all that time lost between 2000 and 2006 which has made the reconstruction of the economy, society and state so much more difficult; and, of course, in Iraq, which my party strongly opposed and which thankfully we will complete, we hope, within the next six months. Perhaps the Minister will tell us a little about the prospects for completing the status-of-forces agreement in Iraq and how that will affect the remaining months that our forces will stay in Basra. I have not yet read that the

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status-of-forces agreement has been completed. As a result, we have had no spare capacity to contribute to multilateral forces in central Africa, in the Congo, in the Great Lakes region, in Sudan and Chad, or to do as much as we would have liked to train and provide logistical support for troops from African states in that very damaged continent.

A range of wider issues follow from this: where should we commit to conflicts, under what circumstances, with whom and with what equipment? We should be addressing what we think are the likeliest sorts of conflicts, whether high-level conflicts between states of the kind which led to the intervention in Iraq or—I dread the thought—potential operations against Iran, or the Petersburg tasks of separation of combatants, peace enforcement, restoration of order, nation-building and reconstruction. We need different kinds of equipment and training for these actions. For interstate war we need aircraft carriers, highly capable piloted aircraft and perhaps even a new nuclear deterrent. For state-building and peace enforcement we need good armoured vehicles, personal armour, helicopters and pilotless drones.

In all these we pursue closer co-operation with the armed forces of other states, which we need to pursue more actively and, I suggest, discuss more openly with Parliament. Do we pursue primarily continuing partnership with the United States, with its much larger armed forces with a rather different set of military doctrines, or more the French, the Dutch, the Danish and the Canadians, with whom we find ourselves operating in Helmand and elsewhere? I welcome the report of the UK-French helicopter initiative. That seems very much the kind of thing that we should be doing.

Even peace enforcement now is increasingly hard fought. We are up against asymmetrical warfare with improvised explosive devices, grenade launchers and the like and, as in Afghanistan, we take heavy casualties. Welcome improvements in medical care and in evacuating the wounded mean that fewer die, but more return to the United Kingdom severely injured and often permanently disabled. The White Paper notes that, since 2001, 350 personnel have been killed, but more than 2,000 have been seriously injured or wounded, creating a new generation of long-term disabled ex-service men and women. We welcome the proposals for the Armed Forces compensation scheme. We welcome the extension of Selly Oak to house a separate military ward, and the further investment in Headley Court. We very much welcome what the White Paper says about mental health services for returning servicemen, veterans and Reserve Forces after active service. We look forward to hearing that these measures have been put in place.

I was glad to see the comment in the White Paper that the number of ex-servicemen who are rough sleepers has declined. I was talking some months ago in Bradford to soup-run organisers, who told me that there is still a higher proportion of ex-servicemen there and in some other northern cities than there is in London. There is still a lot to be done in looking after ex-servicemen who find that the adjustment to civilian life after active service is very difficult.

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A lot of extra work is being done by service charities. I was at a concert in Bradford the weekend before last for the benefit of Help for Heroes, the excellent new charity that has raised a lot of money, particularly for Headley Court and for the badly wounded. However, as the White Paper remarks, the central responsibility lies with government—not just for the wounded but for the families of servicemen, for their houses and for the educational needs of their children. It is good to hear about what is under way at Catterick. Last weekend I was in Richmond, talking to Liberal Democrat councillors who represent that area. They tell me that things are, without question, improving.

I have one question about paragraph 2.22, in which we are told that the provision of new housing for service-leavers is very important and that the Government will give £400,000 for it. It seems a very small sum for a very large objective.

I note also the remarks about the 12,000 foreign and Commonwealth personnel in the UK Armed Forces—the Gurkhas, 3,000 Fijians, a substantial number from the Caribbean and so on. The question of earned citizenship, and of the earned citizenship of their partners and families, is being addressed in a much more satisfactory way. I recognise that the extent now to which we depend on people from Fiji and elsewhere reflects the difficulties we have in recruiting in our own cities from those pockets of deep, often second and third-generation unemployment. A period in the services would help to break the cycle of deprivation and underachievement there.

In terms of joined-up government, I find contradictions between the continuing emphasis on long-term service for all and the increasing dependence on partly trained Reserve Forces and between the emphasis on the armed services providing education and training for people who have missed out elsewhere and the suggestion that a smaller proportion of people will pass through the services, each serving for a very long period. We are told that 40 per cent of other ranks now serve for 10 years or more, often acquiring growing family commitments and risking losing touch with civilian life.

The Americans have an exemplary record of using their services to provide education and training for the disadvantaged, including apprenticeships in practical skills, from computing to mechanical engineering. We support the remission of tuition fees after six years’ service; perhaps it should be a little less. We should perhaps encourage shorter-term service to help citizenship engagement, which is dear to the Prime Minister’s heart but not mentioned in this White Paper. That would give a larger throughput of young volunteers with experience of military service for their country. The citizenship agenda ought to be more explicitly addressed in this White Paper. We have a reference to veterans’ day. Some of us feel that Remembrance Day is the closest thing we have to a national day and that it is time to rethink and reshape it. I was sorry that, for example, no recently returned active servicemen marched past the Cenotaph on 9 November and that cadet forces, the future of our services, were at the back of the march, not the front.

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