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24 Nov 2008 : Column 1316

I would like to see much more said about the role of the Reserve Forces, down now to fewer than 40,000 when we are told that 20,000 have served in operations in the past 10 years. It is time for a much wider debate on the future of our Reserve Forces since they have become so much more actively used in that time, with their role not only in supporting operations abroad but in assistance to civil powers at home—flooding, foot and mouth, BSE or a potential pandemic—and the wider role of the cadet forces in providing a sense of personal worth and self-respect to teenage males in our cities. Reserve Forces have a particular value in likely operations in Africa and other areas where weak or failing states require assistance in state-building. Civil military skills are then particularly useful, and I note that almost all the armed services’ civil military units in the States are drawn from its National Guard, for similar reasons.

My much lamented colleague Lord Garden used to say that we needed to take some hard decisions regarding British defence that we were ducking. It is now 10 years since the 1998 strategic review under the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, from whom I look forward to hearing. It was an excellent White Paper, even though it left out the multilateral European dimension, which the Prime Minister launched at St Malo a few months later. Lord Garden would also say that no Government would be likely to invest sufficient additional spending in defence to provide the full range of equipment and specialist units needed to meet all contingencies. We therefore have to choose. We have seen the emergence of a huge overhang in future defence procurement in which the future commitments clearly cannot be met within the existing budget, with delays in the FRES and cutbacks and delays in helicopter orders, while reinforcing the joint combat aircraft and nuclear deterrent investment.

My party produced a security paper last year that came to the conclusion that:

“The defence budget crunch, combined with doubts over when and how Britain should play a role in expeditionary deployments, is ample evidence”,


“Britain must take a long hard look at whether we can continue ... to design our armed forces as an almost miniature version of the American military with a wide variety of military platforms”.

Sir Menzies Campbell, in a paper published two months ago, said that we need a debate nationally about our political objectives. He suggested that we cannot carry on regardless, trying to maintain all our military objectives and commitments, but that we lack the possibility, particularly now that we are in a recession, of doing properly everything we are committed to do because of the immense additional funding that that would require. He suggests that we may need to focus rather more on the wars of today and to prioritise expeditionary and peacekeeping missions over state-on-state or full spectrum war-fighting capabilities, which would see,

about which the noble Lord, Lord Astor, has spoken—

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That, I suggest, is the wider context that lies behind the welcome Armed Forces welfare questions that this paper covers.

5.09 pm

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity that this debate gives us to discuss a number of very important issues and I congratulate the Minister on securing it.

It is to the Government's credit that at long last, in Command Paper 7424, they have taken more seriously than heretofore the importance of giving special consideration to members and former members of the Armed Forces and their families. I hope that all this is not just inspired by the serious and extensive nature of the operations on which this Government have embarked in wars of choice. I say extensive because, as noble Lords will recognise, our Armed Forces have been involved continuously in demanding operations for some years, longer than the years of conflict in the two World Wars. Those two wars were not “wars of choice”, rather they were “wars of national survival”. Moreover, in both wars, after much trial and tribulation, a successful end was in view before hostilities ended. Would that the same could be said with equal confidence about Afghanistan; and it has taken us too long to reach the endgame in Iraq, which I sincerely hope that we have. All three services face a demanding future of operations.

So let us all welcome the renewed government concern and the emphasis, in the Minister's own words, on providing unashamedly special treatment for service men and women who have endured most in the course of duty, perhaps suffering terrible physical and mental injuries. But I hope we shall not find ourselves back in the world of Rudyard Kipling, who wrote of Tommy Atkins:

“For it’s Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' ‘Chuck him out, the brute!’But it's ‘Saviour of 'is country’ when the guns begin to shoot”.

The number of promises and undertakings by government in Command Paper 7424 is most striking. It is extremely comprehensive. It covers a wide field of interest for serving and retired personnel and their families. It involves not only other government departments but the devolved Administrations as well. I welcome this attempt to deal with service issues on a nationwide basis. But noble Lords will be aware that this is no longer the “default” position when dealing with matters affecting the Armed Forces and veterans. Only after a considerable battle with the Ministry of Justice, and praying Command Paper 7424 in aid, was the Ministry of Justice prepared to set up a dedicated war pensions and Armed Forces compensation chamber in the new first-tier tribunal to take on the work of the Pensions Appeal Tribunal, in England and Wales, when that was abolished. Meanwhile, pensions appeal tribunals in Scotland and Northern Ireland, being devolved matters, have not been abolished.

Devolution, whatever its benefits, should not place the Armed Forces and dependants in such a confusing no man's land of responsibility for looking after their interests. Similar problems have arisen with regard to the management and oversight of the services' non-public

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funds, funds that have enjoyed a charitable status since the days of Henry VIII, because charity matters are now another devolved issue. Only after much persuasion were the Government prepared to add,

to the Charities Act 2006. But in the Scottish equivalent charities legislation, the Charities and Trustee Investment (Scotland) Act 2005, there is no mention of the Armed Forces at all. I believe that the Government and the devolved Administrations should pay greater attention to avoiding anomalies in the treatment of the Armed Forces. Wherever possible they should agree that the support they provide for the forces and dependants should be equal and where possible provided nationally. After all, the Armed Forces fight for the whole country and not separate regions within it. We must at all costs avoid some form of postcode lottery when dealing with the Armed Forces, veterans and their dependants. As Command Paper 7424 repeatedly emphasises, they must be treated fairly.

One of the most striking things when reading through the White Paper is the number of undertakings to do this or that to help and support individuals and families. Chapter 2 is headed “What We Will Do”, and this promise is repeated paragraph after paragraph throughout that chapter. Maybe it should be characterised as “Yes we can”. Chapter 3 covers, in the words of the chapter heading,

“What We Have Already Done”.

However, a number of ongoing promises have yet to be delivered in full or made more widely known to the potential beneficiaries. I take the view that it is not done until it is done. So these issues need to be considered along with all the other promises of delivery.

Wherever there is a will, however, there needs to be an assured way of demonstrating that it has been achieved, and how. So I was pleased to note that there are to be arrangements to make sure of delivery. These say that the Cabinet Office will provide the chair and secretariat and that there will be wide representation on the so-called external reference group. This group will be required to report annually to the Prime Minister and to the Defence Secretary and its report will be published. While that is in many ways a sound intention, I think that it would be even better if the chair was departmentally independent. I invite the Government to consider the advantages that this would bring in giving greater confidence that the actions are properly recorded and that there is no fudging or spins put in the annual reports.

I am also concerned that there appear to be no types of sanction that might be imposed if delivery is not achieved or falls behind. There needs to be a method of keeping action rolling forward and not allowing promised improvements to wither because “funds were not available” or “other more pressing matters unfortunately intervened”. When setting up the Armed Forces chamber in the new first-tier tribunal, the Ministry of Justice did agree to set up a steering group with an independent chair. This example should be followed for the Command Paper 7424 oversight.

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Long experience shows—without wishing to bring a too-discordant note to this debate—that promises of government action have a habit of successfully grabbing the initiating headlines but then running out of steam and, in all too short a time, disappearing from sight. Perhaps I may remind the House of just a couple such instances in the past decade or so. Research into Gulf War illness arising from the exposure of service personnel to organophosphate spray and the use of NAPS tablets to protect them from chemical attack was, after drifting in the 1990s, given top priority by the incoming Government in 1997. Yet now, almost another 11 years on, they have failed to reach a long-overdue satisfactory conclusion and closure to this issue. Improvements to service accommodation have repeatedly been promised but, as we heard this afternoon, delivery has at times been far too slow and often unsatisfactory. PFIs have also had mixed success, to the disappointment and disadvantage of service personnel.

So I again urge the Government to underwrite their commitments in the White Paper by strengthening their intentions of ensuring “delivery”. They should appoint a chair independent of government—a senior retired officer. That would give the services confidence that their interests are being taken seriously. Whoever is to chair, they must be given sufficient clout to help ensure that government departments keep up to the mark.

Finally, as no doubt there will be occasions when parliamentarians and others wish to question the Government on progress, or lack of progress, on Command Paper 7424’s promises, how do the Government see those questions being answered? Will it be for the department concerned, for example on a health question; or will it be for the Cabinet Office Minister to handle all such questions? Clarity now on how these matters are to be dealt with would help to ensure that questions are not batted from one department to another with no sign of a satisfactory response. The confidence—or otherwise—that Armed Forces personnel, veterans and dependants have in this important government initiative will rest heavily on delivery and on how the Government deal with questions of substance about progress.

5.20 pm

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: My Lords, I, too, welcome the debate and the White Paper on which it is based. With our troops engaged in armed conflict in two major theatres, it is absolutely right that we regularly look at all the issues concerning them. This applies not only to their physical and equipment needs, which are mightily important, but to the political and military background to what is happening and how we can get our Armed Forces back to their regular rhythm. That is the way in which I should like to shape my few remarks today.

With other noble Lords, I pay tribute to those engaged in the present conflict. There are thousands of members of our forces, and the civilians who support them, now engaged in perilous activity in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Many more are still engaged in other military activity at home and abroad, and they, too, should not be forgotten as we thank those who lay their lives and limbs on the line for our freedom. We

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are amazingly lucky to have such people to serve us and this country. They have a uniquely British spirit and tenacity, as well as genuine and admirable courage and professionalism, which should and does make us all deeply proud of them.

As honorary colonel of the London Scottish, a component part of the London Regiment and closely connected to the Scots Guards, I have met many of the ordinary, yet extraordinary, members of the Territorial Army who have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We are now using our Reserve Forces much more than ever in the past. The reroling of the Territorial Army following the Strategic Defence Review has been one of the great successes. My admiration of those with whom I have come into contact and of their carrying out with great success what we expect them to do knows no bounds. We owe all who serve in the Armed Forces a great deal, and we have a responsibility to ensure that they are well looked after, have the right equipment to do the job, and stay as safe as they can be in a war zone.

In many fields, huge improvements have been made to the conditions of those who serve us. My noble friend Lady Taylor has this evening outlined many of the improvements that have taken place. I pay tribute to her work during the period in which she has been in the Ministry of Defence. I am glad that the Prime Minister kept her there, because her expertise and experience will be of great use in the future. I know that all John Hutton’s predecessors as Secretary of State—Geoff Hoon, John Reid and Des Browne—have felt deeply and personally about the sacrifices that we regularly ask for, and have been intent on doing the right thing by our troops. I pay tribute to their decisions and the changes that have been made. I know that John Hutton, who has been a friend and long-time colleague, will be an outstanding holder of the office.

I am impressed by the command document and the way in which it focuses on improving so many areas of welfare. Having been a Secretary of State for Defence and struggled with the Treasury and other government departments on some of these very same issues a decade ago, I recognise that we have made serious progress. I notice that my former deputy, the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, is with us in the Chamber. He will remember our fights with certain people across the road, who have now changed their mind substantially, I am glad to say.

The top-level tariffs in the Armed Forces compensation scheme have been doubled. Compensation is much more generous than it has been, although it in no way compensates for the terrible tragedies that have befallen some people. Access to adapted social housing is provided for more seriously injured people. Priority access is given to other social housing. Free additional education up to first-degree level is offered to service leavers after six years of service, which follows on an idea in the Strategic Defence Review which we were never able to deliver at the time. In terms of the National Health Service, childcare provision, the disadvantage in accessing school places and the improvements in Defence Medical Services, the Government have a lot to be proud of, even if some issues will continue to need attention.

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As other noble Lords have done, I also pay tribute to the service charities because they do a huge amount of work. SSAFA, the British Legion and others are actively engaged in the detailed work so often required to deal with the many people who have been in active service and who are just leaving. I am a trustee of the British Forces Foundation, an organisation founded by Mr Jim Davidson, the comedian and Conservative—these are mutually exclusive at times. Over the years he has delivered entertainment by himself and by his friends in show business. It has been hugely successful. The entertainment provided to our troops, especially in-theatre, is very valuable indeed for building morale. For this reason I am pleased to assist the British Forces Foundation.

All of us who have served in the greatest office of state in the Ministry of Defence know those daily life-and-death decisions which devolve down to the ordinary soldier, sailor, airman and airwoman. No Defence Minister I have ever met has been immune from the heavy, ever present burden carried for ensuring that as much as possible is done, as often as possible and in as many circumstances as possible, to ensure that our people are both effective and safe. As in any war, there will be mistakes, shortages and missing equipment. There will also be coroners who will generalise on the particular, often well after the event and usually long after the lessons have been learnt.

The pace of conflict today is so swift that urgent operational requirements are now driving the whole equipment budget. That is because requirements are often only seen on the battlefield and as circumstances alter and become evident. The old military saying that no plan survives the first engagement with the enemy is as true today as it was in the past. That is why urgent operational requirements have amounted to £3.6 billion since the beginning of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. These come from outside the stated defence budget. Of these, 85 per cent are related to force protection. The Government are doing the right thing in making sure that our forces are protected.

Every injury caused by the wrong kit is a singular tragedy but they often arise in more complex situations than the black and white world of 20/20 vision. Three hundred and one members of our Armed Forces have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since hostilities began. Anyone who saw the BBC television programme two weeks ago called “The Fallen”, which itemised every single one of those of our troops who has perished and the impact that it has had on their close families and friends, will understand just how tragic each one of these casualties is. We mourn each and every one of them. We also remember the many others who have come home with injuries, both physical and mental. Their welfare must continue to be a priority.

I spoke earlier about the political and diplomatic backdrop to the fighting in both theatres. There will be no safe return of our troops until this has been addressed and a political outcome obtained and settled. As Secretary-General of NATO, I had a lot to do with the decision that the alliance take on responsibility for that co-operative effort in post-Taliban Afghanistan called ISAF—the International Security

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and Assistance Force. I may have moved on from that post but my responsibility and my passion has in no way diminished.

What we are doing in Afghanistan today is defending this country. That is what it is about—defending our country, our liberties and our way of life. That fact is all too often ignored, misunderstood, even dismissed, but it is true none the less. Threats to our country no longer lie at our national frontiers; they germinate in failed and weak states such as Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and, as we are now seeing every day, Somalia. They grow deadly tentacles which spread out from these failed states into our own streets, with the 7/7 bombings on the London Underground, the attacks on the twin towers or on the trains in Madrid or to the US embassy in Nairobi, to Istanbul, to Bali and even to Glasgow Airport and London’s Haymarket. So if the Taliban were to beat NATO, or the nations of NATO were to allow it to be defeated, then the forces of darkness—al-Qaeda and its like—would stop for only a very brief moment to congratulate themselves on defeating the greatest defence alliance that the world has known, and then they will be back in our midst.

That is why our troops fight in Helmand province; it is why so many have died and been injured, why so many others take the risks with us—the Canadians most notably—and why their sacrifices matter to every citizen of this country. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, we are facing a financial crisis, not just in this but in every country. Inevitably, that means that there will not be extra money for defence or, indeed, for pretty well any other public services. We can therefore no longer talk in terms of notional expenditure that we want to see spent on our Armed Forces and on defence; we have to make better decisions about the money that we already spend. That will mean tough decisions for those who have responsibility for making the recommendations. No party in this country will be able to outbid another in terms of the money it would spend on defence because it simply will not be believed. So each party has to make its recommendations within the envelope that exists at the moment or even one that might conceivably shrink in the future.

There is much more that I would say about the dilemmas facing the NATO nations in Afghanistan if there were more time. Some of that will be contained in the interim report of the IPPR’s Commission on National Security in the 21st Century, which will be published on Thursday morning. The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and I have co-chaired this commission, which includes a wide range of distinguished experts and will give a number of pointers as to what needs to be done.

Let me give one example from our report. We believe that there should be a more regional approach to a solution in Afghanistan, which should and must include involving Iran in discussions. There must also be closer co-ordination, even control, of all the external assistance to the Government of Afghanistan. It was a great pity, bordering on a tragedy, that President Karzai vetoed the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, as the overseer of external assistance to Afghanistan. I hope that a search will continue for somebody of his calibre, experience and

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leadership qualities so that the people of Afghanistan can get a much better return from what is coming to them.

Let me add to this list regarding Afghanistan the view of a senior Army officer, a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, whom I met at Edinburgh Airport last Thursday evening. He said that unless the issues of corruption and narcotics in Afghanistan are not gripped decisively and soon, we will not find a long-term solution to the encroaching influence of the Taliban.

Our troops are giving their all. More nations need to provide more troops and use them as fighting troops and not as beat policemen. Afghanistan needs the promised development cash as well, which it has been regularly promised but which has rarely been delivered. I remind the House that our troops, and all the troops serving outside Kabul, are part of provincial reconstruction teams. They were to provide security to those providing the reconstruction in schools, hospitals, industry and all the substitute activities for the growing of the poppy. The soldiers try, often at the expense of their own lives and limbs, to provide the security—but where is the reconstruction? Our fine fighting forces and those who support them, both in theatre and at home, are doing with magnificence what we demand of them. How much more important it is that we do what we, the leaders of the nations of the ordered world, have to do to let them come home with honour, with the job well done. That is our part of a solemn bargain.

5.36 pm

Lord Lyell: My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for giving us the opportunity to discuss this particularly important subject today. Secondly, as noble Lords will see, I am a bit down the batting list. However, after the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, I shall be brief and restrict my remarks to what I have been able to see in this country as the secretary of the All-Party House of Lords Defence Group.

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