Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Manchester City Council Bill [HL]

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [HL]

Carryover Motion

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

Motion agreed.



30 Apr 2009 : Column 333

Canterbury City Council Bill

Leeds City Council Bill

Nottingham City Council Bill

Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion on Commons Message

Moved By The Chairman of Committees

Motion agreed.

Terrorism Act 2000 (Code of Practice for Examining Officers) (Revision) Order 2009

Transfer of Tribunal Functions (Lands Tribunal and Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2009

Freedom of Information (Time for Compliance with Request) Regulations 2009

Housing (Replacement of Terminated Tenancies) (Successor Landlords) (England) Order 2009

Motions to Refer to Grand Committee

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motions agreed.

Business of the House

Timing of Debates

Moved By Baroness Royall of Blaisdon

Motion agreed.



30 Apr 2009 : Column 334

Armed Forces

Debate

11.55 am

Moved By Lord King of Bridgwater

Lord King of Bridgwater: My Lords, I start with a tribute to our Armed Forces that is neither facile nor routine, but a genuine recognition on this day, when a memorial service is being conducted in Basra to those who have lost their lives in the Iraq campaign, of the debt that we owe to our Armed Forces. Many criticisms have been made of the current campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, not least in your Lordships’ House, but virtually none has been made about the conduct and outstanding performance of our Armed Forces in the circumstances in which they find themselves, some of which are extremely dangerous, where the loss of life could have been extremely high but where their courage, professionalism and morale have saved the day.

It is a sobering thought that we are discussing the involvement of our Armed Forces in two campaigns, both of which have already lasted significantly longer than either of the two world wars, and it is right that we should recognise at this time the price that they have paid. In Iraq, just under 180 lives have been lost, and in Afghanistan, 150. But I include immediately those who have been very seriously and seriously injured. Earlier the Minister very properly expressed her condolences at the loss of another life, but I hope we never forget those whose lives will never be the same again. In Iraq, there have been 220 very seriously or seriously injured casualties, while during the first three years of the Afghanistan campaign, from 2003-05, there were only 10. Over the past three years, however, there have been 185. I add also another category that is of increasing significance and about which there is a real and increasing concern. I refer to those suffering from mental health problems resulting from stress as a result of the particularly difficult nature of these campaigns. Between 2003 and 2006 the number being managed for mental illness by the Defence Medical Services was 2,300, but in 2007 alone the figure rose by a further 1,900. I do not have the figure for 2008, but I fear that it will continue to increase.

Against that background, we are concerned about the situation of our Armed Forces. Many noble Lords and many Members of the other place have visited our forces in the front line and, without exception, have come back with admiration for the morale, good spirits and enthusiasm of the troops they meet. However, in a sense that is one of the great difficulties for those trying to assess correctly the morale of the Armed Forces. A tradition of loyalty to the regiment, loyalty to friends and colleagues, and the discipline of a sergeant-major perhaps listening around a corner to the answers being given to visiting dignitaries of one

30 Apr 2009 : Column 335

sort or another makes it hard to get the real picture. There is no question that we now face a very serious situation indeed.

I turn to the issue of resources in the widest context, even before the collapse of the Government’s financial situation in terms of the public finances. This was clearly described by no less an authority than the late Sir Michael Quinlan, who knew about these issues as much as anyone, as the most difficult defence budget position he could remember. Given the procurement issues as well, it is an unsustainable position. We are facing serious overstretch. We have far too many “pinch points”, as they are described, particularly in the Army, even among infantrymen. This means that, with the demands we make on them, we cannot abide by the manning balance—having the number of troops required to discharge their undertakings. A year ago it was forecast that the Army would not be back in manning balance before 2011. This is the challenge we face.

Distinguished and gallant noble Lords in this House will say that the Army will always rise to a short-term challenge. It will always meet short-term extra-stress requirements of that kind. If the challenge is continuous and there is no end in sight, however, it becomes a serious problem. In the Continuous Attitude Survey conducted on an annual basis, a poll of 36 per cent of those serving revealed that the majority did not feel valued, were dissatisfied with their equipment and resources and were concerned about the impact on their personal and family life. Their intention to leave had been increased. The family strain is particularly serious not necessarily for the youngest recruits and the newest members of the Armed Forces but for that key core structure of more experienced officers and senior NCOs who are the essential fabric of our Armed Forces and whose family responsibilities are a major challenge. My purpose, against this background, is to discuss what our duty is in this House and to try to impress on the Government what our duty should be to those who serve us so well, both those who serve us now and those whose contribution has already been made.

Those who talk about our Armed Forces as a force for good in different parts of the world have first to ensure that when we ask them to embark on these undertakings they have realistic objectives in a realistic timeframe. We know the challenges we faced in Iraq when we went from being liberators to an occupation force. In Afghanistan the latent hatred that has existed for hundreds of years against the foreign invader can all too easily be roused up against people whose intentions are benevolent.

We need good intelligence. I do not mean immediate intelligence, such as the issue over the dossier, but an understanding of history. Noble Lords may have noticed recently that the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology issued a paper entitled Lessons from History, which asked why should we use history for policy making. It was talking about science and technology, but why not use history also for our foreign affairs and defence? It is interesting to look at learning the lessons of history. I do not know how many noble Lords heard today the BBC reporter who was on his way to the memorial service at Basra but was actually standing

30 Apr 2009 : Column 336

in the desert beside the memorial to those who lost their lives in 1921 in another ill-fated Iraq expedition. It was all the more tragic to hear that against the background of the tributes now being paid to those who recently served in Iraq. The BBC report also said that after six years of our activities the canals are full of sewage, there is no regular supply of electricity and no clean water is available in Basra. That is a tragedy.

In the Prime Minister’s Statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan yesterday he sought to adjust current policies to the realities of the situation. I wonder whether among his voracious reading he has ever read Winston Churchill’s first book, The Malakand Field Force. I do not know whether noble Lords are familiar with it. I direct them to chapter 6, which is an account of the challenges faced when there is an uprising against the Government, led by tribesmen who have taken up arms under religious fanatic leaders who seek to establish an Islamic caliphate. For those not familiar with where Malakand is, it is just next door to Swat, which at this very moment has been handed over by the Pakistan Army to the kind auspices of the Taliban. The lessons from history are all before us.

One of the difficulties we have got into is that we did not drawn on the resources of history, most of all in this country, enormously well contained in the Foreign Office. We have a reservoir of experience in our former and current ambassadors. One of the tragedies for the United States and our country is that the State Department, with all its experience, was sidelined and the Pentagon took over. In our country, insufficient attention was paid to the experience and knowledge of those who could have given guidance, not least in the Foreign Office. In any activity of this kind, for us to be a force for good, diplomacy is infinitely preferable to armed force. We need to use the resources of history, which are important in determining the likely attitude of our allies. One of the biggest disappointments at present is our failure to get more help and genuine wide support from NATO allies in the challenges we face.

It is our duty to ensure that our troops are properly equipped and supported. The financial pressures that we face are inevitable. That will mean a major reassessment, whether or not it becomes a major review. There must be some shift in the resources to meet the needs of the challenges of current insurgencies, and at this stage that may be in preference to the resources for conventional warfare that might arise in the future.

There is also the duty of aftercare. We pay tribute to the dead, but I have already said that we should recognise the importance of casualties, whatever form they might take. I notice that Dr Liam Fox, the shadow defence spokesman in another place, talked about the mental health time bomb. Certainly, there are some worrying statistics. I know that the Government have recognised some aspects of this but there must be a much more proactive follow-up, not just letting people come forward in the end if they think they are suffering, but careful aftercare for all those who have served in these difficult circumstances.

I declare a slight family interest in this. I had the opportunity to speak to the Veterans Minister two days ago. One of the tragedies for the Armed Forces is

30 Apr 2009 : Column 337

that a number of our ex-service people who have come back from serving in Afghanistan and Iraq are now homeless, unemployed and facing serious personal circumstances. One imaginative approach to this, which I hope the Government will pick up in a significant and substantial way, is the pioneering work of the Community Self Build Agency. People without jobs and housing, under certain arrangements, can be encouraged to build their own homes, rehousing themselves and, in the process, rebuilding their lives. That therapy is very effective.

I am delighted at how many noble Lords wish to speak in this debate. The background is that our Armed Forces have performed outstandingly for us, but in many significant ways we have let them down. We are not giving them the support, the resources or the clear, realisable objectives that they should have been entitled to expect in return for the courage that they have shown. We have been warned that there is a real risk that our Armed Forces—the Prime Minister referred to them yesterday as the finest in the world—could be relegated to the second division in terms of all-round capability and the quality and scale of the resources and the training that are available to them. If that did happen it would have a serious impact on our standing in the world and our ability to be an influence for good in the world.

The previous Prime Minister, in a speech that he made in Plymouth towards the end of his premiership, said:

“The nation must decide what we want our country to do and then fund it”.

That was a valedictory message that was not carried forward. If there is continuing severe overstretch, restrictions on adequate training and shortage of appropriate equipment there is genuinely a risk that we will be relegated. We must not let that happen. It would be the greatest betrayal of our Armed Forces who have served us so well. Governments are the trustees for the nation of our Armed Forces during their period in office. Obviously there is the prospect—it might be said the reality—that there may be new trustees in place shortly. There is no doubt that the challenges that they face will be as great as any incoming Government have faced in terms of our defence capability. I beg to move.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I ask the House to note that there is absolutely no leeway on the time allotted to speakers.

12.13 pm

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen: My Lords, this is a timely and fortunate opportunity for us to debate the role of our armed services. I commend and thank the noble Lord, Lord King, for giving us this opportunity to talk about these serious issues. He and I have both had responsibility for the great office of state in charge of the Ministry of Defence and we know how complicated and difficult it can be. Since it essentially revolves around people, their welfare and consideration are high on the priority list. It is interesting that we said farewell today to Black Rod,

30 Apr 2009 : Column 338

General Willcocks, who served with me in the Ministry of Defence and then with me at NATO as Britain’s military representative. He was outstanding in Bosnia and other areas of conflict, and we wish him well.

Of course, we will all pay tribute to our troops today, which is right and proper. I will certainly do so. The noble Lord, Lord King, has pointed out their sacrifices and some of the continuing problems, and I subscribe to everything that he said. We need to go beyond words. Fine debates here and in the other place do not necessarily make a lot of difference. We pay tribute to the fine professionals out there, most of whom are very young, who serve this country and the international cause. We are reminded by the death of a Welsh Guardsman this week of the price paid by them in the defence of liberty of this country and the wider world community.

I pay tribute to the civilians who also help our forces in theatre, because they share some of the dangers as part of the reconstruction element and they deserve commendation for their support of our troops. I associate my sentiments with the noble Lord, Lord King, in praising the families of our service personnel. Without their support and stoic undertakings, our troops would not be able to do the job. I remember in my period during the Kosovo campaign talking to spouses and family members. The strain is enormous and permanent. It is not easy to resolve, so they deserve commendation from us as well.

The noble Lord, Lord King, mentioned mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder, which is an increasing problem given the nature of modern war. I have a vivid memory of going to Omagh as Defence Secretary after the bomb and talking to the troops there. Hardened infantry soldiers, trained in the art of defence and used to using their arms were absolutely affected by the carnage they saw in the streets there. They may have been used to battlefield casualties, but they could not cope with babies blown apart, small children destroyed in the streets of that small village in Northern Ireland. I remember sharing the trauma with them and advising them that mental injury is as great a problem as physical injury and that they must take steps to make sure that they retain their strength and their sanity.

There are so many issues that could be dealt with here; the noble Lord has dealt with many of them and I associate myself with him. Let me make comments about three areas. One is about NATO. Our troops serve under a NATO flag in Afghanistan today, but NATO is not some amorphous organisation; it is not the European Commission, it is not the United Nations, it is simply the product of 26—about to be 28—individual nation states and it is as good or as bad as those nation states make it. To characterise NATO as some great amorphous force is to completely misunderstand the nature of the organisation. I know that Ministers are looking at NATO at the moment with the idea of reform. A new Secretary-General is about to take office, the former Prime Minister of Denmark, and we all wish him well. He has impeccable credentials. Reform must be

30 Apr 2009 : Column 339

high on the agenda. Getting NATO to operate as an integrated command, as it was originally designed, where the risks, the burdens and the credit get shared, must be high on the agenda.

I would like to say how pleased I am that France has now fully rejoined the integrated military command. The terms on which it has rejoined are a huge bonus. It appears that a French general will take over in Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia. This is a post that was created under my stewardship, replacing the old Allied Command Atlantic. Transformation command was designed to make sure that the United States and its allies would always be able to work together. A French general, committed to strong European forces as part and parcel of the alliance, is a great bonus that we can look forward to.

On British domestic defence, I conducted a Strategic Defence Review in 1997 and 1998 and I am glad that I got a lot of support and input from previous Defence Secretaries and Defence Ministers at that time. It still remains the template for what we do in the world today, but 10 years is too long. It has had additional chapters and has been refined in certain ways, but it is time now for a fundamental Strategic Defence Review, because the circumstances of 2009 are not the circumstances of 1998. This Government should start it and, whatever happens after the election, it should be continued. It should be done in the way we did it in 1997 and 1998—openly, transparently, inclusively and fundamentally, looking at every capability that we have and whether it is necessary or needs to be augmented. It has to be based on the national security interests and foreign policy of this country. Only in that way will we be able to properly deliver defence forces for the future and to justify the faith that troops have on the ground as well.

Afghanistan is a place where our troops are caught up just now. I have not got time to go into it in detail, but I simply say this—there is a disconnect between the bravery and professionalism of the people who fight out there and the people in this country who do not understand sufficiently that their safety is connected to that bravery and that commitment. We, the political leadership in this country, have an obligation and a fundamental responsibility to make sure that people understand why they are out there, why they are making that sacrifice and why it is connected to our safety and security in this country.

12.20 pm

Lord Addington: My Lords, this is one of those debates where you look at the list of speakers and tremble slightly. I do not know whether my words will add to the greater volume of knowledge by the end of this debate, but I will certainly acquire greater knowledge.

It was a problem that I could find very little to disagree with in what the noble Lord, Lord King, said; virtually nothing until his last couple of sentences. The fact is that we are in an ongoing war, for which we were not prepared and for which our Armed Forces were not really designed. We have prepared on the hoof our level of equipment, design and tactics to try

30 Apr 2009 : Column 340

to meet the targets. As the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, suggested, our Armed Forces are involved in a major structural alliance that was designed for another era. The fact that NATO now includes Poland suggests that something that was designed to combat the Warsaw Pact is totally out of date. All our structures and our thinking need to be attacked from that point of view, and it is from there that we need to go on.

As the noble Lord, Lord King, said, the fact that we are fighting an ongoing conflict means that we should fundamentally deal with that conflict, because it will be a long slog. People have suggested that there might be elements of engagement there for decades, so we must make sure that our troops on the ground have the appropriate equipment and the appropriate structure to deal with this. This argument is not that new. The minute that the Cold War was seen to be over and other disputes broke out—the Balkans being the classic one—the idea of smaller, peacekeeping units trying to get between not very sophisticated armies, using cheap, mass-produced weapons with which the world is still awash, was seen to be the format in which we should be specialising. How far have we engaged in making sure that this is the case? Is our investment in the right type of technology? Main battle tanks might have been quite useful when we rolled into Iraq, but we discovered that we did not need them. Our light armour was quite sufficient for the job, because our enemy simply cannot match us. Are we liable to meet someone there? Are we going to invest in new forms and structures of defence?


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page