Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

To turn from a mildly flippant intervention to a much more serious one, I was absolutely delighted when my noble friend Lord Freeman said exactly what I was going to say. There is nothing new about combat stress. I suspect that, had one gone around the stoa in Athens in 485 BC, there would have been people who were homeless and in distress who were veterans of the Battle of Marathon. My noble friend Lord Freeman rightly talked of those who could not speak about the First or Second World Wars. The Duke of Wellington always had a guinea in his pocket for any Peninsular War veteran whom he saw. My father started his war service in Egypt in 1941 aged 28 and ended it in 1944 when he was captured at the Battle of Villers-Bocage. He was in a slit trench when things had gone totally pear-shaped. There were four of them in the slit trench; one person on either side of him was killed and two people were unharmed. He had 13 tanks blown up underneath him between 1941, at the Battle of Sidi Rezegh, and the Battle of Villers-Bocage, when he was captured. I do not think that he ever went to bed sober. He died extremely young, at the age of 57. Sometimes I worry and ask myself whether I began to understand him, and the answer is no, I did not. It is

6 Nov 2009 : Column 539

only since he died that I have come to realise that he must have been tortured by what he saw. I think that is very common among veterans of all wars.

I was going to talk about stress, prison, suicide and homelessness. However, I shall start on a good note. I learnt this morning from a charity called Crisis, which keeps these figures, that the number of homeless ex-servicemen living on the street has fallen very remarkably due to efforts made by the Government and charities, so well done Government and well done charities on that. What is much less happy is the gap-the noble Earl, Lord Stair, mentioned this-between leaving the Army and asking for help. To a certain extent this is obvious, in that the people who tend to go into the Army tend to be macho and think it wrong to ask for help, so things bottle up and get worse and worse. Consequently, a higher percentage of them end up in prison than is the case among other sectors of the population. A very large number of them get involved in terrible family troubles, drunkenness and drugs.

The other day I was told about a particularly heroic soldier who had had adrenaline flying and who had been immensely gallant and very brave. He was invited into the sergeants' mess, they all got wildly drunk-I concede that has happened before now in sergeants' messes-and he ended up by thumping somebody, breaking their jaw and being charged with grievous bodily harm. I know that soldiers get an adrenaline rush out of action and that that can lead to psychological difficulties. An article in the Guardian talked about a man from Cheshire who was involved in domestic violence, and another man from Kent. It is all there.

Difficulties arise when servicemen leave the services as they sometimes come into contact with law enforcement agencies or do not even ask for help. I am told that the great difficulty is that these are the sort of people who do not ask for help. Somehow the Government must try to do something about this. There is no easy answer, but, as a civilised country, we cannot allow this sort of stuff to go on any more than it does. It would be wrong to do so. I beg the Government to try to do more. They have shown that they can do something about homelessness, but they must do more to tackle combat stress, psychological stress, criminality and the drug and alcohol abuse suffered by some ex-servicemen.

12.35 pm

Lord Lyell: My Lords, in today's debate one conscript follows another, as it were, in that I think my noble friend Lord Onslow and myself were both 24-month men in Her Majesty's Forces. I see that he agrees with me. I follow my noble friend in pushing the terrifying problems in Afghanistan-virtually every speaker has mentioned those-a bit further down the order in which I shall make my remarks. I thank the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Walker, for his enormous help to your Lordships when we went to say thank you to former members of the Army. We made a notable and very successful visit to the Royal Hospital Chelsea. I also thank my noble friend Lord Freeman as we made another very successful visit to the National Army Museum to see how unbelievably well the British Army has performed over the years.



6 Nov 2009 : Column 540

My noble friend Lord King is, alas, temporarily absent from his place. No doubt your Lordships will know that I had the honour to serve with my noble friend in Northern Ireland. I do not recall any problems there-certainly not due to my noble friend-with a shortage of helicopters to carry out the essential mission. I hope that the Minister will take on board the fact that my noble friend knows what he is on about when he is questioning the use of helicopters, and his remarks about the slight shortage of them.

The noble Earl, Lord Stair, and others have spoken about the Falklands. I remember the first debates in 1982. It was simply unbelievable. It came quite out of the blue that the United Kingdom was at war with a country 8,000 miles away. I recall it was absolutely essential that the Royal Navy was at the forefront of this country's efforts in the Falklands. That is why I am delighted that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce, will speak later.

Your Lordships' defence group made two enormously successful visits during the year. The first visit was to BAE at Barrow to see the new Astute submarine. It left me, and many of your Lordships who went with us, absolutely astounded at the successful work. There may have been delays but the submarine is certainly coming on and it will be enormously successful.

Secondly, we made a visit in July this year to what I hope will be the linchpin-I may be right or I may be criticised for saying this-of the Royal Navy's force; not carriers but a Type 45 destroyer. Three or four members of your Lordships' group were able to go down alongside in Portsmouth to pay an enormously successful visit to HMS "Daring" and her extraordinarily competent captain, Captain Paddy McAlpine, who I am delighted is a Fermanagh man. He and I discussed all sorts of aspects of my previous career. He, his ship and the ship's crew are a credit to the Royal Navy. They will obviate any risk of the completely unexpected that may affect your Lordships' House, the country and the defence forces at some time-perhaps not in my lifetime, perhaps in my dotage. Certainly, two aspects of what we saw were outstanding.

Your Lordships also visited 16 Air Assault Brigade at Colchester. Two of the group were able to see many aspects of the force and the equipment that it was using. As a typical Scottish accountant, I was looking at the small print and spent a hair-raising morning hearing about the accommodation. The stories that I heard made me very upset and worried. I mentioned them to the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, who is temporarily away; I shall certainly give the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, something in writing, but it will come later than today. On the other hand, we also saw at Colchester accommodation for young, single soldiers that was quite unbelievable-straight into the 21st century and everything they could want. There were some gaps, which might need a little effort, but I think that the noble Lord's organisational skills will lead on to them.

I said that my contribution would be very light on Afghanistan, but I conclude by saying that our thoughts and good wishes go to every single one of the service men and women in Afghanistan and to their families and relatives here. It takes me back 25 years to my

6 Nov 2009 : Column 541

short time in Northern Ireland, when, every time the radio came on, there was news of a casualty, and 10,000, 12,000, hearts stopped. Was it affecting our family? Pray God, no. Our soldiers in Afghanistan face this risk every single day. That is why it is a privilege to take part in the debate in your Lordships' House today on defence and the need to support each and every one of our forces in Afghanistan.

12.42 pm

Lord Inge: My Lords, the Minister may have wanted a debate on the future defence policy of this nation, but I hope that he is taking away a message that what is worrying the country much more is the conduct of the operation in Afghanistan.

I have huge admiration for the bravery and fortitude of the men and women of our Armed Forces in Afghanistan and elsewhere. However, I am equally disappointed by the number of our NATO allies which have imposed significant caveats on what their Armed Forces can do in Afghanistan. This sends a terrible message to their allies and has huge implications not only for the future relationship with the United States but the future of NATO as a whole.

As I said, I pay great tribute to the courage and sacrifice of our Armed Forces in what is probably the most dangerous, challenging and hostile operational deployment that they have had for many years. I worry, first, about the lack of political direction and leadership, not just in the UK.

I heard General McChrystal speak at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. I found his intellectual assessment of the challenges in Afghanistan realistic, but also very daunting. He certainly did not underestimate the challenges that lie ahead, but the delay in responding to General McChrystal's request by the President of the United States and by our own Government is sending a very bad message about the direction of the campaign in Afghanistan. We need clear direction, not hesitant leadership. The Armed Forces in particular must have confidence in their political direction. They need to know that they have the nation's support, that they are fighting in a just cause and that they are not risking their lives for nothing. If the Government have reservations about the plan outlined by General McChrystal, we need to know what they are, but a deadly silence is not enough.

I would like to see greater emphasis not only on the commitment of other nations but also on improving the "hearts and minds" campaign, which is as important as the military campaign. It is also enormously important for our Armed Forces to believe that, in fighting in a campaign that is so difficult, they have the strong support and respect of the nation. That support is not only about words, it is about hard cash providing the capabilities that they need. They need to believe that their lives will not lightly be thrown away. In saying that, I realise that the President of the United States and this country's leaders need to address the challenges of Afghanistan's corrupt political leadership and how NATO is going to develop, as I have just said, a better co-ordinated hearts-and-minds campaign. We need to win the psychological war, not just the military war.



6 Nov 2009 : Column 542

The Prime Minister, unfortunately, has some baggage as far as the Armed Forces are concerned, because they have felt that he has never really been on their side and that they have not had his support. I do not need to tell your Lordships that leadership is as much about emotion as about logic.

One cannot of course separate Afghanistan from Pakistan, a country of huge strategic importance, armed with nuclear weapons and having to carry out some very demanding military operations against extremists in its own territory. We need to be very wary about putting too much pressure on Pakistan, because of the impact on the loyalty of their Armed Forces and of the tension that it could create with India.

As I have said, the Minister may be surprised that we have heard so little about a new Strategic Defence Review. I just hope that those who are involved in it understand that carrying out a review when the Armed Forces think that they are at war and involved in dangerous and complex operations could send a negative message. It could widen the communication gap which I believe is developing between the Armed Forces at the sharp end and the Government. The priority must be to agree a strategy for the way ahead in Afghanistan.

In that connection, I would like to know where the Conservative Party stands on Afghanistan and on the future size and shape of our Armed Forces. If the Conservative Party wins the next election, it will inherit a defence quagmire: insufficient equipment, Afghanistan, sharply rising casualties, equipment delays and increasing equipment costs, and the need for greater investment in defence at a time when the defence budget is being reduced year on year in real terms. The new Government will have to make some hard decisions and choices. They will not be able to hide behind delaying the in-service date of certain equipment, which in turn leads to increased costs and mortgages a significant proportion of the future equipment programme. For example, I am told that the decision to delay for two years the £4 billion aircraft programme wanted for the carriers has added £1 billion to the bill. To quote a recent RUSI journal,

The Government have a real challenge in handling Afghanistan, which is the most complex, difficult and dangerous operation for all three of the British Armed Forces. The way ahead is by no means clear but, at the same time, we need to be clear on what our defence priorities are.

12.48 pm

Lord Sheikh: My Lords, I begin by saying that members of the Armed Forces have to carry out the commands of their political masters but concurrently act within the constraints that politicians put on them. The fact that they are undertaking two medium-sized conflicts on a peacetime budget of about 2.5 per cent of GDP is a testament to their abilities. In view of the time limit on speeches today, I wish to address three constraints, which include proposed cutbacks in training for the Territorial Army, the Government's culture of disregard for the safety of ageing equipment, and the ongoing lack of adequate kit for servicemen in Afghanistan.



6 Nov 2009 : Column 543

Some 20,000 Armed Forces reservists, the majority from the TA, have been deployed on active service since 2002, with 14 sadly losing their lives. The contribution that they make to the United Kingdom's ability to conduct overseas operations is invaluable and it is what made the decision, which has now been reversed, to cut the training budget for the TA so unfair. If we are to expect young men and women to risk their lives in combat zones, we have a fundamental moral and tactical duty to ensure they are fully prepared. The cancelling of all routine training would have been disastrous for morale, for the recruitment of soldiers and for the overall preparedness of the TA. We need to remind ourselves that the Cotton review, which was accepted by the Government, said that training was,

The routine TA training is the vital groundwork that allows skills, comradeship and tactical awareness to be built up, which can then be honed during pre-deployment training. Without this, we would expect units to go into action on the back of just one month's intensive training. We would otherwise be sending troops around the globe without all the strings to their bow. Will the Minister therefore confirm that the TA budget will be ring-fenced to ensure that sneaky savings cannot be made out of an easy target? Will the Minister undertake to produce a wholescale review into the role of our Reserve Forces and their training, so that their numbers are fully deployed and our Armed Forces properly augmented?

Preparedness is crucial in any theatre of military conflict. That is what makes the Haddon-Cave report into the Nimrod crash so telling. The MoD failed in its principal paternal duty to ensure the maximum well-being of service personnel. The loss of the plane was preventable; early-warning signals were repeatedly ignored. The report states that it was,

This shows that we need urgent cultural change in the MoD. There will always be risks in a contact zone, but loss of life should never occur due to internal safety failures.

How will such safety projects be conducted in future? Will there be a Minister with responsibility for operational safety to ensure that projects are met to specification, that guarantees made by safety contractors are met and that independent audits of work undertaken occur? Afghanistan demonstrates how overstretched we are. The principal issue is one of underinvestment in suitable kit, which has been described by one commander as:

"Cavalier at best, criminal at worst".

The shortage of helicopters, emanating from the budget cut of 2004, is significantly endangering the safety of soldiers. Two Chinook helicopters have been destroyed recently. What plans are there for their immediate replacement and for maintaining adequate helicopter transport capacity in Afghanistan? On the ground, the Vector vehicle has been deemed unsuitable for patrols. Indeed, this summer a British serviceman

6 Nov 2009 : Column 544

was killed riding in a Vector. When will the Vectors be fully phased out of Afghanistan, as promised, and the replacement Mastiff and Ridgeback armoured vehicles finally delivered and in full operational use? The increase in funding of £700 million for replacing the Snatch vehicle with Vixens and Warthog armoured vehicles is to be welcomed, although I have ongoing concerns about the long lead-in time for them becoming operational.

Only 44 per cent of the TriStar fleet responsible for getting the troops from the UK to Afghanistan is considered fit for purpose, adversely affecting troop logistics, transport conditions and leave time. What are the Government doing to ensure we have adequate transport capacity between the UK and Afghanistan? Once in Afghanistan, there is a need for flexible troop transport planes, yet we are seriously short of Hercules and C-17s. What options have the Government considered for buying or leasing more troop transport aircraft? When will a decision be finally made on the viability of the delayed replacement A400M project? Such increases in investment must be matched by our NATO allies. Will the Minister assure me that the increase in troop numbers by 500 will be matched with equivalent increases from across NATO?

I have only touched on three pertinent issues among many today, but these constraints are beginning to have a seriously detrimental effect on the operational capacity of our Armed Forces. The constraints I have outlined are not responsible and not sensible. I urge the Government to examine these issues. I look forward to receiving the Minister's reply to the points I have raised.

12.56 pm

Lord James of Blackheath: My Lords, helicopters have been a recurring theme throughout this morning, and I apologise for them being also my principal subject. However, I would like to come at it from a rather different point of view to that put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock. I would not dispute his comments concerning the growth of the availability of the fleets, but I would take great issue with the extent to which, at present, MoD action has inhibited or curtailed the continuing operational availability of sufficient numbers of those fleets for our purposes.

My points are therefore couched in terms of questions to the Minister, and I start with the Chinooks. Will the noble Lord please give us further and better particulars about what is now happening with the mark 3 fleet? There is reportedly a programme of MoD reversion, which I suspect is a euphemism for withdrawal or suspension of the fleet, for a period of engineering. However, the nature of that engineering is strange; it is described as reverse engineering. Now, in the days when I was with the Ford Motor Company, reverse engineering was taken to describe the opposite of product enhancement. It was, effectively, a back step, and that is what we understand might be happening with the mark 3s, which are now being reverted to analogue control technology compared to the highly desirable digital technology that ought to have been their proper right.



6 Nov 2009 : Column 545

There are several reasons why that might be happening at present. One might be that there is a surplus of analogue-trained pilots as opposed to digital-trained pilots; that would be a good reason. A very bad reason would be if the cost of the change to digital was so extreme, and if Boeing would not do some deal on it, that we could not now afford it. We would be stepping back on technological capability to meet a cost factor there.

It would be even worse if the other story in circulation is true; that as soon as the present mark 3 upgrade programme is complete, the entire Chinook fleet will be withdrawn in order to allow its conversion to digital. In that case, why are we wasting the time and money in losing operational capability at this time for a temporary move, before we incur the huge cost of conversion to digital in the near future? May we please understand more of the background to that, and under the present programme will we have the Chinooks back in availability by the end of this year, which was the original programme?

In the case of the Puma fleet, which is equally vital, could the Minister please confirm that the present contract placing the upgrading of that fleet with businesses in Romania and France was put out without tender for competitive pricing? If it was, is there any truth in the rumour that that was because there was virtually nowhere else that the upgrading programme could go, other than to those factories in France and Romania? Was it because there had been a failure by the MoD to secure access to the intellectual property required for the engine upgrades, because the manufacturer would not allow us the necessary jigs to maintain those engines?

A recurring theme runs through that and the question of the Chinooks, of whether the MoD has a blind spot in acquiring the necessary intellectual property to do that sort of renovation. Is it fully participating in what ought to be the advantages flowing from the ITAR code of practice-the International Trade in Arms Regulation code-established by the USA, which ought to be ensuring access to all the intellectual property that we need? If not, that seems to be becoming an extremely expensive omission.

Work on the Pumas is rumoured to be going on at a cost of some £400 million. Would it not have been very attractive, in our present recessionary condition, if that work could have been retained in the UK? Going back to the earlier comment of my noble friend Lord King, would having done so not have enabled us to arrange for 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week work on this contract, which would have overcome the present fears that we will have a late delivery of the fleet into service?

A similar point to that on intellectual property arises on the question of the Lynx. It would be helpful to have the Minister's update on where the Lynx is. That was said to be a question of intellectual property on electronics. It would be good if the MoD could understand that intellectual property applies to mechanical engineering and not just to advanced electronics.

As I have a minute to go, I will use it to talk about the Type 45; I endorse entirely what my noble friend Lord Lyell said about that. The Type 45s are essential

6 Nov 2009 : Column 546

as defence for the carriers. We currently have some confusion as to whether the carriers are to be split as one aircraft carrier and one amphibious attack vessel. Either way, they will be flat-tops. Noble Lords will be aware of the huge vulnerability of flat-tops. America lost 16 of 23 in the Second World War in the Pacific, and it was on the winning side. Japan lost 11 out of 12; it would have lost the 12th if it had had enough aircraft to go to sea to make it worth while. We lost five out of 10, which does not sound too bad until you work out that they did far fewer average nautical miles per ship.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page