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Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the honest truth is that I do not know who had first sight of the report, which was received in the second week in January. I understand from my right honourable friend's Answer to Questions in another place today that it arrived by fax machine. So I suppose I must say to the noble Lord that it was the person who took it off the fax machine. I do not know who that person was.

I am grateful for what the noble Lord said about my position. I did not know that anyone thought I had seen the draft report. It is nice to know that if he had some cruel suspicions on that point, those have been allayed.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I do not know whether an opportunity will arise later, so I hope that the House will forgive my saying this now. Since reference has been made to those responsible for the incompetence and the troubles of Sierra Leone, does the Minister agree that there are over 200 established posts still unfilled; that the Africa department has lost 100 people in the past few years; that the Sierra Leone desk was dealing with 13 countries; and that the officers concerned were working 70 hours a week? That should be noted and remembered.

I hope that the Minister will agree with me that it seems strange that the MPs on the committee do not seem to understand the convention by which civil servants speak under instruction from their Ministers and for their Ministers and are not allowed or expected

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to express private views. Having read the report, the way in which they were treated was disgraceful. They were bullied; they were harassed; and they were treated as though they were very low creatures indeed. That fact should be put on record.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for a great deal of what she said. Of course there were shortcomings over the Sierra Leone affair. That has been acknowledged widely. But we must not allow those shortcomings to characterise a view of the Foreign Office as a whole. As the noble Baroness said, the overwhelming majority of the people in the Foreign Office work extraordinarily hard. The people who have been the subject of criticism have worked extraordinarily hard. Those are good, honest people--

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. My point was never to suggest shortcomings. On the contrary, it was to suggest an explanation of the difficulties.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I had no doubt that that was exactly what the noble Baroness was doing. I sought to reinforce her view by stating vigorously my own.

There are not only the 220-plus posts abroad. An enormous number of people work in the Foreign Office. I knew little about the Foreign Office before I became a Minister. I hope that that is not too shocking an admission to make to your Lordships. However, having worked there for 19 months, I am very proud to be a Foreign Office Minister because I am proud of the staff who work there.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, as the House will be aware, I have not intervened on this issue at any time since I left office in May 1997. However, can the Minister do something--I am not sure what--to persuade her colleagues that when papers are submitted to them in their boxes they are properly considered? Had that happened, we would not be in this sorry state; and perhaps (although it is not a sequitur) the people of Sierra Leone would not continue to suffer so much.

I learned a lot in 11½ years in that office, in particular about the staff--not only their commitment to their work but also about what makes it run smoothly. That is team work. I hope that the noble Baroness will find a way to put that right.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we know a great deal about teamwork in the Foreign Office. As the noble Baroness may know, there has been an extraordinary amount of teamwork. I refer to the open days; the bringing in of young people from outside; and the enthusiasm with which officials throughout the Foreign Office have grasped the Government's agenda has been extraordinarily pleasing to Government. The noble Baroness shakes her head. But the team work we have had from officials has been exemplary. I have had cause often to congratulate them on the way that they have picked up on government initiatives.

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It is only fair to remind the noble Baroness that after the former Prime Minister the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, had been in office, both she and Mr. Heseltine spoke of the enormous volume of papers that come into ministerial offices. The fact is that not every single one of those papers is always read. When giving evidence before the Scott Inquiry, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, talked about a veritable snowstorm of papers. Mr. Heseltine also said that between 500 to 700 pieces of paper were coming into his office at any one time. Of course selections have to be made from those papers of what Ministers can or cannot read. Speaking for myself, I always read my box to the very end. I am conscious that my level of ignorance has to be compensated by the diligence of the officials who brief me. And I am much too frightened not to read to the end every evening.

Armed Forces

8.10 p.m.

Lord Trefgarne rose to call attention to the problems of current deployment and overstretch in Her Majesty's Armed Forces and the implications of potential deployments to Kosovo; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

This is a crucial time for our Armed Forces. There are at present nearly 6,000 British military personnel in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Greece. And earlier this week, we learnt that the Government have authorised another 2,225 additional personnel to Greece and Macedonia as the advance element of the UK's contribution to any NATO-led peace implementation force in Kosovo. I believe that these troops have now left for this deployment and I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm that.

The Defence Secretary has said that this latest deployment represents,

    "prudent military planning to ensure that the UK can continue to play its part in bringing about a peaceful settlement in Kosovo".
The news from Rambouillet, while well-spun by the Foreign Secretary on the "Today" programme this morning, is not, I fear, encouraging. Your Lordships will have heard the Statement repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, a few minutes ago.

During my time at the Ministry of Defence, now long ago, world order was shaped by the Cold War. With the collapse of communism, some thought that the world would become a safer place. But the reality is far different. We face a situation of ever greater uncertainty, and one of the most complex situations is in Europe itself.

I would like to pay tribute to the members of the Armed Forces and their families for the commitment and dedication that they show under very difficult circumstances. As the recent Strategic Defence Review recognised, units and individuals, especially in key areas, are separated from their families and base units

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too often and for too long. And it is also acknowledged that overstretch and undermanning in the Armed Forces "are linked problems".

Back in April 1998, Army manpower stood at 109,800, representing a reduction of 28 per cent. since Options for Change. Now the Government's own SDR forecasts an increase in Army personnel by some 3,300. However, what may appear to be good news should be seen in the context of the fact that the Army is already significantly under establishment. And although further recruitment is taking place, the Army is having to cope with the problem of heavy wastage of personnel. I understand from figures provided by the Defence Analytical Services Agency that in the 12 months to October 1998, 1,612 officers, no less, left the Army compared with only 1,026 in the 12 months to October 1997--an increase of more than 50 per cent. Most of the exodus is a result of officers choosing to go rather than taking retirement or leaving because of ill health.

These problems are no less serious in the other services. I was fortunate to hear a recent lecture by the Chief of the Air Staff in which he recited at some length the stresses and strains being placed on his personnel by repeated and protracted deployment in various theatres, including the former Yugoslavia, southern Turkey and the no-fly zones in Iraq.

The problem is repeated in the Royal Navy, which has lost somewhere in the region of 12,000 personnel in the past two years. The frigate and destroyer flotilla is to be reduced by three ships and two submarines are to go, which will place a still greater burden on the remaining fleet.

These trends should be seen against the claim by the Defence Secretary in his opening statement in the SDR that he would modernise and reshape the Armed Forces to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and that the review would,

    "give our services the firm foundation they need to plan for the long term".
One key to achieving the SDR's objective is a more effective recruiting policy. I understand that future recruitment is likely to be in signals, engineers and logistics troops.

I especially wish the Army well in recruiting more engineers. In my capacity as Chairman of the Engineering and Marine Training Authority, I can tell your Lordships that attracting young people into engineering is one of the most difficult and worrying issues facing the industry. I look forward to hearing how the Army proposes to recruit more engineers. It is not going to be easy and the problem will not be helped by the proposed reductions in the TA.

Until the modestly revised establishment level is achieved, which is not expected to happen until 2004, the problem of overstretch will remain or worsen. In addition, the vital support given to the regular Army by the Territorial Army is to be reduced. Most regular units deploy with a TA increment on operations or on exercises. In Bosnia, some 10 per cent. of the

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implementation force and the stabilisation force is supplied by reservists, a total of some 2,500 of whom nearly half are in the infantry.

I would like to turn to events in Kosovo. The Foreign Secretary has made clear that the Government would be willing to send more British troops if there were a clear agreement to a political settlement. He has also said that they will be,

    "part of an international force to provide stability in Kosovo so that a political settlement can take root".
While it would appear that troops will not immediately be going to Kosovo following the failure to produce a breakthrough yesterday, the Government have still committed troops to that region. That commitment will have major implications for our Armed Forces and their ability to react to any future major crisis elsewhere.

Given that one division is already deployed indefinitely in Bosnia, the possible deployment of a corps headquarters and a brigade to Kosovo is a huge additional burden. The noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, admitted as much himself a fortnight ago when he told your Lordships that the deployment of troops in Kosovo,

    "will add to overstretch in the Army, in particular if we end up deploying of the order of 8,000 men".--[Official Report, 11/2/99; col. 389.]
That number is now in prospect. Indeed, I heard the figure rise to a possible 9,000 from the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, a few moments ago.

It would seem that if and when we fulfil this commitment our Armed Forces will be at the limit of their resources. We are told that the deployment will be for three years. Is that up to three years, precisely three years or at least three years? I greatly fear that it will be the latter of those. We shall be the largest single contributor to the proposed NATO deployment in Kosovo and we are committing troops which we can ill spare from other tasks no less important. What will happen, for example, if the situation in Northern Ireland seriously deteriorates? From where will any extra troops which may be needed there be found?

It is a remarkable fact that our Armed Forces seem ever willing to respond to the demands placed upon them, come what may. Perhaps the Chiefs of Staff too easily acquiesce in meeting ministerial wishes. Has the time not come for the Government to recognise the validity of their own statement writ large in the SDR that we,

    "must match the commitments we undertake to our planned resources·"?
Hear, hear to that. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has done your Lordships' House a service in introducing today's debate. He properly identified these as difficult times. Europe, which has enjoyed peace since the formation of NATO, no longer enjoys that same peace and stability. The noble Lord referred to the collapse of communism which has left the world with areas of great instability that present very real dangers. The Balkans and the current crisis in Kosovo referred to in the noble Lord's Motion make

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that place the most immediate flashpoint. Our readiness for such a crisis must be seen and related to the Government's Strategic Defence Review.

The defence review has been much debated and commented on in Parliament and in the country and it took place against the background and legacy of the previous administration. During 18 years in office, the previous government made profound changes in the scale and capacity of our defence provision. Defence spending as a percentage of GDP was cut from 5.3 per cent. in 1984 to 2.8 per cent. in 1997. Overall defence expenditure was cut by almost a third in real terms between 1985 and 1997. The number of UK jobs dependent on defence expenditure and defence exports almost halved under the Conservatives, from 740,000 in 1980 to around 400,000 when they left office. Total service manpower, excluding reserves and auxiliary forces, was cut by a third between 1979 and 1997, a cut of over 100,000. Under the Conservatives the number of regulars in the Air Force and the Navy were cut by 29,000 and 27,000 respectively. Over the same period civilian jobs were cut by more than half, a fall of 115,000.

Under the Conservatives the number of conventionally armed submarines was cut from 28 to 12; the number of destroyers and frigates was cut from 48 to 35; the number of infantry battalions in the British Army was cut from 55 to 40; the number of tanks was cut by 45 per cent.; and the number of aircraft in service with the Royal Air Force was cut by some 30 per cent. Meanwhile, the Conservative government left the Army under strength by over 5,000 personnel against its trained requirement.

The result of these cuts was that Her Majesty's Government inherited a damaging gap between commitments and resources, reduced morale among many service personnel and overstretch in many areas of our Armed Forces. If there is overstretch today, some responsibility for it must be accepted by the Benches opposite.

However, I believe that in the 22 months of this administration real progress has been made. There has been progress in the development of joint capabilities, an area of defence policy in which I am sure we shall see further developments. There has been progress in modernising--and I promise not to say "modernising" too often--the services, from plans to buy two new aircraft carriers to improving the deployability and usability of the Territorial Army, adding some 3,300 troops to the Regular Army and confirming the order for the Eurofighter. The list is too long to repeat now and I should simply be re-running information which we all received from the Ministry of Defence. The SDR was well received and is the basis for ensuring that our services meet all foreseeable demands that may be made upon them.

The Government have developed an ethical foreign policy, through that is not to say that other governments and administrations have not had an ethical basis for their policy in foreign affairs. That means that the defence arm of that policy must be backed up with the tools and personnel to do the job. We want to play our

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part as a nation in preventing conflict, supporting the United Nations peace support operations, promoting international arms control and, where appropriate, arms reduction and minimising our nuclear deterrent to that which is necessary and essential. The ban on import, export, manufacture and transfer of anti-personnel landmines is a very real success of our policy.

We shall not fail now, or in the future, to meet our commitments to NATO. The Government are addressing the question of recruitment, to which the noble Lord referred. It is vital that we achieve that objective. Recruitment is always difficult in times of high employment. It is a problem brought about to some extent by the successful management of the economy, resulting in a choice of jobs for our young people. We must ensure that that choice includes the offer of a rewarding career in our armed services.

I know that my noble friend Lord Gilbert is concerned to see progress in recruitment from our ethnic communities and an expansion of posts open to women. That is something I hope to follow up in the future in your Lordship's House. I wish to congratulate my noble friend on all that he is doing in that regard.

The world is not a safe place, a matter to which the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, properly referred. Ensuring our domestic defence while fulfilling our role in the community of free nations must be the central principle of defence policy. I believe that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence has won the support of the country for the policies correctly being pursued and that we can and shall meet all our obligations.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Bramall: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for raising this crucial issue. For the past 10 years, to my certain knowledge, the Ministry of Defence has expounded a consistent, if rather monotonous, line on overstretch: yes, it is admitted, we have a problem over manning and overstretch, but we have turned the corner and noble Lords can be assured that in two or three years' time recruiting will have improved, units will be manned to establishment and tour intervals will be back to the 24 months which is considered necessary for proper balance and longer-term retention and morale.

Of course, two to three years on the situation was seen to be broadly the same and the story was exactly the same: be patient for another two to three years. I imagine that today the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, would have to admit that, although recruiting has improved considerably, poor retention means that the Armed Forces--particularly the Army, but the other services as well--are still significantly undermanned and grossly overstretched, which induces still poorer retention and a more or less chronic situation. I am sure that the noble Lord, of all people, will not again trot out that long-playing gramophone record.

The question is: does overstretch matter and what should we be doing about it? I should prefer to see the forces overstretched than understretched. After all, men and women join the services for activity in the service

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of their country and welcome variety and interesting challenges. Besides, if they were invariably understretched, the Treasury would quickly seize the opportunity to erode the Defence Vote even more than usual. Long experience has taught me that only high profile activity in the national interest can keep the Treasury at bay.

I certainly would not want the Government's professional military advisers to advise against a commitment and the legitimate use of force in the country's interests purely on the grounds of overstretch. If you spend billions on your forces, you want to be able to use them. There may, of course, be other reasons why they should not be used. For instance, what is the aim of the whole exercise and can the forces available to be deployed go any way to meeting that aim?

But, of course, overstretch matters. It degrades performance; it sours the families; it leads to cannibalisation of establishments to produce proper front-line strength; and it has a cumulative effect on retention.

What should the Government be doing about it? First, I am sad to say that it is, rather, a question of what should not have been done over the past six to seven years which has made matters worse. The Army manpower ceiling was set too low, and that may have to be corrected further. One of the most serious consequences of the medical shambles has been the inordinate time wasted by front-line soldiers, who are therefore not available for deployment, in waiting for medical appointments because of shortages of doctors and specialists. That has a direct effect on internal unit overstretch.

As the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne said, there have also been excessive cuts in the TA, particularly in the infantry and the engineers, which have needlessly reduced the only reserve we had at this crucial time and when TA soldiers could help to fill the gaps when sudden emergency operations occur.

There has also been a steady erosion of the regimental system, that great motivating force, starting at the rather impersonal Army Training Regiment. The regimental system has received another body-blow--in some cases totally unnecessarily, in my opinion--from the way the cuts in the TA infantry have been implemented on the ground by the military.

What can be done to improve the situation? We clearly need more units, if they can be recruited. I will deal with only one step which could so easily be taken and which I strongly commend to noble Lords; that is, to make more use of the Brigade of Gurkhas, behind whom there is an almost inexhaustible and immediate supply of first-class, trainable soldiers whose forefathers have loyally served the British Crown for over 180 years, who have long since thrown off any fallacious mercenary tag and who are recognised as an integral part of the British Army. Indeed, in recent years they have served in most places that British troops have served including, on an individual basis, Northern Ireland. Such use of the brigade would be splendid and provide an extra deterrent element in any international peacekeeping or peace enforcement operation.

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As noble Lords will know, there are in addition to the two Gurkha Rifle Battalions and supporting arms squadrons, five independent companies at Brecon and Sandhurst attached to, in order to strengthen, three British battalions including a parachute company. I hope that the Minister can give an assurance that at least those extra companies will be kept on well past the original date of the year 2000. But a third battalion headquarters would also be an enormous help, both to administer those companies and perhaps to command others which could and should be formed. A third Gurkha Rifle Battalion of five companies and stronger supporting arms would make a significant contribution to a less stretched arms plot. I hope therefore that the Minister will look carefully at the question of a greater use of Gurkhas.

Finally, the important element to ensure that the Armed Forces continue to be ready for any eventuality is not to be complacent. The old story of "very soon everything in the garden will be lovely" just will not wash. Unless positive steps are taken, that situation will not happen and the overstretch will become infinitely worse.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Glenarthur: My Lords, I join with those who congratulate my noble friend Lord Trefgarne not only on securing this debate but also on the powerful speech he made. I shall certainly pick up some of the themes he addressed.

I am also particularly glad to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, even if, as a mere major, I am sandwiched between a Field Marshal and a Marshal of the Royal Air Force in the form of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. One reason I am glad to follow the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, is that we have both addressed this theme in your Lordships' House before. I am particularly thinking of the debates we had on Options for Change some years ago, the defence White Papers which emerged at around that time, and discussions also held in this House about Front Line First. Indeed, the noble and gallant Lord referred to the number of times he has addressed this issue.

Some of the noble and gallant Lord's most trenchant words were in a debate on the infantry held on 10th February 1992 at cols. 556 to 558 of the Official Report. It was interesting to read them again earlier today. It appears that many of the forecasts of the noble and gallant Lord have come about. I well remember his remarks in relation to Options for Change and strongly agreed with him then that over-zealous application of the peace dividend and the cuts that Options for Change foreshadowed were bound to lead to huge and unforeseeable pressures on our Armed Forces. The Falklands War, the Gulf War and the situation in the former Yugoslavia are all largely unrelated to the Cold War. They were not predictable and, in the case of Bosnia and now possibly Kosovo, are of apparently indeterminate duration. If we couple that with a sadly still unresolved situation in Northern Ireland, to which my noble friend Lord Trefgarne referred, the potential for over-commitment of the Armed Forces is

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extraordinarily real. It seems as though nearly everything we feared and forecast six or seven years ago has come about.

The Chief of the General Staff said in a recent lecture that 41 per cent. of the Army is now or is being committed to operations. That struck me as a startling figure. Where does it leave the intentions expressed by my noble friend Lord Arran, speaking for the government on 10th February 1992, when he referred to the hope for 24 months between operational postings? Perhaps that is something which can be addressed by the Minister in his reply.

Because of the thoroughly professional attitude of our Armed Forces, we do not hear them voice concern about this problem. They cannot easily do so. Nor is it necessarily right that they should. No one has complained to me. It is for us, as politicians in this House, to draw attention to it if we perceive it. In this House there is almost the sole repository of military experience in Parliament, at least for the moment.

I am a trustee of my now much amalgamated regiment, the King's Royal Hussars. I am glad to see in his place the noble Viscount, Lord Allenby, who served with me. As a trustee of certain benevolent and other funds, I do not become involved in operational matters. But I do what I can to keep abreast of what is going on. I am aware that overstretch is exceedingly real. Although the enthusiasm of all ranks to do their professional duty is marvellous, pressures exist, particularly with families. Last year my regiment had a comparatively quiet year--training in Poland twice; training in Canada; gunnery camp and all the usual activities. But even that quiet year resulted in around 130 nights out of barracks--less than the quiet many of us experienced when serving at the height of the Cold War.

What of this year? As I understand it, my regiment is to deploy one armoured squadron to Bosnia later in the year as part of the continuing SFOR presence. They were last there in 1997, coming back just before Christmas. In order to fulfil that role, the regiment is currently training. All well and good. It is admirable experience and I have no doubt it will be conducted to the highest standards. But now Kosovo arises. For that potential deployment two further squadrons have been warned off--one for the lead armoured battle group and one in another role. Of course regimental headquarters and administrative elements will deploy also.

Again, I have no doubt whatever--indeed I know it to be the case--that the King's Royal Hussars are operationally fit and will accomplish their tasks in the true spirit of the former regiments of which they are made up and of their own considerable reputation developed since they were formed. But there is a snag. My regiment has four armoured squadrons, each of four troops of three Challenger One tanks. In order to man the three potentially deployed squadrons, the fourth has had to be closed down. Why? Because training courses, leave and all the usual features of regimental life still have to go on. And the equivalent to the war establishment to undertake these tasks requires manning which would not normally be required in peacetime.

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Additionally, soldiers must stay on the ground in Germany to guard the camp, look after families, maintain undeployed vehicles and so forth. Needless to say, there is a degree of undermanning to the extent of around 20 soldiers. All that speaks to me of overstretch; I cannot think of another word to describe it.

The SDR may aim to correct some of the imbalances of Options for Change and to that extent I welcome it. But it hardly gives confidence that there is any fat in the system and there seems no end in sight to such operational commitments. It was disturbing during the Gulf War that cannibalisation of vehicles, including armoured vehicles, for spares to ensure operational adequacy was such a feature. The tank parks of Germany and elsewhere were littered with cannibalised vehicles. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, can say to what extent cannibalisation of vehicles for Bosnia and Kosovo is an operational necessity, or whether suitable spares holdings have been made available and released.

What are the effects of this overstretch on recruitment and retention? Will the noble Lord give some figures of current undermanning in both the Royal Armoured Corps and the infantry? Will he give the numbers of young officers who have sought to retire early, who have not gone on to regular commissions from short service? Also, what is likely to be the effect of the new, I believe, three-stage commissioning process soon to be introduced?

It goes without saying that my former regiment, as others, will set about its duties in a highly efficient and professional way. It will bring great credit to the Army and to the country, as it has always done. It certainly does not complain about its role. But that superb skill and versatility should not mask the stresses and strains which our over-stretched Army sustains and to which it is our duty, in this House, to draw attention. The elastic cannot be stretched indefinitely. What comfort can the Minister give us that this is not a real possibility?

8.40 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley: My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur's very trenchant speech. As highlighted in last year's SDR, and as pointed out by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who we must all thank for raising this topic tonight, our forces were and are under-manned and over-committed. Although well-known, the frank acknowledgement in the SDR of this crisis was most welcome. It is said that a trouble shared is a trouble halved. Eight months on, how far have the Government gone in halving that problem?

Looking first to commitment, and acknowledging that we live in a troubled world, I am concerned that the resources of the Royal Air Force are still so heavily over-committed. The RAF, although halved in size in the past decade, is more widely deployed than ever it was during the decade before. For many months past, perhaps years, squadrons have been operating at rates of effort far higher than is normal and provisioned for in peacetime.

Such sustained rates of effort, real live operations, flying from overseas locations far from home, place exceptional demands on resources of both men and

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material. That cannot be sustained unless extra consumables and overhauls are provided for. Are the additional resources available? If not, the defence shoe will once again pinch, and pinch hard, in areas of acute interest to personnel, such as their quality of life, identified in the SDR as of such crucial importance. It was depressing to read in last week's Sunday Telegraph a report that the Royal Navy ships were being required to cut speeds from 18 knots to 12 knots to save fuel and, presumably, cost.

Meanwhile, widescale logistic support is required if our forces in the frontline are not to grind to a halt. Many of us have viewed with strong misgivings the massive logistic restructuring put in hand by the SDR at the insistence of Ministers. With live operations and an overstretched front line dependent upon superhuman logistical effort, now seems a very inopportune moment to be forging ahead with new, untried and untested arrangements.

How, indeed, can single service chiefs discharge their responsibility for the efficiency of their service if they are deprived of responsibility for their overall logistics? I have already questioned the decision to press ahead with this restructuring when we are so operationally committed. It takes time and a great deal of effort to put in place such major and critically important new arrangements.

If there are teething problems--and there will be-- I fear for their impact on our frontline effectiveness. We have been marvellously, incredibly, fortunate that in none of our recent operations have we been faced with any major loss of life or equipment. But we cannot assume that that is the norm. Overstretch could be dramatically increased, by serious loss of life or equipment, due to enemy action, mere accident or even logistic failings.

Against that background, I ask how far have the services been able to find the spare capacity and the time to put in place the "Policy for People" package which was given so much prominence in the SDR. The package, we were told, was to place clear emphasis on providing practical help to servicemen and women. Education and training (vocational and academic) were to underpin promises that people would not be disadvantaged in civilian employment markets. How have we done? Recruitment is better, but what about retention? Are enough of the best seeking to stay on, happy with their lot? I hope that the Minister can give us the picture. I hope that we can be reassured that retention of air crews, in particular, is very much better than it was and that we are seeing the really good people, whom we want to retain to fill the next generation of senior appointments and responsibilities, staying in, not voting with their feet.

A year ago, when we considered the Human Rights Bill, I reminded this House that we treat the Armed Forces in law quite differently from all other members of the public. The Armed Forces Acts are there to ensure that legitimate orders are obeyed and that discipline--essential to the successful use of armed

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force--can be enforced if necessary. Such legal requirements may impinge on some of the human rights of individuals in the forces.

Sir Roger Wheeler, the Chief of the General Staff, is only the latest of a number of senior serving officers who have spoken in public about this. We must not undermine the structure and ethos of the Armed Forces. The kernel of all military authority relies on a sense of duty by individuals to their colleagues and their service; a duty to obey a lawful command; a duty to be loyal and supportive of their unit; a duty which at times may have to be given greater weight than any of their own individual human rights.

I hope that the Minister will confirm that one United Kingdom court, perhaps the courts martial appeal court, will be the only one to hear human rights cases brought by service personnel under the new Act. Consistency of treatment across the three services and throughout the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, and overseas, is vital if we are not to confuse our servicemen and women and undermine their sense of duty and commitment to their comrades and to military authority.

I was relieved to see that the Government were seized of the dreadful mess to which the Defence Medical Services have been reduced over a long period of years, and that they were determined to get that right. Against the pressures to recruit into the National Health Service, it will not be easy for the Defence Medical Services to recover to a reasonable level of manning and expertise. It would be interesting to hear tonight how far the many actions now being put in hand for the Defence Medical Services are beginning to bear fruit.

8.47 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, the resources chapter in the Strategic Defence Review states that the defence share of GDP is to drop from 2.7 to 2.4 per cent. by 2002. We continue to suffer serious problems of overstretch and undermanning.

According to press reports, upon which I hope the Minister will be able to comment, members of the armed services are being encouraged to take out private insurance for life and injury cover, and even insurance to cover loss of kit. According to the Defence Committee Report of December 1997 on our peace support operations in Bosnia, some of the troops posted there from Germany actually lost pay and the rising rents of married quarters for families left behind-- which were encouraging soldiers to become owner-occupiers--would, the troops feared, have significant adverse effects on morale. Now the arms plot is in serious danger.

No one can doubt that, thanks largely to Options for Change and Frontline First in the first place, the Armed Forces have serious problems of retention and overstretch. There is every reason for many of them to vote with their feet when it seems to them that they are undervalued.

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We have just had a defence review which said categorically that we can provide the troops and resources for,

    "one relatively short war-fighting deployment and one enduring non-war fighting operation".
The latter seems likely to be Bosnia, where we have been in one guise or another for some years, and are committed to at least, I believe, another three. The other commitment can only be "relatively short". That will presumably be the 8,000 to 9,000 troops earmarked for Kosovo, to say nothing of naval, air and logistical back-up. How likely are we to extricate ourselves from that commitment should it come about in fewer than three or four years? We still have 2,000 servicemen committed in Iraq. We seem only too likely to see a return to violence, and hence a military commitment in support of the RUC, in Northern Ireland. As our defence strategy is driven by foreign affairs, it seems that we have just offered to commit troops to a UN-sponsored peacekeeping force in East Timor. No doubt there will be more such admirable gestures in terms of peacekeeping. Where will it end?

When will the Government recognise that our defence forces have achieved their present high standing only because of their professionalism, which rested on good training, high morale and the knowledge that they are valued? That is what makes them good peacekeepers. If the whole of our forces are tied down to that, professionalism will go and all desire to remain in, or to join, the forces will go too. The best will leave and it will take many years to replace them.

Meanwhile, there are real threats which demand highly trained, highly motivated, coherent armed services--not a series of agencies and privatised units. Russia itself may pose no serious threat for the present, although I wonder how helpful Russia has been over Kosovo. However, Russia's surrogates do pose a threat. Russia's new weapon is proliferation, and that is our new enemy which can be contained only by good intelligence and professional, trained, well motivated troops. I recognise that the Government are taking the whole issue of proliferation seriously and I am most grateful for the excellent briefing papers on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which I have received from the Minister. However, Russia is to sell 2 billion dollars-worth of military technology and arms to Syria. She has been found (as she was when she continued to make biological weapons) to be selling the techniques of double purpose technologies in the field of nuclear and chemical weapons to Iran and chemical weapons to Syria. She recently sent Russian specialists to Iraq, ostensibly to repair an electrical power plant in the south which was damaged by American/British bombing.

The new head of the state arms sales corporation is Grigori Rapota, the former deputy director of the Foreign Intelligence Service, and Primakov's appointment. Primakov's longstanding links with Iraq, Iran and Libya are well known. I am not citing the extensive Russian arms sales to India and China; nor the sale of fighter aircraft to both Ethiopia and Eritrea, because they are essentially conventional weapons. My concern is for the power to destabilise and the disproportionate threat to peace which the proliferation

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of weapons, biological, chemical and nuclear, which Russia is vesting in unstable, irresponsible and dangerous countries can pose. Russia has still not signed the START 2 Treaty. She has still not destroyed her stock of chemical weapons; instead, she is selling the know-how.

In those circumstances, I find it deeply disturbing that we are seeing our splendid Armed Forces tied up by a series of political gestures in long-lasting commitments, however worthy they may be. As we form a significant part of NATO's armed forces, NATO also is being effectively neutralised. So far as I know, there has been no serious, major debate in Parliament about committing our forces to what may prove to be a debilitating war in the Balkans. We have had Statements, as we have had today, but that is not enough. But if it has to be--and, alas, it is the service tradition to accept tasks and to do the impossible to fulfil them--at least action should be taken by the Government both to raise morale and increase retention and to ensure proper training and proper consideration for the needs of families, including, as has been mentioned, the medical services.

There must be more money, if that is what is needed, and the Treasury must learn that value is expressed not only in terms of pounds, shillings and pence--or, as it seems, euros--but in terms of human resources.

There has been too much bad news for the forces lately, from the TA cuts to the unremitting overstretch. The Government seem to want to apply business standards and the language of the market to everything. I can tell them that no self-respecting and successful large business enterprise would dream of neglecting the need to reward professional success, to provide the opportunity for the ambitious to advance, to value status and to listen.

Fortunately, some small but significant step towards reminding society that we have troops--and splendid ones--has been taken in the decision to allow uniforms to be seen on the streets again. But I still think that COs must be having a difficult time convincing not only the men but their families, whose well-being is a vital part of morale, that they are valued by the country. Once they feel that they are not, they will vote with their feet--and who can blame them?

8.54 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for providing us with this opportunity. It is entirely right that from time to time we should consider the conditions of Her Majesty's Forces and, in the present context, see how relevant the Strategic Defence Review continues to be. It was seen as a mature and sensible approach last year. I believe that its significance continues, despite the very serious commitments and burdens which our forces are bearing and which the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, mentioned in his reference to the Royal Air Force.

The prospect of a strategic defence review was criticised and derided for between three and four years before 1997, yet it followed a series of cuts and contractions which bore harshly upon our forces. The

24 Feb 1999 : Column 1201

contraction was frequently married to dogma as there was apparently an inclination to serve the cause of private loot. That did not help to maintain morale in Her Majesty's Forces. Indeed, I recall suggesting--frivolously, I thought--to some of our political opponents that they would next be selling off Royal Air Force runways and establishing a company that would charge whenever a Royal Air Force aircraft took off or landed. I had not expected an opponent to say, "What a good idea!", but he did. Fortunately, the Conservative Government were too busy mishandling the sale of married quarters to move in that direction--and then the electorate made that wise decision at the last election. We saw too much of that sort of thing previously and morale was inevitably affected.

Had the Government taken a wiser course and pursued a different approach, there may well have been some benefits. It may have been better if they had devoted their energies to persuading our European Atlantic partners to make a more equitable contribution to both European security and international need.

We had reached a situation where morale was at rock bottom. Reference has been made to the Defence Medical Services. The House of Commons Select Committee on Defence remarked that lower morale had been perceived than had ever before been experienced. That was a serious comment from a group in which Conservative Members were heavily involved.

This Government have maintained the responsibilities and commitments. They continue. However, this Government have at least recognised that the burdens on the servicemen and their families are severe. I am delighted that in recent months we have seen the Government embark on a policy which will help to sustain those affected by the very heavy commitments undertaken.

I also think it significant and worth mentioning that the Government have embarked upon training and educational initiatives in the Armed Forces. That is most important. In a modern world it is essential that those entering the services are given the opportunity to train and to equip themselves with skills which benefit not only the services but, in due course, society also.

However, I urge the Government to pursue a more vigorous course in regard to our partners. Some neighbouring European states, which contribute very little towards Europe having a meaningful defence capacity, are extremely eager to see the common security policy--that is, the second pillar--established at a rate of knots. I make that point because some of our partner countries are eager to welcome a British contribution and to commend our sense of responsibility yet, as I have said, they contribute remarkably little themselves, although they may have at least as much economic capacity as we do. In the meantime, our forces continue to pull more than their weight. They need to know that, sooner or later, there will be some relief rather than facing the incessant demands which are placed upon us because the United Kingdom acts rather more responsibly than others.

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I do not wish to take very much longer, but I have just one other point to make which relates to retention and recruitment. Before the last debate we assumed that the Government and the service chiefs were seeking to achieve a sensible arrangement in regard to the transfer of pilots from the services to civil aviation. It seems that the airlines tend to lure pilots away from the services whenever demand for pilots increases. I believe that a sensible attitude was adopted by the MoD which sought to obtain a more orderly arrangement whereby pilots could leave the services at appropriate stages in their careers when they perhaps did not wish to go along the command route but wished to enter civil flying, which may well be rather more rewarding financially. However, I do not know whether any advance has been made in that respect. I still believe that it could be a cause for serious concern, even though I welcome the fact that we now have a significant number of pilots serving in the Royal Air Force in a reserve capacity. Indeed, my noble friend the Minister may care to comment on that.

However, as far as concerns recruitment, I should like to refer to a visit which the all-party group made a little while ago to RAF Halton to look at the training of recruits. It was a most interesting visit and I see one or two noble Lords who took part in it are present in the Chamber. I found it delightful because it revealed a wise change in the attitudes which may have dominated recruit training in Her Majesty's Forces until recently. We saw an attempt to lead rather than drive and, indeed, to encourage rather than merely to provide demand. I believe that the quality of that recruit training was first class.

I should add that I was also delighted to find out that one of the recruits who passed out on the day of our visit--and did so with some credit--was a member of the Air Training Corps squadron of which I am president. I wish to conclude by making some references to the Air Training Corps, but I shall be extremely brief.

There is an anxiety that resources will not allow that degree of contact with the service which such a cadet organisation requires. It is not the fault of the present Government. The Royal Air Force suffered enormous cuts so that the stations which are responsible to the variety of squadrons within their region may face an enormous problem. However, there needs to be contact and there needs to be a quality of training because the recruits entering the service from the Air Training Corps tend to be very much more above average, with an interest in commitment and with intention, which we need to see. When he concludes the debate, I hope that my noble friend will be able to offer us reassurance that the quality of opportunity which that organisation offers to young people will certainly be maintained in the future.

9.2 p.m.

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Trefgarne for introducing this debate at a most timely moment. I remind the House that I do have an interest, but I shall be very brief. The Minister knows that we support his policy with regard to Kosovo, but we are extremely concerned regarding

24 Feb 1999 : Column 1203

overstretch. The noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, made a brilliant job of turning his brief into a quite excellent speech. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, also did not disappoint us. But the fact is we still spend a considerable proportion of our GDP on defence and we must remember that there is a guns and butter curve. I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Hogg, would advocate actually increasing defence expenditure and replacing the cuts. On balance, I found that I have more to agree with in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, especially when he addressed the problems with our European partners.

It seems to me that the problem is that the Army is trying to man three major operations at once--we have Bosnia, Northern Ireland and now, potentially, we have Kosovo. But the problem is that we are running them continuously. The Gulf operation had a military objective that was achieved in about six months. The problem with these operations is that they are continuous and go on for years on end. As we know, the effect is an increase on overstretch. However, if we go to Kosovo, we would need two sets of logistics to support the operation. We would need two transport regiments running at the same time, two engineer regiments, two REME battalions (with which I am involved), two signals battalions and, most importantly, as has already been mentioned, two medical field ambulances.

The latter will result in terrible pressure especially on the families. I have certainly seen the problems in Bosnia. The wives of our servicemen are tending to say, "It's either me or the Army and divorce". I have also been involved with the management of soldiers in such operations who are facing the break up of their marriages. They know that when they go home there may not be a wife waiting for them. Indeed, the divorce rate in the services is horrendous. Moreover, the PVR rate must be of great concern to the Minister. The solution is not easy. However, I believe that the SDR should have managed to balance our commitments with our resources. We are not doing so at present. I have grave concerns regarding the sustainability of our current level of operations. I hope that the Minister is able, at least to some extent, to give us some reassurance tonight.

9.6 p.m.

Viscount Allenby of Megiddo: My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, for introducing the debate this evening. We have heard some very good contributions and I hope that my small contribution will also help. Since the autumn of 1989--some 10 years ago--the pace of political and military conflict has accelerated markedly. Starting with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, there has been the unification of Germany and the wind-up of the Warsaw Pact as a military organisation, which took place in March 1991.

We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld, the sad story of the cuts under successive defence reviews up to and including the most recent Strategic Defence Review. However, I should like to ask

24 Feb 1999 : Column 1204

noble Lords: who would have forecast the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq eight days after the announcement of the options for change?

All these defence reviews are aimed at restructuring our Armed Forces without really attempting to describe realistically the circumstances in which they will be most likely to operate. In the past some people have said that the reductions in our Armed Forces were an arbitrary imposed cut on the part of the Treasury. Personally I do not believe that to be entirely true, although obviously the Treasury had a hand in it. The service chiefs nowadays have much tighter budgets. They have much greater financial responsibility and they alone control where they set their priorities.

Since the Gulf War, and probably even before then, there has been a chain reaction which has led, to put it simply, to a description of our forces as undermanned and overstretched. This in turn has led to an ongoing change of attitude among our servicemen and service women today. I shall attempt to explain this. First, there is the loss of image and links with the civilian population. Today, as regards image, our Armed Forces have a worse image than the National Health Service and the education service, which we read about every day in the papers. There are few large shows of military strength except the Queen's Birthday Parade, the Edinburgh Tattoo and the Royal Tournament, and even that will end next year for good reasons. There are no longer eye-catching events which attract young people into the Armed Forces. I have repeatedly bemoaned the demise of the Junior Leaders Regiments of the Army and I applaud the efforts to bring back apprentice training to enable young people to join the Army straight from school.

Together with the enhancement of the cadet organisation, I hope there will be some improvement in our recruitment and retention efforts. I have to tell your Lordships that as of last Friday there are 503 "true" vacancies in the Army up until the end of April and a further 341 apprentice vacancies. Those two figures added together amount to another battalion. I hope those vacancies will be filled, if not the undermanning situation will continue to worsen, as we have heard.

My second point of explanation is career expectancy, which is possibly better described as career horizons. Over recent years, due to the much reduced places to serve, especially overseas, the length of careers are shortening particularly as regards the technical arms where offers of civilian employment are numerous because of the training that the Armed Services give. I give an example. British Telecom offers signallers of all three services a good career when leaving the services.

We have already heard of visits made by the defence group. Last week the defence group visited 24 Air Mobile Brigade and talked to a great many of the soldiers in that brigade. It was noticeable that they did not complain about service pay or conditions, but they all complained about a lack of manpower and having to do two jobs, including guarding the barracks. Where does this all lead? Shortages and undermanning in many areas lead to a loss of morale. The well known saying "rob Peter to pay Paul" is as true today as it ever was.

24 Feb 1999 : Column 1205

The noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, has already referred to the King's Royal Hussars who are currently on their way to a possible deployment in Kosovo. This regiment has had to receive reinforcements which they have neither trained nor worked with. While this is inevitable, it is the numbers of the reinforcements which causes concern and when those reinforcements return to their parent regiment they may well have to redeploy elsewhere at short notice.

Other shortages which face those who may have to deploy to Kosovo comprise trained medical specialists and technicians, dental technicians and certain mechanical and electrical tradesmen. Of course they will cope--they have always done so--but the real concern must be whether the Kosovo operation has a long-term implication requiring large numbers of troops, along with helicopters and other specialised monitoring equipment, as currently deployed in Northern Ireland. There may well be shortages and failures.

Our Armed Forces do a quite excellent job wherever they are deployed. They are, however, overstretched, as they have been for many years. By the turn of the century we must do something about that. Will the Minister say what action the Government propose to take as regards adopting a realistic view on recruitment to our Armed Forces to ensure that they are maintained at full strength to meet whatever exigency that may occur in the future? We must be prepared for the unexpected in the future in this dangerous and changing world in which we now live.

9.12 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, 12 years ago this month I resigned my commission in the British Army. I did so to protest at the defence cuts which were then introduced. One of the defence Ministers at the time was the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to whom I am grateful for introducing this debate. But it was his fellow Minister, now Sir John Stanley, who wrote, answering my letter, to The Times. He replied to the letter but he did not answer my points. He gave a list of all the defence equipment that had been introduced while he had been Minister. That equipment, of course, had taken 10 to 13 years to produce.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, answered Sir John Stanley's letter saying that I had a point but that he rather wished I had not taken the decision to resign my commission. I understood later that the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, went down to the Royal Armoured Corp at Bovington to see what the situation was and whether I had a point. I understand that he came back with the message, yes, what I had said was true--but since I had said it, it should not be taken too much into account.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to take part in the debate. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, who is not taking part today, because he, as Secretary to your Lordships' all-party defence group, enables us to visit various formations and units. I am reminded of last year when we visited 1st UK Armoured Division in British Forces Germany. We were taken to the

24 Feb 1999 : Column 1206

cookhouse, where we lunched with the warrant officers and sergeants from rifle companies and support companies of the Royal Regiment of Wales. That splendid regiment had some very angry sergeants indeed. They said that they were undermanned, that NCO's of eight to 10 years service were leaving and that the situation was getting worse. I asked them the reasons for this situation. They said that they had recently completed a two-year tour of Northern Ireland, had gone straight into ceremonial duties in London, and were then going to deploy to Bosnia for six months, after six months training, much of which would be carried out away from their families.

We saw the brigadier later and I asked him about the situation in regard to the Royal Regiment of Wales. He said "Yes, this battalion has been hammered, but so have many others". Can the Minister assure us that, as far as possible, all regiments are treated fairly and that great care is taken when allocating troops to tasks in order that units are not over-committed?

We learn that the Army is 5,000 below strength. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Roger Wheeler, in his excellent speech last Wednesday, 17th February, at the Royal United Services Institute, stated that:

    "Manning the Army fully is my top priority and our investment in recruitment and retention measures reflect this."
I believe that recruiting is too serious a matter to be left to the armed services; it concerns us all. This year I have encouraged four young men from non-service backgrounds to join the Army. I suggested that two of them should apply for commissions. One of those who has applied for a commission received a letter from the Director of the Royal Armoured Corps, my friend and former brother officer in the 9/12th Lancers, and a visit to the Royal Armoured Corps is being arranged for later this year.

If the Minister has not already considered the following measures, I urge him to reflect upon them. I know that what I advocate are short-term measures. First, we should consider extending service beyond the 22-year point. Are we not chucking out of the services men and women in their prime who still have much to contribute? We visited the Royal Air Force at Royal Air Force Halton, as the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, has already mentioned, and I know that it is doing this. I understand that the Army and Navy are reluctant to adopt a policy of extending service because it blocks promotion. Secondly, is the Army doing enough to target those who have left the service and encouraging them to re-enlist? I understand that personnel can now rejoin if they reapply within a year. Could this not be extended to two years? Thirdly, we have recently shed numbers of well-trained members of the TA, some of whom are unemployed. Are we doing enough to attract them to join the regular forces?

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