HL Deb 16 January 2002 vol 630 cc1075-114

3.7 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow rose to call attention to the problem of overstretch and equipment failure in the British Army; and to move for Papers.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am encouraged by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, to crack on, so crack on I shall. This year I have been very privileged to be a member of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. That scheme was introduced to show Parliament how the Armed Forces function. Those of us who did National Service millions of years ago know a little about it, but most Members of both Houses—fewer in your Lordships' House than in another place—have little knowledge of how the Armed Forces function and work.

I joined the scheme because a million years ago I had been a rather unsatisfactory subaltern in Her Majesty's Life Guards. I believe that it is reasonable to say that the Army—or, as I jokingly call it, the "brutal and licentious"—is infinitely better than it was in my day. I qualify that remark only in one way—that is, they are much less smart than we were. The quality of the soldiers is excellent. Therefore, my criticisms are made because I want an excellent institution to be super-excellent; the criticisms are in that rather than another mode.

I start with Exercise Saif Sareea, which was the expedition to Muscat and Oman. We sent a half-armoured brigade there of 68 tanks, a half battery of guns and a battalion of motorised infantry. The object of the exercise was to get all those people half way round the world, land them in the desert and let them play soldiers for a while. They arrived, beautifully organised. The staff worked well and the supply worked well with one or two minor faults. But then none of the tanks worked. None worked because they did not have proper sand filters. If the staff had not known about that, I suppose that that would have been acceptable. But an appreciation of the situation was given to Whitehall which stated that, unless the tanks were desertified, they would not work in the desert. Someon—it may have been at political or army level, I know not—decided that too much money had been spent. Therefore, they crossed their fingers and hoped that the tanks would work. They did not. Seventeen tanks were sent back before the exercise started. That left 51. Fifty-one tanks of the Royal Dragoon Guards went out on a night exercise. Three arrived back in working order.

The Challenger 2 tank is probably the best tank we have had since the second battle of Arras when Haig broke through and caused Ludendorff to say that it was a black day for the German army. It is a smashing tank. The technology was there to make it right, but we did not allow it happen. That must be penny wise, pound foolish. The track pads were designed for swamp conditions in northern Europe. The Army had not realised that the desert is stony. All they would have to read is the book of Exodus, which tells us that the desert is stony. The right track pads were not put on the tanks.

Half a battery of guns were sent. The fire extinguisher on one of the guns did not work. The fire extinguisher on a gun works with explosive. Aircraft regulations state that explosives cannot be flown out in passenger aircraft. In wartime the fire extinguisher would have been sent by military transport. Because it was peacetime, it was not sent. The gun was sent half way round the world. It was left there while its gun crew sat in the shade playing poker, or doing whatever idle soldiers do; we all know what idle soldiers do. That was penny wise, pound foolish. The sadness is that so much of what was done was excellent. However, we must not allow such petty-minded accountancy to ruin the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar, if one can say that about the Army in the desert. That is what happened.

The Army decided, perfectly reasonably, to live in tents in the desert. What happened? The tents went out in one container; the tent poles in another and the tent pegs in a third. I do not expect the Ministry of Defence to learn from the failure of the French in the Franco-Prussian war when the same mistake—not over tents; I believe it was over rifles—was made. But at least the Army could have considered what happened to Lord Raglan in the Crimea when the right boots went out in one ship and the left boots in another. One ship was wrecked in a storm off the southern peninsular of the Crimea. The poor, wretched soldiers went, "Left, 'splock', left, 'splock'" because all their right boots had been sunk. Those were mistakes which should not have been made.

I shall touch briefly on the question of discipline. Courts Martial legislation has made minor military discipline difficult to enforce because the procedure is too complicated. A commanding officer said to me, "I am a little worried that 'behind-the-sheds thumping-up' is taking place instead of putting a soldier on a charge because that has become so complicated". I hope that the Minister will consider that.

We saw several extraordinarily efficient, competent young ladies at captain rank—

A noble Lord

And major.

The Earl of Onslow

And major, and probably colonel and lance-corporal. However, all such officers we saw had had unpleasant experiences of sexual harassment. In most cases, nothing had happened as a result. The officers concerned did not want to take action because that would have been embarrassing and difficult. One such case resulted in a court martial. It seemed that there were too many such incidents. I do not know what can be done about that.

Pay 2000 has also caused problems. One warrant officer was promoted on 28th March. Another was promoted on 1st February. Pay 2000 meant a difference of £45 per day in their pay. I believe that that was the figure. It was sufficiently large for me to notice. The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, who was present, will perhaps confirm or correct that figure. The differential in pay was considerable.

I turn to equipment. Bowman, the Army wireless system, is Heaven knows how far behind. Somehow, the system must be put right. It is intolerable that people should go into battle with wireless sets which do not work when the Dutch and Canadians all have perfectly workable systems which we could have bought off the shelf. The SA80 rifle used not to work at all. Everybody says that the new version is extremely good. Why was it not used? Because the Army said that it could not he got to the aircraft carrier. That excuse is not acceptable.

There are further problems with equipment. There is no Scimitar replacement. When I joined the Army there were Dingo scout cars and Daimler armoured cars, which were designed in about 1941. Subsequently, Saracens were used. I refer to the light cavalry reconnaissance vehicle. There seems to be a great problem with that replacement. I suspect that we are paying too much, unnecessarily, for the Eurofighter. I am told that the money spent on carriers—I totally support the carriers—is making a terrible hole.

We went also to Sierra Leone. That arose by accident. Ministers refused to make up their minds until quite late as to whether or not to intervene. Triumph was not present, so we went by air to the airbase. The sudden arrival of really professional soldiers threatened the various warring parties. They drew back and within minutes we were involved in a neo-colonial situation. That was welcomed beyond anything by the people who live there. At a reception at the High Commission, I asked the chief policeman, "How long would you like us to stay and advise you?" He replied, "Twenty-five years". Their experience of their own self-government has been catastrophically disastrous.

I hope that the Government will ensure that the aim is clear. At present, our presence in Sierra Leone is based solely on bluff of an immensely high quality. I was in the jungle keeping my two colleagues awake and the animals away by snoring. I saw one of the soldiers, a mortar platoon corporal in the descendents of the Durham Light Infantry, in the pouring rain. I asked the soldier what he was reading. I am not normally totally lost for words, but he said that he was reading Homer's Odyssey. He then said that he interspersed it with Jackie Collins; a good intellectual mix.

My point is that we are in serious danger of getting into overstretch. Twenty-seven per cent of the Army is now committed. I know that the figure was 27 per cent when the present Government came into power because that is what Mr Hoon said yesterday. The Army hoped that the SDR would make it 20 per cent. It is making certain that one cannot have proper training, proper leave and proper rotation. Soldiers who like being soldiers want to do their job properly. They want to be soldiers. They do not want to be stuck in Catterick. But if one overstretches them—they are 8,000 people under-strength at the moment, so I am told—one will make retention of them difficult and he in danger of degrading our most wonderful asset. It is a stupendously good asset.

Mr Blair goes prancing around the Indian subcontinent, heavily disguised as Peter Sellers, without the accompaniment of Sophia Loren, with a magic carpet on his head. That may he a little unkind, but it is quite funny and I think reasonably accurate. Perfectly reasonably he has this wonderful machine with which he wishes to play. What are we doing in Afghanistan? I do not know. The Kyber Pass is blocked. The bridges over the Oxus are blown. We are under command of the Americans. The Americans do not want to do anything that we are doing in Kabul. We are not allowed outside of Kabul. This is an overstretched commitment. It goes too far. I do not know what it is there for.

I might have been a little unkind to Mr Blair; all Prime Ministers are prone to play with this lovely little toy, the British Armed Forces. I concede that if I was Prime Minister I could not resist the temptation. But, resist it they must, because if we overstretch them, if we make them do more than they can do—they will try their hardest—we shall destroy a quite exceptionally high-quality instrument. It is that with which I am concerned. I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I must apologise for arriving a little late to the debate. I apologise, not least to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, because the House and I certainly like to hear the noble Earl. I do not think that we should like to see him as Prime Minster; heaven knows what would happen.

The noble Earl brings to the House not merely his own experience of a historic kind, but the advantage of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, which he and my noble friend Lord Tomlinson enjoyed last year. It brings a refreshing relevance to the experience and quality of debate in both this House and in the other place.

I understand the noble Earl's anxiety about the commitments which our Armed Forces bear at the present time. Unlike the noble Earl, I am nowhere near so critical of them. That is partly because the rotation between overseas duty is now better than it was before the SDR. The present level of overseas service is that which was required or planned within the SDR. It commanded widespread approval. Nevertheless, it is a point that exercises Her Majesty's Government because we must ensure that our forces are not deployed overseas on tasks which may prevent them maintaining the high skills which must be retained by adequate training and exercise in the broad range of military duties.

I agree with the noble Earl when he referred to our Armed Forces as being of very high quality. That is undoubtedly an advantage to Britain. It undoubtedly also allows Britain to more than justify its place within the western alliance and its seat on the UN Security Council. We are obliged to punch our weight. It is sad that we have been punching more than our weight for a very long time. It is rather a pity that in the long years during which we were on the Opposition Benches, the then Government were far too tame in their attitude to our European neighbours, who were quite prepared to see us bearing a grossly unfair share of the security burden. One hopes that greater effort will be maintained by the present Administration to encourage our European partners to make the proper contribution which, in all fairness, their membership of the NATO arrangement requires.

The noble Earl referred to equipment. I do not think that the present Administration has any reason to be apologetic about their approach to the equipping of our Armed Forces. No one suggests that they are perfect. But the imperfections which they inherited were substantial and more than justified the approach which can best be described as Smart Procurement. I make no claims for the quality of that policy because a number of years will need to elapse before it can be properly assessed. When one considers the deficient Bowman system, and the year after year that passed while that grossly inefficient arrangement applied, one can only congratulate Her Majesty's Government on seeking to remedy that appalling inheritance of incompetence.

I hope that the Smart Procurement, which is an attempt to secure reasonably firm specifications, will not lead to such regular, frequent and multitudinous changes in specification which have delayed equipment to our Armed Forces year after year. The approach embodied in the policy has a great deal to commend it.

So far as concerns commitments of equipment for our Armed Forces, I do not know whether we would have seen the same degree of determination and resolution that has been shown with Eurofighter. When the present Government were elected, the Eurofighter faced very real question marks, not least because of the attitude of our German friends, who seemed to delay matters considerably. They have the same problem with regard to the future military transport. The Government have met that particular need for heavy lift by their arrangement with regard to the C-17 aircraft. We hope to see progress in the long-term provision of the future European large aircraft. But there are doubts about that. In the eyes of some noble Lords, that issue may not strictly relate to the Army, but if we do not have the heavy lift capacity, Her Majesty's Government are weakened in the response that they are able to make in international crises.

It is in the response to those crises that we have cause to congratulate Her Majesty's Armed Forces. They have borne an enormous variety of burdens. They exist, of course, primarily to defend the realm, to—if you—like shoot people where necessary in the defence of this country's interest. But a huge part of their endeavour has been in the service of humanity, in responding to catastrophe, famine, fire and flood. They have done so in ways which are of great advantage to this country and which can give a great deal of professional satisfaction to our Armed Forces.

It is a pity that the national press often seems to ignore the enormous contribution which our Armed Forces make to international humanity and stability. Often, they are looking to criticise and condemn without looking at the achievements and contributions which are offered. It is not quite the same with local newspapers. There we see regular reports throughout the length and breadth of this country. They deal with local people from units which are still associated with the locality, of their service here, there and indeed almost everywhere.

Those young men, and young women—

Baroness Jeger

Thank you.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Jeger for that comment. Those young men and women do more than just look after themselves, as a high proportion of that age group may do; they look after our interests. If we argue that trade follows the flag, it should redound to the economic advantage of this country.

I am most appreciative of this opportunity, and I hope that other noble Lords will offer the same commendation of our Armed Forces and the way in which they are led. In this situation, they deserve that.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, the debate goes to the heart of the question of the current deployment of our armed services. I congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, on initiating it. I wish to associate those of us on these Benches with the encomium to our armed services given by the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath.

I wish to raise two points about the risk of overstretch. The first relates to the situation in Northern Ireland. We all hope that the twin processes of decommissioning and demilitarisation will be fully implemented in fulfilment of the Belfast agreement. It was to be hoped that the restoration of the Executive and Assembly would make for further progress. That has been put in serious jeopardy by the antics of the Protestant paramilitaries over the Holy Cross school and the murder of a Catholic postman last weekend. Such incidents illustrate how fragile the situation remains and how easily it could quickly deteriorate.

If the security situation significantly worsens, are there enough reserves in the Army for it to be able fully to assist the police, were that to be deemed necessary? I am prompted to ask that for two reasons. It will be recalled that the British Army was initially called in at the start of the Troubles to assist in the protection of the Catholic community, which is again under siege. There is a danger that history will be repeated. Secondly, the police in Northern Ireland are undergoing an enormous transition from the old RUC to the new police service. They are therefore possibly less well positioned at the moment to deal with the current outbreaks of violence as effectively as they would wish, especially if the situation escalates, In other words, has the recent upsurge in violence and unrest in Northern Ireland been factored into current planning regarding the world-wide deployment of our troops?

My second major point relates to the pattern of overseas deployment. Troops are often vital to the process of re-establishing peace after the breakdown of civil society. However, peacekeeping and the remaking of a nation are a somewhat different matter. They are more a matter of policing than of soldiering. In any case, it is not the best use of professional soldiers, who are a scarce resource, for them to be deployed in protracted engagements in peacekeeping. Armies must be able to hand over as quickly as is feasible to an international police force specially trained for the purpose, which can, in turn, assist in the development of a regular domestic police force drawn from the citizens of the country in question.

I know that British police officers, including police officers from Northern Ireland, have often been seconded overseas to assist in the promotion of peace. However, the numbers have been quite small. Given the expanding role of the United Kingdom in peace missions abroad, I ask the Minister what thought has been given to increasing police involvement in peacekeeping, preferably on an international basis? Such a development would have merit in itself and would also release our armed services to concentrate on their core activities.

I realise that policing matters are primarily the responsibility of the Home Office and the armed services that of the Ministry of Defence, but there is a need for effective co-operation between them—and, indeed, between those two departments and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—if the United Kingdom is to perform its international peacemaking and peacekeeping roles effectively and economically.

3.34 p.m.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for initiating this debate, because the British Army is indeed overstretched in a number of ways, although I wondered for a moment whether the noble Earl would ever get round to mentioning it. But in the preposterously short time available, I intend to concentrate on only one area—the state of the medical services.

How the sorry saga started is pretty well known. The defence costs study knocked the stuffing out of the Defence Medical Services and led to a mass exodus of specialists. That had two serious repercussions. First, it threw into question the ability of the medical services to support land operations overseas on a scale for which the operational troops had to be prepared and put a disproportionate reliance on the Territorial Army. Secondly, it made it almost impossible for those medical services properly to look after the service population in home stations. Servicemen and servicewomen had to wait so long for specialist appointments that there was an adverse effect on manning levels, leading to further overstretch over a wide field.

The present Government inherited the problem, but as they have been in power for over five years, they are under an obligation—which, I believe, they fully accept—to put things right and reverse the decline as a matter of urgency. But in this I hope that the Government will not display a degree of complacency and merely hope for the best.

In order to move in the right direction and perhaps assuage the increasing number of critics, the Government announced with some pride that they would be setting up, in partnership with the distinguished Birmingham teaching hospital, the Queen Elizabeth, a centre for defence medical excellence. That centre is now known as the Centre for Defence Medicine. The Government announced that they would allot £140 million of new money to the Defence Medical Services. It is not too clear what that £140 million was for. If it was to pay for the extra personnel that it is hoped to recruit, as a result of the Birmingham development, to fill the medical ranks, it has not yet been spent. The ranks have not yet been filled. The money should now be spent on other urgent things. If on the other hand the money has been spent, more money is badly needed.

I say this because, with other noble Lords, I had the privilege of visiting the new Centre for Defence Medicine at Birmingham, and I can tell noble Lords that so much more needs to be done. If the term "excellence" could be confined to the enthusiasm and dedication of the fairly small nucleus of teaching, research and clinical staff so far assembled there, that accolade would be fully justified. The people whom we met were absolutely splendid and were working their heart out. I would echo the words of the group captain in charge, who said that failure was not an option for them. How right he is. Indeed, it is not an option for anyone. If the new venture fails to attract and—more importantly—retain the right number of specialists over a significant period, it will spell disaster for the future of our Armed Forces, particularly the Army, as a usable force for good.

At the moment, at Birmingham the Centre for Defence Medicine has one surgical ward of its own and CDM personnel provide half the staff of the emergency and trauma ward—the accident ward. Linked with this, there is literally a handful of specialists in clinical research and teaching, none of them with any assistants or understudies and most of them under some sort of quite short notice to move somewhere overseas, whether it be to Sierra Leone, Kosovo or Kabul, to provide essential medical back-up. That is so because of the general shortage of specialists right across the board. For instance, there is only one cardiac specialist of consultant status in the whole of the Armed Forces. If one of the consultants at Birmingham is required elsewhere, that function of teaching or research or that clinical contribution would stop, putting back the whole reconstruction and building up operation.

No one in his senses could fail to see the great advantage of linking service clinical activity, research and training to those of the National Health Service, but the purely Armed Forces aspect must never be forgotten, if the aim is to be achieved. For one cannot maintain defence medical services with high morale, capable and ready to go anywhere and share in the hardships, dangers and separation of operational troops unless they have an ethos and an esprit de corps of their own.

At the moment, the right climate for that just does not exist. The military personnel seldom if ever wear uniform; they have no messes of their own and there are no proper nurses' accommodation or married quarters in close proximity to their work. Moreover, their X factor in no way compensates for the lack of overtime paid to their civilian counterparts—this applies in particular to nurses—or for the continual and lengthy separation from their families because of the overall shortage of trained staff. Yet, as far as I can judge, there is no money presently in the programme for these very high priority improvements.

This is no way to make a breakthrough and turn the corner. If these good ideas are ever to get off the launch pad and be more than a face-saving gimmick, and if they are to build up fully manned and respected medical services capable of supporting the Armed Forces in peace and in war, these things have got to be put right and funded as a matter of the greatest urgency. If not, the Government can forget about the Armed Forces, in particular the Army, being used, as I have said, as a force for good in what has been described as Britain's pivotal role. For without proper medical back-up, no extended deployment of military forces even in a humanitarian role, let alone in warlike operations, can be safe or can even be contemplated.

3.41 p.m.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I strongly support what was said by the noble and gallant Lord about the role that the British armed services can play as a force for good in the world. Furthermore, I support the Prime Minister in his belief that we have a priceless asset here which, if correctly deployed, properly trained and well equipped, can be a great force for good in appropriate circumstances. That is not to say that it will work in every circumstance that arises, because we cannot meet every circumstance, but it can do so on appropriate occasions.

I am deeply concerned about the present situation. I know that the Minister will give an effective and clear reply which will suggest, from the figures deployed, that the situation is satisfactory. However, I beg him to heed someone who had a degree of responsibility for these matters for seven years, first as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and then Secretary of State for Defence. During that time I saw the challenges and problems presented by trying to achieve the 24-month tour interval and the problems posed—in particular on the Army but also on the other forces—by the serious problem we face.

We know, even as we debate this matter today, that we are already falling behind the Government's avowed target of moving towards an increase in our Army capacity of 3,000. At present I believe that we are some 8,000 personnel short, a figure which constitutes over 10 per cent of the total. That shortfall has meaning. When I became Secretary of State for Defence and reviewed the situation with regard to the battalions. I found that we were willing to pretend that we had 55 battalions. However, when the strength of those individual battalions was assessed, we found that the real strength of the British Army was significantly lower. When the Minister, in his responsibility for the Armed Forces, is advised about which regiment to deploy and which unit should next be moved, and he is happy to recognise that he is dealing with a unit that has not been recently deployed overseas, he may well find that a considerable proportion of the members of that unit will have been transferred from other units to make up the shortfall of that particular unit. Thus the reality is rather different.

Overstretch is not a piece of elastic. The problem will not suddenly bust on the Government, but the strain will grow and grow. Many of the statistics advanced address the problem only in terms of pure recruitment. However, it is not only a question of recruitment, although that factor is important. The term covers the recruitment of the junior ranks as well as other ranks. The key issue here is the ability to retain the captains, the majors, the sergeant-majors and the sergeants—I cite the Army ranks—who form the absolute core. That problem may creep up on the Minister.

During the Gulf War, as in other campaigns, a certain excitement comes in when we deal with a new territory and a new adventure. At that time, retention improved; people were keen to join the Army and see the world, thus getting a little adventure out of it. That spirit still exists. But what happens when those commitments become a continuing obligation? It is at that point that families begin to complain. I recall talking to a sergeant-major posted to Northern Ireland and asking him, "Are you enjoying this tour? Have you been to Northern Ireland before?". He replied with a weary look, "This is my eleventh tour". That exchange took place some 15 years ago. I shudder to think, if that sergeant-major is still serving in the Army, how many tours he may have completed by now.

The reality is that our commitments are terribly difficult to shake off. The noble Lord who spoke from the Liberal Democrat Benches pointed out that we are still meeting commitments in Northern Ireland on a large scale, although many had hoped that the Good Friday agreement would have helped to alleviate the situation. However, we see British troops back on the streets trying to cope with the most unpleasant disputes involving Catholic schoolchildren and ensuring a safe journey to school. Troops are required to intervene in community disputes.

I myself was responsible for one of our present commitments. At the time it was referred to as "providing comfort" although I think the name has been changed. I refer to the no-fly zone in northern Iraq which we put in place at the time to protect the Kurds from persecution by Saddam Hussein's forces. That undertaking is still being met some 10 years later.

We must ensure that these concerns are properly represented to the Treasury and to the Prime Minister. This morning I heard the Secretary of State for Defence comment rather glibly that there had been no change from the time when the Conservatives were in office. I believe that he quoted figures of 27 per cent and 26 per cent as the percentage of forces meeting operational commitments. However, I have seen briefing notes which suggest that the basis of the statistics has changed since those figures were originally set up. I have great respect for this Government, but I am deeply suspicious and I do not ever believe in any figures they produce—a tradition I bring with me from another place—without first checking the small print and closely examining the situation. Whatever is the figure, I hope that the Minister will take a close look at what is really happening in the services at the present time by following the path of individual officers and sergeant-majors. He is entitled to ask for that information and to get it. It will give him a far better indication of what is really happening and whether the problem of overstretch is developing.

I say that because once overstretch takes a hold, although I said earlier that it is not like a piece of elastic that will snap, people begin to comment, "Well, I'm getting out because the family won't stand for this continual moving about". After that, the next person's wife complains because her husband then has to take on extra work resulting from the departure of his colleague. In that way overstretch can build very rapidly.

I repeat that I am extremely concerned. If we are to have good armed services, they must be well trained. On the evidence that I have seen, some 85 training exercises were cancelled last year. We simply will not be able to point to the priceless asset that is at present our Armed Forces, cherished by all parties in this House, unless we ensure that those forces are properly trained, given adequate rest and recreation and allowed time to spend with their families. They will then be able to make the commitment that is an essential part of the role that we look to them to play.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I am honoured to follow a former Secretary of State and a former Chief of the Defence Staff in this debate because they bring great knowledge of the situation to our deliberations.

The Statement made by the Secretary of State last Thursday, which we were unable to take in your Lordships' House because of the debate on the House of Lords White Paper, gave an indication of how serious the situation is. The Secretary of State admitted that, the … force will be about 5,000 strong. Putting it together has not been easy".—[Official Report, Commons, 10/1/02; col. 689.] However, the Secretary of State insisted that it has been done without having any impact on our other operational requirements. Is that true?

The Afghanistan enterprise has had the most serious effect on regiments undertaking tours of duty, in particular in Northern Ireland, a point made by my noble friend Lord King. The Scottish regiments are particularly badly placed, with the Royal Scots currently serving in Northern Ireland more than one company deficient. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, warned on 17th December that the UK Armed Forces were dangerously over-committed.

We are told that recruitment is satisfactory and that the Armed Forces are, within reason, up to strength. But they are not. A simple headline figure does not answer the problem. While recruitment and staffing are just about adequate for present tasks, as soon as there is a crisis a breakdown will be inevitable. If Northern Ireland blows up again—and it very well may—we shall be in trouble.

Let me give some hard facts on the numbers. For the Army, probably the greatest problems lie with REME. At the last count, REME was 13.8 per cent under strength. REME has the people who make the toys work, and their skills are the most attractive to employers in civilian life who have other uses for these highly skilled people.

The figures in other areas are even more serious. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, pointed out the situation in the medical services. In March 2001, the RAMC was 14.2 per cent under strength and Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps 35 per cent. At that time, Headquarters Infantry was confident that the infantry-trained strength deficit, which was 1,348, would be reduced to 1,100 by September. Can the Minister say whether that target was achieved.

It would be wrong to confine the debate to overstretch in the Army alone. In this era of "jointery", we must talk about all three services. The RAF is desperately short of pilots—again a well known fact. The service is doing what it can to ensure that when it has a trained pilot it does not lose him to a civilian airline, but it is not easy. The Royal Navy lacks nuclear engineers as well as pilots, both helicopter and fixed wing. As we know, the Sea Harrier force recently offered a bonus of £50,000 to retain up to 16 pilots, and it seems that only 21 are combat ready. At the same time, the RAF has a shortfall of 42 combat-ready pilots from a total of only 230. The shortage of Royal Navy/Royal Air Force fast-jet fighter pilots is estimated to rise to 132 by 2005–06. If recruiting targets are being met, it is clear that improvement can come only from improved pilot retention.

The Government continue to promise the aircraft carriers, and the in-service date has not, at the moment, slipped. That is good news—but the carriers will be of no use if there are not the trained men to crew them and the aircraft they carry.

Yesterday's news about the compulsory call-up of elements of the Territorial Army is most significant. Apart from giving the defenders of the TA the opportunity to say, "I told you so", it is rather worrying that it should be necessary. Having said that, that is what the TA is for and we welcome it—but it cannot be ignored that this is the first time that there has been a call-up since Suez. At the moment, it is part of only one intelligence unit, but the Minister has made it clear that he expects that the concept will have to be extended.

The Secretary of State's Statement last week mentioned, in passing, that 17 countries will be deploying troops alongside the United Kingdom in the security force. That is very helpful for anyone who has to run it. One does not have to be a chauvinist to wish good luck to New Zealand, which is providing the headquarters staff for this mélange, assisted by the Turks.

I have concentrated on manning shortages and not on equipment. I shall touch briefly on the A400M. The Germans seem to be reneging—it looks as though they will be reducing their order from 73 to 40—and the Italians have, at the present moment, fallen out. If the A400M project dies simply because there are not enough orders, what will happen? How long can the Government maintain the C-130Ks? Their out-of-service date is 2004. It looks as though they will be needed for another six years. Dr Moonie has spoken about a slippage in the A400M in-service date from 2007 to 2010. That is an immense worry. What will the Government do about it?

3.55 p.m.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for introducing the debate, which he did in his usual amusing fashion but with the serious strategic content that one expects from a former subaltern in the Life Guards.

The noble Earl perhaps went over the top a little in his description of the equipment position. I know that there are many atrocity stories about tanks in the desert and different pieces of equipment going into different ships and so on, but, generally speaking, the Army is reasonably well equipped for its tasks. The Smart Procurement programme is likely to ensure that in the future it will be even better equipped.

The noble Earl made a much better point when he referred to overstretch and the fact that the resources of the Armed Forces are not sufficient to meet the commitments that they have to face. My understanding is that the Chiefs of Staff do not subscribe to this view. As I understand it, their view is that the Armed Forces are stretched and that they entirely agree with that. They believe that the Armed Forces should be stretched, but not overstretched. I understand that that is the kind of advice Her Majesty's Government are getting at the moment. But, like the noble Lord, Lord King, I remain deeply concerned about the situation.

After all, it is a matter of common knowledge, fact and observation that, at the moment, our Armed Forces have great and growing commitments. We have forces in Northern Ireland, Germany, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, the Balkans and so on. Indeed, we can look forward to even greater demands upon our resources in the future. There is to be the rapid reaction force under the European Security and Defence Initiative. We have heard from the Government that this will not require any extra manpower. Quite frankly, I find that a totally bizarre concept. Either it will require new manpower and new resources or there is no point in it at all. I subscribe personally to the second view. The suggestion that the rapid reaction force, to which we will supply forces when necessary, will not require any extra manpower is a bizarre concept around which I simply cannot get my mind. Perhaps the Government are better at it than I am.

We can also look forward to increased commitments in the war against terrorism. If the operations in Afghanistan are not to be the end of the war against terrorism—and they will not be the end, as the Government will be the first to agree—we have to look forward to deploying our forces wherever that commitment leads us, even if the deployment is of a short-term nature. The present commitments are—whatever may be the advice of the Chiefs of Staff—causing considerable concern among sergeants, sergeant-majors, pilots, soldiers and their equivalents in the other services. As the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said, it is significant that reservists have been made subject to a compulsory call-up to perform certain tasks.

If the Armed Forces were not stretched to the limit and perhaps beyond, there should be no need to call up reservists. The noble Lord said that is what reservists are for—and I agree. Perhaps the arguments that many of us have advanced in the past for more attention to be paid to the Territorial Army are coming home to roost. If reservists are necessary at this stage in military deployment, that must indicate that the regular forces are not sufficient to meet our commitments. Unless that is so, I do not understand the reasoning.

The Government must look carefully at the organisation of the Armed Forces. Are they organised in a way that will fit the requirements and commitments that they will have to meet in the next five, 10 or 15 years? Do we really need armoured divisions, tanks and heavy aircraft or a different kind of Armed Forces? Should the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force play a greater role if part of the aim is the distant deployment of military force?

Surely it all comes down to the fact that any government must, in the current circumstances, give the funding, equipment and resources of the Armed Forces a much higher priority. The Armed Forces must not come way down the list of priorities.

I remind the House that the noble Lord, Lord Healey—who is not in his place—once said in a slightly different but still relevant context that if one does not have proper defences, one does not have schools and hospitals but a heap of rubble. We should bear that in mind.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Freeman

My Lords, the central point was made by the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, when opening the debate—when he clearly implied in the witty but serious kernel of his speech that Downing Street inexorably adds to defence commitments and the Chancellor of the Exchequer controls the resources. For all practical purposes, those resources have been fixed for many years.

My noble friend Lord King, a distinguished former Secretary of State for Defence, implied that the patience and abilities of our Armed Forces are being sorely stretched. Evidence of that is obvious. We have a shortfall of 8,000 men in the Regular Army—which is particularly felt among senior ranks and junior officers. I declare an interest as president of the Council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations.

The Territorial Army is 40,000-strong and effectively provides the relief valve for the overstretch of the Regular Army. At any one time over the past few years, 1,000 reservists drawn from all three services have served in a voluntary capacity—infilling for regular forces around the world. Ten per cent of our forces in the Balkans are drawn from the reserve forces. The noble Earl will remember that Lord Kitchener's opinion of the Territorial Army in the First World War was not entirely complimentary. I am glad that General Mike Jackson takes a very different view and is most supportive of and grateful for the role of the TA in particular in infilling the ranks of the regular forces.

My noble friend Lord Burnham referred to Monday's important statement about the first compulsory call-up of reserve forces since Suez. We came close during the Kosovo conflict but Monday's announcement signals an important change. Dr. Moonie, the junior Under-Secretary of State, indicated that the use of compulsory call-up should become more frequent in coming years. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, indirectly referred to some of the implications. An advantage of compulsory call-up, which the Territorial Army welcomes, is that it shares the burden between the employer—who signs up to protect the employment of the TA soldier under bipartisan legislation that was satisfactorily amended by the present Government—and the family. It is not just a matter of a reservist saying, "I volunteer'. All his colleagues will be called up, so it becomes a patriotic, sensible and rational thing to do.

My noble friend Lord Burnham referred to the partial call-up of 3 (Volunteer) Military Intelligence Battalion. Some 140 of them will be going to Afghanistan, and we wish them well.

We must, however, watch carefully the cost implications for employers—who must be satisfactorily compensated for re-employing and re-recruiting staff—and for the Army reservists themselves. The compensation paid for serving in the Army compared with loss of earnings may not be at all equitable.

From my experience of talking to all ranks and officers of the Territorial Army, they would welcome the call-up in due course of formed units—perhaps as a company of a battalion. If reservists can train and work together and have loyalty to the TA, that would draw on its strengths. In doing so, the authorities must work with employers and give as much notice as possible—and reflect the specific strengths and skills of the solders called up.

Gone are the days of Dad's Army. The Territorial Army of today is not one of our dads but of our sons and daughters. We wish them well.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Onslow for choosing as the subject of debate matters that have been of concern in recent years, as is illustrated in previous debates and Questions in the House.

On overstretch, there have been concerns about the danger of taking on too many commitments for the present size of the Army. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response on that point. In the past two or three days, the press has reported the mobilisation of Territorial Army intelligence units and that some of their members, in their civilian jobs, have been working on government communications. Their work includes important tasks affecting security. Who is now doing their jobs? Is this not an example of overstretch, even if it is on the security side as distinct from the Armed Forces, in stretching the staff skilled in communications? I am glad to have this early opportunity of putting that question to the Government.

I turn to failures of equipment. This is worrying if it is happening, for example, to vehicles, especially tanks and weapons. In 1999 there were reports from Kosovo that the radios of British units were unreliable arid were breaking down. The subject was raised in debates in this House in that year, in which I took part. I had hoped that all the necessary improvements had been made since then. I can sympathise with the units and their soldiers where wireless communications are made difficult by inadequate equipment.

That was a bugbear in World War II. Being a gunner and a field battery commander for three years, I was fortunate in having powerful radios. My 25-pounders could not otherwise have been used when they were needed. Fortunately, the Army gave priority to field artillery equipment for that reason. I often had to send radio messages for the infantry with whom I was operating because their radios were too weak to overcome interference which, of course, included that from enemy radios which happened to be on the same frequencies.

I understand that our tanks and field guns at present are of a high standard and reliable. Noble Lords will know that in World War II the British Army had to fight in tanks that were inferior to the enemy's in quality. Early in that war they broke down too often, especially in the desert. The late Lord Carver could have told us more from his experiences of that. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, paid an elegant and accurate tribute to him in our debate on 17th December. I would add that he was an outstanding commander of armour in action. I was not in the 4th Armoured Brigade, as was the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, but in the 15th Scottish Division, with whom that brigade, commanded by Lord Carver, operated in Normandy and later during the campaign in north-west Europe. We shall continue to miss him and I in particular, because he was a personal friend of mine since the 1940s.

There is no question of our preparing for a future war based on the methods and tactics of the last one. But the same general administrative factors tend to arise and lessons can be learned from the pass in that field.

4.17 p.m.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, this is the first time I have participated in a defence debate in either the other place or in this House. I do so with some sense of trepidation. However, I begin by congratulating the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for giving us the opportunity to have the debate. As he mentioned, we were together in the Armed Services Parliamentary Scheme which requires of its participants heroic decisions. Mine was to share a tent with the noble Earl for a week during the Saif Sareea exercise. But, of course, my appreciation of the role of the Army was enhanced. My admiration for our servicemen and women was increased and my view consolidated of the imperative need to get a reasonable equilibrium between the human and other resources available to the armed services and the demands made on them.

When, in a Motion, words like "overstretch" are used so loosely, I believe that we are beginning to do a disservice to the needs of our Armed Forces. All too frequently when used loosely, the word becomes a political weapon rather than a piece of strategic analysis. If I regret any part of the noble Earl's speech, it was the aberration in it when he referred, I believe with unnecessary rudeness, to the role of the Prime Minister in international affairs, which is one I certainly appreciate.

What is needed is a regular evaluation of the targets which were set in the Strategic Defence Review and of our successes and failures in meeting them, not to beat any government but so that we have the empirical basis of agreement on what improvements, if any, are needed and how we resource them. It seems to me, from the evidence, that when this Government came to power—we heard from the noble Lord, Lord King, of his doubts about the statistics at that time—26 per cent of our personnel were committed to operations. That rose dramatically in 1999 at the height of the Kosovo operations when the Army had 44 per cent of its personnel committed to operations. I have no reason to doubt my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, Mr Hoon, when he said on Radio 4 today that the figure is 27 per cent. That does not seem like overstretch, but stretch: it is 26 per cent to 44 per cent to 27 per cent.

Through the process of withdrawing personnel from operations at the earliest moment, it strikes me that the Government are making a significant contribution to controlling and limiting the degree of stretch. Of course, there is a serious problem when events arise such as those of September 11th. In his foreword to the Ministry of Defence Performance Report for the year 2000–1, the Secretary of State said, We are looking again at the implications of asymmetric and unconventional threats in what will be a new chapter to the Strategic Defence Review". I believe that that is a sensible way of dealing with problems which at the time of the review were not only unforeseen, but unforeseeable.

Despite September 11th, let us not forget that the Army's latest assessment of some of the targets in the Strategic Defence Review has been quite successful. The average time between unit tours is, I understand, around 28 months, which is the best figure for five years, and above the SDR target of 24 months. I am quite prepared to boast on behalf of the Government about that. But in doing so I also say that the average masks the fact that there are serious variations between units with some, especially infantry and light-role battalions, not achieving the 24-months interval. We need to approach the statistics not in order to beat each other with them but on the basis of making progress.

As regards overstretch it is too simplistic to say that we should give the Armed Forces more or get them to do less. The spending settlements for last year provided the Ministry of Defence with the first sustained increase in resources since the 1980s—again, not my words, but those of the Secretary of State in the performance review. There must be a continuation of the drive to maximise efficiency and value for money, not only as demonstrated by bodies such as the defence logistics organisation, but perhaps in more basic ways.

I was particularly interested to hear the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, speak about medical services. I wish to ask the Minister: is it not a fact that at any one time there are some 16,000 military personnel who are regarded as unfit for operational purposes because of illness, injury and, very significantly, bad dental health? I hope that the Minister can respond to that question. Would not a possible significant counter to the fears of overstretch be a reduction in the number of our servicemen who are presently unfit for operational purposes?

Time prevents my examining questions relating to equipment, as I should like to have done. However, I look forward to hearing from my noble friend on the specific matter I have mentioned.

4.20 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I want to take a more general and strategic approach. The Government have learnt in the last four years that, while health and transport tend to present nearly intractable problems, the British Armed Forces constitute a peerless trump card. We are respected in Europe, in the US and in the world at large for our armed services and their mixture of courage, professionalism and resilience. That is despite 10 years of merciless attrition conducted by both parties and described as "the peace dividend". The Treasury sold the married quarters estate in the 1990s for far less than its market value and has reneged, through repeated delays, on its promise of money for early refurbishment of service quarters. It sold the drill halls, so that the TA footprint has largely gone, and it regularly reduces the MoD's estimates to suit the Chancellor's procrustean bed rather than the real cost of defence. I hope that resources will now begin to match the requirement.

Because the forces are both resilient and trained to act and make the best of things without complaint—soldiers have no trade unions—I believe that the Government are getting away with under-spending while constantly increasing the tasks of the forces. The SDR did not envisage Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Afghanistan all happening at the same time, while the situation in Northern Ireland becomes steadily more menacing, our commitment in Iraq continues, and there is a distinct likelihood of trouble in Cyprus as Turkey and Cyprus joust for position for EU entry. The EU's common position on Africa also envisages possible EU military intervention as a Petersberg task. One of the disturbing things about the ESDP remit is that it is global.

However closely the FCO and the MoD work together, as we are assured they do, there are real problems for planning the disposition of our overstretched forces when the political agenda constantly commits them to new military tasks, while the Government fail to provide the financial resources that are needed to implement them. We are constantly told by Ministers that all the MoD needs to do is to refocus its spending, not have more funds, and that this splendid formula has been warmly commended to our EU allies. There is at last some money for much-needed equipment and armament, but according to the report of the Capabilities Improvement Conference mounted by the EU—and relevant to NATO's parallel Defence Capabilities Initiative—of the 40 shortfalls listed, most are not scheduled to be met until what is called "the medium term", defined as 2007–2012. The ESDP, we are told by the Secretary of State for Defence, does not impose financial targets, no distinctions are made between conscript and professional forces and the intention of the action plan is to mobilise for the political commitments. Meanwhile, the EU is claiming to be ready to perform all Petersberg tasks, including armed intervention, by 2003.

The harsh fact is that only we, the French and eventually, potentially, Germany have both the professional forces and the experience to conduct and sustain a serious military operation. We were able to disengage from Macedonia after a brief and effective intervention, but we are still in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Iraq and in Sierra Leone, and in every case tying up experienced troops so that a very real risk of skill-fade exists. That does not make for retention, and as we progress from one politically dictated intervention to another, we add to the instability of married life for the services, especially since men on these operations are necessarily unaccompanied. Their families are often still in poor quarters, their family life is regularly disrupted. Good NCOs begin to worry about the future, and extensive voluntary retirement at that level, as well as in the skilled trades, will mean that there will be no one to train new recruits.

In 2001, according to the IISS, our defence budget was the equivalent of 33 billion dollars; France's was 24 billion; Germany's was 20 billion; and that of Italy was 15 billion. After Spain, at 7 billion dollars, the Netherlands at 5 billion and Sweden at 4 billion, the other defence budgets in the EU added up to 13 billion dollars.

Defence in this country is still a poor relation compared to health, and it is more than time that a Government who largely owe much of their present international status to the successful use of their Armed Forces to enhance their political clout, should recognise that defence needs a larger share of our money, not just for equipment but for the really vital element—people: skilled, dedicated, effective people.

Of course it is right that our country should use its Armed Forces as the asset that they are, not as a talent to be buried but one to be used. The question is whether they are being accorded their proper value, and whether those who commit them politically are accountable and fully aware of what they are doing.

Military matters, defence and security are rightly regarded in the EU as intergovernmental, not to be decided by QMV and carefully co-ordinated with our NATO responsibilities. We only have one set of assets, however many the calls that are made on them. Are we, who are more likely than any other nation but one to have to pay the piper in terms of providing the troops, able to monitor decisions and ensure that Mr Solana, who is moving more and more issues, including those with military implications, into the domain of common strategies, where QMV does apply, can be monitored and observed, and perhaps controlled?

According to the arrangements under which, ever since Russia and the Ukraine were invited at Feira to take part in operations to carry out Petersberg tasks, Russia regularly talks to the Political Committee and to presidential troikas about European defence, security and arms proliferation—many of which are NATO subjects for which we have made provision for discussion under the umbrella of NATO. What will happen if Russia is incorporated into the committee of contributors which is set up when it is decided to launch an operation? Will it, like other countries which are candidates for accession, have the same rights and obligations in the day-to-day conduct of an operation? Russia could probably provide quite significant air-lift, for which the EU would otherwise have had to go to NATO; and Russia's potentially developing relationship with the EU at a military level in the context of the Petersberg tasks, which sounds so sensible, is nevertheless part of the game she is playing to render NATO irrelevant if she can. That is a major factor in the European balance of power.

I hope that we shall resist at a political level moves which would advance Russia's subliminal interests in the chess game rather than ours. We have the political will to commit our forces, very much less to support their claim to a proper share of our budget, and possibly none to resist moves against our interests in Europe and so become unpopular. In the memorable words of a Minister: "We try to get ourselves in a position where we are not the country holding things up".

4.27 p.m.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, I begin by congratulating my noble friend on introducing the debate, and on his prescience in having done so within 48 hours of the call-up of TA Reservists—the first, as my noble friends Lord Burnham and Lord Freeman have said, for nearly 50 years. That is evidence, if ever I heard it, of at least incipient overstretch.

In the few minutes available to me, I want to address the single issue of the frequency with which members of the Armed Forces are being asked to serve on overseas emergency six months' unaccompanied tours, and with that the associated issues of pay and rations and an update on the life assurance position.

As the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, reminded us, the existing guidelines on overseas unaccompanied tours are that there must be 24 months between tours—24 months between the end of one tour and the beginning of the next. Anyone understands that from time to time such agreements will undoubtedly be infringed, particularly at times of national emergency. However, there is a widespread view that, since the Berlin Wall came down, there have been persistent breaches of this agreement. This affects all soldiers, but in particular it affects the technical branches—signallers, engineers, helicopter mechanics and petroleum specialists. We are frequently told, and many speakers have made the point, that the Army is short of such specialists. Well, if they are badly treated, we must expect that they will vote with their feet and move to civilian careers where their skills are better appreciated and better remunerated.

The Government—sparing the blushes of the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson—have been extraordinarily coy about accepting that there is a problem in this regard. In February last year, I tabled the parliamentary Question: If no soldier were required to serve more than one six-month emergency tour in each 24-month period, how many soldiers would now be available for deployment [overseas]?". The noble Lord, Lord Burlison, on behalf of the Government, said: We do not hold the information requested centrally".—[Official Report, 13/2/01; col. WA 29.] He went on to give various other statistics that were an attempt to wriggle off the hook.

A month later, on 15th March, I tried again. This time I asked the Government to confirm whether a central record exists of overseas tours of Army personnel; if not, why not; and at what levels such records are maintained. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, gave a lengthy reply in which her key argument was: To put together such a record would, therefore, entail a disproportionate cost".—[Official Report, 15/3/01; col. WA 104.] Apparently, it would entail disproportionate cost to keep a record of what our soldiers are doing overseas to ensure that we are complying with the obligations that we have freely entered into. If the Government really mean that, it betrays an extraordinarily cavalier attitude to the undertakings that they have given to the Armed Forces. I hope that the Minister will provide a proper reassurance when he winds up.

At the same time, I hope that the Minister will be able to explain how, as the Government pursue their world role and take on ever more responsibilities in areas of tension, they are going to avoid ever more frequent infringements of the agreement. I share the view of my noble friend Lord King about the dangers of commitment creep. We have gone into Sierra Leone, we have gone into the Balkans and we are now going into Afghanistan. Where are we coming out of?

My second issue is pay. Members of the Armed Forces are excluded from the provisions of the national minimum wage. I have asked the Government on occasions what the financial impact would be if the national minimum wage applied to a private soldier serving on an overseas emergency tour. The Government, again through the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, have not been prepared to give a figure. Instead, the noble Baroness referred to the "X-factor"—currently 13 per cent of basic pay—which is, added to reflect the overall balance of advantages and disadvantages experienced by members of the armed forces"— [Official Report, 29/11/00; col. WA 133.] I leave it to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, to argue whether 13 per cent is the right figure. That is all very well, but the amount is paid throughout a soldier's career, whether he or she is guarding Bagram airport, driving an armoured personnel carrier in the Balkans or driving a desk in Whitehall. If the Government are determined to continue with their global programme of commitments, with all the pressures that that entails for those involved in the Armed Forces, they surely must consider some special arrangements for those who undertake increasingly frequent emergency deployment at the sharp end.

Then there is the issue of life assurance, on which there were extensive reports in The Times and other newspapers late last year. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us reassurances about how that is being developed and the answers that are being found to the problem.

In replying to a debate on Afghanistan last year, the Minister rightly reminded us of the duty that we all owe to the members of our Armed Forces. We need to ensure that the Government do not make the mistake exemplified by the famous Kipling line: O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Tommy, go away'; But it's 'Thank you, Mister Atkins', when the band begins to play".

4.33 p.m.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for raising this subject for debate and to my noble friend Lord Tomlinson for taking part in it. I hope that he is slightly ashamed of the fact that it was his first contribution to our debates on these subjects. I hope that we shall hear a great deal from him on these issues in the future.

I was very concerned about the noble Earl's reference to cases of sexual harassment during the recent exercise in Oman. That was news to me, although of course I accept what he said. Having told us what had happened, the noble Earl seemed merely to shrug his shoulders and wonder what could be done about it. There is something that we can do.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I drew the issue to the attention of the House—and to the attention of the assistant chief of staff this morning—because I find it extraordinarily unattractive. I was laying the issue on the table in the hope that somebody would take it up. I do not take the issue in any way other than very seriously.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am much obliged to the noble Earl for making that clear. I am sure of the good faith of Ministers of this Government and previous Governments of either complexion in wanting this evil to be rooted out, just as Ministers have always been adamant and firm against cases of racial harassment. However, we have a lot to learn about what to do about it. It is clear that we shall not deal with these issues fundamentally unless we make it clear to the colonels and the sergeant-majors that their careers will be affected if there are incidents of that sort in units for which they are responsible. That is where the responsibility should lie. It should be made clear to those with such responsibilities that any incidents will go in their record and their career will be prejudiced. I draw your Lordships' attention to what happened in the United States at the time of the Tailhook scandal. Shortly after that, no less a personage than the chief of naval operations, the wholly admirable Admiral Kelso, resigned. It is worth considering whether we should require the personnel of the various service boards to consider their position if matters of that sort are not attended to and brought to an end forthwith.

I regret to have to say that I endorse every word that the noble Earl said about the Challenger tank. I am just grateful that it was not raining in Oman, or we might have had to complain about the windscreen wipers as well.

I take this opportunity to congratulate my noble friend the Minister on burying what I hope was my worst mistake in my last tenure at the Ministry of Defence—the Tracer programme. I thought that it was complete nonsense and I am ashamed that I allowed it to continue even to development stage. I confess that I should not have been as innocent as I was. The British Army told me that we had to have it because the Americans were insisting on it. I was mug enough not to ask any more questions until I got to Washington, when I found out that my opposite number, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, said that he had been told by his Army that they had to have it because the British were insisting on it. I hope that my noble friend can learn from my naivety.

I hope that my noble friend can also give me some assurances on a couple of bits of equipment that are not strictly Army equipment, but have a great effect on the Army. I am particularly concerned about the next generation fast jet trainer, the Hawk—or whatever the new Hawk is called; I can never remember the initials but I am sure that my noble friend has them at his fingertips. It would be unthinkable if the order for the new fast jet trainer was not to be placed with BAe Systems for the Hawk. It is getting pretty close to scandalous how long it is taking for the decision to be made. That is having a serious effect on defence sales. Quite apart from the capabilities of the Royal Air Force, it is also having industrial implications, of which I am sure my noble friend is aware.

My noble friend will not be so happy with my next comment. I am afraid that I do not share the enthusiasm of my noble friend Lord Hardy or the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, for the A400M. I shall not detain your Lordships with all the reasons why I think that it is a complete waste of money. The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said that we ought to have the A400M as soon as possible as a replacement for the C130K. The C130J should be with us by now, although we have had a lot of birthing pains with it. In any case, the A400M is intended not as a tactical lift aircraft, but as a strategic aircraft. As such, it is in competition with the wholly admirable C17 aircraft, which is now in place. The decision should be taken on objective grounds. Rather than just trying to ensure jobs in Europe for a plane that does not exist and has specifications that are hugely inferior to those of the C17, which is already successfully in service in two air forces, we should be trying through OCCAR—I ask your Lordships to forgive me for all these initials—to secure European agreement with Boeing to build the C17 in Europe. That would be a major contribution to Europe obtaining the strategic airlift capability that it requires.

My final point reverts to questions of the Armed Forces. I very much hope that my noble friend can give us assurances that the welfare arrangements for the troops in Afghanistan have been properly considered. I am sure that my noble friend will say yes. But the Ministry of Defence is very bad at looking into such matters.

I hope that my noble friend will forgive me for saying this, but I can recall a private conversation with the current Permanent Secretary not so long ago—or perhaps it was his predecessor, I cannot remember—who commented what a poor show we made of this. I can remember going back to Kuwait where the troops did not receive their chip frying machines, or their telephone-to-home call arrangements. Moreover, the mail arrangements were inadequate. Time after time we say that it will not happen again; but it does. These are not frivolous matters. They are extremely important welfare matters, as I am sure my noble friend accepts. I hope that he can confirm that such matters are being monitored closely, and will give us an assurance that he will look into them as soon as possible.

4.41 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, what a privilege it is to follow the opening remarks of my noble friend Lord Onslow. He referred to one or two interesting incidents during his career; and, indeed, some that happened recently in the desert. It was 44 years ago when I, too, was a young national serviceman. On 14th July 1958, your Lordships might remember there was a Nasserite putsch in Iraq. My battalion, the First Battalion Scots Guards, which was then serving at Windsor, was warned for duty. The commanding officer, who many noble Lords may remember, my late noble friend Lord Cathcart, needed a training area. "Very good", he was told, "you may have a training area, but you can't have Oman". So, as there was nothing in Scotland, the battalion was then sent to Dartmoor, where we had not one, or two, but three times the normal rainfall. Having trained one platoon, I arrived back at Windsor to be told by the company sergeant-major, "You're very lucky, you're to train Mr Keswick's platoon". So I went back and there was even more rain.

Things have not necessarily changed over the past 44 years. But, through the visits that I have made on several occasions with the House of Lords defence group in the company of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, I have been delighted to see that, very simply, there is nothing that the British Army cannot do; and that there is nothing that the defence forces of the United Kingdom are unable to do. Last night I heard a very interesting address from a senior source in the Ministry of Defence, who referred to certain terms. As far as he was concerned, "stretch" was fine, but what he called "overuse" seemed to him to present a problem. I thought that that was a clever way of putting it.

This morning, I was also interested to hear political representatives in another place—namely, the shadow Minister and the Minister—referring to various percentages. I should be glad to receive some clarification in this respect. Last night, the same senior source to whom I referred said that the percentage of personnel on operations was 26 per cent or 27 per cent. However, he also referred to the percentage of 6 per cent, which I believe relates to further personnel who are committed to operations. As I understand it, that means that such personnel would be placed on short notice in readiness to move on operations, or would be used in other ways as a back-up for those already on operations. Can the Minister say whether this is a rising or a falling trend?

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, referred to a visit that both he and I made to the Defence Medical Services in Birmingham. I confirm every word that he said this afternoon. I have some personal knowledge of the Territorial Army and of the medical operatives who serve with the TA. Indeed, I reiterate everything that my noble friend Lord Freeman said in that respect. I was interested to note that 10 per cent of the Armed Forces in the Balkans are from the TA. I am sure that the Minister will accept that we are grateful for that help, especially in the technical and medical areas to which reference has been made. The effect of our forces in the Balkans, and elsewhere, would be seriously diluted without that assistance.

In the case of the medical services, can the Minister give both the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and myself encouragement as regards what are called "parenting and messing" arrangements? As I understand it, "parenting" is the ability of personnel in such places as Northallerton, which I have visited on a previous occasion, and Birmingham, to carry out their necessary training as soldiers: in other words, the opportunity to use their weapons and undertake the necessary physical training. I believe that that can be achieved without disrupting the other duties and training commitments that they have at the hospital.

I should like to emphasise a point that the noble and gallant Lord did not have time to mention. I have in mind the extraordinarily forthright commitment of all the young men and women at what I believe is called the University of Central England, which is attached to the Defence Medical Services. It provides a marvellous three-year course for medical operatives of the future.

There have been one or two major successes. I was lucky to be in Docklands at the defence exhibition on 11th September. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Freeman was one of the first people I encountered, though I was not aware that he operated in that particular area. I found enormous enthusiasm there among the British Army team, but I also had the good fortune to visit HMS "Lancaster". I hope that the Minister, as well as noble Lords, will note the following. First, what a first-class ship it is; secondly, how very pleased the operatives and the people working with the new Merlin helicopter were with it; and, thirdly, the unbelievable enthusiasm of the sonar man on that helicopter. He suggested to me that one thing that your Lordships should do was to make a visit to see it. We shall try to do so. That seemed to me to be one shining success in a world event at the Docklands: it shows that there are at least some successes coming forward. Will the Minister please keep that rolling, as well as the other initiatives that no doubt he will be mentioning in his response?

In conclusion, I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, refer to something called Tailhook in Las Vegas. The noble Lord may be surprised to learn that I, too, have been to Las Vegas for just one night. I went with a group called the North Atlantic Assembly—NATO parliamentarians. I can assure him that what I read of what took place at Tailhook seems to me to be quite modest compared to what I saw. I do not mean to refer to the activities of members of the North Atlantic Assembly; indeed, I was certainly astonished at much of the moderation. But, possibly, such behaviour was not fitting and worthy for the United States Navy.

I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will bear in mind that decisions taken now as regards recruitment and retention will be what count in three, four or five years' time. It is excellent to say, "Oh, yes; what happened in Afghanistan was unexpected". I admit that operations in Macedonia turned out to be a marvellous success; namely, to achieve something and pull out within the time schedule. The whole history of the British Armed Forces is one of waiting for the unexpected. I repeat: such decisions must be taken slowly with the help of the defence logistics organisation, and of the Treasury. Then in three or five years' time, if noble Lords and the Minister are still here, we can expect success in future operations.

4.49 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I remind the House that I have an interest as a serving officer in the Territorial Army. I am grateful for the comments made by my noble friend Lord Freeeman about the TA. I wish I had time to follow up on the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Onslow regarding the issue of sexual harassment. I can only say that I do not recognise it as a problem of the present, although it was clearly a problem of the past. I should admit that it was a very difficult problem for me to deal with when I was in command of a TA unit, simply as regards determining the rights and wrongs of even a minor complaint.

I took part in Exercise Saif Sareea for about one month in a very humble capacity. Morale among the troops was very good. They enjoyed the exercise: they enjoyed working in a new, different and challenging environment. My noble friend Lord Onslow raised the issue of the SA80 rifle. The design is old. It was the first design of bull-pup rifle to enter service in an army. The Government have a refurbishment programme for it, but the cost is comparable to that of the new weapon. Moreover, about 10 per cent of the Army will be left-handed. Can the Minister confirm that the SA80 rifle can now be fired left-handed?

We undertook Exercise Saif Sareea for good political reasons, but did so within current MoD funding. Omanis at all levels were very pleased to see us, but that is particularly true of the Royal Army of Oman.

There were, nevertheless, some problems. Because there was no extra money for flying hours, air transport was restricted throughout the year and there were fewer opportunities to use even individual members of the TA, let alone whole formed units on their annual camp. It is a sorely missed opportunity. I recall that, in the 1980s, my interest in the TA was maintained by the very large FTXs we engaged in in BAOR. If we had been able to deploy parts of the TA to Saif Sareea, it would have been a brilliant boost to retention. It would also have relieved pressure on some Regular Army units.

Several noble Lords have raised the issue of the Challenger 2 tank, and my noble friend Lord Onslow specifically addressed the track-pad issue, which was a problem in Sail Sareea. However, noble Lords have to understand that the rock over which the Challenger moved in the southern training area was unusually hard and sharp. Similar problems were not encountered in the Gulf War because those tanks were operating on a different type of ground. Nevertheless, perhaps the Government should consider developing desert track for Challenger so that we shall not experience the same problem if we want to deploy it in desert conditions.

Challenger 2 is optimised for Operations in a temperate climate, and there was no funding to "desertise" it for Exercise Saif Sareea. However, it is important to understand that a desertised Challenger 2 would have a significantly larger heat signature, thereby making it easier for the enemy to detect and engage it. Additionally, there would be a large increase in parasitic losses from the cooling system.

The good news is that the Challenger 2 turret systems, which caused so many problems when Challenger was introduced, worked well in Exercise Saif Sareea although the ambient temperature was well outside the design envelope.

Lessons were learned in Exercise Saif Sareea, but that is the point of having a field exercise rather than a computer simulation.

My noble friend Lord Onslow raised the issue of the Bowman radio system. We should thank God that the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, has dispensed with the services of Archer Communications. I hope that the project is now under control.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister on Bowman. First, what is the planned in-service date for the first brigade to receive it? Secondly, when will the whole Army—the Regular and the TA—be equipped with Bowman? It is no use equipping only one brigade with the system as it will have to be used right across the Army.

Casualty evacuation is a vital part of all exercises and operations. The Staff place great emphasis on speedy evacuation within agreed timescales. Helicopters are frequently used in evacuations, but they are not always available, particularly in adverse weather and when dealing with a second, nearby casualty. In such circumstances, Landrover battlefield ambulances have to be used. The ambulances. however, are not fitted with radios. Moreover, their crews are usually too busy to play around with a radio.

What happens, however, if a battlefield ambulance is lost, crashes, is stopped by locals or attacked by the enemy? The headquarters simply does not know the situation, and the lines of communication can be very long. In Exercise Saif Sareea, for example, the distance between the traffic posts on the main supply route were about the maximum allowable. It is a pity that the TA was not available to reduce that distance.

Supermarkets—at least Safeway—do not have a similar problem because all their vehicles are fitted with a satellite-tracking system, enabling them not only to know the precise location of all their assets, but to send text messages. If we fitted such a system to battlefield ambulances, the headquarters would know the precise location of all ambulances in the area of operations and could communicate with them. The system would also automatically tell the headquarters whether an ambulance had stopped moving.

Not every battlefield ambulance in the fleet needs to be so fitted. However, I think that the system should be included in ambulances involved in exercises or operations overseas. I have not raised the issue before, but I hope that the Minister will consider it. I believe that service personnel deserve the best chance of surviving an accident whether it occurs on an exercise or an operation.

4.55 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for initiating this wide-ranging debate which encompasses two issues rather than one, allowing the maximum number of your Lordships to address these important issues.

All noble Lords have expressed the high regard in which they hold our armed services, and I echo those sentiments. Our armed services are small but extremely professional. It is a source of pride that they are called upon to lead in many operations. Overstretch, however, is one of the main threats to the capabilities of our armed services. It is a perennial problem that will not be solved overnight. Nevertheless, recruitment and retention are the two main issues that will have to be addressed.

We on these Benches support the personnel levels set out in the SDR. However, undermanning is a serious problem. Many noble Lords have cited statistics; the ones I shall quote are dated September 2001. They show that the Army was short of 6,669 personnel; the Royal Navy of 1,358; and the RAF of 1,029, with a particular shortage of jet pilots, as the noble Lord, Lord Burnham said. Moreover, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall said, the shortages are not spread equally. There is a particular problem with the number of doctors and nurses. That undermanning will lead to operational overstretch.

Our commitments are not outside the parameters set by the SDR. Furthermore, as has been mentioned, fewer Armed Forces members were involved in operations during Christmas because the situation in Kosovo, in Macedonia and in Sierra Leone had improved. Nevertheless, some sections continue to experience problems caused by undermanning.

I believe that the Government are considering retaining the services of professional recruitment firms to help solve the problem. We support such moves. The firms will, however, have to present a positive view of the services. At a time of low unemployment, with pay levels high outside the armed services and no attendant risk or prospect of being sent overseas, the Army will face recruitment problems.

Retention is the other half of the problem. I am particularly concerned about the new proposals on service pensions. When there are difficulties with morale and retention, changes to current arrangements have to be handled with great care. I am sure that no noble Lord would support any measure that worsened the pension arrangements for service personnel.

The retention issue can be addressed by reviewing the formula used by the Armed Forces pay review body. Pay should recognise that service life is more dangerous and less stable and that it can restrict opportunities for partners to work. The use of a bonus system should be investigated.

The provision of high quality unaccompanied personnel and family quarters would he helpful. Change is needed to the "march in, march out" arrangements for the handover of married quarters. It should he replaced with a contracted out arrangement to prepare housing for new occupants. A review of moving and relocation allowances to ensure that total costs to service personnel are covered should be considered.

The noble Baroness, Lady Park, referred to a matter of major concern; namely, family issues. Ensuring high standards of welfare for the families of service personnel is central to securing high levels of retention. The reason for departure most cited in the continuous attitude survey of service leavers is the effect of service on family life. It is imperative to the efficient running of our Armed Forces that social, educational and recreational facilities for service families are actively supported.

The Service Families' Task Force has done some good work in addressing issues outside direct MoD control such as schools' admission policy, access to the NHS and eligibility for benefits. There is no reason why the Service Families' Task Force should not also investigate and report on issues within direct MoD control such as the provision of on-base welfare services and service accommodation. A revamped Service Families' Task Force would need to meet more regularly, possibly on a monthly basis. The SFTF also needs to be open and accessible to service families with reports and conclusions of meetings made available at forces' bases and on the Internet.

We on these Benches would like to see a service families' charter applied at all bases requiring the delivery of consistent, standardised welfare services to a minimum specification. There would be annual reporting mechanisms and a families' officer on every base responsible for overseeing community development. A dedicated budget would be provided aimed at giving practical and systematic help to spouses, improving facilities for families and co-ordinating information supply on local job opportunities, housing choice, local amenities and local schooling. Families' officers need a standard job description so that they can rightfully demand resources and requisition facilities to fulfil the tasks set out for them. A review is needed of the support offered to forces' families welfare organisations by the MoD, including funding, to encourage best practice and avoid duplication.

I turn to equipment failure. Although I shall probably overshoot the time allocated to me, I wish to comment on a couple of issues. Like the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, I ask whether the modified SA80 can be used by left-handed people. I am not left-handed but I have a particular loathing of the SA80. However, it is an excellent rifle as regards its sighting mechanism and it is accurate. The sling is an extremely useful piece of kit. However, the first time I fired the rifle I discovered that a large section of my thumb was missing. The dust cover of the modified version—I believe that it had been modified 125 times at that point—had the tendency to flip open and cut into the hand of the person firing the weapon. I very much hope that the modified SA80 has far fewer defects.

I am particularly concerned about boots. The standard issue combat "highs" occupy a particular place in the hearts of those who have worn them in that they can inflict incredible damage to the knees of serving personnel. Has any research been carried out on how many servicemen have been invalided out of the Army due to the effect of their boots? From an economic point of view it would be worth redesigning those boots and introducing a far more comfortable model which causes less friction on one's knees.

Finally, I wish to comment on the Bowman radio system. When I was an officer in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers I was told, "Don't worry about the Clansman, it is a useless piece of kit, but we shall have the Bowman very soon". That occurred a good 10 years ago. The target date for the Bowman's initial operating capability is March 2004. Is that date still on target? The procurement cost of supply and support of Bowman, including VAT, is £1.8 billion. Are we still on target not to overspend that sum, or is there a new estimate? The whole life programme cost is some £2.5 billion.

The noble Lord, Lord Freeman, said that the first compulsory call-up of Territorial Army personnel has just taken place for intelligence personnel. Having served in the Territorial Army, I know that its members are prepared to be called up. Many have served in Kosovo and the Falklands. However, I refer to the new provision of compulsory call-up which has not been used before. Will there be an ongoing assessment of that call-up in the short term as regards retention of TA personnel?

5.7 p.m.

Lord Vivian

My Lords, we are all grateful to my noble friend for bringing this debate to our attention today. In the defence White Paper of 1999 it was recognised that people give us the critical edge that leads to success, whether in high intensity conflict, peace support operations or defence diplomacy. To retain that edge and to resolve the deep-seated problem of overstretch, we need the right number of good quality, well trained and highly motivated people.

The MoD is to be congratulated on the recent initiatives it has taken to improve some of the personnel matters that have a direct bearing on retention and attract people to a service life. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, has been exceptionally helpful on many occasions and I am most grateful to him for that. The criticisms and points at issue that I shall raise are designed to be constructive and lead to further improvements for our men and women. However, both overstretch and equipment failure cause low morale in the Armed Forces of the Crown.

The main reason for overstretch and equipment failures is a continuous lack of resources in that insufficient funds are provided for the MoD budget, a theme which has been represented throughout this debate by your Lordships. Until more funds are made available by the Treasury, I can see little hope of rectifying this serious situation. In some cases overstretch occurs as a result of having too few units to meet certain commitments. In others it is a product of having too few individuals which arises from undermanning, which in turn fuels further overstretch, causes dissatisfaction and low morale, leads to retention problems and hence more undermanning in a vicious circle. The recent announcement of the compulsory call out—the first since Suez some 45 years ago—of 140 TA intelligence specialists confirms the alarming overstretch and illustrates the point well. There are two main ways of dealing with overstretch and undermanning: to reduce overseas commitments to a number that we can deal with or to increase recruitment and retention levels.

I should now like to draw your Lordships' attention to some aspects of overcommitment. Currently the United Kingdom has the Armed Services deployed in 28 different areas around the world and within those areas the Army has just under 31,000 deployed. It is undertaking operational deployments—in addition to Northern Ireland with just under 14,000 troops, which may well need reinforcement in the future—in Sierra Leone; Bosnia; Kosovo; and in the Falkland Islands.

The dangers of peace-keeping operations are that in many cases they result in open-ended commitments. There are already signs that that may be the case in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, there will probably be ground forces of some 1,800 and a Royal Navy task force of around 4,500, including Royal Marines. In March last year, prior to deployments to Afghanistan, the Army was 24.4 per cent—the figure is now some 26 per cent to 27 per cent—committed to operations. However, few people realise that that means an overall commitment of some 73 per cent to 81 per cent, allowing for those who are "preparing for" and "recovering from" those operations. The figure is too high to sustain.

In the past, when serving in the Armed Forces, I have welcomed operational deployments. Operations are an essential part of the ethos and morale of the services. They are what we train for and confirm whether the training for war has been correct. They must be sustainable without bringing dissatisfaction to those who are serving by the imposition of excessive separation, by restricting training and the quality of our military skills and by making retention more difficult. After all, men and women join up to serve their country and look forward to operations provided that they are not continuously over-committed.

I turn to undermanning, which results from taking in insufficient numbers of recruits and not being able to retain them once they are in the services. The Army has a trained requirement of some 108,000 but a trained strength of around only 96,000, according to UK Defence Statistics 2001, which shows a shortfall of just under 12,000. However, the MoD performance report for 2000–01 quoted a figure of 8,000. To those figures can be added some 9,000 medically downgraded personnel, which means that between 17,000 and 21,000 personnel are not available for operational deployment. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify the situation.

The estimated trained strength for 2004 is around 98,000, which is a marginal increase of only some 2,000 personnel. There is little hope of the Army approaching its trained-strength target by 2008. The total outflow exceeded inflow by 528 people, although that retention has improved by some 2,000 during the year 1999–2000. The Army needs an intake of some 15,000 new recruits each year just to stand still in terms of manning and an annual figure of some 25,000 if it is to meet its trained strength by 2008.

Despite all the determined efforts that are put into recruiting, the situation is deteriorating and a really radical approach must be adopted to improve recruiting figures as soon as possible. Many years ago, regiments relied on their own regimental recruiting teams; perhaps we should return to that system. An improvement to the system would be for experienced senior NCOs to be placed on a special list at the age of 45 and to continue their service, but not to count against the existing rank structure, which would ensure that that would not upset the promotion structure. They would be an invaluable force, particularly in the training of others.

I turn to retention. As I have already illustrated, that has improved over the past two years. However, there is more that can be done in that area if retention is to improve further and morale is to be kept high. There is no time to cover all those issues in any detail, but they are: lack of individuals creating double work loads, aggravating the poor manning situation; excessive separation, leading to many family break-ups; the still poor state of single and married accommodation, although some improvements have been made; the critical state of first and second line medical services, although some improvements have been made to fast-tracking procedures with the National Health Service; and the cancellation of training exercises, which has a large impact on the standard of our military skills. The Armed Forces rightly hold a special place in our society and political correctness must not impede in any way our fighting efficiency.

I turn to Army equipment, which I shall not cover in great depth because so many noble Lords have already identified equipment problems. I agree in the main with what has already been said. However, I will reinforce briefly some of the points that have been made. The Challenger 2 tank is a world-beating tank and the Royal Armoured Corps has great faith in it. However, its performance in Oman was abysmal. That was in no way due to the design of the tank. Had it been desertised with the appropriate air filters and track, as Vickers had recommended, it would have functioned just as well as the Omani Challenger 2 tanks.

It is unacceptable that additional funds for the desertisation of those tanks was not forthcoming. Would the Minister explain how that occurred? Could he explain why the new SA80 was not issued to the Royal Marines prior to their recent operational deployment, confirm that Bowman is on course and inform us of any other major equipment slippage dates? In addition, what was the reason for the cancellation of the anti-tank missile system Trigat, in relation to which £115 million had already been spent? Finally, are there any plans to reduce the equipment programme over the next four years by £1.2 billion?

This has been a very worthwhile debate. I agree with many of the points that noble Lords have raised. Regrettably, there is no time to comment on them. I hope that the Minister will record our concerns on the matters that we have raised.

In conclusion, I do not believe that there can be any solution to overstretch and over-commitment without either tailoring our Armed Forces to their capabilities or making a real and significant increase to the defence budget. As a start, what is known as the £500 million efficiency savings measures—in my opinion they are now defence cuts—should cease forthwith. A year-on-year programme of efficiency savings can only have a debilitating effect on all levels of command and can be destructive to the quality of life that will sustain retention in the Armed Forces.

Finally, as is customary in your Lordships' House, I pay great tribute to the brave and courageous men and women who serve their country loyally and with the utmost dedication to duty. This debate has drawn out matters that show that the Army is not as well equipped as it should be and that it is over-committed and undermanned. It is our duty to rectify those serious shortcomings as soon as possible. I repeat that the only solution to those problems is either to increase the defence budget significantly and to cease the annual requirement for the £500 million efficiency savings or to restrict our commitments to within our operational capabilities.

5.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, for securing this debate. Whether he is someone with whom I should choose to go to the jungle—or maybe even the desert—I am not absolutely certain, but he would be a very enjoyable companion anyway.

Noble Lords will recall that, during our debates last year on international terrorism, the noble Earl raised concerns about some of the equipment that was issued to the Army. It is of course right that we should address the issue in more depth, as we have done today. I regret that we have not had a bit more time in which to do that.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon—they did so with great expertise—and experience—and welcome the tributes that have been paid to our servicemen and women. I must point out that this debate relates in particular to the Army. Although I shall do my best in the very limited time that remains to discuss the other services—particularly in terms of equipment—I am afraid that I cannot do justice to that subject today.

There will be complete agreement in the House when I say that we have the finest Armed Forces in the world. Their professionalism, self-sacrifice and determination has been shown time and again in such places as the Balkans, Sierra Leone and now in Afghanistan. Their actions and achievements continue to demonstrate their world-class quality. I believe that it is highly appropriate, therefore, that any misgivings about the equipment with which they are provided or the conditions under which they operate should be discussed arid considered in this House.

Let us, first, consider the term "overstretch". It is one which I happen to believe should be resisted. Overstretch is, by definition, that stretch to the system which is excessive. In this instance, it can be assumed that we would not engage in military activities beyond the limits that we are prepared to endure. Of course, pressure points exist in certain specialist areas, but one must consider those within the complexity of defence business. While the overall pace and number of commitments may be entirely manageable, some shortage categories may feel pressure.

I shall set out some of the measures that we have in place to address those issues. But let us be clear: the Armed Forces have not declined any operational commitments because of excessive stretch. And that is not because of political directives. As the House knows, whenever we deploy our forces, we do so with the full support of our senior military advisers; namely, the Chiefs of Staff and, above all, the Chief of the Defence Staff. Their important advice is based on their collective expertise and the best information on the availability and readiness of our forces. There is inevitably some risk in any deployment but we manage and minimise that risk.

It has been suggested that in order to reduce overstretch we should either reduce our commitments overseas or seek additional funding for the Ministry of Defence. The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, has, as always, been absolutely up-front and straightforward about which he prefers. I regret that the shadow spokesman on defence in the House of Commons was not so up-front this morning on the "Today" programme when he refused to answer a question about seeking additional funding for the Ministry of Defence. The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, is right. In this sense, we must either reduce our commitments overseas or seek additional funding for the Ministry of Defence. The Official Opposition must say where they stand because, having listened carefully to what they say, it is clear that they do not believe that we should reduce our commitments overseas. They supported the Government, for example, in the setting up of ISAF in Afghanistan. They also supported us in Kosovo. Are there any overseas commitments which the Opposition do not accept or believe that we should not be involved in? If there are, it is essential that they say so—I do not mean in the Chamber today, but at some stage in the near future.

I would argue that to do less in relation to operations overseas might mean that we do not complete the tasks that we set ourselves. That might result in additional commitments and additional stretch at a later stage. That is a matter that we must bear very much in mind in relation to Afghanistan. If we do not have a presence there now, shall we be faced with this problem in a much greater way in three to five years' time?

I must remind the House that the Government have increased the defence budget—certainly not sufficiently for some noble Lords' purposes. But, overall, the defence budget will have received about £1,250 million of new money between 2000–01 and 2003–04, even after inflation is taken into account. It is the first time that defence expenditure plans have increased in real terms each year for more than a decade.

Our underlying policy for our Armed Forces is to be found in the Strategic Defence Review. We remain committed to achieving a balance or commitments consistent with that document's assumptions. Decisions were taken in the SDR about the size and structure of the Army. Manning the Army to those levels will require an increase in its strength from current levels. The extent of the increase will depend in part on the outcome of ongoing studies into the best ways of delivering the military capability required of the Army.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, asked about Northern Ireland. I can assure the noble Lord that, as part of the Army's formation and readiness cycle, we have the necessary forces available to meet the requirements of military assistance to the civilian police—one of many roles that our Armed Forces undertake. We are addressing this problem in several different areas. In particular, we are focusing on trying to attract more high-quality potential recruits into the training organisation, reducing wastage during training and keeping retention levels steady. I am pleased to tell your Lordships that recruitment into training organisations has been good. Wastage rates during training have improved significantly during the past three years. But I add quickly that the Government are not complacent; there is a very long way to go.

We work on the principle that, on completion of their training, we aim to commit personnel to operations for no longer than is absolutely necessary to achieve the military aim. Personnel are withdrawn from operations at the very earliest opportunity, as was the case in Macedonia last year. We said that our forces would be there for 30 days, and 30 days it was. Similarly, we have set limits on our commitment to act as lead nation of the ISAF in Afghanistan.

Army tour intervals are currently assessed at an average of 28 months and are the best they have been for five years. We are above the SDR target that we set ourselves of 24 months. However—this must be said—there are differences between units within the Army, notably within the infantry and light role battalion. Not all make the 24 months figure; nor, possibly more importantly, do individuals. It is perfectly possible, for example, to conceive of a unit whose tour intervals are 24 months or more but within which certain individuals may well have tours inside that limit. We remain committed to tackling that issue, particularly in relation to specialisations where problems are most acute.

So far as concerns the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, I say briefly that recording separated service for all service personnel is now a key objective of the Armed Forces' personnel strategy. Its importance is reflected in our efforts to manage the operational tempo on the family lives of Armed Forces members. I hope that that goes some way towards dealing with the noble Lord's point. The illustration that I give to the House is that in comparison with the Kosovo operations in 1999, when 44 per cent of the Army's personnel were committed to operations, at present, the world-wide commitment is approximately 27 per cent. The noble Lord, Lord King, argued in a powerful speech that it is possible that the way in which the figures are calculated has changed. My best understanding—I asked about this point in particular—is that there is no difference in the way that the figures are calculated to give 26 per cent in 1997 and approximately 27 per cent now.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, the only information that I have seen is that since April 2000 the percentage of trained services committed to operations for each service has not included personnel preparing for operations but those covering operations or engaged in training. If the Minister is not able to reply now, perhaps he would confirm that later. However, that would of course make a significant difference to the percentages.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I shall certainly come back to the noble Lord following the debate. If I am wrong, I shall obviously want to say so. My understanding is that the figures are calculated in precisely the same way as they were four-and-a-half years ago.

We recognise the need to support families, who face considerable pressure in the absence of their loved ones, as well as our personnel, and to determine the demands upon them. In parallel with other armed services, the Army is developing a system to measure the amount of separated service undertaken by its personnel. Electronic monitoring and recording of separated service for all service personnel is a key objective in the Armed Forces' personnel strategy, affecting its importance in our efforts to manage the effect of operational tempo on the family lives of our people. The information will be of great importance and value to the services in managing their people. However, it is in no way a benchmark for comparison with employment outside the services or even within the services.

We introduced a new and comprehensive package of welfare support into all theatres in April 2001. The noble Baroness, Lady Park, drew particular attention to that issue. The aim is to mitigate the demands made upon service personnel deployed on operations. Such support now includes a comprehensive communications package offering, among other things, 20 minutes of publicly-funded telephone calls per person per week and free airmail and Internet access. Our service personnel serving overseas are also provided with free books, videos, televisions and exercise equipment, and they have their own dedicated radio and television stations. They also have guaranteed post-operational tour leave and mid-tour rest and recuperation where appropriate. Learning from experience, we continue to develop those welfare support packages.

Before leaving this part of the debate I want to make one important point. Although separated service can be and is a strain on service families, deployments away from home should not always be seen as a negative factor. They are quite the reverse on occasions. The prospect of overseas deployment is a powerful attraction to potential recruits, as is shown by the fact that we rely on that for some of our recruiting literature. The vast majority of service personnel relish the opportunity to put their skills to use on operations and exercises, but we recognise the need to balance the needs of our Armed Forces as service personnel, family members and individuals.

In the course of the debate a powerful support for medical services was made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, and the noble Lord, Lord Lyell. I do not have time to deal with the issue as I would like to. However, their remarks have been taken on board. Their support for the Birmingham centre is appreciated. We all know that we have a long way to go before the position is satisfactory.

I turn to equipment. We are committed to the modernisation of our Armed Forces to ensure that they are structured and equipped to perform the most demanding tasks. We are investing in a number of new systems that will ensure that the Army's capability is maintained. I mention briefly in passing that plans for future equipment include the WAH-64 Apache attack helicopter; improvements to the range and accuracy of our artillery weapons through the indirect fire precision attack (IDFA) and the light mobile artillery weapon system (LIMAWS) projects; a fully-integrated fighting system for the infantryman, future integrated soldier technology (FIST); a new range of armoured fighting vehicles through the future rapid effects system (FRES); and new armoured engineering vehicles. We are planning to procure a number of systems to improve logistics and combat support, including the heavy equipment transporters (HET) and the recently-announced procurement of around 8,500 cargo and recovery vehicles and trailers.

However, that impressive package must develop from the current in-service equipment and legacy systems, some of which have had long-standing problems. The SA80 is a good example of where we have taken decisive action to rectify under-performance. When studies showed that the reliability of the weapon system could be substantially improved, necessary action was taken to modify it. The modified S.N80 A2 is now among the best assault rifles in the world, and demonstrates our willingness to take quick and decisive procurement action when required. As further evidence of the importance we attach to ensuring that our forces are well equipped for each Operation, the modified weapon has been distributed to those units deployed as part of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. There will soon be a decision on Hawk, as my noble friend Lord Gilbert mentioned. I stress to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, that as far as the A400M is concerned, the Germans still say that 73 is the number that they require.

The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, referred to Saif Sareea. He called it "playing soldiers", but I know that he did not really mean that. That was an important exercise. The objectives were to deploy and sustain a major joint force across long distances and to conduct combined war fighting training in a demanding environment. That was the first time that many new items of equipment had been tested in the desert under near-operational conditions. Lessons still need to be learnt. However, overall we should be pleased with the way that both our Armed Forces and their equipment overcame the many challenges posed by the exercise. It was a great success. The exercises allowed us to identify the challenges our forces might face when operating in testing conditions. We shall learn lessons from that.

As regards Challenger 2, I am delighted to hear the praise given to that weapon. It is a world-class, battle-winning tank. This is the second time that the noble Earl has described it as "smashing". He did so last year and has done so again today. However, problems were encountered. The decision not to fully desertise Challenger 2, which would have cost millions of pounds, was made following an assessment that the conditions in Oman during the autumn would be within acceptable environmental tolerances. Not least, I remind the House that this was an exercise, not an operation. As I have said, Saif Sareea was a test of our equipment under near-operational conditions. It was an exercise and a balance must he struck. I do not have time to go into the details of that matter. I am told that it is time for me to wind up.

Finally, I turn to Bowman. This is an important project for the Government and will be for all noble Lords who remember its sad and long history. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, the figure of £1.8 billion still stands. I met with the prime contractors last week. I am pleased to report that the project is making good progress. This is a project in which any slippage in the in-service date of March 2004 would be unacceptable.

I end by thanking noble Lords for their contributions. Perhaps we should be more proud of the fact that our forces are deployed in various countries around the world helping reconstruction, saving lives and maintaining stability. In other words, we are a force for good. This is a noble role for our country and one in which we should all take pleasure and pride. No one carries that out with more skill and commitment than our own Armed Forces.

5.37 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I am relieved that I do not have to sum up the debate because there has been overstretch by those who have spoken. I am told by the Clerks at the Table that the average length of speeches was seven minutes rather than six.

I shall make two extraordinarily quick points. First, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bach, that the rifle is now very good. However, to say that that improvement was made rapidly is not strictly accurate. Secondly, the definition of "overstretch" seems to be a question of degree. I believe the noble Lord says that it is "taut". I say that there is overstretch and that there are inherent dangers unless something is done. The Minister asks where I think that the commitment should be reduced. I have grave doubts that Afghanistan was not a commitment entered into for purely political reasons.

Having said all that, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate, especially as it has been good-natured in the best traditions of your Lordships' House. It has been informed and constructively answered by the Minister. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.