HL Deb 17 January 2005 vol 668 cc541-626

3.8 p.m.

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

rose to move, That this House takes note of developments in defence.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity for this House to debate defence matters in the early days of this year. Today's debate on developments in defence will, I am sure, benefit from the wealth of military experience and knowledge among noble Lords, and I look forward to a considered and thought-provoking debate in the best traditions of the House.

We have today a very distinguished cast list of speakers, but the House will be conscious that someone who regularly participated in this type of debate will not be doing so. Lord Burnham was my first Front-Bench opponent and no one could have asked for a kinder and fairer opposition spokesman. He was a determined opponent and felt passionately about defence, and I know that I and my two predecessors, my noble friend Lady Symons—who is in her place—and my noble friend Lord Gilbert feel exactly the same. The House will miss his contribution today and our debates in the future will be the poorer for his absence.

Before going any further, noble Lords will once again wish to express our collective horror and sorrow at the appalling consequences of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The House will want to take every opportunity it can to express its heartfelt condolences to the families of those Britons feared killed, as well as to the many thousands of families of all nationalities who have lost loved ones. We must recognise the millions of survivors whose lives have been changed beyond all recognition. The overwhelming number of stories that have been brought to us of children orphaned, families torn apart, homes destroyed and livelihoods wrecked has been harrowing in the extreme.

The international community has a duty to do all that it can to help the nations and people affected in both recovery and rebuilding. I can assure the House that Her Majesty's Government will continue to play a full role in ensuring that the money and support that has been pledged makes its way to the people who are now depending on it.

I am delighted that our Armed Forces have been able to play a role in the initial relief effort. The UK military effort is focused on supporting the UN operation through the Department for International Development. Military assessment teams were deployed to the region on 31 December and have been working closely with DfID and the local governments to inform decisions on UK military contribution.

HMS "Chatham" was diverted to the Indian Ocean on 30 December and has since been joined by HMS "Diligence". Together they have been working with local communities in Sri Lanka and the Maldives to restore local infrastructure. Royal Air Force C17 and C130 transport aircraft have also been assisting in the aid operation since 31 December, including through the delivery of UN infrastructure equipment and medical and other relief supplies to the worst-affected areas. Further small deployments of niche capabilities, such as logistics planners and engineers, have also taken place in response to requests from DfID and the operational liaison and reconnaissance team.

The response of our Armed Forces has, as always, been magnificent. We can all be very proud of the real contribution that they are making towards reconstructing livelihoods, schools and hospitals in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

The effects of the tsunami have emphasised in brutal fashion how, in this century, events in one part of the world have the potential to reverberate around the globe. While south-east Asia has borne the brunt of nature's destructive force, there are few countries that have not been affected in some tragic way by this disaster. This global interdependence which has been illustrated is characteristic of the environment in which our Armed Forces will be required to operate.

Noble Lords will recall that the defence White Paper of December 2003, which this House had the opportunity to debate about a year ago, set out the major threats to global security and set in train the ways in which the Armed Forces will adapt to the future security environment. The threats posed by international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and failed and failing states have the potential to trigger a series of political, social and economic effects that will be felt around the globe.

These are common security threats to which a collective approach, which recognises the shared interests between like-minded nations, will present the most effective response. We are therefore committed to working through international organisations such as the UN, the EU and NATO to develop effective combined responses to delivering collective security.

In military terms, this means developing interoperable forces which combine the various capabilities of contributor nations as seamlessly as possible in order to maximise military effect. In working towards interoperability standards, Allied Command Transformation, the Prague capabilities summit and the European security and defence policy, and initiatives such as the NATO response force and the EU battle groups, have provided the impetus for NATO and EU nations to enhance their military capabilities and capacity to operate together.

Of course, the threats we face cannot be countered by military force alone. It is clear that the successful management of international problems will require integrated planning of military, diplomatic and economic instruments at both national and international levels. Joined-up government is a phrase oft used in Whitehall circles, but it is vital that we ingrain its principles in our policy-making processes to ensure the most effective responses to the security threats we face.

Within this framework, our Armed Forces have an important role to play. In order to ensure that they are structured and equipped in the best possible way to respond to the current challenges, the Ministry of Defence has embarked on a radical process of modernisation. The changes that we have proposed were set out in the Future Capabilities Command Paper published last July. Noble Lords had the opportunity to debate these matters in the Queen's Speech debate in November. I do not therefore propose to go into detail about all the changes to the future force structure that we are now pursuing, save to emphasise our intention to reduce force levels in some capabilities in order to invest more in higher priority capabilities better able to achieve the effects we will require.

The modernisation of the Armed Forces will be driven forward by the increase in resources made available for defence in last year's Spending Review. The Chancellor announced a £3.7 billion increase in the defence budget over the next three years, an average annual real growth of 1.4 per cent. This settlement represents the longest period of sustained real growth in defence spending for more than 20 years and is testament to the Government's commitment to our Armed Forces and Britain's defence.

Changes to the force structure will increase our ability to undertake expeditionary operations, supported by an ambitious equipment programme. Construction is well under way for the first two, out of an initial order of six, Type 45 destroyers. These are the largest and most powerful air defence destroyers ever built for the Royal Navy and will provide a flexible capability well suited to the complex demands of future maritime operations.

The cornerstone of our future expeditionary capability will be our two new aircraft carriers, likely to be the largest carriers ever built in this country and due to enter service early in the next decade. The new carriers will be furnished with the joint combat aircraft, a sophisticated, stealthy and multi-role platform that will be able to locate and monitor targets and attack them with precision weapons.

Manufacture also continues apace with the initial batch of three Astute class submarines. The Astute class's impressive mix of capability will help to deliver our vision of a highly versatile, rapidly deployable submarine force. Our investment in the latest generation of Tomahawk land attack missiles on Astute will provide the Royal Navy with an improved land attack capability. In addition, Astute's improved communications and joint operations capability mean that it will be well equipped to operate in the littoral and deep water environments. That is a significant enhancement over previous capability.

Turning briefly to future air capability, the next 10 to 15 years will see the continued modernisation of the Royal Air Force. As the House discussed only last Thursday, Typhoon is at the forefront of this modernisation and represents the single largest defence investment ever undertaken by the United Kingdom. Typhoon will provide the Royal Air Force with an exceptional weapons system and enable the RAF to deliver its effects within a wider, digital, network-enabled capability.

I have outlined the importance of investing in flexible and deployable forces. This was demonstrated during Operation TELIC. In recognition of this, it is our intention that the four C17 aircraft currently leased will be bought outright, and our strategic lift capability will be further enhanced through the purchase of a fifth C17. C17 will complement the capability to be offered by the A400M military transport aircraft. The House will remember that a contract for 25 A400Ms was signed in May 2003. Combined, these aircraft will offer a flexible, multi-role capability that will provide tactical and strategic airlift to all three services in times of peace, crisis and war.

We are also determined to make full use of technology in equipping our Armed Forces for the future. The pace of global technology advancement provides the solution to many of our capability requirements. We recognise that these developments also present us with a dynamic threat environment. We will, therefore, continue to support a strong science and technology base, allowing investment in modern technology for our Armed Forces and innovative support to present operations.

Of the many changes affecting the Armed Forces, the changes to the structure and capabilities of our Army, to which I now turn, have prompted the greatest debate. Noble Lords will recall that I repeated in this House the Statement of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence on 16 December last. The future Army structure is driven by the need for increased deployability. agility and flexibility in keeping with the demands of the current operating environment.

The move toward a more balanced force organised around two armoured brigades, three mechanised brigades, a light brigade and an air assault brigade, in addition to the Royal Marines Commando Brigade, is now under way. The conversion of 19 Mechanised Brigade, based in Catterick, to a light brigade has now started. The brigade will be ready for deployment on operations, if required, in the first half of next year, when it will serve as the contingent NATO response force. The 4th Armoured Brigade, based in Germany, will convert to a mechanised brigade in 2006, and the other brigades will adopt their new structures in a similar timeframe. The key foundations on which the future Army structure is to be built will be in place by 2008.

These changes to the force structure will be accompanied by further reorganisation designed to make the Army more robust and resilient and able to sustain the enduring expeditionary operations to which we have become accustomed. They will require significant enhancements to the key specialist capabilities, such as communications, engineering, logistics, intelligence and other capabilities. Further work is required to establish all the new arrangements, but some 10,000 posts have already been redistributed in order to boost our supporting forces. Enhancements that have already been decided on include the creation of a new commando engineer regiment, a new port and maritime sub-unit, an additional strategic communications unit and a new logistic support regiment for each deployable brigade. We are also creating a number of new sub-units for surveillance and target acquisition, bomb disposal and vehicle maintenance capabilities.

These new capabilities will be complemented by a comprehensive re-equipment programme, introducing new communications equipment, such as Bowman and Falcon, enhanced intelligence collection assets, such as the Watchkeeper unmanned aerial vehicle and Soothsayer electronic warfare capability, and modern vehicles, such as the Panther armoured reconnaissance vehicle. Looking further ahead, the ambitious FRES armoured fighting vehicle programme will modernise the armoured vehicle fleet and will be the basis of the medium weight capability.

These enhancements can be achieved only as a result of the reductions in the size of the infantry announced by my right honourable friend. Of course, this is an emotive subject, especially among noble Lords, and others, with a proud record of Army service. I want to assure the House that the Government fully recognise the importance of regimental tradition in contributing toward morale and operational effectiveness. I will restrict my views at this time to noting that change has been a recurring theme in the long and impressive history of the British Army. Over the course of its existence, changes to the Army structure have been necessary to ensure that it is configured in the best possible way to meet the challenges of the prevailing strategic context. This is true of the changes to the infantry that we face today.

We are able to reduce the size of the infantry because of the reduction in the requirement for permanently committed forces to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the decision by the Army Board that the infantry arms plot—the mechanism by which units routinely move location and change role every few years—no longer represents the best way to deliver operational capability in the changed security environment. In future, battalions will be fixed by role and, largely, by location.

Phasing out the arms plot will also mean that the infantry is able to offer much greater stability for soldiers and their families. These welcome developments will ensure that more battalions are operational at any given time and that we get far more military capability out of the resources that we have. The previous requirement for battalions to move location or re-role meant that at any one time as many as seven battalions would be unavailable for operations. At the end of this process, many more, if not all, of the future 36 infantry battalions will be available for operations.

The move to larger, multi-battalion regiments, along with the creation of a tri-service ranger unit providing dedicated support to the Special Forces, will create an infantry structure that can be sustained in the long term. Regimental traditions, heritage, cultures and local connections will be retained under these arrangements.

I have outlined many of the challenges facing our Armed Forces, the most pressing, of course, being Iraq. The current focus for security is maintaining the best possible environment for the elections to take place. Steps have been taken to increase security for those elections, which include the extension of the term of three US brigades and the deployment of the UK's extremely high readiness reserve.

Our Armed Forces are helping and supporting the Iraqi security forces to develop the necessary capabilities and capacity to ensure that the security and stability of Iraq is protected. We must continue to help them to operate on their own. Good progress has been made, and we are now working towards complementing the undoubted determination and enthusiasm of the Iraqi Security Forces with specific command and leadership skills, as well as weapons training. To this end, our Reserve and Regular Forces are continuing their work in training police, coastal and border defence forces and the new Iraqi army and air force. In addition, military advisers are working with our Iraqi partners on a variety of national security committees.

Based on current planning, significant elements of the ISF, particularly those designed to deal with counter-insurgency issues, will be manned, trained and equipped by July 2005. Despite the insurgent attacks, a significant number of brave Iraqis are engaged on security duties and many continue to join up. This is impressive and is a testament to the willingness of those people, and the Iraqi people in general, to work towards their own security and a better Iraq.

The ongoing work of our Armed Forces in Iraq has again demonstrated the professionalism of our brave servicemen and women, and their determination to succeed in the various missions they undertake. In closing, I want to pay tribute—as I know other noble Lords will, explicitly or by implication—to the sailors, soldiers and air force personnel who serve this country with courage and dedication, especially over the past year, in places as far apart as Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan, west Africa, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, and, very recently, south-east Asia. They and their families deserve our thanks and admiration for their selfless efforts in circumstances that are often dangerous and unpredictable. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending them our very best wishes this afternoon.

Moved, That this House takes note of developments in defence.—(Lord Bach.)

3.28 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, we on these Benches warmly appreciate, as I know Hugh Burnham's family will, the kind words with which the Minister started his speech. Hugh Burnham had planned to be here today. He was an outspoken advocate of the needs of the Armed Forces and took particular pride in the fact that his father had been the first TA officer to be appointed to the rank of Major General. He retained affectionate links with his own regiment, the Scots Guards, and he developed, through his sailing and his work before he came here as director of King George's Fund for Sailors, a deep and well informed support for the Royal Navy. The House is the poorer for the loss of his congenial and forthright personality. I shall miss him.

Turning to today's debate, I thank the Minister for responding to repeated pressure from all sides of the House to hold this debate. Defence is a very serious issue and I hope that, despite the start of the general election campaign, the Minister will respond positively to the Official Opposition's genuine concerns over the course of government policy. I join the Minister in paying tribute to our Armed Forces; I also thank him for bringing the House up to date on the Armed Forces' response to the tsunami disaster. I pay tribute to them for the excellent work they have done. I am very sorry that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, will not be speaking, as he has the flu. We wish him a very speedy recovery.

The current buzzwords favoured by the MoD and repeated, mantra-like, by Ministers are "capabilities" and "effect". We are told that we must move away from counting people and platforms and embrace "modernisation" and "agility". Anyone who dares to probe further is dismissed as a Luddite.

We support modernisation. It is important to make the best use we can of technology, to the extent that applied technology enhances our ability to project power and influence events. But new and increasingly sophisticated technology is not the whole story. If it were, Iraq would now be at peace.

It is imperative that our moves in that direction, towards network enabled capabilities, are balanced with manpower considerations—a "management-speak" phrase which may camouflage, but must not be allowed to conceal, the fact that it means the ability to deploy and rotate sufficient numbers of the right people suitably trained and appropriately equipped. Unfortunately, the Armed Forces face unacceptable cuts, cancellations and delays in vital equipment projects because of cost overruns and the inability of defence Ministers to defend their department's budget in the face of Treasury pressure.

When Sir Peter Gershon published his review of government efficiency from a defence point of view, most inappropriately titled Releasing resources to the front line, there was no mention of cuts. Yet when the MoD published its technical efficiency note, it listed £890 million worth of platform cuts—euphemistically entitled "Force Structure Changes"—and another £725 million of military manpower cuts. So there we have it—well over half the MoD's £2,903 million worth of efficiency savings are straightforward cuts. An important clue to the real thinking behind the Secretary of State's recent force structure announcements can be found in Annex A of the MoD's efficiency notes, which state: Treasury officials were involved fully in the exercise". I am sure they were.

The Government find themselves in this embarrassing position because they have systematically squandered taxpayers' money for the past seven years. These sweeping cuts are the result of poor management that has plunged the MoD a further £1.7 billion into the red on its key equipment projects—enough to cover the annual cost of another 40 regiments.

Despite the launch in July 1998 of the Smart procurement initiative, with its simplistically attractive slogan, "faster, cheaper, better", there has been little evidence of success. Previously, defence Ministers have claimed that Smart acquisition would save £2 billion from the equipment programme in the 10-year period 1998 to 2008. However, according to the MoD's latest annual report and accounts, data to support notional Smart Acquisition savings proved to be unreliable So, after six and a half years, we have no idea whether the "new and better" procurement process introduced under Smart acquisition has actually made things any better and more efficient—or not.

The evidence is to the contrary. Defence procurement policy remains in a chaotic state, with most of the vital new programmes still awaiting production contract signature. Recently the National Audit Office published its Major Projects Report 2004 which showed little evidence of project performance improving, finding that the MoD's 20 largest projects were 144 months behind schedule and more than 6 per cent over budget.

I fear that the Major Projects Report 2005 will make equally disappointing reading. Indeed, it seems that the Government have already made provision for the 2004–05 cost overruns in the winter supplementary estimates by reducing the budgets of the front line commands by £1 billion and increasing the DPA's budget by a similar amount. These figures were not included in the Secretary of State's Written Statement but buried in the detail of the estimates themselves.

Much more needs to be done to assess risk early, to deal with it then, to run a seamless, through-life management programme and develop a genuine partnership with Britain's defence industry—the largest outside the United States and a substantial generator of jobs and innovation.

The prospects for the Navy are particularly alarming. Because it has been promised two large aircraft carriers in a decade's time—unless, that is, the Treasury finds an excuse to cut them—it must now lose 16 warships, including four submarines, three Type 23 frigates and three Type 42 destroyers and all their seaborne fighters. Fewer Astute submarines and fewer Type 45 destroyers than expected will replace them. The resulting fleet will be an oddity, with too few smaller ships to support the carriers. Already the Chief of Naval Staff is warning that the smaller Navy might have to withdraw from the Atlantic.

We believe that if this country is to be perceived as having the ability and the determination to apply power in the cause of global security and stability, we really need these carriers. But we need greater clarity and understanding of how the alliance to build them will function, its risk and reward mechanisms, and exactly who will be responsible for what, and when. The Government still have not indicated when the PI will be appointed. They must make up their mind and say so soon. When asked for the date of the main gate, Ministers always reply "Shortly". I will have another try: can the Minister give the House a date for the main gate? Even if the first carrier is delivered in 2012, can the Minister confirm whether he really expects to have any F-35Bs—the vertical landing variant of the JSF—available to fly from it?

The Government believe that we can get by with fewer warships. But no ship can be in two places at once. We are now so short of warships that we can no longer have one on a constant patrol in the North and South Atlantic. The First Sea Lord has admitted that we cannot now perform our counter-terrorism missions at sea. With Al'Qaeda and other terrorists using the sea routes to smuggle weapons, drugs and WMD, this represents a serious gap in our capability.

The loss of destroyers and frigates will increase the prospect of terrorist attacks on shipping and adds to the dangers of air attack following the decision to phase out the FA2 Sea Harriers. Admiral West warned that seaborne terrorism could cripple global trade, and revealed that there have been intelligence indications of Al'Qaeda plans to blow up ships as they sail through maritime "choke points".

It is worth noting that the small but vital minesweeping/hunting force—essential for an island race—has already been reduced below the numbers of ships promised in the SDR. Moreover, 95 per cent of kit for any serious operation goes by sea, and needs to be protected into the area of operations.

I was sorry not to take part in Thursday's very useful debate on Typhoon. It is clear that the RAF will now have an outstanding weapons system. I know how hard the Minister is working on export orders. From these Benches we wish him well.

Looking further ahead, there is the question of the third tranche of Typhoon. In reply to my noble friend Lord Luke, the Minister stated that decisions do not need to be made until 2007. However, it is important that our contract obligations are clearly spelt out. What costs would fall on his department if it were decided not to order the third tranche of Typhoon?

Parts of the Army restructuring are sensible and necessary to reflect new strategic realities, but there is real public concern about the need to make actual cuts to the infantry at such a dangerous time and when it has seldom been busier. The department has grown so addicted to spin that cuts are described as "sensible rebalancing". I am reminded of the words which Stanley Baldwin used in attacking the specious economic policies of an opponent. He said that, he spends his whole life in plastering together the true and the false and from there manufacturing the plausible". We support the decision to end arms plotting. There are sound operational and financial reasons. Partners with jobs and children at critical stages of their education and those with houses or other ties will all have more welcome stability. We will embrace the large regiment concept. But with the Yorkshire regiments and the Prince of Wales's Division, why cannot we retain the old names positively in front of their new titles, as was done with the Scottish regiments, rather than just attached in brackets, to be dropped at the convenience of the MoD?

This is not cosmetics; it is about recruiting and esprit de corps and thus operational effectiveness, something which should always be at the top of the Army's agenda. The Secretary of State, in an article in the Daily Telegraph, dismissed the campaign to save regiments as "sentiment". Secretary of State, I plead guilty to sentiment about regiments with battle honours that go back hundreds of years.

We on these Benches do not see the linkage between ending arms plotting and reducing the number of regiments. In cutting personnel numbers, the MoD is relying on the situation in Northern Ireland remaining calm and gambling that no other hot spots erupt until UK troops can start coming home from Iraq. But a senior member of the Commons Defence Select Committee, which returned from Iraq last month, said: It will take 10 to 15 years at least before troops can be withdrawn. The Iraqis just cannot cope with the security situation and won't be able to for years. It's another Cyprus". To defeat terrorism in Cyprus in 1957 and 1958, a total of 23 "infantry" battalions were deployed.

The present level of commitment is unsustainable. If the Government continue to overuse the Army in this way, the consequences will be progressively severe. The constant interruption and cancelling of individual and collective training will inevitably lead to a gradual decline in professional standards. Unless corrected, this could lead to catastrophic failure and unnecessarily high casualty levels. British Armed Forces must be equipped and trained to fight wherever and under whatever conditions they have to.

In recent years we have learnt how good the British Armed Forces are at political-military operations. We need soldiers who can do the rigid, hard fighting to impose peace, after which they get out of helmets and into berets to keep the peace. That requires every pair of Army boots that can be mobilised. When Iraq was invaded, the Black Watch stormed into Basra in armoured vehicles. A couple of days later they were playing football with locals.

We would not have made these cuts and after the election we will not carry them through. We would not see these regiments go or the number of battalions reduced.

There has been a lot of disinformation coming from Ministers about our plans for defence expenditure. Let me make our position clear. We will not cut defence expenditure. On the contrary, we will increase it. We will spend £2.7 billion more on the front line than the Government planned to.

We are invited by Her Majesty's Government today to take note "of developments in defence". I am sure that we will go on in this debate to do exactly that. What we must hope is that the Government will in turn take note of, and act upon, the need for a more robust response, in our national interest, to all these developments.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Garden

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the opportunity this debate gives your Lordships to focus and reflect on the dedication and professionalism of our Armed Forces. From these Benches we would wish to pay tribute to the work being done by the services, detailed by the Minister in his speech, in response to that unprecedented destruction around the Indian Ocean following the Boxing Day tsunami, in addition, of course, to all the other commitments that he talked about.

With recent cuts in size to all three services, we on these Benches have repeatedly questioned whether the Government have struck the right balance between the demands of operating at the high end of the war-fighting spectrum, in concert with our American allies, and the equally demanding, ever-present stabilising and humanitarian tasks around the world. The search for ways to reduce manpower and operating costs to keep within budgets is not a problem unique to this Government. We recognise that since 1997 the defence budget has, for the first time in over a decade, kept pace with domestic inflation, yet even this is insufficient to keep up with the rising cost of people and equipment and to provide funding for the new technologies in warfare. As a result, the Government are taking risks by cutting back some areas before new, more capable equipment is available, whether it is the early retirement of Sea Harriers, cuts in infantry or the early phasing out of the Jaguar force. This causes dips in capability until either the new force is operational or the commitment is eliminated.

There seems little prospect of reducing commitments. In the Balkans we have the transfer of the Bosnia task from NATO to the EU, and that is going to require UK involvement. Kosovo is looking more uncertain. In Afghanistan, despite the welcome progress in the constitutional process, the security situation is not good. Our contribution to both the NATO ISAF force and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, looks as though it will be long-term and perhaps increase later this year. There is much talk of the two operations, ISAF and OEF, being merged. I hope that the Minister will give us an update on the plans when he winds up.

In Iraq, we are all too well aware of the difficult challenges that our forces face. We support the deployment of the high readiness reserve force from Cyprus to reinforce UK forces in their area of responsibility ahead of the elections. It would have been perhaps more courteous for the Defence Secretary to announce that force enhancement as a Statement rather than slip it into defence Questions in another place on 10 January. Your Lordships would then have had the opportunity to consider the implications of the deployment. For the present, I ask the Minister what further effects have there been on other Army units as a result of the deployment of 1st Battalion the Royal Highland Fusiliers from Cyprus to the Multi-National Division (South East). Are they being replaced in Cyprus and, if so, by which unit? Have other units' readiness been increased?

British forces are undertaking tasks around the globe to promote stability. In the Strategic Defence Review, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, made this defence diplomacy a prime task.

As the Chancellor completes his tour of Africa, may we hope that more emphasis will be placed on this task of conflict prevention. Having myself worked in the recent past in providing advice to the Foreign Office, DfID and the MoD on their joint approach to conflict prevention, I strongly support the use of pooled resources between the three departments for this important work. I trust that the Minister will say a few words about continuing support for this work from the Ministry of Defence.

However, all these tasks contribute to the demands for personnel numbers. Even if the hoped-for relief in Northern Ireland comes about, we shall still need Army manpower, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, has described. We support also the elimination of the inefficiencies of the arms plot. Yet we do not support the reduction in infantry numbers. We could have had more efficient, more capable and sustained infantry forces and we need them today.

Before I turn from the commitments of our forces to equipment, I should raise, yet again, the Ministry of Defence's contribution to homeland security. As I have said on a number of occasions in this House, I am concerned that defence Ministers seem so unwilling to look seriously at a dedicated, high-readiness, consequence-management capability for major unpredicted events. It is simply not good enough to say that we will respond with whatever is available on the day.

I turn now to equipment, both that in service and that in the future programme. Having spent much time in the defence programmes area of the MoD, I do not see these as Army, Navy or Air Force issues. We need the optimum defence capability. I shall start with the now little-discussed nuclear deterrent. Could the Minister share with us the Government's thinking on the future of Trident? Is it true, as has been reported, that a decision on the successor system will be needed in the next Parliament, and if so, why so early? Can he assure the House that we shall shape policy decisions in the light of our non-proliferation treaty obligations? What will the UK position be in any discussion of NATO's future nuclear policy?

Regarding battlefield systems, I recently congratulated the Minister, much to his surprise, on the speed of the introduction of the new Bowman communication system into service. I hope that I was not premature, as the numbers of reports of difficulties with the equipment seem to be on the increase. A more heavily criticised procurement has been that of the Apache gunship helicopter, where, despite a timely delivery of the aircraft, the introduction into service has been much extended by inadequacies in the procurement of the support systems. Where are we now with that important capability? The future rapid effects system is also key to future plans, as the Minister mentioned. In evidence to the Defence Select Committee last week, the Chief of the General Staff cast some doubt on the date of its introduction into service. What is the Minister's current thinking?

Support helicopters are a key battlefield transport capability, which are in great demand for any operation; whether for humanitarian rescue, post-conflict reconstruction, special forces insertion, defence diplomacy, or for high-intensity conflict manoeuvre warfare or re-supply, the support helicopter is the workhorse of modern forces. The Minister has already written to me to explain why we had insufficient helicopters available to help in Afghanistan when they were sought by NATO. Yet despite this insatiable demand, the MoD seems to be reducing the total available helicopter lift. Perhaps the Minister can reassure me that this is not the case. The extraordinary tale of the six Chinooks that were modified into losing their clearance to fly is an expensive disaster, but one that needs rectifying. Do the Government intend to pay what it takes to get them airworthy, or is that helicopter capacity to be replaced by a new buy? What of the projected drawdown of Pumas and Sea Kings and their replacement with Merlin? Does the overall helicopter lift remain steady, or is there a dip in capability? These are key capabilities and your Lordships would wish to be reassured that they are being looked at in the round.

I turn next to sea systems where the focus is on the future promise of the two aircraft carriers, to which the Minister referred. The into-service dates of 2012 and 2015 appear ever more challenging. The procurement path has not been easy for the Minister or for the Royal Navy. I note that the leader of the integrated project team (IPT) has decided to jump ship and that an interim IPT leader Mr John Coles, starts this very day, but that he will hold the post for only nine months, while at the same time being triple-hatted as chief executive of the Warship Support Agency and DG Nuclear for a period. This suggests that the concept of continuity in the procurement leadership of a major project has been abandoned.

Yet, I do not criticise the Minister for those events, which are probably beyond his control. Putting together a complex project such as this in UK shipyards, which have not built carriers for a very long time, will be a rocky path at times. Combining this with assumptions about the still-emerging characteristics of the US F35 joint combat aircraft is bound to give rise to risk and uncertainty. The Defence Secretary, at the Labour Party conference, and some of the Minister's friends in the other place, have claimed that I, therefore, support procurement of US carriers. I do not. I repeat: I do not. I have merely pointed out that if there were an urgent defence requirement for big carriers, the only answer would be to turn to the US, as in the case of the urgent strategic lift requirement, when the Government rightly went to the US for the C17 rather than wait for an option with greater UK industrial content. But we are prepared to wait, due to the industrial and economic implications of using British shipyards. As it is, we must spend the time developing a UK solution with the right approach for reducing risk. I support the Government's approach to that.

I am concerned that while we can take encouragement from the long-term prospect of two carriers, we currently face an extended period with inadequate organic air defence cover for our existing carriers as the Sea Harrier goes out of service. We are also looking, as the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, said, at the draw down of other surface ships with the frigate and destroyers numbers falling. Promises for tomorrow do not cover commitments today.

The future of the F35/Joint Strike Fighter/joint combat aircraft project is also important for our future offensive air power mix. Last week's debate on the Eurofighter Typhoon project was useful. It was, however, a salutary reminder of the long time that it takes to design, develop, procure and put into service a modern combat aircraft. It would be helpful if the Minister could indicate how development is progressing regarding project milestones, weight reduction—which is so important in the carrier version—and unit cost.

While recent press stories about budget trade-offs between carriers and Eurofighters oversimplify the problem, there is obviously a question to be considered. If the joint combat aircraft were to be delivered on time, and its capabilities overlapped with tranche 3 Eurofighter, do we still intend to procure both in the same numbers that have been discussed? In the past, we had no problems with procuring a number of different aircraft to do the same task—Victors, Vulcans and Valiants for our strategic nuclear bombers for example. With today's budgetary problems and the difficulties in sustaining enough fast jet pilots, the world is very different.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that air-to-air refueling is a key enabler and force multiplier for our air capability. The procurement of the new capability has been prolonged. Perhaps the Minister might comment on yesterday's press reports of a settlement with EADS and, if not, say what timescales he is anticipating for the new capability. Will he reassure the House that the important tanker-to-tanker air refuelling capability will be part of the package?

I turn now to our people, to whom we repeatedly pay tribute and echo the truism that they are our most valuable asset. It must be more than a cliche: we know that without people of the right quality, willing to serve, none of this vast investment in defence capability is worthwhile. It is not just that we owe our service men and women good conditions of service, but it is in the national interest to attract and retain good people in the Armed Forces, both as regulars and reserves.

At times of budgetary pressure, measures which affect personnel must sometimes be taken. The most dramatic is the announced reduction in numbers in all three services. We know that there will be significant redundancies in the Royal Air Force and it appears that the Army faces some 400 redundancies. People will have their career expectations dashed. Some will start preparing for civilian life earlier than would otherwise have been the case, because they fear redundancy, even if it does not happen. There could be a legacy of bad feeling about the loyalty of the services to their people. We know that, because we have been through it before in previous down-sizing exercises.

There is also a tendency for relatively small-scale savings to have a disproportionate effect in recruiting and retention. Looking at cadets, I declare an interest as a past president of the Combined Cadet Force Association and the current president of the London amp; Southeast Region Air Training Corps. The cadet organisations do extraordinary work in youth training and qualifications, while also informing a wider public about the services. I pay tribute to the dedicated civilian and reserve staff who give so much of their time to these important organisations. I ask the Government to ensure that their funding, which is relatively small, is protected.

Apart from the cadets, we also have the three services represented at universities. These are ever-more important ways of promoting an understanding of the work of the Armed Forces among the general population and they act as a screening and recruiting tool into the military. There are strong rumours that the university air squadrons are under threat, and I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us the situation when he replies to the debate.

I know that other noble Lords will address many other key personnel questions during the debate. The future size and shape of the reserves will, I trust, be one topic. But I conclude with one issue which I believe must be addressed urgently. It has no resource implications but cannot be ignored. The issue is ensuring that all our service men and women, and deployed civilians, are able to cast their vote at the next general election, whenever it may occur. The matter was raised in defence Questions on 10 January in the other place, and the answer given by the Minister, Ivor Caplin, was less than satisfactory.

If we send our troops out to promote democracy and secure elections in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, the least we can do is ensure that they all have an opportunity to exercise their vote. Since 2000, the system has changed from a single lifetime registration to a requirement to register every year. That has led to a steep decline in registered service voters. In some areas, it appears that now only 10 per cent of service men and women have reregistered. That is not satisfactory and the MoD needs to move quickly to ensure that the services are not disenfranchised. I despair that, while the MoD website has a very good section on its art collection, it has nothing to say about service voting.

We are fortunate in the quality of our Armed Forces. Our job is to ensure that we do not allow that quality to evaporate through neglect. I look forward to hearing the contributions of so many noble Lords on this important subject.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, I associate myself with the well merited tribute to Lord Burnham.

The Government have made much of their claim that the defence budget is growing by 1.4 per cent but they fail to point out that, at around 2.2 per cent of GDP, the budget is now lower in those terms than any defence budgets in the past half century. Let us contrast that figure with the very significant increases given to education and health, which both now receive well over twice that percentage of GDP.

While it is for governments to set their priorities, it is difficult to understand in this very uncertain world why the Government should feel that national defence is so much lower a priority than those other important claims on the public purse. There is, frankly, little confidence that the present defence programme is achievable on 2.2 per cent of GDP.

Some attempt to offset the cost of important new capabilities, such as aircraft carriers, future strike aircraft and the future rapid effects systems, has already had to be made by the early withdrawal of current operational capabilities, such as frigates, Sea Harriers and Jaguars. Even at the height of the Cold War we did not phase out operational capability leaving serious, unpluggable gaps in the front line before they could be filled by a follow-on generation of systems.

Now that we are so actively engaged in expeditionary warfare and, once committed, may have to face prolonged involvement in it in many different parts of the world, it is even more inexplicable that the Government are not prepared to meet the financial demands to equip and support our Armed Forces. There are more fighter aircraft in the RAF Museum than in front-line service. The whole British Army could be accommodated in the new Wembley Stadium, when it is completed.

We now have fewer ships in the whole of the Royal Navy than we sent to the Falklands in 1982, and, indeed, fewer ships than the French navy—quite a legacy in the bicentenary year of Trafalgar. That is not much with which to deploy and sustain fighting capabilities in two or three continents many thousands of miles from home bases. A shortage of boots, body armour and NBC kits when we thought we would be faced with chemical and biological weapons in Iraq are shaming examples of the fact that it is not possible properly to equip our fighting forces with the present defence funds.

It is no wonder—although alarming to read—that, in answers to an MoD internal communications survey, only 3 per cent of the armed services ticked "strongly agree" that the MoD looks after its personnel, and no less than 31 per cent—almost a third—ticked "do not agree at all" with the statement. Given the loyalty and can-do attitude that so imbues and characterises the ethos of our all-volunteer service men and women, that is a shocking finding. Many reservists called up to serve in Iraq are said to be very unwilling to go again.

Looming not far in the future are decisions about our nuclear capability and the major cost of any replacement.

It seems to me that the Government must face the financial future for defence rather more honestly. Their choice could be between a foreign and defence policy with reach and sustainability, with modern equipment to allow us to fight as allies alongside the United States, with confidence that what they deploy will punch above its weight and with the willingness to fund it all adequately, or a decision that this is no longer affordable and a far closer integration with European allies with a defence budget that more closely matches that of the other major Europeans and funds their peacekeeping roles would have to be the way ahead.

The financial differences in such approaches are stark. Informed observers suggest that the true budget shortfall, even for our present programme, is likely to be 25 or 30 per cent. No amount of hollowing out to pay for future programmes will release such amounts. Meanwhile, it makes no operational sense to withdraw current fighting capability. That can still account for itself well against the uncertainties of the future equipment programme, which is not properly funded.

Intimately tied up with any defence policy is the future of the defence industries, which are essential to our fighting capabilities. I welcome the defence industrial policy initiative that the Government have put in hand. But it still looks threadbare without an overarching defence industrial strategy to guide and inform that policy. I hope that the Government will take this forward.

Rereading the Government's acerbic response to the Defence Select Committee's hard-hitting sixth report on defence procurement, it is depressing to realise that successive administrations and officials find themselves facing, and refacing, the same problems with procurement and the defence/industrial interface. Every few years, new policy initiatives are advanced to overcome them. But, as the Government's response to the very critical Defence Committee's report makes clear, we are no nearer to getting it right. There are many good intentions, many new management-speak approaches, outside consultants ad nauseam and numerous acknowledgements of difficulties which have been identified but have yet to be resolved.

It all smacks of a recipe of ingredients to be mixed and baked to make a winning cake, but some vital ingredient is, and has long been, missing and the cake never materialises. Until there is an overarching defence industrial strategy, we seem to be doomed to muddle through without a clear approach to the transatlantic or trans-channel conundrum that has faced successive administrations over the past half century.

Before I finish, I wonder whether the Minister can shed some light on the present citizenship rules for eligibility to join and serve in Her Majesty's Armed Forces. Is it now policy that only those who are registered British citizens can serve?

Shortly before Christmas there were newspaper reports about a sailor—a submariner—in the Royal Navy who held a New Zealand passport and who was required to apply for British citizenship if he wanted to remain as a submariner in the Navy. He objected, and I think he will leave the Navy.

I found that surprising, bearing in mind the fact that many New Zealanders served with great distinction in the forces, and some have continued to hold their own national passports. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Elworthy, who served in the Royal Air Force with great distinction, and who became the first CDS to be awarded a life Peerage, was born in New Zealand. He was very proud of his nationality.

There were also recent media reports of a serving British Army officer, who was born in Zimbabwe, but who was having difficulty obtaining British citizenship because he had been stationed overseas so frequently and did not have the requisite period of continuous stay in the UK to qualify for consideration. I do not know whether he was also expected to apply for British citizenship. It may be that his case has been successfully dealt with, following the publicity that it attracted. His father and grandfather both served as colonels in the British Army.

I was born in Dublin, and when Ireland got full independence in 1948—I was still at school—I had the option of acquiring an Irish national passport or continuing with my British subject passport. I chose the latter, but even that caused me some difficulty in 1972 when I was a serving air commodore commanding the large RAF base at Akrotiri in Cyprus.

Along with many holders of British subject passports living outside the UK at that time, I could no longer enter and leave the UK freely. Happily the High Commission in Cyprus came to my rescue, and I was henceforth a citizen of the UK and dependent territories—a British citizen.

This can be a rather complex issue and, although I have given the Minister warning of my interest, he may prefer to write to me to set out the current citizenship policy for service in the Armed Forces. For example, are citizens of all—or only some—Commonwealth countries eligible to join? What about nationals of the European Union, provided that their spoken and written English is good? Does the British nationality of one or both parents have any bearing on the eligibility of an individual who was born outside the UK, and so may hold a non-British passport?

Of course, there will be posts in all three services that require special security clearance, but that applies as much to a British citizen as to nationals of other countries. As a matter of interest, are there similar arrangements and rules for joining the Diplomatic Service, home Civil Service and the police for those who are not yet British citizens? I shall welcome the Minister's response.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, in a debate that will be wide-ranging, and which will produce expert contributions from, among others, a veritable task force of former Chiefs of the Defence Staff and a former Secretary of State for Defence, I hope that I shall be forgiven for the fact that my contribution will be on a narrow, but important area of concern to the Welsh regiments. The issue has already been raised by my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever.

Before turning to that matter, however, I am prompted by a remark made by the Minister to say something about the wider issues. Talking about the Indian ocean disaster, the Minister said that unexpected events reverberating around the world would occur. For precisely those reasons, it is an act of folly that we are confronted with cuts in financial resources, which were spelt out so clearly by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley. We are facing cuts in an already overstretched Army and cuts in the number of ships available. We cannot foresee when the next disaster will occur. We cannot be sanguine about what is happening in Northern Ireland. The approach to such situations is quite extraordinary.

I served as a national service subaltern in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. I was proud to command the guard that laid up in St. David's cathedral the old colours of the 1st Battalion which had been carried through two world wars. They bore the battle honours which reflect the story of the regiment's contribution and sacrifice over the more than 300 years of its history.

Among them is Baghdad—a reminder that the 8th Battalion served in what is now Iraq in 1917. The 1st Battalion was there again in the spring and summer of last year. Later that year there was much publicity about the move of the Black Watch from Basra to an area south of Baghdad where operations were particularly hazardous. There was almost no publicity about the fact that "A" Company—1 RWF—was detached for five months to operate alongside 1 Princess of Wales's Royal regiment at Al Amarah, which is about 120 miles north of Basra. While on that detachment, they fired more than 41,000 rounds of ammunition, and with the aid of air support, killed more than 500 Mahdi militia, without loss to themselves. In defending one important government commission in August, they were under almost continual attack for 10 days by heavily armed militia.

Another relevant background fact is that the Royal Welch has one of the best recruiting records in the whole British Army. It is notably better than the Scottish regiments. In September, when the regiment was asked with others in the Prince of Wales's division to produce its preferred plan for restructuring, the colonel of the regiment and the regimental council made it clear that while they disliked carrying out such an exercise when there were to be cuts in the number of already overstretched infantry battalions, and while they would have preferred the option of a federated and reinforced Prince of Wales's division, the Royal Welch, along with the Royal Regiment of Wales, would fully co-operate in producing a plan in line with the request received from the director of infantry.

Accordingly, after discussion between the existing Welsh regiments, the recommendation was put forward that a new Welsh regiment should be formed within the Prince of Wales division, consisting of the Royal Welch, the Royal Regiment of Wales and the Royal Welsh Regiment TA, and that it should be called the Royal Welsh Regiment. The colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Major General Brian Plummer, as the nominated spokesman for both regiments, made it clear that they wished the old regimental titles to be placed before the new title so that the two regular battalions would be called the Royal Welch Fusiliers—1st Battalion Royal Welsh—and the Royal Regiment of Wales—2nd Battalion Royal Welsh. However, the director of infantry insisted that the divisional submission should reverse that order on the ground that there must be consistency throughout the Army.

Major General Christopher Elliott was in the difficult position of being both colonel commandant of the Prince of Wales's division and until recently colonel of the Royal Regiment of Wales. He had to submit the divisional plan in the manner laid down, but the two colonels agreed that Major General Plummer, on behalf of both regiments, would continue to press the matter of the titles and the importance of maintaining the existing traditions of the regiments.

When rumours began to circulate that the Scottish regiments were to be allowed exactly that treatment. General Plummer wrote to the CGS, General Sir Mike Jackson, before the crucial meeting of the executive of the Army Board—ECAB—on 6 December urging that the traditional names should be placed first. In acknowledging the letter on the same day, the CGS said that he was sympathetic with the desire to retain as much of the heritage as possible, and that he would see that the matter was discussed at the ECAB meeting.

In the meantime, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, who regrets that he cannot be here today, the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, who will be speaking later, and I had been to see the Secretary of State to urge that the retention of the titles and of a headquarters for the Royal Welch in Wrexham was hugely important if the RWF was to retain its proud record of recruitment, maintained over decades All of us Royal Welchmen, two of us former Welsh Secretaries and the third a Lloyd George, we believed that we could speak on this subject with knowledge and authority.

On hearing the 16 December Statement made by the Secretary of State, and repeated in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, we were flabbergasted to hear that in Scotland: The identities of the antecedent regiments will be preserved in a variety of ways, not least by including them prominently in the battalion titles of the new regiment. So, for example, the 1st Battalion the Royal Highland Fusiliers will become the Royal Highland Fusiliers (2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland)".—[Official Report, 16/12/04; col. 1447.] In other words, the Scots were being given what the Welsh had asked for and were being denied.

General Plummer immediately wrote to General Jackson to say that he had heard the news with dismay. As he observed to me that evening, the British soldier will do almost anything that he is asked if he feels that he is being treated fairly. It is obvious that the soldiers of the Welsh regiments are not being treated fairly. Wales is not being treated fairly.

To Royal Welchmen the name and traditions matter—the white hackle, the black flash on their backs, and the Sovereign as their colonel in chief. They matter because they give them their sense of identify and pride; and they matter because they link the regiments with their local communities and help recruitment.

On the day the House rose for the Recess, the noble Lord, Lord Bach, was good enough to see the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, and myself when we again pressed the case that this unfair and damaging treatment of the Welsh regiments must be put right.

In the absence of the CGS, who was abroad, General Plummer spoke to General Richards, the assistant CGS, and again wrote to General Jackson asking for the matter to be reconsidered. In that letter he refers to a comment apparently made by General Richards, which will, I suspect, worry the Scottish regiments as much as it worries me. It was that, anyway the Scottish titles are only temporary". The likelihood of the Scottish nomenclature being changed in the future was confirmed in a subsequent letter to General Plummer from General Jackson.

Last Thursday the Times carried a report of the meeting held the previous day of the Commons Defence Committee, in which General Jackson was reported as saying, that the Scottish regiments were to keep their names because they had made a specific request to do so. The English and Welsh regiments, he said, had made no such request". In the light of the facts that I have put before the House, noble Lords will understand why I find that statement incomprehensible. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris, was as astonished as I was, and I know that he has already written to the chairman of the committee.

General Jackson has also sent a letter to General Plummer, which argues that, the boldness of the reorganisation agreed for the Scots might, in the short term, adversely affect recruiting more than would be the case in the new English and Welsh regiments", and adds: I suspect that this will be a disappointing reply, but the endorsed titles are right for the Royal Welsh in the post Arms plot infantry. The Scottish Division were given an exceptional concession". It is not just a disappointing response; it is one that is completely inadequate. As the three Members of the House argued with the Secretary of State, it will damage recruitment. Why has an exception been made for the Scottish division which cannot be made for the Welsh? How can this decision, so damaging to morale and, I believe, for recruiting, possibly be right?

One thing that I learned about the Welsh soldiers that I commanded was that not only would they perform wonders if treated fairly, but that they performed at their best only if they really believed that there was a good reason for the order that was being given.

I seek three things today: first, a reversal of a decision that, frankly, is indefensible and which will damage the morale of soldiers who deserve to be treated better, and will make recruitment more difficult; secondly, an assurance that what has been agreed for the Scots—"exceptional concession" or not—is not just a ploy to keep everyone quiet and that it will not be quickly overturned; and, thirdly, an explanation for the statement made by General Jackson to the Commons committee that no representations had been made by the Welsh—a statement which I do not believe can be reconciled with the facts that I have put before the House. Representations were made. They were made directly to the CGS. They were made by three Members of this House to the Secretary of State. They are, I believe, representations that should be listened to.

4.25 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

My Lords, I shall be brief. I was particularly interested to hear the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, in describing the Welsh situation because I want to reflect on the reorganisation of the Scottish infantry, or at least those regimental battalions which will form the new Royal Regiment of Scotland.

In passing, I am aware that there are other military units which recruit in Scotland as Scottish units, such as the Scots Guards, the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the 4th Royal Tank Regiment.

I am content with the Army's strategy for reorganisation of the infantry. I think that it will bed down quite quickly, particularly when one remembers that the average service of an infantryman is four and a half years. That, of course, raises issues about retention. The reorganisation certainly gives improved career paths for serving soldiers.

I have three points to make in the debate. First, I am critical of the drama that the failure to reveal the plans generated among soldiers and old soldiers in Scotland. The fact that the information was delayed until the Black Watch had returned turned a crisis into a drama. In my world of social work, any change has to be regarded as a crisis.

Previously, such decisions have been made known even when affected units were on active service. I believe that the Argylls were to be disbanded while on active service in Aden.

What we saw as the "save the regiments campaign" got under way was no less than panic in the Labour Party in Scotland. The Labour Party is unused to being unpopular in Scotland. It was a fine spectacle. That panic resulted in the retention of most of the regimental names in the designation of the five battalions of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.

I do not complain about that development, but let us be clear—a soldier may be posted to the Argyll battalion or to the Black Watch battalion, but he or she will be a Royal Regiment of Scotland soldier and not an Argyll or a member of the Black Watch. I suspect that the traditional regimental battalion names will have been dropped in 10 years' time. Others have been recruited to the Royal Marines and the Royal Air Force Regiment on a corps basis. I had better declare the interest that I serve with the RAF Regiment as an auxiliary.

My final point about the Scottish infantry re-organisation is the fact that the details about dress and cap-badging were not explained at the time of the announcement, despite the delay.

I referred earlier to retention. I hope that the new convenience of posting people to the permanently positioned Royal Regiment of Scotland battalions on an "as required" basis will not result in soldiers always being away from their families. This contributes as much as anything to early departure from the armed services.

My second point is relatively trivial but has a considerable effect on the safety of our troops. I am most impressed to see the use of the saltire by Scottish units in Iraq. This is a good way of differentiating the occupying forces and encourages them to behave well. I hope that the continued use of the saltire on active service will be encouraged in the future.

My third point is about the Government's overall budget. I appreciate that it is a privilege of government to raise and spend the £500 billion needed for government proposals, but I suspect that the defence budget allocation is lower than most taxpayers would prefer.

I shall watch the defence sector with interest.

4.29 p.m.

Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his statement. I believe that this debate is being held at a critical time for the Armed Forces, which are faced by many challenges. The international scene is as dangerous and as volatile as it has been for many years. There is uncertainty, and predicting where our forces will next be committed to operations has become increasingly difficult. Recently, we have all too often failed to get predictions right. Programming priorities are far from easy to decide upon and how to maintain the quality of our small Armed Forces and their readiness and agility is as great a problem as it has probably ever been.

Although what I say concerns mainly the Army, much of it concerns the other two services as well. I want to talk about only two matters, but I am sure that other noble Lords will talk about the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, the defence budget and how government Smart procurement has not delivered as had been hoped. Unfortunately, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, who was scheduled to speak in this debate, is indisposed. He wishes, however, to be fully associated with what I say.

Of course, armies need to change. Tradition is important, but they need to be structured appropriately for the times in which they live. The Minister is absolutely right: the need for change is crucial for an army and the British Army has often had to manage change. History has many examples of armies failing because they relied too long on their experience of past successes. We must not do that, and recent changes show that we have not fallen into that trap.

The end of arms plotting is sensible. Service men and women will benefit in a number of ways and, most importantly, more infantry battalions will be available for operations. But despite this, the Army will still be dangerously small. Ceasing arms plotting will initially be expensive if it is done properly and not fudged. Currently, garrisons, stations and married quarters vary greatly. Many are run down. Some have been judged unfit for asylum seekers but are deemed adequate for service personnel. Arms plotting cannot be done away with overnight and one is bound to be sceptical about whether the Government will fund the cessation properly.

It seems extraordinary to many of us—at a time when there is so much uncertainty in Northern Ireland, where it sadly appears that the situation could again deteriorate; when Iraq needs reinforcing; when Afghanistan needs additional troops; when the Balkans, in particular Kosovo, could erupt; and when the tragedies of Darfur and elsewhere are clear for all to see—that we are actually reducing the size of the Army and in particular the number of infantrymen, who are the very people we need on current and future operations. Cessation of arms plotting certainly will help, but the Army will still be too small for what the Government expect it to do. They expect the Army always to succeed on operations, but they also expect it to sort out the foot and mouth crisis, to fire-fight and to undertake disaster relief.

We should note that at a time when we are making cuts—I acknowledge they are not large cuts—the United States Army is likely to be increased by some 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers. The United States Army, although now stretched because of Iraq, has not faced the problems of overstretch that our Army has faced year after year. High technology helps and is important, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the operational theatres in which we are involved are likely to be manpower intensive. Getting the right balance between manpower and technology is not easy to achieve but it is British soldiers on the ground who are universally admired and are making the difference. There is still very little high technology that can actually replace a British soldier.

Ministers sometimes infer that the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Mike Jackson, and the Army Board approve the measures that are planned. We should be very clear that if adequate resources were available, they believe, as many of us do, that the Army should be increased in size. The Army Board is loyal to Ministers, as it should be—they make the best of it— but that does not mean that they are happy with a smaller Army. I hope Ministers recognise that. It is wrong for them to hide behind the Chiefs of Staff.

It is important that our service men and women are properly trained. It should be of great concern that soldiers are now being deployed less well trained than they should be and less well trained than they have been in the past. The defence budget is so tight that training suffers. That affects all parts of the Army. Individual soldiers are less skilled than they were; training standards are too low; gunnery and field firing camps are cancelled; training between infantry, tanks, engineers and those parts of the Army that may have to co-operate and fight together rarely takes place. Currently, the Ministry of Defence is even examining whether to cut brigade-level training further. There have been failures and serious, maybe inexcusable, incidents in the training organisation, such as those alleged at Deepcut. which almost certainly are connected to budgetary measures forced on defence which have had an adverse effect on the ratio of staff to recruits undergoing initial training.

Major overseas exercises have been cancelled including two of the most important exercises in Canada where one of the only opportunities for tanks, artillery and infantry to exercise together properly exists. The modern battlefield is hugely dangerous and complicated, and yet we are now sending troops to Iraq without the training they need and deserve. Those who are not earmarked for operations, say in Iraq, are even less well prepared and yet might have to react at very short notice to the unexpected.

I have to ask the Minister whether the risks that are being run are really understood. I hope the Government are not as complacent as they seem. Is it understood that training, so crucial for success, is being cut back? I know that many who have not had the experience of operations and battle cannot understand why training is so often quoted as being crucial, but poorly prepared soldiers will, sooner or later, fail. I think that Ministers, and in particular the Treasury, are taking too much for granted and hazarding the success we are used to. Treasury accountants do not help or understand defence. I urge the Minister and his fellow Ministers to ensure that no soldier dies in Iraq because he is inadequately trained.

4.39 p.m.

Lord Snape

My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I intervene in this debate. I am conscious that there is much senior Armed Forces talent on both sides of the House and on the Cross Benches. I know that a former distinguished Secretary of State of the early 1990s is to wind up for the main Opposition party. It ill behoves a humble—those who know me would perhaps say "not so humble"—corporal to intervene during your Lordships' deliberations. I do not envy my noble friend the Minister who has the task of explaining change in these circumstances. That is extremely difficult in this House, as it is elsewhere.

Having listened to some of the speeches, I understand the view that generals and field marshals would like a bigger Army. Air marshals would like a bigger Air Force; admirals would like a bigger Navy. That is a fact of life. Governments, including Conservative governments in recent years, have had to face both financial and geographical realities, however, regarding the size of our Armed Forces.

I have a great deal of sympathy with those who bemoan the loss and amalgamation of regiments. I have a certain degree of limited experience in this matter myself, which I will come to in a moment. Abolition and amalgamation are never easy. Those regimental traditions, the traditional family involvement, the historic victories of these regiments and the battle honours are all matters that Ministers can, should and must take into consideration when looking at the future and deciding on the size and structure of our Armed Forces.

It is almost exactly 40 years since, as a member of 16 Railway Regiment Royal Engineers, I was marched onto the barracks square at Buller Barracks at Aldershot to participate in the formation parade of the Royal Corps of Transport. None of us particularly looked forward to this re-badging. Indeed, it might surprise some of the more senior Members of your Lordships' House if I tell them that we were not consulted about it. Whatever consultation took place in Her Majesty's Forces in those days did not reach the corporals' mess, I am afraid.

We were marched onto Buller Barracks to the stirring tune of the Royal Engineers' march past, "Wings". The other couple of hundred or so soldiers were marched onto the other side of Buller Barracks to what I thought—forgive me if I offend anybody—was a rather turgid number called, if memory serves, "Wait For the Wagon", which was the regimental march past of the Royal Army Service Corps. Of course, there was no talking in the ranks in those days, but one or two people did mutter that it looked like an RASC takeover. We were issued with our new cap badge which, close up and looking to the front, appeared very similar to that of the RASC. We were marched off to the same turgid tune, and felt that our worst fears had been realised. Indeed, within three years, although I was fortunately not around at the time, the camp to which I had been posted for some years was dramatically altered. The Longmore Military Railway, of some three-quarters of a century's standing, disappeared, because the newly-formed Royal Corps of Transport took the view that the efficacy of the internal combustion engine was such that we did not need railways.

As I have indicated, I had left the Armed Forces by that time. In fact, I was back working on the real railway, which was undergoing the ravages of the real Dr Beeching. So I do understand the view that noble Lords have expressed about change, and about the impact that change has on the morale of service people in whichever branch of the Armed Forces he or she may serve.

However, there are some good things in this review to which my noble friend the Minister referred in his speech. I have not previously heard the rotation of troops and regiments referred to as the "arms plot". I thought that was something to do with other events that once took place within this great Palace. Certainly, there has long been a problem for the British Army with what is now known as the arms plot. Not so much among the junior ranks; by and large, because of the fundamental strength of the regimental system of the British Army, many of the junior ranks were quite relaxed about being posted abroad. After all, all their mates went along too. There were new faces, new areas and, for those who were not teetotallers, perhaps new places to go to and enjoy themselves in the evening.

It was much more difficult for wives and families, of course. Wives who had got their married quarters or rented accommodation just how they wanted it over the past couple of years—and their children in a local school, perhaps of their choice—regularly faced being uprooted and posted. In the 1960s, this was largely between the UK and BAOR. In the 1970s, of course, it was round the three edges of a triangle: the UK, BAOR and Northern Ireland. So I welcome the Government's commitment to abolish the arms plot. I suspect it will be welcomed at least as much among the families of the junior ranks as it will among the ranks themselves.

With regard to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, about cuts, delays and cost-overruns, there is nothing new about these matters, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, will indicate as he comes to wind up the debate. I am sure that noble Lords on both sides of the House will have read the Alan Clark Diaries. In between his energetic social life, he was a rather controversial Minister for Defence Procurement. Again, there were cuts and overruns, and disagreements with senior officers were nothing new. Alan Clark, of course, could disagree with himself most days. If they read about some of the hilarious meetings that he chaired during his time as Minister for Defence Procurement, the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, and his colleagues would have to agree that there is nothing new about disagreements between politicians of any political hue and senior members of the Armed Forces over how money should be spent.

The Opposition spokesman who opened this debate was fair enough to say that he felt that the Army restructuring was "sensible". I thought he rather spoiled that touch of fairness by then implying that there would be enormous troop losses as a result of these very minor proposals, although I accept and respect the view that any reduction in the teeth of our infantry is to be regretted, particularly at present. As my noble friend the Minister said, the reorganisation, mild as it is, is necessary at present.

I very much agreed with the speech from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, particularly regarding the Army's capabilities. Indeed, as a Defence spokesman in another place many years ago, I was once thoroughly verbally drubbed by both sides for suggesting that we would do rather better as a nation in building and equipping our Armed Forces with helicopters, to give them the capability referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Garden, rather than spending between £13 million and £18 million on a Tornado aircraft 20-odd years ago. Oh happy days, when one looks at what inflation has done to military costings since.

I was not the greatest enthusiast for the Tornado aircraft, because I felt that the type of action that British troops would become more and more embroiled in would be the sort of Gulf War/Iraq scenario that we have today. The ability to support our troops and move them around was to me then, and is to me now, far more important than some of the prestige aircraft that the RAF appears to be determined to acquire. Eurofighter appears to repeat all the mistakes made by an early generation of aircraft like the Tornado: all-singing, all-dancing aircraft rarely dance and sing perfectly. Twenty-five years ago I had the temerity to suggest that if we looked across the Atlantic at the A10 Warthog, it might be a better aircraft to support our troops. Of course, I was denounced by my own side, let alone the Opposition, for being unpatriotic. Yet it is still a view I maintain, that trying to maintain the capability to the extent that we do is not a sensible way of defending this island, or of fulfilling our military commitments.

I have detained your Lordships' House for long enough. As I said earlier, hard decisions are not peculiar to this Government. During the watch of the noble Lord, Lord King, regiments were abolished and amalgamated. Under Options for Change, which I remember the noble Lord taking through the other place, not without difficulty, Army manpower and capability was reduced overall. It was right then, I felt—although I probably voted in the other Lobby; that is the nature of politics these days—and I suspect that, in their hearts, many noble Lords know that it is right now.

4.50 p.m.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, it is difficult to review Her Majesty's Government's defence policy in isolation from our foreign policy, especially because this Government use the Armed Forces as a valuable political asset. In 2002, the Government set up as part of joined-up government a Conflict Prevention Pool and, later, another for Africa, formed from the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, to bring together peacekeeping and programmed budgets for the first time, with "scorecards" agreed by Her Majesty's Treasury. That might be thought to be a wise initiative, in keeping with the need for our forces to be able, as the Minister said in our last defence debate, to operate across the spectrum from war-fighting to enduring peace operations in conjunction with the FCO and DfID, as they are doing in Iraq.

So far, the Government have committed our Armed Forces in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and Iraq, with Operation FRESCO always in the wings. A deployment of 5,000 troops for Darfur was mooted and there is another, as yet unclear commitment to the African Union. They have agreed to produce our share of 60,000 men at any one time for the EU—only we and the French could meet that. They are committed to a new battle group of 1,500 for the new EU military adventure with the UN and, naturally, have a long-standing commitment to NATO. The same troops wear all those hats and all those tasks require training with other forces, of whom all but the French will be conscripts and will therefore change frequently and will certainly be very few. Exercises in command and control, especially in any venture with the UN, are likely to be difficult. There is also the small matter of the defence of the realm.

I know that other noble Lords will speak about the classic problems of overload: the effect on training, on the Defence Medical Services, and, not least, the effect on families. When the Defence Select Committee was visiting Iraq, it was told in no uncertain terms that the combination of Operations FRESCO and TELIC has placed unsustainable and unreasonable burdens on families. All that is well beyond the boundaries of what was planned in the Strategic Defence Review. Many of the medical staff in Iraq are on their second or even third operational tour in 12 months. Territorials make up 50 per cent of the 400-strong UK medical force in Operation TELIC 4A. Although their performance has been outstanding, it is very unlikely that the current sustained level of TA mobilisation was ever envisaged.

In effect, both our defence and foreign policies are being dictated, often in minute detail, by the Treasury— which, apart from Mr Brown's brave sortie recently, rarely travels abroad to the wilder places. Accountants are making all the decisions. In both the FCO and the MoD, resource accounting and budgeting is having extremely dangerous consequences. Stocks in the MoD have been repeatedly reduced too far because of the doctrine that everything on the shelf is an asset that must be costed and set against the budget. The FCO has been forced to sell valuable and prestigious properties overseas, often at a loss, and then buy them back again. There was a proposal to sell the Paris Embassy. When that, mercifully, failed, the Treasury required it to be valued, the rent assessed and the value set against the FCO budget.

Of course, the MoD had long ago to sell the married quarters estate at great loss—that was indeed during the time of our government—and many other assets. Some of the equipment that should have been on the MoD's shelf for TELIC was not there and another financial animal, the urgent operational requirement (UOR), had to be created because of Treasury restraints on earlier industrial engagements. Everything on the shelf was counted as a financial asset and not as prudent planning for future needs. The equipment bought under UORs sometimes failed to reach the troops in time for training and familiarisation, but the frequency of new operational demands is leading to UORs becoming the norm, rather than holding adequate stocks. For instance, vehicles disposed of under the resource accounting budget had to be repurchased from one company at a cost of £1.1 million.

In the FCO, a considerable number of posts, and of experienced people who will not be easy to replace, is being cut just at the time when those people are likely to be needed for the grand new plans for Africa and the needs of the Far East as a result of the tsunami. There is also a sorry history of forced sales of embassies, which I have mentioned, and other assets for short-term gain, leading to inevitable loss of national prestige as well as money, because renting can be very expensive.

When I was consul to both the French and Belgian Congos in the 1960s, we were required to sell the residence in Brazzaville. We pointed out that, after independence, we would undoubtedly be asked for astronomical rent. That was set aside, but we were right. We paid more in rent in the first year than we had received for selling the building.

The FCO, like the MoD, is suffering serious asset-stripping, including that of skilled people who cannot easily be replaced. That cannot be repaired or replaced by DfID, with its very different agenda and training. I have brought the FCO in to this debate because, if the Government really believe in jointery and if, as the Chancellor has said, our economic situation is robust, it is imperative that our foreign and defence policies should not be decided by accountants. It is wrong that the Government should repeatedly expect and even create new commitments and demands and simultaneously cut the vital resources without which the Armed Forces and the diplomats cannot execute policy. I cannot say too often that it is extremely difficult to replace people in the field.

In the services, retention, training, reserves and equipment are all being hit. Why should the forces have to sell capital assets to create the income that the Government deny them and that they need to operate and carry out their tasks? They do not invent those tasks; they are placed on them, while that same Government regularly over-commit their defence resources for political reasons that seem to have nothing to do with defence. NATO is the only international organisation that is part of true defence. The rest, apart from Iraq, is part of a policy of so-called benevolent intervention that is open-ended and makes thoroughly wasteful use of our highly trained forces in what have proved to be commitments of indefinite duration.

However, there are still real threats. The IRA has not gone away, but the Government are behaving as if it has. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including large stocks still remaining in Russia, remains a problem. That is another real threat. This is no time for cuts.

There is no point in having endless strategic reviews and explanatory essays and expecting the services to plan for them, and then adding more tasks, all of which draw on limited strategic and technical resources that are not augmented. I have in mind Berlin-Plus and the battle groups that the EU is to provide for the UN. In those enterprises, the services will encounter major problems of command and control, as they will be working with a structure of command that the UN itself recognises to be wholly inadequate and incompetent.

It makes sense for our foreign, military and aid policies to be co-ordinated, but not to provide excuses for cuts. For instance, it does not make sense for the BBC World Service to be refused the money to create a television channel in the Middle East at this crucial time, nor to cut the FCO when it is vital to maintain our influence in the world. DfID, whose budget is ever-increasing, does good work but is no substitute for a diplomatic presence.

Least of all does it make sense to do serious damage to our Armed Forces through overstretch, threats to training and, above all, a failure to give at least as much importance and attention to the rights of the men and women in the services as the NHS and education. After all, among their many successes, the services have proved better at training and motivating the young than any other single organisation in this country. They have a significant social value that should not be ignored. If they had a trade union, things would be very different; I sometimes wish they had.

We are seeing the emasculation of two great departments of state for short-term financial advantage. The Chancellor does not value either of them; the Prime Minister and the Cabinet do not defend them. The services are unique; they are not just another supermarket chain or quango. As one witness told the Defence Committee in the other place, services, have the habit of doing things in a risk environment that the commercial enterprises do not follow".

5 p.m.

Lord Bramall

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Park of Monmouth, who invariably hits many nails on the head. There have been many developments in defence recently, including the sadly very much ongoing war in Iraq, now virtually a civil war, as some had warned that it might become, and the major restructuring of the infantry in the Army. Much has already been said about these and related matters, usually to no avail, and there is only limited time in this timely debate to say more.

No one with the interests of the Armed Forces at heart would want to suggest that our defence policy is basically unsound. It clearly is not; it is better than those of comparable countries. Our Armed Forces, despite having imposed on them difficulties and undoubted pressures, some of which have been mentioned, have always risen to the occasion splendidly and proved themselves up to the tasks and challenges so far assigned to them. On the whole, they are well equipped—certainly the Army is better equipped than the one in which I served. Such important gaps as there are in the fields of equipment, logistic support and sustainability are being made good, albeit sometimes rather slowly and, on occasion, we are told, more expensively than is strictly necessary. But getting ripped off in defence procurement seems pretty endemic, despite some of the gimmicky new solutions that governments boast about from time to time.

As a result of what they have achieved, our Armed Forces are immensely respected among the public, perhaps more so than any other single institution in the country—they are the jewel in the crown, one might say. The Government deserve their share of credit for that. Defence is clearly a major concern to them; indeed, given their very interventionist foreign policy, it jolly well should be. I hope that it does not sound patronising to say that they have done as well as many previous governments and better than some. I say that with very long experience, at least 30 years, of Whitehall.

To a listening, concerned government, constructive criticism should be a more useful contribution than sycophantic praise, much as I am sure the Minister, who fights his corner with such skill and courtesy, would appreciate the latter from time to time. But any criticism should fairly and squarely centre around the Government's infinite capacity to spoil the ship for a ha'p'orth of tar, for giving the distinct impression that they take the Armed Forces and their performance too much for granted, and for not always providing them with what they so richly deserve and in the future will so badly need. All of that stems from the significant gap that often—I might say, invariably—exists between the Government's declared intentions and the Treasury's interpretation of the funding required to match them.

Against that background, I shall concentrate on three developments. The first is the restructuring of the infantry, about which there has been much media attention, and which was highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, in his powerful speech. Let us be clear that what the Chief of the General Staff is rightly endeavouring to do over the next four to five years, in order to make infantry regiments larger, more viable and operationally available, had to be done against the government spending review SR2004, which reduced the Army's strength by some 1,500 trained soldiers, not faroff the strength of three infantry battalions, for a start. That was all at a time when, even allowing for the easement of the situation in Northern Ireland, which the Treasury used as a justification, the Army remained greatly overstretched, whatever the Ministry of Defence may claim. We all know, for instance, that over 50 per cent of the Army was away from home, out of Great Britain, over Christmas; overseas tour intervals for a number of units have been as low as nine months instead of the generally accepted two-year period; and open-ended commitments are liable at any time to produce, in the words of the Chief of the General Staff, more event-led requirements for reinforcements.

Certainly, against that background, the Chief of the General Staff was forced to rebalance his manpower to obtain badly needed enhancements in signals, logistics and intelligence, even though every infantry battalion he had to do away with—up to four—made his restructuring much more difficult and caused much more pain and grief to those most directly affected. Luckily, he was spared getting rid of the fourth battalion by being allowed to convert one of the three parachute battalions to a ranger battalion, trained to give much-needed support and enhancement to our Special Forces. I was slightly surprised that the Government did not take more credit for that wise change of heart, instead of hiding it in the Statement behind a sort of "now we see it, now we don't" fourth battalion. I can only imagine that it was because the Government could not be seen to have been wrong the first time. It all goes back to the academic exercise that forced a 1,500 cut in the frontline of the Army—that was done by the Government, not the Army Board. It is exactly what I mean by "spoiling the ship".

Following on from my noble and gallant friend Lord Craig on the question of finance, and on the same theme, I refer to another example of the Treasury's interpretation of this Government's concern for defence. Much play presentationally has been made by the Chancellor and the noble Lord the Minister that the defence budget is to be modestly increased in real terms for the first time in 15 years. Looking to the future, that is greatly to be welcomed. But in cash availability terms, it is more than offset by the 1 billion that the Ministry of Defence must save or forgo annually because of a new accounting system that has been forced on it, which works very much to its disadvantage because of the high volume of capital equipment held. Of course that affects and degrades many of the things, especially training—a point made extremely well by my noble and gallant friend Lord Guthrie—that vote-holders are trying to do to meet, and to be ready for, their current commitments.

This is either a blatant case of the Treasury moving the goalposts to offset its presentational increase because such an amount of money can no longer be hidden behind efficiency savings, or the Ministry of Defence has been conned about the new accounting system, which would reflect badly on the accounting officers in the ministry. Those officers should have been, with the backing of their Secretary of State, on their guard against just such an occurrence. Perhaps the Minister would care to comment on that. It seems yet another example of penny-pinching that could have a serious effect on the next and last area that I want to bring to noble Lords' attention: the medical services.

I realise that this Government inherited a desperate medical services situation. They have taken steps to correct it, restoring some of the confidence that medical personnel had previously lacked. There is, however, still a long way to go. It will be 2008 at the earliest before the right number of doctors, specialists and nurses are in place to provide proper operational backing for any high-intensity, or fairly high-intensity, operation. In the mean time, there must be enormous reliance on contract personnel, especially the Territorial Army, which has done its stuff magnificently during the Iraq conflict so far, but may now be feeling the strain.

Moreover, funding will remain a matter of great concern. For instance, if adequate funding is not restored for the medical equipment programme, as was promised in STPO 4, which, the Minister will recall, imposed a two-year saving measure, there will be a return to the calamitous state of affairs of having medical equipment for the Armed Forces that is not up to the proper standard.

Continuing recruiting and a proper promotion structure, both of which have improved under this Government, will not be maintained if money is not found to maintain salary comparability with the National Health Service. Consistent funding is also necessary for improved primary healthcare for members of the forces and their families. It, too, has shown a real improvement, but that must be kept up.

Finally, there are the considerable and significant accommodation problems at Birmingham. Serious funding will be necessary to provide in the foreseeable future a fitting headquarters, a social centre and conference facilities for the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine and provide it, in consequence, with the proper esprit de corps that is so essential. Unless that happens, it will never become the true and long-promised centre of excellence on which so much of the medical service's complete revival depends.

I hope that the Minister can give some encouraging assurances about funding in those vital areas. With the cash flow capping that has been going on, many of us have considerable concern about those important areas.

5.11 p.m.

Lord Grantchester

My Lords, the United Kingdom has the longest continuous history of military aviation of any nation. The Royal Engineers first experimented with balloons in 1878 at Woolwich Arsenal on the outskirts of London. In 1909, the Royal Navy started its flying activities, and, in April 1918, the merger of the Army's Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service formed the Royal Air Force, the world's first autonomous air force. The new service was seen as an example to follow by many, not least those in the United States Army Air Corps and later in post-Great War Germany.

The excellence and commitment of the UK's military flyers was demonstrated in no uncertain terms during the Second World War and underlined the strategic importance of air superiority. In the immortal words of Sir Winston Churchill: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few". That spirit of excellence has continued into today's service. The success of our operations in the two Gulf Wars and in peacekeeping operations in conflicts such as Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan can be attributed in no small part to the high quality and extent of the training that our pilots and aircrew receive.

The aircraft and weapons in use today are infinitely more sophisticated than previously available systems. They are also infinitely more expensive. The application of our air power across the entire spectrum of potential conflict, combined with the shift in technological capability, further increases the demand on the human aspect of military aviation and places an increased strain on today's flyers.

In the current post-9/11 world, the shape and scope of the battle space is not only rapidly changing but uncertain. It is moving away from inter-nation conflict towards the war on terrorism, which represents a new challenge. The new platforms that are being delivered, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Merlin helicopter, the Apache attack helicopter and the advanced stand-off and reconnaissance aircraft—ASTOR—are incredibly sophisticated assets capable of multi-role applications. They demonstrate the UK's commitment to and continuing involvement in leading-edge technologies.

As the sophistication of such assets increases, however, so too does the training requirement. It is arguable that the training that our personnel receive will be the most significant decider of our future success. That means that the training system must be able to adapt rapidly to the ever-changing arena in which our forces will be employed and be able to exploit fully our investment in technology.

In that training system, perhaps the most important aspect will be our ability to understand fully the impact of changes and the degree of control available to those who manage the training system. I note with interest, therefore, that one of the major defence projects under way is the restructuring of the United Kingdom's military flying training system, or UK-MFTS. A PFI scheme, it will involve a potential expenditure of more than £15 billion during the next 25 years.

The issues that UK-MFTS seeks to address are threefold: the first is the capability gap. The present flying training system cannot produce the required number of appropriately trained aviators without significant further investment. The shortfalls of the current system are due to limitations in the training environment, including airborne platforms. The second issue is the quantitative training gap: ageing aircraft with reducing serviceability levels cannot maintain the student throughput required. The third issue is the qualitative training gap: training systems procured for a previous generation of frontline aircraft cannot train to the quality required by present and future frontline types.

As I understand it, the UK-MFTS will replace the present flying training arrangements for the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Army Air Corps before the end of the decade. It is a tri-service programme that will cater for the different training needs of the entire flying element of the UK front line, ranging from fast jet pilots and weapons systems operators through rotary and multi-engine pilots to rear crew disciplines.

It is planned that UK-MFTS will encompass all flying training which takes place from the moment when young men and women are selected through to their arrival at the operational conversion unit for their designated operational aircraft. It is therefore important that a high priority is given not only to acquiring the expensive hardware for the project but also to setting in place a training information management system that will capture individuals' development and experience from recruitment to retirement. Such a system, operating over time, would provide the consolidated data needed to ensure that our aircrew are trained and employed in the most cost-effective and efficient manner.

The UK-MFTS integrated project team intends to secure synergies and economies of scale where appropriate, while striking the right balance between live flying and the use of simulators to provide the high quality of training that is required. Moreover, the team is seeking to exploit the complementary strengths of industry and the MoD to provide a holistic "system of systems" with associated command and management overlays. All of that is to be highly commended.

The favoured solution is to select through competition an industry partner to work with the MoD over the life of the programme to design, deliver and manage training across all pipelines and sites. It is envisaged that component parts of the UK-MFTS will be procured through a mix of PFI and conventional Smart procurement routes.

I understand that the initial gate business case was approved by the Investment Approvals Board and endorsed by both the Minister for Defence Procurement and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury during the latter part of 2002. This has enabled the IPT to proceed to the assessment phase of the programme, during which potential bidders explore the programme's scope, definition and acquisition strategy.

Although a significant amount of work is yet to be completed, milestones already include the completion of the convergence process in March 2004 and the award of the conceptual systems design contracts in July 2004. In addition, on 30 July 2003, the Secretary of State for Defence announced the selection of BAE Systems' Hawk 128 as the next advanced jet trainer. Advanced jet training is one part of the UK's military flying training capability. The selection of the Hawk 128 is an early deliverable from the UK-MFTS programme which has secured jobs and investment for the UK defence industry.

The current phase is the issue of invitations to negotiate with the three remaining consortia: Vector, Ascent and Sterling. The aim of the process is to achieve the earliest possible selection, through elimination, of a single bidder or consortium. The initial service provision is planned to commence during 2007, with full service provision being achieved by 2012. The Government have stated that, where possible, they will seek to reduce those timescales while still maintaining responsibility for ensuring fair competition and value for money for the taxpayer.

Given the constant reports of defence programme delays and overspend, can the Minister assure the House that the procurement strategy for this nationally important strategic capability—which represents an extremely high investment in people— will be affordable, will perpetuate those aspects of current military ethos, capability and systems to meet future requirements and will draw on industry only where the need to change the process, service or equipment concerned has been clearly identified?

In particular, will the Minister please confirm that the procurement strategy for UK-MFTS will continue to provide aircrew personnel for the Army, the Navy and the Air Force of the requisite high quality, in appropriate numbers and in a timely manner?

The successful implementation of UK-MFTS will underline commitment to developing our national capabilities, make us able to combine with our allies and assure the population at large that our Government are taking seriously and delivering on one of the fundamentals of government; namely, defence of the realm.

5.21 p.m.

Lord Freeman

My Lords, I wish to concentrate my brief remarks this evening on the Reserve Forces—the volunteer Reserve Forces as opposed to the Regular Reserves—which have not been used as effectively as they have been in decades past.

It is a real pleasure to follow the three noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig, Lord Guthrie and Lord Bramall. I wholly agree with what they said regarding the key point—the mismatch between the trained strength of our Armed Forces, and indeed the capability of our equipment, and our commitments. That mismatch is unique, and it presents a real and present difficulty for the sustainability of our Armed Forces.

I declare an interest as president of the United Kingdom Council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Garden, referred to cadets. I look forward to him joining me on 28 February when the Minister, Mr Ivor Caplin, is coming to speak to your Lordships' committee about the role of cadets in the future. That is a very important part of our overall effort to relate our Armed Forces to the community. There are over 100,000 cadets in the United Kingdom.

I agree with the comment of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, that our reserves have responded to the call for service in Iraq with loyalty and enthusiasm. It has been a remarkably successful mobilisation. There have been a few blips, but the Reserve Forces, the Ministry and our regular Armed Forces can look back with gratitude and pride on how the whole operation went. So far, 11,000 reservists have been deployed—over half of those available for service abroad.

Overall, reservists from all three services have accounted on average for one eighth of the deployed Army force levels and at some stages of the conflict it has been as high as one quarter. We should record our thanks to the reservists. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bach, has done that on a number of occasions and it is much appreciated.

We should also record our thanks to the families of these reservists—who are away on duty for eight to nine months, allowing for preparatory training and demobilisation—and to their employers. I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Glenarthur, who is not able to attend the debate. He chairs the National Employer Advisory Board and has asked me to associate his name with thanks to the employers. In a moment I will come on to the subject of whether that confidence and support by employers can necessarily be repeated in the future.

I thank also both the national and regional bodies of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association, with which I am associated.

Looking to the future, there are clear signs of potential strain on the reserves and all of us—including the Government—should be aware what those strains are. They can be fixed, but it is my duty and the duty of your Lordships to draw this matter to the Government's attention. I shall examine the question of why this situation exists and look specifically and briefly at the position of the Territorial Army.

First, the total strength—strength, not establishment—of the Territorial Army excluding university associations is about 32,000. If you reduce that number by the untrained and unfit strength and those already mobilised who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever—under present law they cannot be remobilised for such a conflict until three years elapse— that leaves a very small fraction of trained reservists who are available. My noble friend on the Front Bench referred to a report that the conflict in Iraq might require our troops to be present for 10 to 15 years. If the conflict—and that commitment—continues, we will literally have exhausted our reserve strength.

Secondly, while recruitment is reasonable, resignations from our reservists are higher. That is partly because key officers and senior NCOs have been taken to augment Regular Forces and so the quality of training has diminished.

Thirdly, employers will favour longer overseas mobilised tour intervals. The law says three years. The aspirations of senior generals in the Ministry of Defence is that it should increase to five years, and I agree with that. However, that is not the law at present.

Fourthly, in the present circumstances, I cannot understand why we are proposing to cut one battalion from the reserves. Although I realise that it is not equivalent to four battalions in the Regular Army, we should be talking now about an increase of one battalion, rather than a reduction to 14.

There are, however, some positive points in the proposed future army structure which I warmly welcome. General Sir Mike Jackson and Ministers have got the integration of the Territorial Army with the Regular Army right. The TA has finally come of age. Gone are the days when the job of Territorial Army reservists was to defend the Rhine as a second line of defence for the Regular Army who were facing the shock troops of the Russian armed forces. Now each TA battalion will be integrated with a group of regular battalions. I am sure that that will be warmly welcomed.

I conclude on a cautionary note. If the Regular Army is now to concentrate on eight super-garrisons— and I understand why; there are great efficiency savings—we must be careful not to remove the footprint of our Territorial Army and other Reserve units from the country. At the moment, in many parts, they are the only connection between society and our Armed Forces. Citizen support for—and pride in— our military forces must always be maintained.

5.28 p.m.

Lord Vincent of Coleshill

My Lords, much of this debate, which I very much welcome, has understandably been focused on the recently announced restructuring of our Armed Forces, together with their extensive deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

On the question of these major and unexpected operational commitments, I wish to repeat the two basic points that I made at the time. First, every military operation should, whenever possible, have clearly defined and legitimate objectives before our forces are deployed. Secondly, before such a commitment of our forces is made, there should be clearly understood responsibilities for planning and implementing all the complex non-military measures that need to be put in place once the military phase of the operation has been concluded. Regrettably, in the case of Iraq, neither of the fundamental requirements was met adequately, as we have witnessed so clearly and at such enormous cost since the operation was launched.

Those comments aside, I should like to focus on a more specific and often less eye-catching aspect of our defence business which has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism over the past year. For this, in my view, needs urgent and effective action if our Armed Forces are not to pay a very high price for these reported shortcomings in the years ahead.

Last month, the monthly publication of the Royal United Services Institute,Newsbrief, addressed these matters under the heading, "Defence Acquisition in Crisis". The analysis on which that stark headline was based was not the work of the RUSI itself, but stemmed from no fewer than four highly critical official reports which identified a series of growing deficiencies in the acquisitions processes and programmes of the Ministry of Defence: the National Audit Office Major Projects Report 2003,. published in January last year; the House of Commons Defence Committee report on defence procurement, published in July 2004; the Public Accounts Committee report on major MoD projects, published in October 2004, and the further NAO Major Projects Report 2004 which appeared last November. So this is not a subjective view of the RUSI itself.

All these reports are necessarily long and complex documents, but the RUSI Newsbrief provides a concise and highly disconcerting summary of the scale and cost of the continuing failings. More important, it draws on the original reports to identify serious shortcomings in current Ministry of Defence practices and procedures which need to be rectified if in the future we are to achieve a more cost-effective and timely acquisition of new weapons and equipment.

Despite all the prominence given to the introduction of Smart procurement seven years ago, the clear signs are that the Ministry of Defence is in danger of losing its competence as an intelligent, efficient customer. The immediate effects of such failures have been escalating cost overruns, which now have to be paid for by enforced savings elsewhere in the hard-pressed defence programme, together with increasing delays in the availability of new weapons and equipment needed by our Armed Forces if they are to undertake their uniquely demanding tasks effectively in the years ahead.

A key section of the RUSI article notes that all four reports, conclude that The Smart Acquisition Initiatives promulgated by the Ministry of Defence in 1998 have not been properly implemented within the Defence Procurement Agency. The National Audit Office judged The Major Projects Review 2003 to be 'among the most disappointing in the history of the Report' because it showed an unabated stream of cost overruns and delays. Indeed, since Smart Acquisition was adopted the situation has got worse; the Major Project Review 1998 showed a £2.8 billion cost overrun on 25 major projects averaging £110 million each, where The Major Projects Review 2004 now shows a £5.2 billion cost overrun on 18 projects averaging nearly £300 million each. The two Select Committees based their conclusions about Smart Acquisition firmly on the evidence that poor performance in the Defence Procurement Agency was endemic, that some of the Smart Initiatives had hardly been implemented at all, and that the Smart Acquisition programme needed to be re-energised". That direct quotation is how this matter was summarised in last month's edition of the RUSI Newsbrief.

In the light of this succession of highly critical reports over the past year, my question is: has the Ministry of Defence, at the highest levels, accepted these findings and, if so, set in hand as a matter of urgency the measures needed to eliminate these costly and damaging defects? There may be nothing new about cost and time overruns in defence procurement programmes, but the rate at which they are escalating, according to these reports, is very significant indeed.

If these matters are not addressed quickly and effectively, I believe there is a growing risk that in the years ahead our Armed Forces will be committed to as yet unforeseen operations without the necessary "tools to do the job".

5.35 p.m.

Lord Truscott

My Lords, it is a pleasure and honour to take part in today's debate with so many distinguished and experienced Members of your Lordships' House.

The world has moved on since the end of the Cold War. As the Ministry of Defence recognises, it has also moved on since the time of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. Although the need for highly flexible, mobile and deployable expeditionary forces holds good, the fact is that September 11, and what that has meant for global security, has transformed the world's strategic environment.

The new SDR chapter, the 2003 defence White Paper and the future capabilities chapter have been successive government initiatives seeking to plan for the new strategic environment. So, too, in the Government's spending review announced last year, particularly as it affected our Armed Forces. As my noble friend the Minister indicated, the defence White Paper highlighted the dangers of international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the threat posed by failing states.

Geographically, the White Paper envisaged the UK's Armed Forces operating over a wider area than foreseen by the SDR 0and revised the MoD's planning assumptions. Now the Aimed Forces would have to be capable of conducting three simultaneous and enduring operations of small and medium scale.

The emphasis was on effects-based operations and developing network-centric rather than platform-centric future force structures. Developing a fully integrated network enabled capability would necessitate fewer platforms to achieve the desired military effect. It would also enhance inter-operability with the United States, which was recognised as a likely partner in any large-scale operation involving British forces.

The latest spending review encapsulated these changes. While building on the largest real increase in defence expenditure for 20 years, providing an extra £3.7 billion over the period covered by the spending review—as we have heard, an average real terms increase of 1.4 per cent a year—the MoD sought to rebalance the Armed Forces to reflect the new realities.

The recent regimental changes, supported by the Army Board and the Chiefs of Staff, actually free up the number of available battalions by up to 16, following on from the reduction of four rotated battalions deployed in Northern Ireland. Ending the arms plot and increasing the size of regiments to two battalions or more has been a long-held aspiration of the Army, dating back to at least the 1960s. The rebalancing of the land forces towards increased medium-weight capability is therefore a logical step.

The Armed Forces' capabilities in meeting a conventional Cold War-type enemy, for example in home air defence, anti-submarine warfare and surface vessels, was scaled back. Instead, the Armed Forces of the future would be better configured for rapid deployment in land, sea or air operations. It is notable in this regard that forces under Operation TELIC were deployed in half the time it took during the first Gulf War; a sign of the changing times and requirements.

The procurement programmes in the pipeline, looking at and beyond the overdue legacy programmes bequeathed by the last government, will give the British Armed Forces unquestioned force projection and mobility: Typhoon, the Joint Strike Fighter, the two new aircraft carriers, Astute, the Type 45 destroyers, the Future Rapid Effect System, Watchkeeper and the A400M, just to name a few. After years of procrastination and delay lost in the mists of time, the Bowman communications system is at last coming on stream.

Of course, more must be done to reduce the costs and delays in some of the extant procurement programmes, as other noble Lords have pointed out, but unlike some speakers I believe that the Government have now started to see some of the fruits of the Smart Acquisition programme first mooted by my noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen. The Government have promised almost –3 billion of future efficiency savings and I sincerely hope that these are achieved.

The noble Lord, Lord Garden, referred to his call for future aircraft carriers to be built in the US rather than in the UK. He told Sky TV: We could be buying American rather than giving work to the shipyards in Britain". Elsewhere, he has written that it would be wiser to build another HMS "Ocean" rather than the two aircraft carriers. I wonder whether he—or perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, when summing up for the Liberal Democrats—will further clarify these remarks and indicate the Liberal Democrat Party's intended level of expenditure on defence and how this would be funded.

Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, will similarly oblige with the Conservative's plans in the unlikely event of a Conservative government, and also explain to your Lordships' House how the proposed increase in defence spending would be financed despite cutting taxes. History tells another story. Under the previous Conservative government, when Nicholas Soames was the Armed Forces Minister in another place, planned defence spending was cut by 15 per cent.

Together with the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, I welcome the Government's commitment to a defence industrial policy and their desire to implement a coherent defence industrial strategy, so protecting the country's invaluable defence industrial base against stiff international competition. Domestically, the need to avoid peaks and troughs in companies' order books and to rationalise procurement risk management remains a compelling issue.

While NATO remains the cornerstone of the UK's defence, the EU is increasingly taking a leading supporting role, both in places such as the Balkans, where EUROFOR has replaced NATO, and through welcome initiatives such as the formation of European battle groups and the European Defence Agency, building on the work of OCCAR.

None of this should be seen as a threat to NATO. It is designed to complement the Atlantic alliance's existing capabilities. The EU member states will have to commit more resources to achieve their security aims under the fledgeling European security and defence policy.

Defence has historically been a core element in achieving the UK's broader foreign and security policy objectives, but, of course, defence policy is only one element in providing security, globally and domestically. The MoD, in keeping with its commitment to defence diplomacy and defence relations strategy, needs to co-operate with international players and UK departments such as the Foreign Office, DfID, Defra, the DTI and the Home Office to co-ordinate policies to underpin security, aid and trade, at home and abroad.

Environmental change such as global warming and natural disasters such as the recent tragic tsunami in the Far East show how the role of our Armed Forces continues to evolve, switching from war-fighting, peace-keeping and enforcement to provision of humanitarian aid in ever-shortening time spans.

As time goes on, we need to look at a new definition of security and defence, one which encompasses personal freedom from oppression and aggression, acts of terrorism, acute poverty, environmental degradation and protection from organised crime. Britain's Armed Forces, as ever, will continue to play a vital role as an essential element in providing security for citizens here and abroad. I am sure it is a task at which they will continue to excel.

5.43 p.m.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Freeman, although from a position of much less authority, I wish to speak about reserves and their importance.

It was on the evening of 16 May 1940, when the German armour was racing at an appalling speed through France, that Mr Churchill learnt from General Gamelin, the French supreme commander, that there was no strategic reserve. He later wrote in his History of the Second World War: I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the great French Army and its highest chiefs?". He had asked General Gamelin, ou est la masse de manoeuvre?". The General had replied, Aucune ". I admit", wrote Churchill, this was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life". We know the consequence of that elementary error, that neglect to provide, by means of a reserve, for a discernible threat that might perfectly well materialise. I am afraid that it is a lamentable fact today that in Northern Ireland at the least—but I suspect more widely, having heard some authoritative speeches this afternoon—Her Majesty's Government are on course to become guilty of similar neglect, and this time it will not be the fault of the military.

In Northern Ireland it has for 35 years and more been the task of the British Army to help secure law and order. Its role is to be in the second rank, not the first, in support and not in charge of the police. One can fairly say, I am sure, that its work over those years has saved countless lives, often at the cost of its own.

Over the years, successive chief constables have asked, now for more, now for fewer battalions; but when fewer battalions were reckoned to be needed—as it might be in the light of political progress—they were gratefully withdrawn but were never disbanded. They were relocated but they or their counterparts were always able to be returned to the Province should the situation worsen. A "masse de manoeuvre " was thus always retained, and depressing events recurringly showed how wise that precaution was. This has been the pattern of the sorely tried experience of the people of Northern Ireland and of Westminster Ministers year after year.

But now such renewed deployment will no longer be possible; the battalions which at the time of the defence review were thought surplus to requirements in Northern Ireland will be no more. The Secretary of State can whistle for them, but they will not be there to respond. And there will be no counterparts available because, as we have heard so often today, there is no reduction in the commitments required of the infantry in other theatres; they have been in no way reduced. Indeed, we learn that it is likely to be required in Iraq, for example, for several—it has been said for as many as 15— years to come.

I believe that if the "highest chiefs", to adopt Churchill's nomenclature, in the British Army were to be asked what will constitute the strategic reserve, they, too, might answer with one word. I think it is more likely to be two, but the sense will remain the same.

Even at the time of the defence review this was a disproportionate and unjustifiable risk. No one could sensibly rely on political progress, however welcome— and it has been—not being reversed, with renewed demands then falling upon the police. But that is now of merely academic interest in the light of the brutally executed bank robbery in Belfast.

The most significant feature of the aftermath of that has been the unqualified acceptance by the Taoiseach of the chief constable's assessment that everything points to this being the work of the IRA. Mr Ahem himself asserted that even as they were negotiating for the restoration of the devolved executive council, Messrs Adams and McGuinness knew that this outrage was being planned. Our own Government do not dissent from Mr Ahern's assertion.

At this remove, your Lordships cannot yourselves be certain where the truth lies but, by any objective reckoning—including that of the wholly admirable Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr Murphy— this has been a massive setback for the political or peace process, apparently revealing the IRA back in its old colours.

I suggest that it is obvious that had that meticulously planned raid occurred before the restructuring of the infantry was published, the Government would never have dared to assert that the political progress in Northern Ireland would suffer no reverse and that it therefore warranted the reduction of the Army's infantry strength by the equivalent of three— or is it four?— battalions. I look to the Minister to tell the House where their assessment stands this evening.

This decision has all the marks of being Treasury-led. It is characteristic of all Treasury Ministers to look for a monetary dividend from Northern Ireland. They will have successfully argued that the ceasefires showed that we had what could pass for peace. Indeed, the noble Baroness the Lord President told us last week that the duration of the ceasefires had been the driver for the decision to reduce the infantry demand. On 16 December, the Minister said that the reductions depended on the improvement in Northern Ireland continuing. Things look sadly different now, do they not? This decision should accordingly be reversed. As for Treasury Ministers, they might usefully be reminded that they, of all people, should know the necessity for reserves.

5.51 p.m.

Lord Boyce

My Lords, naturally, I too wish to join in the tribute to the men and women of our Armed Forces who consistently continue to perform magnificently on the world stage in whatever task they are invited to undertake, from tsunami disaster relief to high-intensity peacekeeping operations in Iraq.

Our theme today is developments in defence. In considering development, we need to look back to where we started in recent times, to the Strategic Defence Review. It was a good review. It was intellectually robust and a huge amount of study work went into it over a relatively long period. However, at the end of the day, it was underfunded, and from that point on, where have we gone? We have seen the reality of activity far outstripping the levels predicted in the review on which resources were supposedly based. But we have not seen any matching rise in defence spending. Indeed, as we have heard, as a percentage of GDP, defence spending has fallen away. The base line from which to view development is flawed in resource terms, and the claims made by the Government about increases in defence spending look pretty hollow, especially if one compares the 1.4 per cent rise in spending—which, as has been mentioned, is less than that of most, if not all, other government departments—to the 10 to 14 per cent rise in costs in the defence industry.

The resource accounting spat between the Treasury and the MoD, referred to my noble and gallant friend Lord Bramall, compounds that. In that spat, the MoD, needless to say, came off second best. The casualties of that spat are not, of course, to be found sitting comfortably in Whitehall: they are to be found on the front line, where the shortage of in-year and short term cash is ravaging efficiency, fighting effectiveness and morale. I do not think that the House is aware of how fragile the front line is becoming as a result of this cash shortage combined with the high tempo of operations.

My noble and gallant friends Lord Guthrie and Lord Bramall have dealt with land forces and, in particular, their training. However, it is worth repeating that the lack of training at advanced level is seeing our ability to conduct high-intensity operations further impaired every day. There are deficiencies at individual soldier level at the low-intensity end as well.

I shall concentrate on the maritime area, where I notice to my dismay that we are drifting into having a two-tier Navy which, as far as I am aware, is not agreed policy. What I mean is that, in order to keep our ships on directed or standing tasks around the world properly stored, equipped and supported, ships not actually on patrol are being stripped of equipment and spares because there are not enough to go round all those ships earmarked for high levels of readiness. I challenge the Minister to state that all the ships of our fleet could meet their declared readiness times if they were suddenly called to do so because of some burgeoning crisis.

I contend that our fleet could not do so. Not only is this unacceptable in policy terms, but it makes a nonsense of defence planning assumptions and we are probably delinquent with respect to our NATO and EU obligations. I also worry about the corrosive effects of these shortages. Not only are ships that have been robbed of equipment to keep those on patrol working unable to carry out their fleet or training tasks properly because their systems cannot be up and running, but imagine the effect on the morale of the ship's company in general. After all, who wants to be in a warship that cannot fight? Imagine the feelings of the maintainer or technician who has slaved to keep his particular piece of kit working, only to have it snatched away to service a need elsewhere that cannot be adequately supported. I am sure that this problem is also prevalent among the other arms of the Armed Forces. In effect, far from development in defence, today we have retrogression.

Turning to the medium term, we all noted the Government's intention to introduce modern technology so that our Armed Forces can become more effects-based and less focused on platforms. Noble Lords have heard Defence Ministers talk endlessly about the programme of modernisation and the rebalancing of our Armed Forces. Although I support such modernisation, I challenge the use of the word "balance" and the equation that is developing in so-called defence planning. If the theory is that network enabled capability allows the same to be done with a smaller front line, one should not reduce that front line until the network enabled capability is in place; to do so too soon is at the expense of current operational effectiveness. It is reductio ad absurdum.

The savage cuts imposed in last year's defence review pay no heed to this, which is something that I predicted in this House a year ago. We are now getting a front line that is, no doubt, expected to deliver as it did before, but without the balancing modernisation. Even if we had such modernisation, I repeat to the Minister that a ship cannot be in two places at the same time and, incidentally, network enabled capability does not help roulement and does little for sustainability.

Will the Minister tell the House how the destroyer/frigate force, which was stretched to meet its directed tasks before it was slashed by six ships, is to manage? Can he reassure us that such commitments are to be reduced? If so, what is being given up? Will it be the south Atlantic patrol, the Armilla patrol, the global war against terrorism patrol in the Persian Gulf or the remaining NATO tasks? One NATO task has already had to be given up, and that was before the present cuts were imposed. I wait to hear.

We have the Government parading their "force for good" mantra and giving tributes to the work of the Armed Forces. I am sure that the latter are well meant, but they are greeted with great cynicism at the front line because our Armed Forces know that they are underfunded and underresourced to do what is expected of them. They know that there is no beef for them behind the high-sounding phrases. They know that significant cuts are now being taken in the front line, under the disingenuous reason that we need less because of NEC. They know that network enabled capability is years away, and they know there is not even the money available to keep the new smaller front line running.

The now is important. In focusing on the future, we are forgetting the basics and traumatising our front line. If we lose today, tomorrow's jam is irrelevant and, I assume, career-limiting for those in power. If I may use a naval expression, we are standing into danger.

I exhort the Government to give proper, real and honest attention to the hollowing out that is going on, to think about what the Armed Forces do for this country—upon which the Government ride high—and to stop cheeseparing and trading on the good will and professionalism of the men and women of the Navy, Army and Air Force.

6 p.m.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing this debate to your Lordships' House. My noble friend obviously felt, as many of your Lordships did during the debate on the Queen's Speech, that further time should be set aside for this subject. We welcome the speed with which this has happened. I know that my noble friend appreciates the quality of knowledge and experience in this House, and no doubt he values the advice given to him by your Lordships.

I venture to speak in this debate with more than a little trepidation, given the array of distinguished speakers and the wealth of Armed Forces experience. I am afraid that my own experience in this field is limited to two years in the Royal Air Force as an air defence operator with Fighter Command. I also have to admit that the only battles I fought were on the sports field.

During the July Statement to the House by my noble friend Lord Bach, Lord Burnham asked a question about the size of the proposed aircraft carriers. In his usual style, he was on the ball, asking a question which many on our side would have liked to have asked if they could have done so without causing the Minister embarrassment.

I spent a couple of years as a Government Whip on the opposite Benches to Lord Burnham, and I got to know him quite well during that time. I grew to respect his honesty and his helpful style, which was very much based on his love and respect for the Armed Forces. As noble Lords before me have said, he will be missed by this House, especially during defence debates.

I am pleased that the Government are totally committed to making sure that the Armed Forces have the necessary equipment and the appropriate support to continue to be the very best in the world. It is nice to know that the Government are also committed to sustained growth and to planned defence spending. This reassures me that they are committed to the future of our Armed Forces. That is not to say that they will not have to reorganise or, indeed, modernise in some areas. The Secretary of State has made it quite clear that the necessary support and resources will be made available to ensure that our Armed Forces remain the very best in the world.

During last Thursday's debate on the Eurofighter programme secured by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, he and other noble Lords spoke in glowing terms of the potential of the Typhoon Eurofighter. He then filled us all with envy when he told the House that he actually flew one of these super fighter aircraft. This is one example of the very best quality equipment being supplied to our Armed Forces, which I trust the Government will continue to emulate in the future.

I know that my noble friend the Minister for Defence Procurement is committed to improving the performance of procurement. Thank goodness we have learnt many lessons from the past, and we can now build on Smart acquisition. This allows us to spend more money and time at the start of complex procurements, which takes away a lot of the risk involved. It also means that the MoD is in a better position to improve project management with industry.

I am aware of the Government's impressive forward programme for procurement, which covers all three services, and their wish to promote the very best equipment, including network-enabled technologies to meet the needs of the future. However, I compliment them on their strategy and willingness to work closely with both the employers and trade unions within the defence industry. Here I must declare an interest as a patron of Northern Defence Industries, which is very much at the forefront of providing this link to such good effect in the north.

I do not need to tell the Minister how this Government have resurrected shipbuilding in the north-east, and what it has meant for the region. The reopening of the Swan Hunter shipyard was a breath of fresh air to the region, not just for the jobs it created—although they were very necessary, welcome and important—but for the recreation of skills which were lost to the area when it closed previously. This has given the region an immense uplift. We now see apprentices in various crafts which are future sources of skill for the shipbuilding industry as well as supplying a valuable resource for the region's industry generally.

The progress of much of the social infrastructure in this part of Tyneside is so dependent on the jobs that are created by the Swan Hunter shipyard. I know that the Minister and the Secretary of State are working together with the industry and trade unions to maintain a continuity of work flow during this very difficult period for the industry.

I would like to mention another aspect of procurement which could play a major part in job creation in this country. I refer to naval guns. Tyneside has, for many years, produced naval guns—in fact, they date back to the 18th century. I understand that engineering companies in the north-east have opened discussions with their US counterparts to transfer the manufacturing capability to the United Kingdom in the event of their gun being used. This would be the first time a medium-calibre gun had been manufactured in the UK for 20 years. It would be a great boost to the morale of the north-east if the Mk 45 were to be produced there in the future.

Even though I have limited technical knowledge in this area, I hope the new Type 45s are fitted with nothing less than the quality of this gun, as it would make very little sense to fit them with anything less capable than that which is being fitted to American and other European countries' vessels. I am not asking the Minister to comment on this, as I realise that it is still under consideration.

It is not easy being in the driving seat of procurement when there are so many vested interests competing for a share of what is available. I judge this Government to be reliable and thoughtful and, given a fair wind, I am confident that they will continue to make the right decisions for the future of our Armed Forces.

6.7 p.m.

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I must yet again declare an interest as a trustee of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, my old regiment, which is due to be amalgamated with the Royal Scots in the recent unpopular decision, taken since I spoke in the debate on 24 November. There is no doubt that the Government's expected announcement in December, in the interests of reorganisation and modernisation, has caused considerable upset in many quarters.

Incidentally, when listening to my noble friend Lord Crickhowell talking about Wales and the Welsh regiment, I was astonished to hear about a letter that had been sent by the Chief of the General Staff to the colonel of the Royal Welch Fusiliers indicating that there was a likelihood in the future that the nomenclature for the Royal Regiment of Scotland could change to conform with the rest of infantry. I am sure that that letter will not be well received north of the Border.

I wish to comment on one aspect of the decision and hope that the Minister will respond in due course. If this debate on infantry reorganisation had taken place before June last year, I would also have had to declare an interest as a director of the National Australia Bank in Europe, the owners of the Northern Bank in Ulster. As it happens, I retired from that bank and its audit committee last June, but last month's robbery in Belfast is something that no board of directors, let alone an audit committee, would wish to be confronted with.

In the light of that massive Belfast robbery and the report, which was accepted by the Government, of the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland as to the perpetrators, I return to my remarks at col. 78 of Hansard on 24 November 2004.I said: The Minister has said that he hoped that Northern Ireland would remain stable. It is quite a dangerous assumption. The removal of one or more battalions from the Province at the moment would be at best premature". The Minister stated in the same debate at col. 29, that the infantry battalions committed to Northern Ireland would be reduced.

When it is clear that this massive, well planned and terrifying for the innocent families, act of burglary to the tune of £26 million has been committed in that Province, and no one yet apprehended for the theft, are we to assume that the advice from service chiefs to Ministers on the deployment of infantry in the Province is to be unchanged? I repeat my own feelings on the subject. The security of part of the United Kingdom is threatened by such flagrant and despicable crimes and reducing our military commitment there is a very high risk.

I have no wish to speak further on the decision to cut the infantry manpower at a time when the United States are increasing theirs by a considerable amount, or to enter further into the difficulties which will follow for those who are involved in recruiting for the infantry. In an election year I should be surprised if these decisions do not figure prominently at the hustings. Like the noble Lord, Lord Garden, I hope that the Government will ensure that all service men get a vote.

For a moment I would like to raise another aspect of defence is in the bailiwick of the Minister, and that is procurement. Reports have appeared in the press that soldiers training for Iraq have not been able to use under-barrel grenade launchers for the SA80 rifle, as all available had to be sent to Iraq. If that is so, soldiers' first experience will be when they get out there. Is it also true that there was a failure to buy training rounds? Perhaps I should draw the Minister's attention to a book which I have been reading by Andrew Roberts about Napoleon. He writes: Because Napoleon had not seen the British infantry in action since Toulon, he entirely failed to appreciate their superiority to many of the Continental foes the Grande Armée has so often vanquished in the past. For reasons of cost neither the French nor any of the other Continental armies even used to fire live ammunition in training. Practising with live ammunition gave the British an immediate advantage in terms of accuracy and efficiency". If that were true then, surely it is just as true now. I echo what the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, said about the very great importance of sending men into battle with proper training.

Is it true that troops from the 12th Mechanised Brigade, scheduled for Iraq in April, will spend three months training for deployment, but will be unable to use either the Minimi machine gun or the grenade launcher because attempts to cut costs mean that they will not be able to train properly on either equipment until they get to Iraq? Surely that cannot be right. Can we be sure that the Government's drive for agility in our forces is robust and that costs are not so constrained as to be a real cause for concern? It is a big question and it needs answering.

I accept that defence spending has to try to sustain a balanced force that is agile enough to cope with the difficult demands made on it. I trust that we can sustain a balanced force with the current funding level. If we aspire to lead a European force, and also provide a credible commitment to the United States-led force as in Iraq, are Ministers too much under a Treasury cosh to provide that? Above all, is our Army, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, hinted, now dangerously small?

6.15 p.m.

Lord Wright of Richmond

My Lords, I should first like to join with other noble Lords in expressing my admiration for the role which our Armed Forces play in the defence and security of the United Kingdom and increasingly in peacekeeping activities worldwide. I was privileged to work closely with military colleagues throughout my career in the Diplomatic Service. But I should like to take this opportunity to remind your Lordships of the vital role which our diplomatic and intelligence services also play in the defence of the realm and in the avoidance of conflict—what the noble Lord, Lord Garden, referred to as a "joint approach to conflict prevention".

As a former head of the Diplomatic Service and before that as a member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, I am glad to know that the very close co-operation and co-ordination between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence, which I valued in the days when I worked closely with several of the noble and gallant Lords who have spoken in this debate, still continues. I also have warm personal memories of the close working relationship in the Joint Intelligence Committee between the armed services, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the three security and intelligence agencies.

I do not propose to talk much about Iraq today, but I am sad to have to point to the United States Administration's handling of Iraq as an example of how not to conduct a co-ordinated defence and security policy or what the Minister referred to as, the successful management of international problems". It appears that not only were highly experienced members of the State Department and the American intelligence community not consulted in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq; there is good evidence that they were positively excluded from the planning process. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to say that fuller consultation with diplomats and others with experience of Iraq and the Middle East on both sides of the Atlantic might have avoided the second Gulf War, with all the casualties and political mayhem which has resulted from an inadequately planned invasion. A National Intelligence Council report issued in Washington last week concluded that the invasion of Iraq had substantially increased the terrorist threat, something of which several of us warned in this House before the invasion.

So my plea today is that we should remember that diplomacy and the armed services share a joint objective and responsibility; namely, to promote the security of the United Kingdom within a safer, more peaceful, world. This indeed was given as the first of the FCO's specific policy responsibilities in the Foreign Secretary's strategy paper of December 2003, a paper drawn up in close consultation not just with the Ministry of Defence, but also with all other government departments and agencies concerned with our international relations. As that paper put it: Our security and prosperity depend increasingly on international action and negotiation", with the aim of preventing conflict.

It is not for me any longer to plead for better resources for the Diplomatic Service. It is very difficult to calculate how many lives or how much expenditure may have been saved by diplomatic intervention in the India-Pakistan nuclear crisis or in the denuclearisation of Libya. But I should like to remind your Lordships of the contrast, which I suspect is still very little understood, between the £30 billion which the taxpayer rightly contributes annually to our armed services to enable them to fight wars and restore peace, compared with one-thirtieth of that sum awarded annually to the Diplomatic Service to enable it to help prevent wars.

Several noble and gallant Lords have drawn attention today to the cuts in defence resources at a time when the armed services have never faced so many commitments. The Diplomatic Service has also faced a 5 per cent reduction in staff and the closure of about 40 posts, at a time when the demands on diplomacy and the need for a better understanding of the world have never been greater. I hope that the Minister can give us an assurance that the Government are aware of the potential damage which those reductions pose for our national security and for our international reputation.

6.20 p.m.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for this very important opportunity to discuss defence matters. First, however, I should like to add something about my noble friend Lord Burnham. My first job on the Front Bench eight years ago was as his Whip. I was absolutely terrified. He was very kind and taught me well. Like everyone else, I shall sorely miss him.

This has been a most interesting debate. I remind the Minister that, in a similar debate held last year, he said that although I had asked, some excellent questions about the two aircraft carriers"— [Official Report, 13/1/04; col. 535.]— he did not intend to answer any of them. It will therefore come as no surprise that I should like to take this opportunity to focus once again on the two proposed aircraft carriers, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales. I hope that, this year, the Minister will be able to answer at least some of my questions.

We on these Benches, like many of your Lordships, were delighted at the announcement which heralded the go-ahead—or the go-ahead of the go-ahead—for the construction of these important vessels. With the inevitable retirement of a considerable number of our naval assets, these two carriers will eventually fill vitally important gaps in the Navy's ability safely to carry out its remit, both now and in the future. They are much-needed capital ships which will be the nucleus of a very formidable fighting force.

There are, however, concerns with the programme, some of which I touched on in discussions on the Typhoon last week, on 13 January. Can the Minister confirm the current budget for the delivery of the two aircraft carriers? I notice that the £3 billion figure suggested by the press is already greater than the £2.8 billion figure we were discussing this time last year. I appreciate that he cannot guarantee that the budget, whatever it is, will not be exceeded, but can he comment on whether the Government have decided to scale down the size of the carriers as a solution?

I believe that the original proposition was that both carriers should be 65,000 tonnes, but in response to a Question on 15 December, the Minister seemed to backtrack by stating that, we are not committed to an absolute size", and that, size is not of the greatest importance here".—[Official Report, 15/12/04; col. 1333.] Can he indicate what the size might eventually be? Will the final size include enough flexibility to provide extra space for new capabilities that are likely to be developed during the life of these vessels?

In light of reports at the end of last year regarding the cutbacks in carriers and jet aircraft in President Bush's defence review, what commitment can the Minister give regarding the delivery dates of future multinational defence projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter or Joint Combat Aircraft? If the weight problem suffered by this aircraft is now definitely solved, are any other problems likely to affect the delivery dates of the STOL version of the JSF? If there is still an insuperable problem with the STOL version, can the Minister confirm that the design of the new carriers will be adaptable so that the catapult version can, in the end, be used? Following concerns raised by the Daily Telegraph on 4 January, can the Minister confirm that the procurement of the two aircraft carriers and 150 Joint Strike Fighters will not be affected by the budget over-runs from the Typhoon programme? If not, what is he prepared to say about the implications for other defence projects?

I am led to believe that key deadlines for these new carriers have been tinkered with. While the department has allegedly said that the definition of "in service" has not changed, but could differ between projects, shipbuilders say that the goalposts are being moved all the time to avoid criticism of possible delays. Could the Minister please provide a definition of "completion" and "in service" regarding the aircraft carrier programme? The Government must surely know the minimum operational requirement needed. Could such an alteration in definition affect the proposed end dates of 2012 and 2015? To my simple mind, "in service" means available for deployment with a full complement of aircraft, crew and all other necessities for warfare.

In light of this, what is to become of the old carriers? I understand that "Ark Royal" is currently mothballed, and that "Invincible" and "Illustrious" will be retired in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Would it be plausible for one or more of them to be adapted to become maintenance and support vessels for the new carriers? Is that sensible or will it be covered by the MARS programme? What is the progress on that programme?

On a similar issue that could influence deadlines, can the Minister provide some information regarding the restructuring of the shipyards which are likely to be involved in this programme? Can he inform the House of the conclusions made during the talks between industry executives and Her Majesty's Government regarding the creation of two separate companies— one to build submarines and one to build surface ships, rather than one all-embracing alliance? Will any delay to the completion of these discussions stall the start of construction of the carriers? Can the Minister confirm that the yard under consideration to assemble the hulls is Rosyth?

How will this potential division of labour between the shipyards affect the role of the physical integrator? We asked specific questions regarding the physical integrator before the Christmas Recess, and my noble friend Lord Astor of Hever said that we hoped that the announcement of the appointment for such a high profile project would be made in Parliament first and not to the media. Yet, I see from the Independent that the appointment is allegedly due to go to a subsidiary of a giant US arms contractor. Will the Minister confirm whether that is true, and, if it is, tell us why, once again, such news is available in the press before it has been announced to Parliament? As the role has apparently more or less been assigned, will the Minister place in the Libraries of both Houses the specific job description by which the physical integrator shall be guided? That would help clear up the confusion about what this role means. Given that the appointment of a physical integrator seems to be rather late in the day, will the Minister assure us that that will not affect the date for the main-gate decision on the carriers, whenever that might be?

Finally, on a seafaring point, I wish to ask the Minister about the potential problem of the vast changes to the seabed that the giant earthquake in the Indian Ocean might have caused. Is he aware of any arrangements to carry out an urgent survey of the area, so that the Navy, business and leisure shipping are aware of any changes to the shallow seabed in particular and charts are corrected as soon as possible?

6.29 p.m.

Viscount Tenby

My Lords, this is something of a maiden speech, in the sense that I have not before taken part in a defence debate. As an amateur soldier from another era, I know my limitations. In addition, I am flanked by a broadside of distinguished noble and gallant friends, whose combined firepower is terrible to behold.

I enjoyed my time in the Regular Army and the TA very much, and I am saddened by the fact that so many of our young today have not had the enriching experience of serving in the Armed Forces. As this is a defence debate, perhaps I may say briefly in passing how much I agree with the Minister's decision not to make the Deepcut inquiry public, for the compelling reasons that he gave last week.

I want to make a few brief general remarks and then speak of a specific concern. The ending of the arms plot and the creation of what in some quarters have unkindly been called "Starbucks" or "super regiments" must make strategic sense and is long overdue. Quite apart from anything else, it will help to solve one of the continuing problems in the modern Army—that of retention, which is of course of critical importance.

With many others, however, I have grave reservations about the reduction in infantry manpower when each month seems to bring the threat or reality of fresh and demanding commitments. Given this new situation, it must be right to concentrate on rapid reaction forces, together with the back-up equipment required to sustain such operations.

However, modern technology costs a great deal of money, and the procurement experience for new equipment over recent years has hardly been a happy one, as we have heard several times this afternoon. For example, only a few weeks ago we were told in the press that, after years of development, the Bowman communication system was still faulty, in some cases giving radiation burns to the signallers using it; that, among other things, the American-designed batteries for it would not work, and that instructors, no doubt with tongue somewhat in cheek, were advising troops that they would be better off buying AA batteries from local shops to power the sets.

The unpalatable truth is that, as the years roll by, with our limited financial resources we have less and less chance of keeping up with the Americans technically, yet we still engage in ambitious procurement programmes, which come to fruition only after vast cost overruns, unacceptable delays and many heart-stopping moments. Set against such profligacy, the culling of 1,500 troops seems unfortunate, to say the least. I simply say to noble Lords that pinpoint accuracy is achieved with a laser bomb—always assuming that it is the right target—but, with the operations with which we are confronted today, boots on the street are what matter.

I turn briefly to the subject of the reserves and, in doing so, wish to say how much I agree with the earlier remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Freeman. Much media coverage has been given to the reluctance of TA personnel, probably influenced by their employers in some cases, to commit to overseas service for a substantial period of time. I can understand the problem but it is not one that should be solved by cutting the TA's strength.

There are surely two distinct roles for the TA: specialised back-up for our front-line forces, for which a certain commitment should be mandatory; and the old traditional role of the TA—home defence and aid to the civil power, the importance of which has never been greater as a result of the continuing terrorist threat. Of course, the valuable by-product of the TA is that it maintains a regimental and geographical tradition in the Army and is also often a useful stepping-stone for those wishing to join the Regular Army later.

I now turn to a particular concern, which has already been referred to today in a powerful speech by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell. In doing so, I declare an interest as a former member of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. I am delighted that most of my birds have been shot by the noble Lord and delighted that they have been shot by such an excellent marksman. If there is any repetition, I apologise in advance and offer two excuses. The first is that, although seemingly only of minor administrative importance in the grand strategic order of things, it is of vital concern to the future health of the infantry. My second excuse is that a good regimental march bears being heard again.

Recruitment figures for the various regiments are a continual concern but, in reply to a Question last September, the Government stated that such figures were not kept centrally and, at any rate, could be provided only at exorbitant cost. That statement was torpedoed in an article in the Spectator shortly before Christmas by Andrew Gilligan—a name which may not be entirely unfamiliar to Ministers.

In the article, the writer claimed that the magazine had been able to get hold of the recruitment figures for the previous two months for the cost of a postage stamp. Indeed, even if it were a first-class postage stamp, it would seem to be a considerable economy. The figures revealed that two of the battalions to be axed had better recruitment figures than two of the Guards battalions and, sadly, than the Parachute Regiment, whose strength matters very much.

The Royal Welch Fusiliers is currently in the top 5 per cent of the best recruited regiments. Anyone with any knowledge at all of its history knows that the way in which its title is expressed is crucial to its morale and therefore to that recruitment record. As the House: has heard, a strong request was therefore made that, in any reorganisation, it should become known as the Royal Welch Fusiliers (1st Battalion Royal Welsh Regiment). Of course, such a request had no strategic implications whatever and no impact, other than administrative, on the reorganisation. Noble Lords may therefore imagine the collective dismay across the whole of Wales and, indeed, far beyond when it was announced by the Army Board shortly before Christmas that that form of words would be granted to the Scottish regiments but not to the English or Welsh ones.

I am of course delighted that the Scottish regiments have been granted their wish—however fleetingly, as we have now found out—but that it has been denied to the Welsh regiments is, quite simply, beyond comprehension. I invite the Chief of the General Staff, or any member of the Army Board, to come up with a single logical explanation for such discrimination and bias. It cannot be for across-the-board ease of communication because, as the Scottish regiments are treated differently, there can be no singing from the same hymn sheets anyway.

Can it be, I ask myself, an ill-judged attempt at public relations—a black art in which I confess I have dabbled in my business career—in an effort to repair the damage caused by the unfavourable publicity after the axing of that splendid regiment, the Black Watch, while on operations in Iraq? It surely cannot be in response to pressure from the Scottish National Party, reported at the time, over the reduction from six to five Scottish regiments. It has even been suggested that it was felt in certain quarters that so draconian a step might have even more serious consequences for what is already a disappointing recruiting picture in Scotland. But if that is the case, what about the recruiting effect on Welsh and English regiments? Perhaps the whole concept of retitling should be revisited.

Whatever the reason, and however bizarre it turns out to be, an explanation emerged last Wednesday when, as reported in the Times and mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, the assertion was made by the Chief of the General Staff in front of the Commons Defence Select Committee that the Scottish regiments were to keep their names at the front of their title and the English and Welsh regiments were not.

There is clearly some misunderstanding and confusion here. I can, indeed, own up to having been at the Ministry of Defence on 6 December, together with the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, to make representations to the Secretary of State on precisely this point. I was also aware of previous correspondence on this issue.

Such confusion in the lines of communication does not exactly fill one with confidence when it comes to operations in the field. But there is, after all, an up-side—a light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps I may proceed towards it by stating publicly for all to hear: yes, of course we would like our repeated requests to be the Royal Welch Fusiliers (1st Battalion the Royal Welsh Regiment) to be granted, and we look forward to early confirmation that that will be so. I ask the Minister to pass this request to his right honourable friend in another place for early action, to the Chief of the General Staff and to ECAB.

Noble Lords who have not served in the infantry may feel that this is nit-picking, but the regimental system is at the core of our Army. The geographical and family characteristics of British infantry regiments—the ethos that when the chips are down it is unthinkable to let your comrades or their family down—is what makes the British Army, quite simply, the best in the world and the envy of it.

I end by giving the Minister a depressing forecast. Deny this, in the grand scheme of things, minor administrative adjustment and you will lose not only the 1,500 you mistakenly seek to lose but, as the years go by, very many more. By then, it will be too late and you may also have lost one of the great regimental names in the British Army.

6.40 p.m.

Lord Tunnicliffe

My Lords, I shall speak on one issue only—the future Army structure. I welcome the way in which the decision has come about and its outcome.

I was provoked into this by listening to the repetition by the noble Lord, Lord Bach, of the Statement made by the Secretary of State on 16 December. The reaction to it varied from cool to outright hostility, whereas I saw a good process and a good outcome.

Before I continue, I shall confess to my qualifications. I am afraid that I have never been in the Army—not even as a corporal. I was once captured by the Royal Air Force for two years, which was good enough to teach me to fly while I was at university. Indeed, it had the effect of giving me an insight into the Armed Forces, a respect and a long-term affection for them. I am not qualified by experience, but I am qualified in the sense that I have worked for many years in the public sector. I have managed an organisation of 20,000 plus people and I have had to go through major reorganisations. The tests that you always face in the public sector are whether you create the best and most appropriate capability, and whether you are creating value for money. I believe that the future Army structure meets those tests.

How, without measuring it, and without experience can I come to that decision? First, I look to those making the decision—to the chief executive, in particular. In this case, I look to the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson. Most people will know his career backwards, but it bears repetition. He is a graduate who was commissioned into the Intelligence Corps. He served in the Parachute Regiment, both commanding a company and the first battalion. He had many tours in Northern Ireland. Most thinking citizens will always remember his excellent and proper reaction to Wesley Clark when, having been invited to occupy Pristina airfield, Sir Mike, as commander of the Kosovo force in 1999, said, "Sir, I'm not starting World War 3 for you".

He has been Chief of the General Staff for just over a year and, as a non-professional, I look to him to lead this decision-making process. He is intelligent, experienced, courageous and he has integrity. In this modern information age, it is good to get at those decisions, at least in part. Sir Mike has made many statements in public, and he has talked about the shape of the Armed Forces in the future.

In his press statement on 16 December he talked about the, operational need for a more agile, deployable and flexible force", with more "medium-weight capability" and "re-balancing". He admitted to some problems when he said: Units are currently not established for war-fighting without considerable augmentation". He admitted to "overstretch" and not achieving the 24-month target. He pointed out that that had improved considerably in the past year and that within a year, it was hoped to achieve the 24-month objective, at least on average, which is the test of whether there is stretch.

He said that it was powerful evidence for the future Army structure, and continued: The ending of the current Arms Plot system is a logical change that is broadly supported by the infantry, both serving and retired". He said that "re-roling was inefficient" and "adversely affected family stability" and that, the Arms Plot rendered some 7 to 8 battalions unavailable … we did not have, therefore, 40 battalions in the effective Order of Battle, but rather some 32. In the future, the 36 battalions will all be available". He and the Army Board concluded that, the current existence of single battalion regiments has run its course". I believe his claim that such reorganisation would make some 10 per cent more battalions available. They will be more capable battalions because of the improved specialist support within them, and they will be more balanced and appropriate to the threats of the future.

Some will say that it comes at a terrible price. To hear some speeches or comments in the press, it is seen as almost the destruction of the British Army as we know it. However, the decision was made not by an individual but the Executive Committee of the Army Board. It is good that in this period of modern openness we know some of the input into that decision.

I refer to a paper by Lieutenant General Sir Alistair Irwin, who is adjutant general. He, too, is a graduate, but comes from a different perspective. He was commissioned into the Black Watch. He commanded the 1st Battalion at one time. He served in Northern Ireland. In December 2000 he became General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland. He was commandant of Sandhurst and is currently colonel commandant of the Scottish division. He wrote a paper, which is now in the public domain, entitled, What is Best in the Regimental System?". which was one of the inputs to the Army Board's discussions. I commend the paper to your Lordships. It appeared in the Royal United Services Institute journal in October 2004.

This seasoned and widely-experienced infantry soldier starts by saying that we should look at some of the, characteristics that are essential to the delivery of fighting power". He continues: The list of 'non-regimental' characteristics includes: fighting spirit, unit cohesion, and retention. It is clear from a study of our contemporary and historical experience that these features, essential to success in battle and the long-term health of our Army, depend chiefly on good leadership. Good officers and NCOs will create an effective operational unit … Whatever kind of organizational or regimental model there may be, this essential truth will hold good". He then ran through the best and the worst of the regimental structure. He outlined the issues of a sense of belonging, continuity, regional connections, focus for recruiting, names and traditions and esprit de corps. He also referred to the worst characteristics, which he says apply, mainly if not exclusively to single battalion infantry regiments". He stressed that he saw the worst characteristics as being inflexibility for officers and soldiers, the disruption of arms plotting, personal instability and the fact that single battalions lacked critical mass, and almost always had to have new people brought in to bring them up to strength for operational duties. He and the Executive Committee of the Army Board took on board all that thinking and concluded that the current system of single battalion regiments has run its course.

The Army Board has set about a good process and has produced a good outcome. It has met the very reasonable test of creating an effective and appropriate Army for the future within the available resources. We should support the changes and praise them. I share the concerns of other noble Lords that the rest of the mix must be brought together. Clearly the right capital programmes must be put in place—not just in the Army, but in the other services in terms of creating mobility and support. If the integration is not right we shall waste the parts that are right. Things must be brought together equally.

I accept that if we do not maintain the right level of training, we shall once again waste resources. I am sure that the Minister and the Government will take account of those concerns. Our concerns should not diminish the excellence of the process and the quality of outcome.

To use Mike Jackson's words, we should praise the Army for having, the courage to keep on the front foot and make adjustments to the current Order of Battle to fight the next war and not the last

6.49 p.m.

Lord Selsdon

My Lords, as your Lordships will know, this is a great year and we shall be drinking toasts to the immortal memory and to confusion to the enemy.

I start my intervention today with a little bit of confusion among ourselves. I should like to know who, what and where is the enemy. Unless we can so define him, her or it, we cannot work out what form of defence we may need. I am concerned that we have a foreign policy which has changed from time to time. This Government began with an ethical foreign policy, which sounded like some form of new ethical pharmaceutical which might or might not be good for you.

The policy has moved along and we are returning to what we might call the "scramble for Africa" and the desire that we should make major investments or provide substantial funds to the African continent to help it to save itself and to restore stability. But the provision of money to that continent without the necessary security is a waste of money. Funds end up in the wrong projects, in the wrong hands and in the wrong purses.

I have looked in the mirror and asked myself what is the difference between defence spelt with a "c" and defense spelt with an "s". Defense spelt with an "s" is much more aggressive and relates to suppression; whereas defence with a "c" relates to compromise.

We should have some idea of who our enemy is and who are our friends. The changes that have taken place in the past 25 years—and remember that this is only the 15th anniversary of perestroika —are mind-boggling and demonstrate, above all, our lack of knowledge and understanding. When these changes first took place I used to test people and say, of course you know that Ruritania is no longer behind the Iron Curtain like Chechnya, or any one of the other names such as Azerbaijan that we only came to know when there was a crisis which needed human intervention. Few people realised that Ruritania was a Peter Sellers country.

When we look at some of the old structures of those areas, and we see the problems in the Ukraine now, we should remember that Belarus was originally part of the Duchy of Litva, which included Lithuania, part of Polack on the left, most of Ukraine on the right and part of the former Soviet Union or Russia.

Noble Lords should know that, in this alcoholic year, vodka was first introduced in 1398 in Belarus. The tsars found out that the Tartars used it to wind up their army, so they created bars. They realised how good it was and kept the revenue from vodka for all but maybe a few years until Mr Smirnoff arrived. I suggest that the Government should allocate the entire tax revenue from alcohol to the Ministry of Defence because a precedent has been set.

Are the countries of eastern Europe our friends, our allies or our enemies? Surely, they should now be our friends. Your Lordships will be aware that a day hence in the Solent 40 foreign navies will be represented for Trafalgar Day. Furthermore, the sail training vessels will be equipped with cannon to re-enact some of Nelson's battles. On 21 October—that great day—the House of Lords Yacht Club will host an event in the Cholmondeley Room, with as many people as we can in support. Perhaps the Minister will grant me a boon. We are told that we cannot have any hot food and that if we get a naval vessel alongside that would contravene the normal rules of catering in the House of Lords.

Let me move on a little. Africa, is it an enemy or friend? Africa will be a costly exercise. In order to stabilise it, and if we are to achieve what the Chancellor currently hopes, we shall need a minimum 100,000 troops on the ground.

We have had a couple of triumphs that we did not expect. We did not expect to bring democracy to Afghanistan and to allow the warlords to carve up the territory between them in peace and claim democracy. We find that more drugs are emerging from Afghanistan than ever before, yet we have a frigate on drug patrol in the Caribbean. Are drugs our enemy? If so, is it the role of the Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force to stop drugs, or is this just a side issue?

Then we have our friends the Libyans. Few people can tell me why the Americans fell out with the Libyans. I do not propose to tell your Lordships today, but it is worth thinking about. We did not. But they have a certain sense of humour because we have almost more British people working in Libya than in many countries in the Middle East. Libya, surprisingly enough, allows you to have a private sector company, so long as it includes only members of the same family. They were so excited when they were told they were going to be brought in from the cold and that their weapons of mass destruction were going to be surrendered in exchange for the recognition that they could increase the revenue from oil production from 1 million barrels per day to perhaps 2 million or more, with the oil price going up. They sent all their kit off. I am told—but this is probably a lower deck buzz—that they sent some of the more important documents by an American courier but the Americans lost the waybills and they had to be searched for later.

Libya and Afghanistan are two of our successes. We can do better than that. When we look at the warnings that were given on Iraq—there is that lovely phrase, wheresover they may be upon their lawful occasions—were we on our lawful occasions in Iraq? I will for ever stand by the right of the Prime Minister of this country to go to war on his say-so alone, because that is a quick decision-making process. But the Government deliberately ignored the advice and the recommendations of many of us who have dealt with the Middle East, both in the public and private sectors, and cast aside a letter from 52 ambassadors and former high commissioners giving warnings. The warnings are there now. Yet our very ethical foreign policy is going to force democracy upon the countries of the Arab world. That is a recipe for disaster and will cause more conflict than anybody could possibly imagine. Here again is a collection of potential enemies.

Are our enemies North Korea, Iran, Syria or Zimbabwe? I wish they could be defined. In fact, often we have to look at the problems of the enemy from within. But if we decide that currently we are on the night watch and do not know what the dawn will bring over the horizon, we should ask what is our minimum requirement for the defence of the territory of this realm wheresoever it may be upon the face of the earth and our people, wheresoever they may be?

The matter is fairly simple. We cannot do without a well-equipped navy or carriers of the kind proposed. It is a credit to the Government that they have identified this, but it is a real worry that if they shoot themselves in the foot we shall lose the capability to create an expeditionary force and the possibility of doing almost anything outside the Channel. So these commitments must go ahead.

Technology alone does not win battles. I am worried that the Foreign Office is selling off buildings in order to buy hi-tech equipment for better communication when there are insufficient people on the ground to provide the knowledge necessary to make strategic defence decisions. Then I ask myself, wait a moment, whose defence force is it? It is the taxpayers; it is our defence force. It is not the Government's, who have surreptitiously, and not corruptly, decided that in many areas they will not spend their own money but that they will spend other peoples. I give the hospital example.

By the time the current programme is completed, the Government will have spent about £320 million on hospitals. But they are predicting that perhaps £ 12 billion to 14 billion will be spent by private sector funds under PFI. That is an amazing amount of money. One could look at allocating even part of that to our defence programme.

We cannot afford not to defend ourselves. It should not be a question of money or resources; we have to have people on the ground. That leads to recruitment and the size of our Army or Navy. People are stupid to forget that in most parts of the world tremendous value is given to what is called goodwill in the balance sheet. It is not a fixed asset, like a piece of land on Salisbury Plain; effectively, it is the goodwill that comes from other nations, from within and from one's own forces. Many of us think of the Navy as being a united unit in war, which has "HMS" on its hatbands and shows loyalty to its ships, to its oppos and to its colleagues.

The Army has a different form of loyalty, which is inbred. To destroy it could destroy morale more quickly than any other move. That would be so unnecessary. I never knew how many people there were in a battalion, a division or an army, but it would be a simple matter. An amendment could delete the word "regiment" and replace it with the word "battalion". One would then find that, effectively, every regiment today is only a battalion and no names would need to be changed at all. One could have the infrastructure one wished. The morale issue worries me.

Finally, we come to the role of the Royal Air Force. Of course, it must have its fighters to defend the realm from attack by whoever, whenever, but we cannot predict who may or may not attack us. We cannot predict whether rivers or the Channel may be mined. We are still a maritime nation and we have greater trade per head of population—exports and imports— than any other nation in the world, with the possible exception of the Dutch.

Something else to consider is that we have a loyalty and a duty to the Commonwealth and to Her Majesty the Queen. We have not yet explored at length the possibilities of co-operation with Commonwealth armed forces in peacekeeping, where technology may be required at a lower level.

There is so much to be done and so little time. I am grateful to the silver-haired noble Lord with the silver tongue on the Benches opposite, who has carried out such a remarkable job, with no division at all. I would like to give him greater resources because, if he can persuade his colleagues on the sofa beds up the road, before they go down the Swannee, that we can afford a better investment in defence, he will have done a great job.

7.2 p.m.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, noble Lords have mentioned their admiration for the achievements of the Armed Forces and that they are a force for good. Naturally, I concur with that. Looking a little deeper at the effect and the impact that the Armed Forces have achieved throughout various parts of the world, a quick look at Sierra Leone gives a tremendous picture of achievement and shows how well the Armed Forces can cope with rejuvenating a country and rehabilitating it in just about every direction. If something like that, but on a larger scale, had been thought of for Iraq, we may not be where we are today. Her Majesty's Armed Forces are very good at such operations.

On a smaller scale, if one cares to look back, one will see that the Armed Forces brought agriculture to certain parts of Muscat and Oman. We should not always just look at our Armed Forces in relation to fighting; we should also consider the impact that they have on the ground in Iraq today and in the other places that I have mentioned.

I have one or two points to put to the Minister. When considering the situation in Iraq, I was very dismayed and somewhat angry by the hoo-hah, the antics and the behaviour of the media and those down the corridor in another place about sending an infantry battalion, the Black Watch (the Royal Highland Regiment) from one place to another. I simply cannot see the requirement for the interference of either the media or those in another place. In any campaign or in any alliance, it is perfectly routine for battalions, regiments and groups of troops to be moved here and there.

Being under the direct command of Americans is nothing new. My regiment in Korea was under American command for a total of nine months. I do not know why some people are quibbling about 30 days or a couple of months. That is nothing strange. The antics, the writings and the mouthings from the media and those down the corridor are almost insulting to the Army and certainly to a great regiment like the Black Watch. It makes it look as though the highlanders were not up to the challenge.

Every commanding officer I have ever known has been delighted to be sent off on his own on some task, providing he is properly resourced and looked after and providing there is reasonable command from above. He simply gets on with the job. Those concerned should leave such matters to the generals on the ground. From personal observation, I am very happy with the good young generals whom we have and have had in Iraq. The armchair warriors from the press or another place should get on with their proper daily jobs of running the country. That sums up my feelings on that incident.

That takes me to a commanding officer in today's Armed Forces. I am perturbed that the job of a commanding officer is being eroded. Today he is often not given enough support because he is supposed to obey health and safety rules or whatever and he has a man from the press breathing down his neck 24 hours a day. Some decisions on legal matters taken by a number of commanding officers—so far luckily only a few—have been overridden. A commanding officer has certain responsibilities; he is competent, but I suppose soon he will have a lawyer tagging along behind him everywhere he goes.

The whole ethos of a regiment or a battalion, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, cares to call it, is being tampered with to a degree by some extraordinary rules from within our national laws and by some absolutely nutty ones coming from Europe. That will destroy the whole being of great regiments or battalions. I hope that the Minister will hear me when I say that we need to safeguard the military field, the military ethos and the military way. That is the only way in which we will win and it is the only way in which men will go into battle feeling secure and confident.

I have worked out—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that every 18 months an infantry battalion serves in Iraq for six months. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, said, we do not know for how long that will go on. That is up to our Ministers and our politicians.

I was also distressed to hear that the Foreign Office is cutting its strength by some 5 per cent. I have always thought of the Foreign Office as being like the infantry: if it really wants to know what is happening put boots on the ground. A few embassies that I have been in recently are very sparse of people. They are overworked, and I wonder if they are doing their job competently.

The sad thing is that there is a danger that some of these embassies or consulates will be staffed by locals. That is fine, but there are locals, and then there are locals. All I can say to the Foreign Office is that they had better be quite clear v/ho they are choosing, and who is on whose side. "Mr Al'Quaeda" is quite good at planting people here and there, and people should be very careful.

One is worried, too—and this came up in a little debate we had in Ireland the other day—that there is definitely a cutting of the intelligence services here and there. This, with a tiny Army, Navy and Air Force, is stupidity, in every way that I can think of. We want more intelligence when we have small forces, whatever the punch they can give. That should be looked at.

I seldom speak about Special Forces, for the obvious reason that it is better that I should keep my mouth shut. I am very pro, on the whole, what is happening within the Special Forces under this new guise. I am also worried, however, about the particular ethos of the SAS, of which I have to declare that I am president, and the SBS, who are my dear friends. The word "special" means just that. Second-class special is not special. If you dilute this product, you are putting its future, and the future of the things that it needs, in grave danger.

I believe the whole military scenario at the moment is on a knife-edge. We are lacking resources, funding, manpower and proper battle training. Those in the Ministry of Defence, whether they wear uniform or are civilian, and the Ministers in particular, should realise that if some of these matters are not put right, then one cannot guarantee to win every away match. It is a serious situation. If we do not win an away match in the following days, it will not be the fault of the sailors, soldiers and airmen. It will be the fault of Ministers and, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, says—and I was very glad to see that there was at least one supporter on the Government Benches—it will be the fault of the people I have mentioned. One or two people had better wake up for the future good of the Armed Forces of this country.

7.13 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I remind the House of my peripheral interest.

Over recent years, I have taken part in several defence debates. I cannot expect an answer from the Minister on every point I raise, but I am not convinced that I have received a reply to even most of my questions. However, I am very grateful that the Minister has found time for this debate in government time.

An advantage of speaking late is that many points that need to be made already have been, and by people much better than myself. However, I do have one or two points to make. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, has just mentioned the redeployment of the Black Watch. The disappointment for me was that the Government made a virtue of taking days to make such a decision. I do agree, however, with the sentiments of the noble Viscount. He also mentioned the role of commanding officers and their responsibilities. I agree with every word. The commanding officer's role has changed from administering a system of military discipline to attempting to implement a perfect system of justice, and then failing in the former.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, and others mentioned the size of the defence budget. He pointed out that, in percentage GDP terms, defence expenditure has never been lower. Ministers trumpet the extra resource for defence. It is the word "resource" that worries me. The Minister, in his excellent opening speech, mentioned the £3.7 billion increase, but can that cash be used for service pay, training and extra new equipment? Or it is just to cover resource accounting and budgeting costs, arising from higher than expected inventory?

I have no doubt that the full implementation of the Strategic Defence Review will give us a fabulous capability for undertaking expeditionary warfare. The Government deserve credit for the SDR. However, there were two faults: the year on year cost savings, and cutting the size of the TA. Those cuts in the size of the TA are beginning to bite.

The noble Lord, Lord Truscott, mentioned that on Operation TELIC we deployed in half the time of Operation GRANBY, but he omitted to mention that we also deployed twice the kit.

I have been in the TA for over 30 years now, and my only surprise has been that I have only engaged in two operations, only one of which was technically compulsory. I am very pleased that the Government had the moral courage to use compulsory mobilisation of the TA. The difficulty is that the TA and Reserve Forces cupboards are practically bare. Nearly every member of the Reserve Forces, particularly in the TA, who could be used on operations has been on operations, particularly on Operaton TELIC.

The TA is a once only, or perhaps once in five years, injection. I do not think it should be regarded as a constantly available top-up to the Regular Army when it is being over-committed. I have a slight anxiety that there is a danger that newly trained TA soldiers with very little experience may find themselves on operations for which they are ill-trained. They will not have carried out enough weekend exercises, or enough annual camps on big exercises. Perhaps that is why the staff on Operation TELIC 1 largely mobilised lance corporals and corporals, to ensure that they had sufficient experience. My question for the Minister is on this point: what is the current allocation for man training days for the TA? In my heyday, I was doing about 50 to 55 days training per annum. Less than that, and you really are not going to get the experience you need to be useful on operations.

Many noble Lords have mentioned the infantry and the arms plot. I support dispensing with the arms plot, but I was surprised that it was not done at the time of the SDR. After all, the landscape has not changed all that much since the SDR.

I have two further questions. First, is it not the case that some non-infantry arms, such as the Royal Artillery, are operating in a "dismounted role"—in other words, as infantry? If so, how many battalion-sized equivalents are operating as infantry, although their primary role might be Royal Engineers or Artillery?

The second question is about the formation of readiness cycle. That is the system whereby brigades are rotated between being on high readiness, on training and on other tasks. Is the formation of readiness cycle dead, or is it operating in some other way?

My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever mentioned production contracts. Industry experienced huge delays in the selection of a preferred bidder for the support vehicle project, and several different teams had to maintain a full bid team until the Minister had selected one. The successful bidder told me that he expected to have a production contract early in the new year. I told him that he was wildly optimistic. Perhaps the Minister can tell us when he expects to let the production contract for the support vehicle project.

Some time ago, we discussed a Starred Question about the quality of our armoured vehicles. At the time, I was unable to expose the fact that the most numerous armoured vehicle that we have is the FV 430 range, which was developed in the 1950s and not due out of service until 2018. The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, coyly but, I must say, quite properly, declined to discuss its ballistic protection.

We are told about the Future Rapid Effect System (FRES). We are given the impression that it is a platform on the drawing board; but is it? If it is, can the Minister tell us whether it is wheeled or tracked; whether it has conventional or hybrid propulsion; and whether it is a platform, a system or merely a concept? I asked a Written Question: What military requirement the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) is planned to meet". The Minister's Answer was: There is a requirement for an effective and deployable medium-weight capability able to project power rapidly worldwide. Complementing our existing light and heavy forces, the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) is planned to be the central pillar of the ground element of this capable, coherent and highly deployable medium-weight capability".—[Official Report, 20/12/04; col. WA 115.] That is all very well, but it does not take us any further as to what FRES is. Perhaps not now, but at some convenient point, the Minister can tell us what FRES is.

The noble Lord, Lord Garden, mentioned technical problems with the Chinook helicopter. I was not aware of that and I hope that the Minister can explain what the situation is or write to noble Lords on that point.

Finally, I was struck in the debate by the extremely anxious mood music emanating from noble and gallant Lords and from the noble Viscount, Lord Slim. I have listened to noble and gallant Lords for many years. It seems to me that they are much more prepared to talk about the risk of operational failure. I hope that the Minister is aware that that is a euphemism for something much more sinister.

7.22 p.m.

Lord Hunt of Chesterton

My Lords, this is a defence debate, and it includes the support structure as well as the military. I declare an interest as a previous chief executive of the Meteorological Office. Some of my staff used to take wind measurements when people were taking pot shots at them, so they realised that it was not a good idea to do that on the hour every hour, but that was in Bosnia. We must recognise that there are many people in the Defence Support Staff who are very brave and must put up with considerable difficulties in operations.

My experience of working in the Ministry of Defence led me to believe that our Armed Forces are an extraordinarily well led and effective organisation. Perhaps I had come from a different point of view before, but I was very impressed. I was also very impressed by the fact that science and technology is extremely important to their effective operation. The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, referred to this being Trafalgar year. This story may be told again, but some of your Lordships may recognise that one of the early ancestors of Clerk Maxwell was the person who, sitting in his study in Edinburgh, invented the system of breaking the line that Nelson used at Trafalgar, showing that a bit of pencil and paper can often be quite useful.

First, I add my condolences to the family of Lord Burnham. His great dislike in this Chamber was of political correctness. He once mentioned it six times in one speech, but he enjoyed my point of order asking what he meant by it, which was asked very much with my tongue in my cheek. We will miss him very greatly.

The need in defence research and development is to use the best available contributions from universities and industry around the world. That requires security, on the one hand, but openness on the other. It requires general excellence and focus. In the former, the great MoD establishments of the past at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the Royal Radar Establishment, were famous for the distinguished scientists in their ranks, many of them Fellows of the Royal Society. Industry and universities looked to those establishments to set the pace in many areas of science and technology. I am afraid that that is the longer the case. Of course, there are excellent scientists working with and in MoD establishments, but they do not and are perhaps not expected to have that leading role.

Therefore, from where does such leadership come? Perhaps it should now be sought from the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence—I welcome the appointment of Professor Roy Anderson, a distinguished mathematician and biologist from Imperial College. He also has the Defence and Scientific Advisory Committee. We have had many distinguished chief scientific advisers in the past and many distinguished members on that committee but, currently, its impact in setting the agenda for important research and development in the UK is slight. By contrast, the major United States defence laboratories and the Pentagon contract monitors have a much greater influence.

Some civil servants have told me that what they really like is the secretive world of Whitehall in which they know what is going on but they do not have to tell anyone, but I believe that the open American approach to R & D will be more effective in the long term. That is how universities and industry can contribute more effectively. I shall tell your Lordships a little story to illustrate that.

As head of the Met Office, I used to tell everyone what all the problems were and what we did not understand. Once, I did that in Beijing. I said that we were trying to understand tropical cyclones but felt that we could do better. A Chinese professor from Hong Kong stood up at the back of the room and said that we could certainly do better. He came to Bracknell and reduced the errors by 30 per cent in one year: a remarkable performance.

As the UK now moves into Europe, that should give us some extraordinary new possibilities. I know that there will be those who caution against greater work with Europe because of our links with the United States, but it is easy to point out areas in which the UK could join to form European research and development centres without jeopardising any sensitive areas or confidentiality.

Europe has already demonstrated the effectiveness of research and development collaboration; for example, in the world-leading European Centre for Medium-Range Forecasts, which is acknowledged to be the best in the world. The Ministry of Defence and the Met Office make good use of its forecasts in their operations worldwide. One could envisage a European centre for ship hydrodynamics and design, especially as the UK and France have agreed to collaborate in that area.

The existing European networks for aerospace research and development could surely be strengthened and supported more enthusiastically by the UK. Since 1988, I have been involved in the steady growth of a network called ERCOFTAC, the European Research Community on Flow Turbulence and Combustion, which has received support from certain parts of the aerospace industry. That has been so successful that the major United States laboratories now want to join it.

However, during those years, I saw the extraordinary way that the divided European fighter programme was developed, with the Raphael in France on the one hand and the Typhoon Eurofighter on the other. Surely that should never happen again. When governments and oppositions in the UK and Europe talk about saving taxpayers' money, it is hard to take them seriously when they continue to duplicate huge expensive weapons programmes. As our debate on the Eurofighter last week, which I read in Hansard, demonstrated, the Eurofighter is very good, but not quite as effective as the United States systems. Would it have been better if there had been a single European system? Surely. European technological systems can be equal to those of the United States, as we have seen this week with the extraordinary ESA-NASA success of the Cassini-Huygens mission to Titan, 750 million miles away.

We have heard many gloomy remarks this afternoon from the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, about the disorganised state of the military-industrial complex, but the general capability of Europe needs to be harnessed effectively. Perhaps, as we now develop European-wide companies—we have seen the great success of Airbus and, perhaps, EADS—they will be the future and we will not have to rely on the rather narrow and, so far, not so successful procurement processes only within the UK. Many gloomy points have been made about MoD project management. I can only say that there have been some brilliant examples, such as the moving of the Met Office to its new premises in Exeter, which happened on time, to a world-class building and without a moment's weather forecast lost, so it can happen.

My second point on the MoD research and development programme relates to the environment, security and dealing with disasters, which other noble Lords have mentioned. Here, too, the best possible technology is essential. But perhaps the MoD has not been as open as it should be in defining what lessons about equipment and technology should be learnt from recent experiences, such as the catastrophic New York twin-towers disaster in 2001, the dangers of maritime piracy and the vulnerability of coastal communities, to which the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, referred. There has been no great call following those events to provide input across Europe or to establish an open commission to identify key problems. Significant improvements in capability to deal with those problems are possible; for example, quite new fire-smoke suppression systems, developed in Scandinavia, could be widely applied but are not being so, as many colleagues have told me. Similarly, remarkable technology in the Netherlands using European satellites and tidal modelling should enable much more accurate and frequent mapping of the depth of coastal waters to be effected, in addition to traditional methods. That is a task necessary for critically planning coastal defences against tsunamis, hurricane surges and the effects of climate change generally.

The UK Ministry of Defence's hydrographic office is second to none, particularly in its commercial development and ensuring 80 per cent of the world uses its charts. But it, too, needs to make good use of research and development worldwide.

7.32 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, it is a huge privilege to speak in a debate such as we have had today. I noted that, once again, and probably quite rightly, I would be tail-end Charlie. But, thank goodness, after six noble and gallant Lords have spoken, most of the points that I would wish to make have been covered, far more eloquently and professionally than I could. I declare a minor interest as secretary of the House of Lords Defence Group, which causes some concern in various areas. Many of us owe a great debt of gratitude to the Minister for all the help that he gives Members of your Lordships' House who may have had desultory experience in the Armed Forces. He keeps many of us up to date with what goes on. I shall restrict my brief remarks to more personal aspects of the British Army.

I was born before the Second World War. I remember during my childhood in Scotland listening to the radio and muddling up the Red Army and the 8th Army, for which my mother cuffed me over the ears—delicately. We had my father's company of Scots Guardsmen in the house for six weeks before they sailed for north Africa. I lost my father during the war; many millions of young people have had to put up with that. All through my youth I was patted on the head. I received a small crimson ribbon, a very special medal, which is on my wall at home. All through my youth, until I was 18, I thought "Ah, yes", until the day in May 1957 when I joined the British Army. I joined the Scots Guards Regiment, which has been spoken of so nicely by noble Lords today, especially in respect of my late noble friend Lord Burnham.

Those standards of the British Army and the family have been very much for me. I spoke at an old comrades' dinner of the Scots Guards Association in 1994, which was attended by members of the King's Regiment (Manchester and Liverpool), for which I have great admiration, and with which I have a personal connection. Various members of that regiment said that, if I had been in their regiment or others of the British Army—being what it is: the best—I personally might have had rather a hard time because of what my father and those who went with him did. But I did not. The Scots Guards took me under their wing. I hope that they turned me into a reasonable young soldier—no better, but, I hope, certainly no worse.

I expected, and was proud, to spend two years as a national serviceman. That period was cut short four months before I was due to terminate my service, 200 yards from where I was skiing this weekend, after I sustained a triple fracture of the leg. That put paid to any further service that I could have performed. For up to four years I would not have been fit for infantry service. During my time in the Scots Guards, perhaps because I was fairly small and visually challenged, I was kept off the major parades. The British Army sent me to Hythe, a small arms school of infantry where you learnt about infantry weapons. That put the seal on my training; it was second to none. I was able in July 1958 to put many Scots Guardsmen through their paces before we were due to be sent—guess where? —to Iraq.

The training that I, and no doubt other young men, received in the British Army continues today. We heard a great deal from the Minister about the modern British Army and all these wonderful changes in the battle groups. I, and many members of the Defence Group of your Lordships' House, have had the good fortune to see how the British Army is developing and its teamwork in all sorts of huge disciplines. At the same time, I hope that, no matter what General Sir Mike Jackson says, and regardless of what is said on the arms plot and so on, the Minister and the Ministry of Defence will recognise that infantry skills are equally highly desired and as necessary as all the other skills about which we have heard, such as engineering, signalling and intelligence. The boots on the ground, the soldiers, the infantrymen, are at the peak of the British Army's requirements.

I was fascinated and very pleased by the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, about what are referred to as the rangers. For those of us north of the border that is something that you watch on television and might go to see on a Saturday afternoon. I agree very much with what the noble Viscount said. I worry that there is labelling; I do not know why it was said. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, who is infinitely more experienced than me, mentioned something in that respect. I hesitate to wonder whether what they call the rangers are not just the very best at infantry skills. Their skills represent the British Army infantryman at his best.

I conclude by repeating the Schlieffen plan of 1914: keep up the numbers. I live in Blackwatch territory. Alas, it has caused very serious upset and disturbance. Lieutenant General Sir Alastair Irwin as a Blackwatch man has come in for more vilification and unpleasant comment in the newspapers and in public by people who ought to know jolly well better than anyone else. I salute him and what he wrote.

The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, said, first, that the Special Forces should remain special. My noble friends Lord Jopling and Lord Attlee, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and I were extraordinarily fortunate to spend a day with the Special Forces at Poole. What we saw there opened my eyes. Indeed, they are special, but the skills that they learn are those of the infantryman, the solider, or whatever the discipline is. They polish them up.

Secondly, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, made a very nice comment about "young generals" in Iraq. He is absolutely right. I think I am right that the commander of the British forces 22 years ago used something that is not so modern in the British Army: he used a bayonet, at Mount Tumbledown, leading the left flank of the 2nd Battalion, Scots Guards. That was a soldier fighting for the family, the regiment and the British Army. Now, he carries on those traditions in Iraq. Who has replaced the 1st Battalion, Black Watch? It is the 1st Battalion, Scots Guards. It is now in Iraq.

I send my best wishes and, I am sure, those of your Lordships to every man and woman in the Armed Forces throughout the world. We are immensely grateful to them. We hope that the Minister will have some words of comfort and, above all, will stress our words of support in the Ministry of Defence, where they belong.

7.40 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I begin by echoing some of the words said about Lord Burnham. I had not heard the news before today, and I was deeply saddened. For those outside this place, Lord Burnham fulfilled the image of the quintessential Peer. He had the looks that people expect of a Peer, but, way above that, I must say, having been on the Front Bench with him on a number of occasions and in a number of situations over a decade, he was never anything but unerringly polite, friendly and helpful. He will be a great loss to all of us in the House.

As the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, started up, I saw the Minister counting up five former Chiefs of the Defence Staff—we did not have the full house this evening. It is great to be able to speak in such illustrious company, especially as I made only the rank of lieutenant in the Territorial Army. One of the points made by the CDSs was that there is an issue of the reorganisations which seems to have been reflected in the speeches of many noble Lords this evening—we are spreading ourselves too thin and, perhaps, taking too many risks.

The noble Lord, Lord Snape, who is not in his place, talked about his experience in the RCT. He reminded me of the way in which things change. I remember doing a course at the RCT barracks in Grantham. We used to call it the "Rice Crispie Testers", but it has moved on and become the Adjutant General's Corps. There have been many changes over the years.

There is one point that goes back to the Statement made last year and was raised by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank. It is unfortunate that the Government have hidden behind the back of the CDS and the Army Board, giving the impression that they were pushing for a reduction in the size of the Army. I know that they are going along with the reduction, but it was a political decision. It is a re-jigging of the size of the Army to meet the needs of the Armed Forces.

I rarely believe in conspiracy theories, but I picked up an article in the Sunday Telegraph by Christopher Booker that changed my whole view of the Statement that we had before Christmas and the nature of what has happened. I renew my view that we should welcome the changes. I understand the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, about the Welsh regiments—the loss of the names will have an effect— and by my noble friend Lord Mar and Kellie about the Scottish regiments. However, funnily enough, the change in the size of the regiments to 1,500 men puts them squarely into a position to fulfil the needs of the European rapid reaction force, to which we are signed up. It will be made up of 12 battle groups. It seems that what has happened is that we have created those large regiments so that we can act within a European Union defence force. That is very positive.

It is also positive that we will work with the European Union using FRES capability. As the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said, it is not clear what FRES will be made up of, but it is clear that FRES will be European-capable and not American-capable. That seems to represent a slight shift. The Americans are going towards a separate system that will not integrate with that system. Therefore, we are going very much down the line of closer ties with Europe in the future. That is to be applauded.

If that is the case, why did the Government not say so in the Statement? I have read all parts of it. It seems that the new policy reflects the agreements that were made by the Secretary of State for Defence in another place with his European Union counterparts last year, but it does not appear to be mentioned in the body of the very long and detailed Statement. I know that the Conservative Party has certain views on the European defence force. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord King of Bridgwater, could explain why it has not raised the issue either.

If it is the case that we are moving towards closer ties with Europe—and it obviously is—it is a wonderful situation. Our future is very much in Europe and in a European defence force. If we are to meet the needs of Africa, which have been discussed recently, with military capabilities, that is the route that we have to take.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wright of Richmond, pointed out, we should not use our Armed Forces all the time. It is the role of diplomacy to try to avoid conflict. That point was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Park. The Middle East, where we seem to be mired in a situation from which we will not be able to escape for some time, is a real issue and is one of the reasons why we were so heavily opposed to the war in Iraq in the first place. We talk about an election as being a panacea that will allow the American and British forces to withdraw with a stable Iraq in the background, but I do not believe that that will be the case. We will have to stay in Iraq for a considerable time to meet our obligations, which were caused by our going there in the first place. The peace dividend of removing our troops from Iraq is going to be some way down the line. Iraq is a long-term commitment, which means that troops stationed there cannot be sent elsewhere.

I was interested to hear noble Lords discussing the peace dividend from another area of past conflict: Northern Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Sanderson of Bowden, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, spoke about removing the troops. I do not believe that we will end up in a situation in Northern Ireland where we will have to have troops on the ground. It is obviously not a secure situation. The recent bank robbery has underlined the very fragile nature of that process.

Perhaps I may return to Iraq. In light of the recent report on the situation at Babylon, can the Minister indicate whether further representations have been made, not just to the Americans, but also to the Coalition partners—the Polish forces and other partners? Will the sanctity of the Iraqi heritage, which will be such a large part of rebuilding Iraq, be preserved? I know that British forces have directives. Of course, we occupy an area which is not as rich in archaeological resources as others, but I hope that the Minister can give that indication.

Procurement has been raised by a number of noble Lords, including the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent. I would not have gone down the route of talking about the carriers if I had not been goaded into doing so by the noble Lord, Lord Truscott. It is a subject about which we have spoken on so many occasions. I thank the noble Lord for raising the issue. Of course, if he wants to find out what Liberal Democrat policy is, as I have told the Minister previously, all he has to do is pick up our policy paper entitled Defending Democracy. It is a fabulous paper. That my noble friend Lord Garden had such a guiding hand in it shows the quality of that publication.

The noble Lord will find that we have a commitment to the two carriers. However, as the Minister will know—Hansard will confirm that I have told him on at least three occasions in the past year—our problem with the carriers is that they were on the drawing board and announced in 1998, but they are meant to be in service in 2012. It looks like we are slipping a long way down. As the noble Lords, Lord Luke and Lord Burlison, noted, their size is still an issue. We still do not know how large these carriers are going to be. And size is everything if you want to land aircraft on them—or use certain types of aircraft over which there are question marks.

The noble Lord, Lord Truscott, raised the issue of HMS "Ocean". There should be dissent within any party. My view is that it would be a viable option to move away from the carriers to two replacements along the lines of HMS "Ocean" because helicopter capability is vital in dealing with humanitarian disasters. If two helicopter carriers like HMS "Ocean" had been in the area of the tsunami many thousands of people would have benefited.

A number of other issues have been raised. I should like to return to an issue that was raised recently and that I always raise: the crisis of overstretch. In this instance the issue specifically concerns Deepcut Barracks. As has been asked, would the situation at Deepcut have occurred if there had been a larger proportion of trainers to recruits? There has been an indication that staff levels were critically low and that that led to systematic bullying. The perception of bullying has been expressed in surveys of the Armed Forces and that must worry the Minister.

I find it particularly unnerving that the police heard many allegations of abuse when they looked into these issues. That is worrying because those allegations do not seem to have gone through the Army system. There seems to be a fundamental fault within it. I am not going to call for a greater public inquiry, but it is an issue that needs to be looked at.

I always raise the issue of the Territorial Army. On this occasion, given the time and the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, have raised it, I shall not do so.

The words of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Chesterton, reminded me that there is a vast amount of knowledge within the Armed Forces. I recently introduced a Private Member's Bill on renewables and energy conservation. I know that the Minister will not have the figures to hand, but can he write to me with an indication of whether the defence estate is taking seriously the issues of centralised energy conservation and the use of renewables? Even with the cuts to the defence estate it still covers a sizeable area. This is an issue as the Opposition are launching their policy on cost-cutting and the Minister is talking about savings.

I should like to end on the subject of voting, which was raised by my noble friend Lord Garden. With the elections in Iraq coming up—and the elections here— it would be unacceptable if every effort was not made to allow every service person who wishes to, to vote. We owe them a great deal. This is an issue that must be sorted out.

7.54 p.m.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, I thank both the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, for their kind words about our colleague, Hugh Burnham. The noble Lord, Lord Burlison, also added a personal comment. Hugh Burnham took a keen interest in defence. He certainly would have been taking part in this debate if he had been able to be here. The whole House shares his loss. We are grateful for the comments that have been made.

The Minister has had to sit here through a long debate and listen to a number of critical comments. I should like to start with an issue on which he has got away with a pat on the back—the change in the arms plot.

There is a general acceptance that in current circumstances—with one or two exceptions that I will mention in a moment—this is a sensible move which has been well received. The noble Lord may not have realised what difficult country he and his colleagues were moving into when they started. I look back to the announcement I made in Options for Change in 1991. I quoted Lord Wolsey in April 1887, addressing the annual dinner of the Press Club. He said: From my experience, I advise any of you who contemplate changing your profession to have nothing to do with organising the British army. For of all the difficult offices, of all the thankless duties which can devolve upon a human being, that of being an army organiser and reformer is the worst". The Government have embarked upon a dangerous course. It has a wide degree of acceptance but is not without problems.

In his powerful speech my noble friend Lord Crickhowell raised some questions that deserve clear answers. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby. also addressed these issues. The noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and my noble friend Lord Lyell drew attention to other issues arising from this matter: the possible dilution of the quality of the Special Forces and the personal reasons why my noble friend Lord Lyell has a particular attachment to the regimental system which all Members of this House appreciate.

I start with an obvious but deeply-felt tribute to the quality of our Armed Forces. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, called them the jewel in the crown. They are an institution of our country that are widely admired—and deservedly so. They are a national asset of enormous importance.

Indeed, they are a world asset at this time. Kofi Annan recently spoke about seeking a greater role for peacekeepers and a boost in their numbers. Peacekeepers need leadership and command in many circumstances and there is no question but that people will look to the United Kingdom to make a contribution here. In that sense they are a global asset and it is our duty to sustain them in their role.

They are people of such value—and an institution that serves us so well—that they certainly must have the opportunity to vote; of all people who are entitled to vote in an election, when all men and women are equal, they are perhaps more equal than others. I hope that the Minister will respond on that matter. The figures that I have seen show that in many areas a pathetically small percentage are registered to vote. At the moment a large number are likely to miss out.

I have made this comment before, but having once had the privilege of holding office in the Ministry of Defence, one is very conscious that one is a temporary trustee of the national asset to which I have referred. Decisions about the capabilities that the Government are able to deploy at present are ones for which I and my colleagues who served at the time can claim credit. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, pointed out that even as long ago as before I became Secretary of State for Defence, we placed our order for the Eurofighter. The order was placed some 18 years ago, but the aeroplane is not yet ready for full, frontline service. That illustrates clearly the long lead times.

Within reason, the Government can make any decisions they like. While those decisions may not affect the capability of our defence forces at present, the price will be paid in four, five, six or 10 years' time if the correct decisions that ensure we sustain our capability are not made now. That is why, in a very real sense, the contributions to this debate have been bipartisan in their approach. It is the duty of the Government to seek to ensure that they hand on to their successors—whenever that may be and whoever they are—well-trained, well-equipped, well-motivated and well-led United Kingdom Armed Forces.

To be well led is in the first instance a challenge for the Chiefs of Staff, but the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, made an important point—one that I understand, having sat on the other side of the desk from the noble and gallant Lords, Lord Craig and Lord Vincent. When governments take decisions, in the end, the training and background of discipline of our Armed Forces means that they will do their best to carry them out. They will not become involved in open dissent. That is a particularly heavy responsibility on Ministers. The noble Lord, Lord Snape, made a good point when he said that generals want more money to maintain the maximum number of battalions and regiments, while admirals want as many ships as they can. It is like the saying, "Who has ever met a poor farmer?". People treat British agriculture to that sort of saloon bar comment. But the point is that sometimes the generals and admirals may be right. We have been through the experience of working with the Treasury, which is not interested. Its job is to spend as little money as possible on every government department, consistent with the promises, pledges and obligations it has to meet. It will try to screw money down, and it is the job of Ministers in the Ministry of Defence to make sure that funds are not screwed down beyond the point at which the job cannot be done or for which too high a price is paid in the future.

I have sat through many defence debates, but I have never before listened to a debate in which five former Chiefs of the Defence Staff have contributed. I should say six, because the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, said that he spoke with the full authority of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, who is unfortunately indisposed. Given that, we can take him as present, if not fully on parade. The debate has sent a clear message: one that the Government could ignore; one that the public probably will not hear because events in this House are not fully reported, and one that the Commons and Commons Ministers may never hear about unless the Minister thrusts a Lords Hansard in front of them— I hope sincerely that he will do so. The message is uniform and can be summarised in a remark of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie. The resources available and manpower levels in the Army are dangerously low.

We are living in exceptionally dangerous and uncertain times. I mention the latest BBC World Service report on the situation in Iraq. The Iraq director of intelligence estimates that there are now 200,000 active insurgents, with a hard core of some 40,000. Far from a small insurgency, we are now effectively in open warfare. Thankfully, United Kingdom casualties have been relatively light. However, United States casualties show that 1,300 servicemen have now lost their lives and 10,000 have been wounded, a number of them extremely seriously. The scale of the challenge was undreamt of at the time of the Strategic Defence Review, a point made by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Boyce. I fear that many would say that the situation in Iraq is deteriorating.

Equally, Afghanistan is back in a period of considerable uncertainty, and possibly deteriorating as the Taliban becomes more active. The noble Lord, Lord Garden, mentioned Kosovo as another area of possible uncertainty, while my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew pointed out the recent developments in Northern Ireland. Those who heard the Statement about the extremely serious bank robbery and the criminal activity surrounding it will know that a chill fell on this Chamber, brought about by worries whether the situation is changing. If, for reasons that everyone understands, the Government's continuing refusal to let Sinn Fein/IRA get involved should lead to a reaction, then, as my noble and learned friend asked, where are the reserves if we have already counted those savings in our manpower numbers and used them as a basis for reducing the number of battalions. I am certainly one former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland who did have to ask for extra troops on certain occasions when the situation deteriorated. It was very important indeed that there were reserves available.

I turn to another development referred to by my noble friends Lord Freeman and Lord Attlee: the situation of the Territorial Army. With the three-year minimum period for those who have already served in Iraq before they return, the numbers available who are actually trained and fit to go could soon be exhausted. There is talk of 10 to 15 years in Iraq. That will put extra manpower pressures on Regular Army forces which will not be met by help from the TA.

We also make demands on our Armed Forces in times of emergency. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, lived through the foot and mouth outbreak. I lived through both an ambulance and a fire strike. We noted recently the readiness with which the Prime Minister called on the Royal Navy to provide immediate and excellent help for the victims of the tsunami. We place unexpected demands on the resources of our armed services, but we certainly expect to meet them when they arise.

There is no doubt that we face far more complex threats. As the noble Lord, Lord Wright, said, the terrorist threat is greater than ever following the developments in Iraq. We have not spoken a great deal about the challenge to homeland security, but a terrorist threat exists certainly on land, on sea and in the air and we need the resources to meet it.

As to being called upon to undertake other activities—I referred to Kofi Annan's call for more help in peacekeeping areas—we should bear in mind the telling comments of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent, and the noble Lord, Lord Wright, about the lack of planning. If we ever get involved in such activities again, there will be a vital need for proper planning in advance.

As the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent, said, our Armed Forces and the Ministry of Defence face a real financial crisis over procurement. The Minister has a most difficult problem in regard to the procurement and running of two extremely lumpy programmes. He referred to the Eurofighter being the largest ever procurement programme in our history—it is a challenge in itself to manage a procurement programme of that size—and there is also uncertainty about the cost of the carriers.

It has come through from a whole series of contributions to the debate that there is a problem with timing. For the Ministry of Defence it is the case that for changes and savings now there are promises for tomorrow. Anyone who knows anything about procurement in the Ministry of Defence realises that tomorrow is always a little late; that gaps are likely to exist in our capabilities and that pressures will be put on the budget.

We know why there are challenges in regard to financial pressures at the moment. I am afraid I never believe the Chancellor's comments—this is rather too topical at the moment; it might be taken to refer to something else—and when I hear his financial statements I always look at the small print. When he refers to real-term improvements of 1.4 per cent against efficiency savings of minus 2.5 percent, against a defence industrial inflation index of 10 to 14 per cent, you realise why there are the pressures that there are.

I have referred to well-led, well-motivated Armed Forces with high morale. A number of contributions have been made about cuts being made to training; about the fact that we are sending out troops into dangerous situations when they are under-prepared and under-resourced, with kit shortages that they should not have to face. There have been too many anecdotal stories.

In that situation, Ministers can brief the press; they can go on the "Today" programme and sound very convincing. With clever presentation, they can convince people in this House and the House of Commons who may not have served in the Armed Forces that everything is going well—but they will not fool the people in the Armed Forces. That is why if you ask the Armed Forces—for instance, those in the Welsh regiment to which my noble friend Lord Crickhowell referred—to do anything, they will always do it. But if they think they are being misled and that they are not being properly supported, the Government will be running a great risk for the future.

I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Burlison, who said that he was sure the Minister would listen to the points that have been made. I hope the Minister has listened as fully as I have tried to listen to the debate and that he has taken as seriously as I have many of the comments coming from the former Chiefs of Defence Staff. On procurement, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent, asked a simple question: are the risks really understood by the Government and have the reports that have been made been taken aboard?

That is the challenge the country faces. The world needs strong and effective British Armed Forces in these dangerous times. The challenge and responsibility for Ministers in the Ministry of Defence is to persuade their colleagues—which, at the moment, looking at the latest financial proposals for defence, I fear they are not succeeding in doing—of the need to ensure that we have the resources to meet the challenge. I hope the Minister will ensure that all his colleagues have copies of this debate and that there is a serious discussion in government on it.

8.11 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lord, this has been an outstanding debate. It is the best that I have ever been present at on defence matters. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part. It will be listened to and read rather more widely than the noble Lord, Lord King, fears. I shall certainly do my part to make sure that it is distributed to the relevant parts of the Ministry of Defence, including Ministers, the Defence Procurement Agency and the Army Board. The debate will be taken note of—perhaps not immediately, perhaps not this week or next week, but in time many of the fine speeches that have been made will be considered very carefully. Again, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part.

I have been looking for a little of that sycophantic praise that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, mentioned in his speech. I am afraid that I have looked in vain. The only moment my hopes were raised was when the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, referred to silver heads and silver tongues and looked in my direction. I have certainly never been described as either before, and I hope that I never am again.

When I opened the debate I drew attention to the three key threats. There has been no argument about them and so I can go quickly over them. They are the threat of international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the challenge presented by failed and failing states.

We all agree that that strategic context is characterised most of all by unpredictability—we do not know what is going to happen next. While we cannot be sure when, where or even how these threats may materialise, there is little doubt about their deadly consequences if they should do so. Of course, I believe we all agree that we have to adapt our Armed Forces to ensure that they are best prepared for the operations on which they are most likely to be deployed.

In the modern operating environment, where we are called upon to conduct almost simultaneously war-fighting, peace-enforcement and humanitarian operations, flexibility and agility have got to be the key. I make no apology for reiterating that that characteristic is vital for our Armed Forces today.

There will never be enough money for defence—a point first made by my noble friend Lord Snape. Other noble Lords have said the same thing, or have implied it. It is an extremely ingenious idea to take the revenue of the alcohol tax and give it to the Armed Forces. Everybody who has had anything to do with defence knows that it is a matter of choices. We do not have the infinite money that we would like. Generals want a larger army, admirals want a larger navy and Defence Ministers want a larger defence budget. That was as true in the day of the noble Lord, Lord King, as it is now. We have to do our best with what we have. I repeat that the increase of £3.4 million is a real cash improvement.

Our Armed Forces enjoy a reputation as a force for good that is founded on the exceptional quality of our service men and women, as all noble Lords agree. We believe that our moves to modernise and restructure the Armed Forces according to the requirements of the current strategic context will help to ensure that that reputation is maintained and enhanced for years to come.

There is nothing new under the sun as far as defence is concerned. I do not wish to be sycophantic, but the noble Lord, Lord King, made an excellent speech. He will well remember a number of the events during his tenure of the post of Secretary of State. I quote from a newspaper of July 10, 1991: Tom King, the Secretary of State for Defence, is facing growing pressure from senior Conservative Back-Benchers and military chiefs to reduce deep Army cuts, which they believe have been determined solely by financial targets, not military needs. Mr King, who outlined the cuts in the Defence White Paper yesterday, said they would create 'smaller but better Armed Forces' but after a meeting yesterday the Army Board was expected to ask him to think again about his plan to reduce the number of Army battalions from 55 to 36". I could go on. It was not just the noble Lord, Lord King. Two years later, his successor as Secretary of State, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, faced a billion pound cut in defence spending. The arguments used today may not be precisely the same as the arguments used then, but they are remarkably similar.

I do not have time to answer the 1,001 questions that have been asked in this debate. I shall do my best to ensure that there is proper correspondence on the subjects that I do not touch on. I am delighted that procurement has played such an important part in this debate. I thought that the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent, was unusually pessimistic in what he said. I hope that I may have a moment to say something about that in due course. We could have a debate on the procurement issues that have been raised this afternoon.

Let me do my best to go as far as I can, keeping myself to the limit of 20 minutes that noble Lords will be even keener than I am that I should keep to. I shall very briefly speak on Iraq. Elements of the Royal Logistic Corps will deploy to Cyprus. The noble Lord, Lord Sanderson, made a point about 12 Brigade. It will receive the appropriate training before deployment and, where appropriate, this will include training on various weapons systems that the brigade commander decides to deploy to Iraq.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, mentioned Babylon—I would have bet my last dollar that he would raise it, and quite rightly too. The UK takes great care during operations, where possible, to respect the culture and traditions of the country in which our forces operate. However, there are times, as the noble Lord understands, where that becomes very difficult, despite best efforts. We cannot speak for the forces of other countries on this issue.

I shall move on from Iraq and Afghanistan to personnel matters. Voting was raised by the noble Lords, Lord Garden, Lord Sanderson, Lord Redesdale and Lord King. The figures are worrying. We agree with the noble Lords that it is crucial that all those in the Armed Forces should have the ability to vote. Indeed, it is crucial that every adult in Britain should have it. We are working very closely with the Electoral Commission in order to correct the position and we are starting a voter registration drive among the Armed Forces. More details will come out soon. I know the House will want to hear more in due course.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, asked some questions on citizenship. I have some answers, but, as he suggested, I will write to him on that important subject.

I am sorry if I have to take the matter of reserves quickly. I am very grateful for what the noble Lord, Lord Freeman, and the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, said on this. Both speak with great authority. We consider reservists an integral part of the UK's military capability. We have every intention of integrating the TA with the regular Army. We owe a special debt of gratitude to employers for the stance they have taken, and have had to take, for some time now.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, was very helpful in speaking about the Defence Medical Services. I thank him for what he said about the improvements that have been made. We acknowledge that there continue to be manpower shortages, particularly in some specialist areas. We want to achieve a manning balance by 2010. The manning situation is expected to improve over the next two years, with some 60 consultants due to complete training. Importantly, we will continue to deliver pay comparability with the NHS, in line with the recommendations of the Medical Manning and Retention Review.

The 2004 pay award of 3.225 per cent for medical and dental officers, in line with that for NHS consultants on a new contract, reflects our commitment to achieve pay comparable to that offered in the NHS. We think that the golden hello scheme has been a success, and we agree that medical support to deployed operations is absolutely vital. There is no question of British forces deploying on military operations without medical support.

My noble friend Lord Hunt of Chesterton mentioned the DSAC. We are beginning to take the DSAC's role much more seriously in the Ministry of Defence. It is now under the leadership of the excellent Dr Julia King. I do not think that my noble friend needs to be too depressed about what note we will take of that important organisation.

With regard to the Army, there has been much discussion about the arms plot and about regiments. I do not believe it is possible to be in favour of changing the arms plot while at the same time claiming that the present regimental system can be maintained. For this reason, future battalions will become fixed by role and largely by location. To ensure that the infantry soldier maintains his wide experience base, it will be essential to move soldiers between battalions with different roles. Sensibly, this can be done only within a regiment of two or more battalions if cap/badge identity is to be maintained. I remind the House that larger regiments are not a new concept, as nearly half the infantry is already organised in this way and operates effectively.

As far as shortages are concerned—the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Guthrie, mentioned this particularly—we need an Army structured for war fighting. Our view is that the future Army structure will deliver more robust structures through the entire Army, better organisation and a more effective capability. Some parts of the Army have been overused, but our view is that it is not, largely, the infantry. It has been used, and used extensively, but the overuse has really taken place with what we call the enablers. To deal with shortages, we are investing in around 3,000 posts across the Army, especially in trades that are in great demand. Engineers, logisticians and intelligence operators, for example, are the key enablers that allow our Army to deliver a robust expeditionary war-fighting capability. Without the right number of specialists, the combat elements cannot operate effectively.

Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank

My Lords, perhaps I may come back on that. It is not quite what I said. I said that the Army was getting dangerously small. I agree that at the moment the balance is wrong. We probably have more in the front line which should be supported by extra people in the support areas that the Minister has just outlined. But that is not my point. It is that overall the Army is too small and robbing the front line to fill up the back is not what we should be doing.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord for what he said. We do not believe that by reducing the number of battalions we are going to make the Army effectively any smaller. It is difficult to get across the point that under the changed arms plot no longer will there be many battalions which are training and unable to go to the front line. Almost all battalions, under the changed arms plot, will be able to go to the front line. So instead of using about 29 out of the 40 battalions, we shall be able to use the full 36. That is the thinking behind the Army Board's decision to change the arms plot and reduce the number of battalions. I am sure that we shall come back to that.

In the limited time I have left, I have to deal with the issue of Wales which was raised very effectively in two different speeches; namely, by the noble Lord, Lord Crickhowell, and the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby. It is a difficult issue and I shall do my best to answer. It is clearly a matter of real concern to the noble Lords and is undoubtedly a concern outside the House.

We have made it clear that the whole exercise is for the Army to manage. Since announcing in July last year our decision to end the arms plot and to reduce by four battalions, the Army has been working on how the changes associated with moving to larger regiments of more than one battalion should be effected. This has entailed a detailed consultation process with the colonels of the regiments being directly involved via the colonel commandants of the divisions of infantry. We have taken the view that it is not the business of politicians to intervene in the detail of the process which in this instance was led by ECAB.

We understand the concerns. Any change is very uncomfortable and is always going to give rise to criticism from some quarters. We need to be clear that in considering this issue ECAB took into account advice from the colonel commandant of the Prince of Wales's Division in which the Welch Regiment sits, as a representative of the regiments concerned. ECAB concluded that the new two battalion regiments should be called the Royal Welch. The House knows the rest and I need not go through it again.

The only other suggestion I put to the noble Lords who have spoken is that the most radical change in all this was probably for Scotland. Change was greater there than elsewhere with six regiments being reduced to one. One regiment disappeared on amalgamation and five were merged into one regiment. That was not the position in Wales.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, I do not want to delay the proceedings. The noble Lord has added absolutely nothing to what I told the House was the position. The Welsh regiments went along with the reorganisation changes. I simply ask on this occasion that, rather than being given yet another inadequate answer, he take back the case that has been made, which I and those in a position to know agree will gravely damage recruiting in Wales, and reconsider it.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I shall also take that back, as the noble Lord has requested, but I do not want him to hold out any great hope that there will be any change of mind in relation to this issue. I do not want him to have false hopes, but I will take the matter back.

I have a couple of minutes left to deal with the issue of equipment. The suggestion made at the start of the debate that there was no such thing as overspend or delay before 1997 was palpably ridiculous. Defence procurement has been a problem area for many years. However, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Vincent, having read what appears to have been an extremely depressing article—if he does not mind, I invite him to lend me his copy—should not assume that all that appeared in those four reports was necessarily accepted by the Ministry of Defence. Of course, the NAO reports are accepted and are agreed with the MoD. On this occasion, as the noble and gallant Lord knows, the House of Commons report was, frankly, flawed. It made no mention at all of industry and its role. Even the most ardent industrialist would agree that industry has some role to play in this matter, and the report reached some unjustified conclusions.

The noble and gallant Lord's real point was regarding whether the position that has been reached is being taken seriously by the MoD. The answer is, "yes, it very much is". He will know that the new Chief of Defence Staff, who has been in post for almost two years, has changed the way in which the Defence Procurement Agency functions, both structurally and organisationally. Much is going on in the field of acquisition in the MoD and the matter is being taken seriously right from the top.

It is possible, although I do not wish to make forecasts, that we shall see some better results soon. We should not dismiss smart procurement out of hand, because the crucial fact is that in the 2003 major projects review report 86 per cent of the overspend was for legacy projects, as was the case for a high proportion of the delay. Of course, there are dangers for projects that have started under smart procurement. We are still suffering under some of the legacy projects and the noble and gallant Lord should be slightly more optimistic on this matter than he was when he came into the Chamber.

I am conscious that I have continued for over 20 minutes and that I have hardly begun what I wished to say. I should end by thanking all noble Lords for the part that they have played in this debate. I shall write to them regarding specific points that they have raised.

Lord Boyce

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I am afraid that his winding-up speech has failed to address the key issue that has been raised, particularly by my noble and gallant friends and others. He did not mention any maritime issue at all, which comes as no surprise, but the one matter upon which we have all been persistent, is that we are approaching a situation where our Armed Forces will not be in a fit position to fight. That is the most serious issue that confronts us today. I am disappointed that the Minister felt unable to address that point in his winding-up speech.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and gallant Lord. Our view in the MoD is not quite that which he and other noble and gallant Lords have put forward in the debate. We believe that we have an effective fighting force and that we shall continue to do so, and that our policies will continue in that direction.

I said at the start of this speech that the comments made in all the speeches will be passed on personally by me to the relevant parts of the Ministry of Defence, including other Ministers. So the noble and gallant Lord can take some comfort from that. But I hope that he understands that, when you stand at this Dispatch Box with perhaps 20 minutes or so in which to respond, it really is not possible to deal with even all the major matters raised. However, I know that, with his ingenuity, the noble and gallant Lord will find a way to put me on the spot again.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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