Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, it is a well established convention in debates on
defence at a time when the lives our Armed Forces are at risk that the
Opposition should seek to find and express consensus with the Government. Sadly,
that cannot be the case today. On every one of the specific points picked out by
my noble friend Lady Park in the Motion she has advanced with her usual skill,
we are strongly critical of the Government in their actions and, even more so,
in their omissions.
I do not criticise the Government for their words. From the Prime Minister to
the Secretary of State, the words are often admirable. In his recent speech in
the City, the Prime Minister said, “let me affirm our commitment that we … will at all times support and strengthen our armed forces”.
Laudable words, but the speech was seriously inadequate in its proposals for
action, particularly in the light of what my noble friend Lord Marlesford said:
the defence of the realm is the first priority of government.
On Sunday, in an article entitled “The Armed Forces are safe in my hands”, the
Secretary of State wrote: “This Government is demonstrating how it values our forces and their families by ensuring it delivers the support they deserve”,
and, “On my recent visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, troops gave”—
me— “positive feedback”.
Mr Browne’s words of reassurance will sound hollow to many service men and
I am sure that all noble Lords will have seen elements of General Dannatt’s
staff briefing team report. The bleak reality, based on interviews with
thousands of soldiers, is an Army at the end of its tether, with troops feeling
devalued, angry and suffering Iraq fatigue. There is a profound level of
dissatisfaction with the conditions under which the soldiers have to live and
serve. It notes, for instance, that, “delays to military inquests are a disgrace”, that leave is often cancelled or constrained because of operational overstretch and that housing is often inadequate. We are sending soldiers out to Afghanistan to fight pretty much 24 hours a day. They then come back to what my noble friend Lady Park described as disgraceful housing. How can one sustain an Army like that? On housing, I hope that the Minister will answer, if necessary by letter, the question of my noble friend Lord Selkirk about the Treasury and the financial windfall from the sale of Chelsea barracks.
I echo the gratitude of my noble and learned friend Lord Mayhew and the noble
and gallant Lord, Lord Inge, to the Chief of the General Staff for the
outstanding briefing that many of us attended in Portcullis House.
Many noble Lords and many noble and gallant Lords, including the noble and
gallant Lords, Lord Guthrie, Lord Boyce and Lord Bramall, have argued that these
conditions are largely the result of a decade of underfunding by this
Government. It has not been lost on the armed services that the Government are
willing and ready to risk more on bailing out the financially inept bank,
Northern Rock, than is spent on the entire defence budget.
The Chief of the General Staff is clearly unhappy with the ragged state of the
military covenant. He says that it is “clearly out of kilter” and that the
effect of trying to mount ambitious campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with
insufficient manpower is, “mortgaging the good will of our people”.
Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal, the commander of 3 Para, reflected the mood of
the rank and file when he resigned last Friday in protest at the troops’ poor
pay, the lack of equipment for recruits to train with, the state of Army housing
and the lack of dedicated facilities for injured soldiers. Colonel Tootal led
his men in some of last year’s most intense fighting in southern Afghanistan’s
Helmand province, for which he was awarded the DSO. During his six-month tour
between April and October, Colonel Tootal had to contend with lack of food,