Highlights from a contribution to Thursday’s debate on Defence in the UK follow. Shadow Defence Minister Julian Lewis detailed how a lack of proper funding to match Britain’s military commitments was creating both strategic and personal problems for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.
"The outgoing Secretary of State, Des Browne, deserves credit for his promotion of the case for the next generation of the nuclear deterrent, which was not an easy thing for him to do in the context of Labour party politics. Many Conservative Members often challenged him on other issues, but he always responded without rancour. It was his misfortune to fall victim to the Prime Minister’s ill-judged decision to lumber him with a second ministerial portfolio at a time when the country is involved in two counter-insurgency campaigns abroad and a significant security issue at home. Every working minute of the Secretary of State for Defence should have been focused on those threats and the service welfare and procurement issues that traditionally hamper the conditions and capabilities of our forces in the field. It was not fair to the right hon. Gentleman, and it certainly was not fair to our forces in the field, that he had to spend up to 20 per cent. of his time on Scottish affairs. Never before has a Prime Minister taken such a half-baked, ill-judged and morale-sapping decision on parliamentary job sharing. Where United Kingdom defence is concerned, it must never happen again.
"Listening to everything that the Minister said about service welfare, I was reminded of the famous American film, "The Best Years of Our Lives", which won seven Oscars in 1946 and had tremendous resonance with the public, both in America and in the United Kingdom. It was about the problems of re-entry into society at the end of four years of war, in the case of the USA, and six years in the case of the United Kingdom. Our servicemen and women face that problem of disconnection and reintegration into society at the end of every six-month tour. The harmony guidelines are supposed to give them 18 months between operational deployments, but we all know that that does not happen.
"Viscount Slim, the victor of Burma and one of the greatest modern strategists the British Army has seen, once did a radio talk in which he compared people drawing on courage with drawing on a bank balance—although I do not think that he had the modern conditions of British banking in mind. He said that they can overdraw from time to time but must replenish their resources. He also said that the bravest men will crack if they are not rested adequately, and yet, conversely, men who are exhausted but are rested adequately can go back and win the highest awards for valour."
"I know of [a lance-corporal] who aims to serve his full 22 years. He took part in the initial campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has since done a third tour lasting seven months—not six—in Afghanistan. Now back in the UK, he has spent time in the Browning barracks in Aldershot, where the toilet blocks stink even when the lavatory pans are not blocked with sewage, and where the corridors are overheated whilst the rooms are freezing cold. His weekend get-you-home pay is supposed to give him £270 per month. Sometimes it is paid when it should be, but sometimes nothing comes through for three months at a time. That unevenness causes him, often unwittingly, to dip into the red, and thus incur punitive charges on every direct debit and every other transaction on his bank account… The man in question has not complained to me about it, but his partner has. She said:
"It eats away and eats away at you—until you say, why the hell am I bothering?"
"The welfare of our armed forces personnel is not really at issue between the parties. The Government, as we have heard, produced a study and a Command Paper. I hoped that the Government would acknowledge today that pressure from the Opposition parties encouraged them to take some of the measures that they have. My party leader has consistently recommended tax concessions for service personnel when they are on the front line, and he set up the Forsyth commission on the military covenant, which achieved a considerable measure of publicity for its recommendations. It slightly lowered the tone of the debate for the Minister of State to say some of the things he said about a body on which served people of the calibre of Simon Weston and Stuart Tootal. Those people are not party political. They served on the commission because they wished to do good for their comrades, and I am very disappointed about some of the remarks made about their efforts.
"Of course, all defence decisions are matters of priority in the budget. The report’s recommendations will go to the shadow Cabinet in due course and I hope that it will consider favourably at the appropriate time those that are possible to advance under prevailing economic circumstances, which the Government have not yet taken up. As I said, the process is the outcome of the interaction between the Government, the Opposition and, as the hon. Lady rightly reminds me, all the important bodies, organisations and confederations that support the armed forces. The outcome should be improvements for our service personnel, and politicians should not argue over the spoils of who gets the credit, as long as the outcome is good.
"We welcome it when the Government introduce their ideas and when they include some of ours among them. We will continue to welcome that when the parties’ roles are reversed—hopefully in the not-too-distant future.
"From time to time, we read about servicemen in uniform being insulted at petrol stations or servicemen out of uniform not being allowed to book into hotels. I applaud the former Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Halton, who described it as "deplorable" when an injured paratrooper, who had flown home from Afghanistan to organise a comrade’s funeral, had to sleep in his car overnight because he was refused a hotel room. The hotel’s behaviour was absolutely despicable, and I am encouraged by the Minister of State’s comments about the 79 per cent. support for our armed forces among the public at large. Long may that support endure. However, it cannot be reiterated too often.
"I am glad that "welcome home" parades have begun to take root in society generally. My hon. Friend Mr. Howarth organised one of the first, and parades now take place in the heart of Westminster and returning troops are welcomed in the Palace of Westminster. I am sure that that gives them an experience that they fully appreciate, and that they feel that it shows that all their efforts have been recognised at the centre of our democratic system.
"Resources have been mentioned briefly, but I wish to spend a little more time on them. There are some problems, such as erratic allowance payments, to which I have referred, which are not about resources, but all too many are. I return, as I have on a number of other occasions, to the speech that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair made on HMS Albion in early 2007. He was looking back on his decade in power and talking about the extent to which the Labour Government had invested in defence. He said that defence expenditure had remained roughly constant over that decade, at 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product, before adding these fateful words: if the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq are included.
"That means that in that period, in which we embarked on two major counter-insurgency campaigns, we were spending 2.5 per cent. of GDP before we went into Afghanistan and, taking everything together, we were spending 2.5 per cent. afterwards. We were spending 2.5 per cent. of GDP before we went into Iraq and, taking everything together, we were still spending 2.5 per cent. after we went in.
"We are told time and again that those conflicts are being funded from the Treasury reserve, but that simply sounds to me like a bookkeeping exercise. If we take one pot of money, add it to another pot of money and still come up with the same percentage of GDP being spent on defence as before we went to war, that effectively means that we are fighting two conflicts on a peacetime defence budget.
"That is why the Conservatives have said that when we take power, we will have a strategic defence review, to get our commitments back into line with our expenditure. I do not know what the conditions will be when that time occurs. However, I do know that we will fully fund the commitments that we undertake or we will not undertake them. That has not been happening, which has lead to something that is dangerous for the defence of the United Kingdom and British interests more widely. That development has led to the services beginning to fight among themselves for inadequate resources. Indeed, it is even leading to a situation in which service chiefs are talking about making unacceptable choices, even within their own service parameters.
"What I mean by that is that one cannot be involved at a high level in any considerations of what the Army’s future role will be without hearing people talk about whether we should spend the money that we have on fighting what are called the wars of the 21st century or on preparing for high intensity state-on-state conflict, which may or may not come about in the years ahead. Those are the sorts of choices that the Army should not have to make.
"I do not want to stretch the terms of the debate too much, but it is dangerous to be in a situation where we are engaged in campaigns that are making Army chiefs think that they might have to abandon the traditional role of the Army, which is to be able to defend the United Kingdom if ever the international scene darkens closer to home. With recent events involving Russia, that is not nearly as fanciful a prospect now as it might have seemed only a year or two ago."