That this House takes note of the level of resilience of the Armed Forces, given the reduction in personnel and equipment as set out in the Defence in a Competitive Age command paper (CP 411), published on 22 March 2021.

Jan 26, 2023 | News

26th January 2023

Lord Alton of Liverpool 


My Lords, it is a privilege to take part in a debate where there are not one, but two, maiden speeches. The distinguished service of my noble and gallant friend Lord Peach, not least as chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, speaks for itself and he will clearly contribute with great authority during our debates, not least as we contemplate the welcome accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, as referred to just a moment ago by my noble friend Lord Bilimoria. But we should also carefully note what my noble and gallant friend said about the Arctic, the high north, the Caucasus and the western Balkans.

I am especially pleased to be speaking in the same debate as the noble LordLord Hintze, a long-standing and good friend. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, has a commitment away from the House today, but she would want me to recall the remarkable response of the noble LordLord Hintze, when she was desperately trying to evacuate women judges from Afghanistan. Flights had to be arranged at great expense and the noble LordLord Hintze, did not hesitate—in a “Schindler’s List” moment—in finding the lion’s share, making a spontaneous, generous and very substantial contribution to enabling women with a Taliban price on their heads to get out of Afghanistan. Some 500 people were evacuated; 103 were women lawyers and judges, all of whom, with their children and husbands, were on Taliban kill lists. I have met some of those women judges and know that the noble Lord’s intervention, and that of the author JK Rowling, undoubtedly saved many lives. His voice is one which deserves to be listened to with respect and admiration across your Lordships’ House, and I know that it will be.

Afghanistan is a good place to start in speaking to the welcome Motion of the noble LordLord Robathan. Two years ago, the International Relations and Defence Select Committee, on which I have served, produced a report on Afghanistan. It warned of the consequences of an over-hasty, chaotic and shambolic withdrawal, putting at risk the gains that had been made, especially for women and not least in the protection of minorities, such as the Hazara, who now face genocidal attacks. I draw attention to two reports, one published only yesterday, by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hazaras.

The House should reflect on the effects of that chaotic withdrawal on our courageous service personnel and the sacrifices that they had made, but also on the message that it sent to would-be dictators and authoritarians around the world. It was significant, and should have come as no surprise, that one of the first photo opportunities organised by the Taliban was in Beijing, where, far from protesting about the genocide against Uighur Muslims—I draw attention to my own non-financial interests in that regard—they were busy making deals with the leadership of the CCP. Like the new alliance between Russia and Iran, it is instructive how dictatorship attracts dictatorship: like attracts like. I invite noble Lords to note as well how dictatorships offer one another endless supplies of drones, weapons and munitions.

The increasing global threat we face from the CCP is one of the themes explored in the most recent report of the International Relations and Defence Select Committee. It is the culmination of 22 evidence sessions between April and November last year, 39 witnesses including the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, and visits to HM naval base Clyde and to the UK military in Bahrain and Qatar.

That report, UK Defence Policy: From Aspiration to Reality?, referred to by my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup in his terrific speech earlier, and its criticism that neither the 2021 integrated review or defence Command Paper provided a sufficiently rigorous sense of priorities, is worthy of a full-scale parliamentary debate. That should be here in the Chamber, and ideally taken together with the Government’s proposed revision of both the IR and DCP. I hope that the Minister, who always treats the House with such respect, will undertake to make that request through the usual channels.

Although we should of course resist the temptation to draw premature, hasty or ill-considered conclusions while the outcome of the war in Ukraine remains uncertain, it is legitimate to raise questions about our long-term commitment to the defence of this realm. Indeed, some of the questions we have heard during the debate today are based on the Defence Secretary’s own concerns, raised this week in advance of the Budget. The phrase “hollowing out” has been used again and again during the debate. It comes from him: he talks about the hollowing out of the military after decades of what he describes as underfunding and our inability to field a war-fighting division of just 10,000 troops. The Minister should enlarge on that. Is it right, as has been reported, that, despite a budget of £46 billion—the second highest in NATO—the hollowing out also means we are unable to field a carrier battle group with sufficient combat aircraft, or early warning radar aircraft, to protect our airspace?

The Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, in a previous incarnation said that we must “get real” about the need to invest in the Armed Forces and recognise that the first duty of a Government is always to keep their people safe. He pledged support for an increase to 3% of GDP. What is the Government’s formal position on that? We look forward to hearing from the Minister when she comes to reply. France, Germany, Japan and the US have set out their plans to significantly increase spending. When does the Minister anticipate that what the Treasury has described as a “long dialogue” that is “nowhere near a conclusion” will be finalised? What is her assessment of the consequences for procurement of a weakened pound and high inflation?

Hopefully, Mr. Wallace says that

“we have started to upgrade our Challenger tanks, get Ajax armoured vehicles back on track and purchase upgraded Apache helicopters.”

I hope the Minister will also enlarge on this. I have regularly raised questions about the Ajax programme. It has been delayed for 10 years and cost taxpayers some £5 billion so far. Hundreds of soldiers had to be treated for exposure to high noise after working on trials. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has described Ajax as “a litany of failures” and “flawed from the outset”, and said that these failures had put national security at risk. Can the Minister spell out how it has been put “back on track”, when it will be available to use, and how the Ajax experience is now influencing procurement policy, not least in the light of the criticisms of the report of the National Audit Office last year?

In the context of Type 32 frigates, multirole support ships and the shortfall in purchasing MLRS rocket launchers, how have criticisms been addressed? I draw the Minister’s attention to our Select Committee’s comments about greater parliamentary oversight of the planned increase in our nuclear deterrent’s warhead numbers, the budgetary impact, and the consequences.

The House should also note the Select Committee’s observation that

“one of the key lessons for the Government is the need to build greater resilience into the UK’s own stocks, supply chains, and industrial capacity.”

As we have heard again and again, not least from the noble LordLord West of Spithead, just-in-time responses to these challenges simply will not do. The committee insists that we

“need to sustain a major hard-power contribution to NATO’s collective defence”,

and that that

“must remain a key driver of UK miliary posture.”

The inadequacy of weapon and ammunition stocks, and addressing our lack of industrial capacity, again referred to by my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup, should be one of the Government’s highest priorities. Although the UK’s response in Ukraine has been admirable throughout, what are we to make of the remarks of General Sir Patrick Sanders that giving 14 Challenger tanks to Ukraine would leave the UK “temporarily weaker” and put us at risk of failing to meet our NATO obligations? I would like the Minister to spell out how long “temporary” means. Are we satisfied that we will meet our NATO commitments? What we are doing to address the replenishment of resources that are being exhausted as the UK does its duty in standing with Ukraine in its existential fight?

Germany’s change of heart on Leopard tanks and the US decision on Abrams tanks are welcome. Presumably, though, it will take some time to ready the tanks and to train Ukrainian soldiers to use them. Can we be reassured that this is now in motion?

Finally, can the Minister assure us that the tilt to the Indo-Pacific will prioritise diplomatic, economic and political responses to the growing threat from China, rather than place further pressure on military resources? Will the Government please describe China as the threat it most certainly is to Taiwan rather than use the phrase “systemic competitor”, which is used in the integrated review?

Does the Minister agree that, in dealing with the CCP, we must first tackle the enemy within? I refer to the 42 universities that the Times reported only this week have links with Chinese institutions connected to espionage, nuclear weapons, hacking and the repression of Uighurs. Will the Minister urgently clarify what her department is doing to challenge, for example, the joint research between the University of Surrey and Beijing on artificial intelligence and face recognition software used by the CCP to identify Uighur Muslims and pro-democracy activists?

It disturbs me when, on grounds of national security, our most important Five Eyes allies ban CCP involvement in telecommunications, surveillance cameras and nuclear power stations, but the UK follows the money, diminishes its resilience and increases its dependency. Our trade deficit with China is now £40 billion. Recall how German dependence on Russia for energy has compromised its ability to defend democracy and sovereignty. We must not make the same mistake.

The UK remains an important partner in a variety of alliances, including most notably NATO, Five Eyes and AUKUS. In meeting today’s dangers and challenges, we must deepen and strengthen those alliances and our capabilities. The noble LordLord Robathan, is to be congratulated and thanked for giving us the opportunity to address some of these important questions in your Lordships’ House today.

Lord David Alton

For 18 years David Alton was a Member of the House of Commons and today he is an Independent Crossbench Life Peer in the UK House of Lords.

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