My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to a second debate on defence matters in your Lordships’ House today. The subject that we are discussing now is as important as the topic of our earlier debate. The theme running through both is the duty that we, the nation, owe to those who risk their lives and serious injury for the sake of our security. I congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield on providing the House with the opportunity to debate these vital issues.
The importance of the military covenant has attracted increasing focus in recent years, not least as the terrible suffering incurred by those who have served in military conflicts has become increasingly apparent. The first duty of government is to secure the defence of the realm, and undoubtedly the most vital asset in that endeavour is the people who undertake that task. That is the basis for the military covenant, and it is our obligation to ensure that we consider and address their needs. Unhappy service families can result only in unhappy service personnel, and that would represent a failure to meet the terms of the military covenant.
There has been much academic interest in and commentary on the various components of the strategic defence and security review. The themes of these commentaries have been included in the wider debates that we have had in your Lordships’ House on defence matters, including our consideration of the strategic defence and security review in November last year.
The strategic defence and security review contains much to be welcomed-not least that this was the first such review for 12 years. Much has changed in the nature of the threats that we face, in the nature of our Armed Forces and in public opinion over that period. To ensure that we continue to align effectively the changes with the requirements of the military covenant, I welcome the Government’s commitment to make these reviews a regular occurrence.
However, it is important that we do not forget the context in which the review was conducted. Commitments and overspending on defence projects under the previous Government totalled some £36 billion-three times the annual defence budget. In that context the delivery of an 8 per cent reduction in the Ministry of Defence budget was an extreme challenge. We should not diminish the seriousness of the situation in which the strategic defence and security review was prepared and considered.
Those who serve our country have the right to expect that the Government will look after their well-being and the well-being of their families. Whatever the deficiencies of previous approaches, we must make sure that we live up to that ambition, and I believe that the Government have made a good start. However, they have started from a low base. The outcome of the Armed Force Continuous Attitudes Survey in May 2010 revealed that only 32 per cent of our Armed Forces felt valued. That should cause us all alarm and alert us that action needs to be taken.
An example of the Government’s commitment to reverse this negativity can be seen in the decision to double the operational allowance. That, in the climate of wider fiscal tightening, is a sign of the priority that the Government attach to those serving in our Armed Forces in theatre. The Armed Forces Bill, which is currently under consideration in another place, contains provisions that will require the Secretary of State to produce an annual report to Parliament on the health of the military covenant. That is a bold and decisive step and will enable us to keep a much tighter, focused scrutiny on how the military covenant is being advanced. It is right that more rigorous attention should be paid to how the military covenant is being delivered and that the Government are able to explain how we are meeting our side of the bargain.
The decisions that had to be made in constructing the strategic defence and security review were undoubtedly complex. Balancing the nature of the threats that we must overcome with the horrific fiscal pressures that confront us as a nation in order to arrive at a balanced and coherent strategic posture is not simple. Undoubtedly, repairing the damage to the military covenant that has arisen in recent years cannot be done in a vacuum and the Minister has a difficult path to tread. In that context, I should be grateful if he could confirm that the Government’s commitment to the military covenant is not conditional.
I know that the Government have been working very hard to identify areas for savings and where better outcomes can be delivered most cost-effectively. In guiding his approach to the military covenant, I hope that the Minister can assure us that his focus will continue to be on the needs of those who serve in our Armed Forces, the needs of their families and the needs of those who are now veterans, and that the important measures contained in the strategic defence and security review will contribute to our efforts in restoring and then maintaining the military covenant. Our troops-present and past-deserve nothing less.