Former top brass: Armed forces 'on the brink'

According to Forces News' report of the Armed Forces Bill debate in the Lords on Wednesday evening, the Government is being warned by armed services chiefs that the armed forces could be "on the brink" because of planned reforms and “morally indefensible" redundancies:

Four former chiefs of the defence staff and one former head of the army all criticised the Government as peers gave an unopposed second reading to the Armed Forces Bill, which enshrines the principles of the military covenant into law.

Former Army general Lord Walker of Aldringham, Chief of the Defence Staff from 2003 to 2006, described redundancies for people who had been on active service in Afghanistan as "morally indefensible".

The former head of the Army Lord Dannatt, who advised David Cameron when he was leader of the opposition, said many people thought the forces were "on the brink" and there was a risk they could go into "freefall" and he also hit out at the "stultifying bureaucracy" of the Ministry of Defence.

Admiral Lord Boyce, Chief of the Defence Staff from 2001 to 2003, said a report on how the Government was meeting the current expectations of the armed forces would make "pretty depressing reading".

And fellow ex-forces heads Air Chief Marshal Lord Stirrup and Marshal of the RAF Lord Craig of Radley called for the Government to toughen up its plans on the covenant.

Lord Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff from 2006 to 2009, said the military covenant had always existed in un-written form, but warned of the dangers of breaking it.

"It is that hitherto unspoken and unspecified balance, on the one hand between the legitimate work demanded of the armed forces by the elected government of the day on behalf of the nation and on the other hand the nation's ability through the government of the day to look after and meet the legitimate individual needs of our sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines, their families and our veterans."

He added: "When the work demanded and the needs met are in balance then the services can run hot and at a high operational temperature.

"But when we are out of balance it is then the pressure rises, the heat increases, sparks fly and our servicemen begin to vote with their feet.

"In our view we were close to the brink in 2005 and 2006 and many believe we are getting close to the brink now.

"Once over the brink, in manning terms at least, freefall is very difficult to arrest."
Lord Dannatt criticised reforms that would see the heads of the Army, Navy and RAF lose their seats on a central defence decision-making body.

"Perhaps when the current defence reforms have stopped erroneously targeting the individual chiefs then effort might be concentrated on arguing for an increased overall defence budget and thinning down the stultifying bureaucracy and unnecessarily complex decision making processes within MoD head office," he said.

Lord Walker described the covenant as "a very simple moral contract which means that in return for the sacrifices made the Government will ensure they are treated well and they should be confident that the nations have looked after them and their families".

He told peers: "This notion of fairness is I believe central to any covenant. It has to be demonstrated both strategically and tactically."

He said the recent Strategic Defence and Security Review had committed the Government to be more selective in its use of the armed forces, according to specific criteria.
"Just try measuring our latest military adventure into Libya against key national interest, clear strategic aim, viable exit strategy," Lord Walker said.

"How fair does that seem as a use of our military forces when we are heavily engaged elsewhere and at the same time key elements of our forces are being dismantled?

"And at the other end of the scale servicemen and women who have recently served in Afghanistan are being made compulsorily redundant, which is morally indefensible in my view.

"In this context, one has to ask: 'What price a commitment to the covenant?'"

He added: "My heart sinks at the thought of the recent defence reform proposals which see a defence board with only a single military member, among seven to 10, giving any air time at all to developing this concept that there is a covenant that really means anything."

Lord Boyce, head of the forces from 2001 to 2003, said: "Perhaps the annual report should also cover how the expectations of those serving with regards to the size, shape and capabilities of the armed forces are matching up to what they are being called to do today and how they are being met in proceeding towards a vision for the armed forces in 2020 - how those expectations actually stack up.

"Such expectations underpin fighting morale and sense of worth which surely are a fundamental part of the fabric of the rationale for the covenant.

"But I'm afraid a report on that subject currently would make pretty depressing reading."

A version of the Armed Forces Bill is required every five years to provide the basis for military law and the present one includes a section that will require the defence secretary to report annually to Parliament on the operation of the covenant.

But Lord Boyce said issues affecting current and former servicemen and women such as housing, health and education fell outside of the MOD's control.

"I'm not convinced the Government can be held fully to account when the delivery of the covenant is not met and I fear that the good intentions that lay behind getting the covenant formally recognised may be squandered," he said.

Lord Stirrup, who was Chief of the Defence Staff until last year said: "Surely if Parliament is to probe such issues deeply and effectively, it must do so with those who are directly responsible for the provision in question.

"If the need to explain issues personally and directly to Parliament is the means by which good behaviour is encouraged then surely the explanation should be required from those responsible for the behaviour and they should not be able to use the Defence Secretary as a kind of air raid shelter."

And he said he did not believe the undertakings given in the Bill on the covenant were "yet firm enough".

Lord Craig of Radley, head of the armed forces from 1988 to 1991, questioned how the Defence Secretary would be able to produce an "authoritative report" on issues such as housing for people who had left the services.

"While not wishing to disparage the Government's good intentions, it is most important the report and the reaction of the Government to what it says are well thought out and presented," he said.

"It will be not just the annual report but the responses to and actions taken on the report that will really matter. Who will be held responsible for that?"

He called for a minister for veterans to be situated in the Cabinet Office away from the MoD, as the needs of veterans spread across various areas.

Defence minister Lord Astor of Hever, introducing the legislation to the Lords, said: "Our starting point is that the armed forces covenant is fundamentally a moral obligation on the Government, on the nation and on the armed forces themselves."

He added: "It can never be defined by a host of rules and regulations designed to tell everyone exactly what to do in every circumstance.

"Certainly, where rules need to be changed, we will do so. But generally people of this country know how service personnel should be treated.

"Our task is to create the right framework for that to happen and to ensure that Parliament plays a central role."

Lord Astor said the process of the defence secretary preparing reports would "evolve" over time and he was against making the legislation "excessively prescriptive".

Baroness Crawley, for Labour, said: "Of the need for the covenant there can be little doubt. Our armed forces face significant redundancies with the first round of 11,000 being announced in just under two months time.

"It appears there may be a shortage of applicants in some areas including senior army officers. Money, of course, may be one factor in the light of pay freezes and a view that more could be earned outside the services.

"A feeling, also, among some that our armed forces are now involved in managing decline and that promotion will be more difficult to secure does not help."

She said many armed forces allowances were being cut and pensions would now be linked to the consumer price index rather than the retail price index, which was likely to result in them being lower.

Government whip Lord Wallace of Saltaire, winding up the debate, played down calls for a separate minister for veterans.

"The Ministry of Defence is not entirely separated from the rest of Whitehall," he said. "It does work on a continuous basis with the Departments of Health, Work and Pensions and Communities and Local Government.

"Officials meet their colleagues. There are representatives from those other departments on the external reference group which will become the covenant reference group."

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