Wednesday 5 November 2008

That question

During today's PMQs, Mr Gerald Howarth asked:

Will the Minister accept that when Major Morley was forced to deploy his troops in Snatch Land Rovers, he was given no choice, contrary to all the ministerial assurances given to commanders in the field that they would have whatever equipment they required?
The prime minister, speaking from a prepared script, (as is quite normal) responded:

That was a sad incident involving the deaths of young people serving our country. However, in recent years, we have done our best to provide the necessary equipment. We have spent more than £1 billion on new vehicles for operations. In 2006, we ordered 108 Mastiffs and, in 2007, took steps to increase vehicle numbers. We ordered 150 Ridgebacks and the first Jackals as part of a constant review of capability. In June, operational commanders were asked by the Defence Minister to look again at our vehicle options. More armoured vehicles were decided upon, and last week we were able to announce the purchase of nearly 700 vehicles and an upgrade of more than 200 vehicles. That is a total of 1,200 new vehicles, and that is why the Conservative Chairman of the Defence Committee said:

"The personal equipment that our Armed Forces now have is better than it's ever been."
The reply is, as one would expect, both evasive and dishonest. It is, of course, arguable as to whether, even in recent years, the claim that "we have done our best to provide the necessary equipment," is sustainable. Certainly, the government's performance has been better than it was – but that is measured from a very low base.

A charitable construction of "best" would suggest that it is still not good enough, otherwise the troops that were slaughtered in June last would still be alive. Those less forgiving might suggest that the government's performance was very far from "our best", and represents a lamentable performance.

The additional vehicles in the package to which Brown refers is, of course, good news but the timing is not so good. Some of these will not be in service until 2010, when the need is right now.

That it took so long to get this far is entirely unacceptable and, until we have all the details of the package, we will not know whether even this is adequate. As we well know, the MoD is quite capable of buying the wrong vehicles.

The final claim, though, is reprehensible. Brown artfully uses the term "personal equipment" to include vehicles, which it does not. The term covers only such items as uniforms, boots, body armour, packs and personal weapons.

Thus, while the "Conservative Chairman of the Defence Committee", James Arbuthnot did indeed say - on 1 February 2007, "They (the troops) also have better personal equipment than they have ever had," he also said in the same speech:

Although we read in our newspapers stories of poor equipment and demoralised men and women, we have the good fortune to see the reality. There are problems - as the Secretary of State was the first to acknowledge. We on the Defence Committee consider there to be problems with strategic lift. When we were in Iraq, we experienced problems both with lift and with armoured vehicles - those that we have there are old and hot.
The reference, it will be noted, was to Iraq and, in any event, was not a full-blown appraisal of the standard of the vehicles provided – much less of those in Afghanistan.

Gerald Howarth, of course, was not allowed a come-back. Thus, the "lies" stand on the record, to be dissected (or not) another day. There are times when even we can sympathise with the Conservatives.