Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House has considered the matter of defence in the UK.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]
I would like to begin by offering my deepest condolences to the families of the 10 service personnel who died over the summer in Afghanistan. We owe them, and all those who have lost their lives in conflict, a huge debt of gratitude.
As the House will know, there have been changes to the Defence ministerial team over the last week. I am very sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) and my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) are leaving the Department. They were both dedicated and experienced individuals, with whom I enjoyed working; they made a huge contribution and I shall miss working with them. That said, we have a new Secretary of State and two new Ministers, whom I am very much looking forward to working with on the challenges that lie ahead. The Secretary of State has asked me to offer his apologies to the House for not being here today. He is making his first foray into international defence diplomacy at the NATO ministerial working group in Bucharest.
Our focus is understandably and rightly overseas, but we should never forget the enormous contribution the armed forces make at home. I welcome the opportunity to put the spotlight on defence in the UK. On my visits to military bases around the UK, I have seen for myself the pride of our people in what they do. They know they make a difference, and the public know they do as well. According to the latest polling, 79 per cent. of people think the military are a force for good in the world. We need to make sure that this good will is backed up by a level of recognition and reward that stands comparison with the sacrifices that they make on our behalf.
Defence is, obviously, focused on delivering security. With the current attention on Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to forget the many other ways our armed forces provide security through operations at home, such as counter-terrorism and unexploded ordinance disposal. The military provides round-the-clock military bomb disposal teams ready to defuse threats anywhere in the UK, and crack Navy and Air Force search-and-rescue crews stand ready to respond to distress calls at a moment’s notice—in 2007 alone, they responded to a total of 1,793 call-outs. Over the course of the last year, Royal Navy fishery protection vessels conducted 1,311 boardings while the RAF maintained the security of UK airspace every hour of every day without failure. Whatever they are asked to do, they do it. Those conducting ongoing home operations deserve our recognition and the nation’s thanks.
When it comes to our defence industry, I can say with absolute certainty that our armed forces stay world class because we have a world-class UK defence industry behind them. The purpose of our defence industry must first and foremost be to deliver capability to the front line, and we are proud of the partnership—in some cases the deepening partnership—that we have with industry to achieve that.
The Defence Committee visited Abbey Wood last week. It was a most valuable visit. We asked the chief of defence matériel who was in charge of the defence industrial strategy, and the answer was that it was not him. Who is?
At the top level, the answer is the Secretary of State and my new ministerial friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who is the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement. Of course, the chief of defence matériel reports to them on all the issues concerned with the procurement of equipment for our armed forces, so the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the chief of defence matériel is not in charge. We live in a democracy, after all, and I thought that the right hon. Gentleman and all Opposition Members understood that point.
My favourite example of procurement and deployment is the Mastiff vehicle—a piece of kit that soldiers have heaped praise on, and which was taken from the order book to the battlefield in less than 23 weeks, making a big impact on operations in a very short time frame. We need to ensure that we recreate that example again and again: sourcing what our armed forces need, ordering it and getting it out to them in theatre as quickly as possible. However, equally, we cannot take our eye off the ball in delivering for the long term.
Will my right hon. Friend also pay tribute to all those involved in bringing the Jackal vehicle forward as an urgent operational requirement? It is rolling off the production line in Devonport at the rate of, I think, at least one a week.
That is my hon. Friend’s favourite because it is produced in her constituency. I have seen the production line, and it is a very impressive piece of kit that is being brought to theatre in good time. I can understand why she is so supportive of its operation, which is providing jobs in Devonport as well as a first-class vehicle for our armed forces. She will understand why I tend to favour the Mastiff. It is produced in my constituency by NP Aerospace—an impressive and agile company that has responded very well to defence procurement demands.
When we debated these issues before the recess, the vulnerability of the Snatch Land Rover to attacks in Afghanistan was one of the main issues raised by the Opposition. Can the Minister advise the House of any developments over the recess regarding when the Snatch might be phased out of aggressive operations in Afghanistan and replaced with more suitable vehicles?
Mastiff has delivered a high level of protection for our troops and is very well thought of, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is an extremely heavy truck that cannot go into many places, and there is a need for a lighter personnel carrier that can get to the places Mastiff cannot get to. We hope to bring Mastiff 2—yet another tranche of Mastiff vehicles—into theatre by the end of this year. We have ordered Ridgeback, which will come into theatre and is in the process of being up-armoured. However, even Ridgeback, smaller though it is than Mastiff, will not provide the size that Snatch does, so what work can be done on Snatch itself is going ahead, to see whether we can get more power into the unit and therefore more speed, and more armour. That will come through in the form of a new, better-performance Snatch as soon as we are able, but I do not think that we can deprive our commanders—I know that this is a controversial issue in the House—of a vehicle the size of Snatch: not while they are telling us that they need that capability and utility in theatre.
Getting the numbers of Mastiff that we need into theatre and getting Ridgeback there to provide a smaller alternative will limit the use of Snatch to those areas where it is the only vehicle that can do the job. People need to remember that there is armour in the Snatch, and we cannot go beyond a certain point in terms of the amount of armour put into a vehicle of that size—it is just not possible. There is a trade-off between size and armour capability.
As I was saying, we need to get new equipment to our forces as quickly as possible, but we must not take our eye off the ball when delivering for the long term. From designing high-tech clothing to building submarines, defence creates or sustains about 305,000 jobs. It is a mark of the stature of our defence industry that the UK accounts for more than a third of the global defence market. During the last financial year, UK-based companies signed contracts for defence goods and services to a value of £10 billion. That demonstrates the amount of money that the sector brings into the UK economy, while maintaining key engineering skills here in the UK.
The Minister is being generous in giving way. May I take him back to his earlier answer, in which he made some well-judged points about the difficult trade-off between weight and protection? I draw his attention to the new, blast-resistant materials produced by companies such as Aegis, which are lightweight and work on the principle of absorbing blast rather than reflecting it, as all previous blast materials have done. The Czech army, for example, has already put it on the bottom of relatively light Land Rovers, and there have been some very successful trials, including in this country.
The hon. Gentleman is right, in that we must stay at the very forefront of technological developments in lightweight materials that can do a job in force protection. What was not possible a year or so ago in terms of the amount of armour that can be provided for a relevant amount of weight may well now be possible. We must therefore look at such developments and have companies that are prepared not only to use them, but to bring them into being quickly, as happened with the Mastiff. Too often, we take too long over procurement decisions. We have to be able wherever possible to bring new developments into theatre as quickly as possible. The enemy will change and the threat will change, so we have to change as quickly and nimbly as we can to stay ahead of the game and keep our people protected.
I know that people say that one should never ask a question in politics unless one knows the answer, but I genuinely do not know the answer to this one. The Minister explained where Mastiff and Ridgeback are going to fit in, but will he please explain where Jackal is going to fit in? I was slightly surprised by his response to the intervention from the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), in which he said that there would be a more or less indefinite role for the Snatch Land Rover. I had rather assumed that it was largely to be superseded by the Jackal.
Jackal provides an altogether different capability from Snatch. Jackal is a highly mobile, highly armoured reconnaissance vehicle with a level of visibility that provides protection in itself. It is a new form of WMIK—weapons mounted installation kit—rather than the new form of Snatch. As I have said, we are working on the degree to which Snatch can be up-armoured. The main problem is the amount of power that Snatch has and its ability, therefore, to pull the increased weight at anything like a reasonable speed. If we can get more power out of the power-pack, we can put on more armour, and that is being worked on now. We are looking to bring on line the new, up-armoured Snatch, which is being referred to as “the Vixen”, as soon as we are able. Jackal has a different capability entirely.
Before the Minister took the interventions about armoured vehicles, he was referring to the extraordinarily successful export record of Britain’s defence industrial base. Does he accept that that superb record was achieved in large measure thanks to the assistance of the Defence Export Services Organisation—an institution that was scrapped by the Prime Minister last year? Can he tell the House why, in its new incarnation in UK Trade and Investment, the word “export” has been dropped, and whether, as a consequence, he expects it to be of any use in achieving a similarly successful result for British industry in the coming years?
I was interested by the furore among Conservative Members at the changes that were made last year. I have followed that through, and whenever I have got talking to people in the defence industry, I have asked them how they feel about those changes, how they have bedded in and whether people are getting the service that they need to continue to do their job. Without exception, all the comments that I have received over the past few weeks, from the many people to whom I talked at the Labour party conference and the people whose factories I have subsequently visited, suggested that the support provided by the new organisation is perfectly acceptable, quite superb and has the potential, through connections with all the trade expertise in the Department responsible for trade, that DESO would not have had. The defence industry does not feel the disappointment that hon. Gentleman suggests, and I ask him to check the facts. I have been checking them because I need, and want, to know the situation, and I have been enormously pleased with the response that I had. I invite him to do the same and to bring his reports back to the House. He might think that people feel let down by the changes that we have made, but that is not what they are saying to me.
I could name the people to whom I have spoken, and the right hon. Gentleman could name the person to whom he has spoken. We are being given two different stories; one never knows, perhaps the same people are saying two different things. I have heard no detrimental comments from the people with whom I have raised the subject of the changes that were made. People are saying that they are getting the support that they require and that there is the potential for improved support from the new arrangements. That is the feedback that I have been given, so perhaps we need to continue this conversation with people outside the House—I am sure that we will continue it with people inside the House too.
British military training is considered to be the best in the world. No other institution in the United Kingdom provides such a broad range of high-quality training and education, which is evident, for example, in our apprenticeship delivery programme. On average, more than 20,000 people leave the armed services each year, and, overwhelmingly, they are better educated, fitter and more highly skilled, and they have a higher level of confidence, a strong work ethic and a team spirit, when they leave—no wonder they are quickly snapped up by employers.
We still have problems with our training that we need to tackle—for example, bullying is something that the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence will not tolerate. The vast majority of recruits who come through training have a very positive experience, and we act quickly to resolve the issues for the small number who experience bullying or have any other grievance. We are proud of the fact that complaints can now be referred to the completely independent service complaints commissioner, and our training establishments are subject to ongoing scrutiny by external, independent authorities. The nub of the issue is whether we can eradicate bullying entirely and still keep our training sufficiently robust, hard and challenging to prepare young people for the demands of combat. Both the Chief of the General Staff and I think that it is possible to do so, and we are committed to working towards that end.
As in all areas of defence, we continue to examine how we can improve training. The House is aware of the defence training review programme. The review will transform how we deliver specialist phase 2 and phase 3 technical training on a defence-wide basis, and, once complete, will help us to adjust to changes in demand, to make more efficient and effective use of training personnel, to improve accommodation and to make better and more efficient use of the training estate.
I am coming to the point on which the hon. Gentlemen probably want to intervene. Hon. Members will be aware that progress on defence training review package 1 has been more difficult and prolonged than expected. However, I can report that considerable progress has been made in driving down costs and towards achieving an affordable, value-for-money package 1, which is on track for an investment decision next spring, with the contract signature to come approximately 15 months later.
As the Minister knows, the defence training review programme is the largest private finance initiative in British history. I hope he agrees that we must get defence training in this country right. Does he share my concern about the reports over the past three or four weeks about the delay in the delivery of that programme—I believe that an announcement will be made today or perhaps next week about a further delay; he just alluded to it—and, more importantly, about the rising costs? Such reports contradict the statement that he just made. The fact is that the costs have increased by £1 billion in the past six months alone. What recent discussions has he had with Treasury Ministers about those rising costs?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has a national interest too, but he has a particular interest in this matter and, obviously, he pursues it. I am not saying that the costs have not changed. I am saying that we still have an affordable package that is far cheaper than the alternatives, and that has been worked on over the summer. We will be able to go ahead with defence package 1 and get value for money out of those proposals.
The Minister referred to bullying. I agree that the Army, in particular, should do as much as possible about that, but bullying will be there. One of the areas about that I am worried about is recruit-on-recruit bullying, especially among training regiments. Many years ago, when I came through basic training, there were trained soldiers in the barrack rooms during the night. The Minister is aware of that, and I have also raised this issue with the Secretary of State. If one visits a training regiment these days, as I know the Minister has done, one finds that the instructors go home to their families and loved ones, and there are few experienced soldiers in the barrack rooms at night, and the bullying often takes place when recruits think that they are a little more senior. As so many of our armed forces who have received some minor injuries and some serious injuries still want to stay within the military, surely it would be sensible to bring those experienced soldiers back into phase 1 and phase 2 training to provide the sort of mentoring that we need to stop the bullying.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously right; it is as important, and perhaps more so in some instances, to provide a safe environment in our training establishments at night as it is to do so during the training practice that goes on during the day. A big part of doing that lies in getting the estate right; we need to make the configuration of the training accommodation appropriate to a safe environment. He takes a huge interest in this issue, so I commend him to look around some of the new accommodation that is provided at Pirbright, where there is a safe environment that provides people with oversight during the night as well as during training hours. He knows that bringing the defence estate up to an adequate level—I shall return to this point later in my speech—is a massive project that will still take some time, although building has been going for some time. We need to deal with this issue; we need to get our priorities right; and we need to ensure that we eliminate bullying, no matter where it comes from, be that from instructors or peers. In the process of doing so, we must not lose the rigours of the training regime. If we lose those rigours, we will not turn out the people for the highly dangerous environments in which we expect them to work, to stay safe and to stay alive.
The armed forces constituency across the UK, including veterans, families and the armed forces, numbers about 10 million people. That broad constituency is part of the fabric of this nation, and enriches life in Britain immeasurably and in a variety of ways. As a Government and a nation, we have asked a great deal of our armed forces recently, not least in Iraq and Afghanistan—and they have delivered. So it is right that we give them all the support and recognition that they deserve. That was the theme of the national recognition study, carried out with his customary skill by the new Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford who has responsibility for defence equipment and support. He reported in May this year and highlighted a range of ways in which the country can do more to show appreciation and to recognise the huge debt that we owe our armed forces. I am pleased that since that study was launched, we have seen an increase in the number of military parades through towns, as well as a number of other initiatives, such as free tickets to football matches and discounts at cinemas. Individuals are finding their own ways to show their gratitude. That is to be welcomed and appreciated, and it is probably past time that we reached that position.
I associate myself with the condolences in the Minister’s opening remarks. In my constituency, 16 Air Assault Brigade has lost 11 soldiers in Afghanistan. I also endorse his remarks about the proper level of support for our armed forces. Will he or one of his ministerial team visit my constituency to see the married quarters? While the new Merville barracks for the single soldier are the best that can be provided, I have to say that—as a direct consequence of the privatisation of Army housing by the last Conservative Government—the condition of the family accommodation and the play areas, and the inadequate policing now that MOD police numbers have been cut, are causing serious concern. If retention is important—and it is—that issue needs to be addressed.
I try to get round as many establishments as I can, and I will continue to do so now that Parliament has returned, as I did over the summer. The Whips and parliamentary business allowing, I shall get round to as many establishments as I can, and I hope that that will include the one that the hon. Gentleman mentions. I shall come to issue of accommodation shortly, and I do not think that my comments will be very dissimilar from his.
Recognition of our armed forces is not enough. Our most valuable asset in defence is our people. The men and women of the British armed forces are person-for-person the best in the world. They provide security for the nation and accept the unique demands of service. Most markedly, they accept the risk of death or serious harm as part of their job. So it is vital that we do all we can, not just within the MOD but across Government, to ensure that those who serve are not disadvantaged by virtue of what they do. This will in some circumstances call for degrees of special treatment for those who need it.
That guiding principle underpinned the Command Paper launched in July. We pledged more than 40 cross-Government initiatives to improve support to our armed forces community. For example, we are doubling the maximum, up-front lump sum compensation for the most seriously injured to £570,000. That is on top of—although the media too often forget it—a tax-free, index-linked guaranteed income payment, which can take the total value of a settlement to in excess of £1.5 million over the course of a lifetime.
I was also pleased to see that most of the recommendations made by the Forsyth commission were already in our Command Paper—after all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
On the question of compensation, especially for those who have been killed, will the Minister consider the anomaly that those who have been bereaved are not paid that compensation until after the inquest has been concluded, which may be a significant length of time after the death? Is not there an argument for paying compensation to the families immediately after the death, with the higher amount being paid after the inquest is completed?
The armed forces compensation scheme is for people who are injured, not those who are killed. Separate arrangements are in place for compensation in some circumstances when people have died on service. The armed forces compensation scheme seeks to pay out as soon as is reasonably possible after a proper assessment of the level of injury. The hon. Gentleman will accept that the level of injury may not be immediately apparent, and we therefore need a proper assessment of that before we can compensate the person for it.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about death, for which we need a process to establish culpability. We have tried, where appropriate, to accept culpability so as not to delay the decision further and increase the trauma of the families of those who have lost their lives.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as I did not explain myself clearly. When a member of the services dies, a standard amount—I think that it is £40,000—is always paid to the bereaved family, but it is delayed until the end of the inquest. Could we not pay that standard amount as soon as a death occurs, with any uplift arising from the result of the inquest being paid later?
The truth is that I am not satisfied and, as my hon. Friend knows, we have done a fair amount of work to try to improve the support that we give to the families of our bereaved servicemen. We have made many improvements and put some resources into that. We have not got it right, because there is more that we can do to offer that support, and we are looking at it all the time. We have sometimes allowed the process to take too long and sometimes we have even caused the delay. That only adds to the upset and the bitterness that families feel when they have lost someone close to them, so we have to improve and do as much as we can. My hon. Friend draws attention to an area on which the MOD must keep working.
We are now working across Government to implement the promises that we made in the Command Paper. We have formed an external reference group, with members drawn from Government, the devolved Administrations, charities and academia, which will report formally to the Prime Minister, and through him to the public, to ensure that we honour the military covenant not just now, but down through the years. In pursuit of this, we have done much more over the last year to improve the lot of our servicemen and women. We have increased the commitment bonus to a maximum of £15,000 and increased the operational allowance to £2,300, improved the longer separation allowance, and invested in Headley Court to the tune of £24 million. We have extended Defence Medical Services to reservists on operations. We have introduced child care vouchers, achieved better access by service personnel to the key worker living scheme, arranged free post at Christmas for parcels, awarded above-inflation pay rises and brought in council tax relief for those on operations.
We plan to do more in the future. We are establishing a military ward in Birmingham’s new hospital and rolling out the community mental health services for veterans. For families, we are disregarding compensation payments for the means test on home adaptation grants, providing additional accommodation for service leavers at risk of homelessness and removing disadvantage when it comes to access to schools. We will give service leavers with more than six years in the forces their first A-level course or even a degree course with no tuition fees. We will extend concessionary bus travel to seriously injured personnel and veterans.
Our initiatives have led the Royal British Legion to say:
“The Covenant is being brought back into balance”.
That is all a far cry from the bluster and hyperbole of the Forsyth commission. The commission’s report was 40 pages long and made no real commitments—well, they were few and far between. It was a huge retreat from the commision’s interim report and it deservedly sunk without a trace.
I do not want to get into the debate about the Forsyth commission, but it mentioned the importance of Headley Court, which was mentioned by the Minister, and I think that the whole House would pay tribute to the hard work that takes place there. Questions were raised about the swimming pool, which is an important part of the rehabilitation process. Will the Minister use this opportunity to update the House on what is happening about the advent of a swimming pool as a facility at that location?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the money was raised by Help for Heroes and that they have now completed that fundraising. There is no reason from a finance point of view for any delay, and just the detailed work—such as that to do with regulations—and the construction work needs to go ahead in order to provide a swimming pool at Headley Court. The Government are providing £24 million to secure the development plan for Headley Court over a 10-year period, providing all the other rehabilitation facilities that are needed.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman would agree that although people sometimes say that we should not rely on charity, it is important not only that we fund the facilities adequately as a Government through the taxpayer but that we attract and encourage charitable contributions. Help for Heroes has done an amazing job to fund the swimming pool at Headley Court. That organisation and others, such as the Royal British Legion and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, ought to be congratulated and nurtured. They ought to be helped to continue to make the fantastic contribution that they make.
Accommodation was one of the issues addressed in the Command Paper, and I would be the first to admit that not all our accommodation is what it should be. After decades of under-investment in the defence estate, the Government have built or upgraded more than 29,000 units of single living accommodation since 2003 and upgraded nearly 13,000 service family homes since 2001. We will invest a further £8 billion in service accommodation over the next 10 years.
In the Command Paper we also pledged to improve access to the property ladder for our people and for those leaving the forces, so I am pleased to tell the House that there is a team working on proposals to address those issues that will report by the end of the year. The Prime Minister has already announced a £20 million pilot scheme to promote home ownership, which is to be launched in 2009.
Will the Minister confirm that all that public money is being invested in housing stock owned by a company that acquired Ministry of Defence housing in 1996, privatised at a price way below its value? In 10 years, the Government have spent more money in rent than the previous Government received in capital receipts, and all that public money is further enhancing the property value of Annington Homes rather than benefiting the public purse.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the deal that was done by the previous Government has left us a legacy that we have to work with. The overwhelming majority of our service family accommodation was sold off and we are now renting it back from Annington Homes. The money was taken and most of it did not go into the defence budget; it was taken by the Treasury before the 1997 general election. However, we have to live with the circumstances as they are. We have to work with Annington Homes and with anyone else who can help not only to improve our accommodation but to provide opportunities for our service people to get into home ownership. Despite some of the difficulties in the housing market in this last year, that is an aspiration that most of our people have and we must do as much as we can—with Annington Homes or with anybody else—to try to meet that aspiration.
Opposition Members are not short of words on what more we need to do to look after our armed forces, but it is this Labour Government who have actually delivered for our forces. We have provided better equipment, better pay, more compensation, and improved health care. We have upgraded accommodation, which the Opposition sold off. We do not talk about what needs to be done; we get on and do it. Everything that we have debated—accommodation, support, training and pay—has an influence on recruitment and retention.
The latest figures on recruitment give some encouragement. There has been an 11 per cent. increase in the number of new recruits joining the forces in the 12 months up to June 2008, and there has been a 12 per cent. increase in the number of recruits joining the trained strength. The number of people leaving the trained strength has fallen by 1.4 per cent. in the past 12 months. On 1 August 2008, the full-time trained strength of the armed forces was 173,470, against a target of 179,160. That is 96.9 per cent. of the requirement.
Hon. Members will be aware that our people are working very hard, and some are deploying more frequently than any of us want. Obviously, that is not ideal, but the service chiefs have said that the current situation is manageable. For a number of specific groups in each service, including the Royal Marines ranks, the Army infantry, and RAF firefighters and engineers, manpower shortages create significant pressures. Measures to reduce those shortages include recruiting bonuses targeted at shortage areas, re-engagement bonuses, restructuring to spread the load more evenly and an enhanced operational welfare package. There is still some way to go before the situation is fully rectified, but we have made progress and will continue to do so.
A last word on harmony: as we move to a new role in Iraq, harmony will improve. I do not want to get into a debate on exactly when that will be; suffice it to say that in the medium term the decrease in our military commitment in Iraq will considerably ease the current stretch on our armed forces.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. About three weeks ago, I had the opportunity of visiting Afghanistan and listening to concerns about the Apache aircraft. As many of us will be aware, the concern is about a shortage not of aircraft, but of pilots. That came through loud and clear. We have 67 Apache aircraft. We could send them all out there, but they would not fly, because there are not the crews to man them. That message must be driven home. What is the Minister doing to expedite the training of crews, so that more of the Apache aircraft that are sitting dormant, or being used for training purposes in the UK, can be shipped over and used in Afghanistan?
We need to watch closely our ability to recruit and retain pilots, among other groups. I refer not only to helicopter pilots, but fixed-wing aircraft pilots. There is—or has been in recent years, in any case—a very buoyant civil aviation industry that pulls our people out earlier.
I have reeled off a list of things that we have done to try to address the recruitment and retention needs of our armed forces. The Government will keep them under review and will respond to the needs as and when required. We have done that, and will continue to do that.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way yet again. There is not a single class of helicopter used by the US armed forces that does not have reservist crews, many of whom work in the dynamic aviation industry that he mentions. The US armed forces are able to rotate those reservist crews into operational theatres without moving the machines; the guys just fly out and take over the machines that are over there. Surely we should expand our aviation reserves, and not, as is planned, reduce both the Royal Naval Reserve and the Army aviation reserve.
I was about to move on to the issue of reserves. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have commissioned a study about how best to use our reserves.
Based at nearly 400 locations across the UK, our reservists create and maintain important links between the armed forces and the wider community, in addition to making a huge contribution to current operations. Since March 2003, more than 17,000 reservists have served on operations around the world. They make up 9 per cent. of British armed forces in Afghanistan and 4 per cent. of our forces in Iraq. They are a significant part of our front-line capability, and in every way a force for good. They not only add power and expertise to our regular forces, but take the skills and abilities that they learn in defence into their civilian roles, adding to our front-line capability as well as our economy.
Since April this year, we have been conducting a strategic review of reserve forces, and the report to the House is due later this year. The aim of the review is to shape reserve forces so that they can better support front-line operations now and in the future. The hon. Gentleman has co-operated with that review; I know that he is hugely interested in the reserves. His points about niche capabilities and whether we can use the reserves to a greater degree will be taken into account. We will seek to expose those issues in the reserve review and exploit the capability out there.
I want to remind the House that across the UK there are about 132,000 cadets and 26,000 adult volunteers. Cadets belong to one of the largest youth organisations in the UK, second only to the scouts. Cadet schemes offer our young people a broad range of experiences and are recognised for giving young people ability in leadership, self-confidence, a “can do” ethos and resourcefulness.
Defence keeps our nation safe. It also adds value to our economy and invests in our people, and I have mentioned only some of the ways in which it is doing so. It is evident that we owe the armed forces credit not only for maintaining our security through operations overseas but for all that they do for us at home. The Government will remain committed to ensuring that service personnel, veterans and service families get all the recognition and support that they need. They deserve no less.
I join the Minister in paying tribute to the 10 service personnel who lost their lives on operations. I also wish to remember the larger numbers who have been seriously injured on those same operations.
Service welfare in the United Kingdom is always among the issues raised in debates such as this. Previously, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) dealt with that topic; he was a humane and assiduous Minister, and we wish him well following his departure from Government. In his place is the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who has put his name to robust Defence Committee reports that have rightly described some single living accommodation as appalling and have rightly deplored operational overstretch and the consequent failure to meet harmony guidelines; it will be interesting to see how he gets on in addressing those issues.
Joining the ministerial team at the Ministry of Defence as an additional member is the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), in the latest twist of an eventful parliamentary career. He takes over the defence equipment and supply portfolio. In its last two incarnations, that has been held by Lord Drayson and Baroness Taylor, Members of the upper House—perhaps the hon. Gentleman is hoping that a trend in that direction is being established. The hon. Gentleman has always been intellectually independent, grounding the positions that he takes in considerable historical knowledge.
The hon. Gentleman shares that quality with the new Secretary of State for Defence, as I discovered last year in the national archives when I looked up from my researches into counter-insurgency and propaganda to see him immersed at an adjacent desk in the records of the Lancashire pals’ battalions, on which he was writing a book. At least we know that the Secretary of State, unlike some other prominent parliamentarians, actually writes the books to which he puts his name. Referring to the leader of his party, of whom the Secretary of State is such a well known admirer, they do, however, have one important factor in common—they both have important shipbuilding industries in their constituencies. Barrow is the home of UK submarine construction, and it will be interesting to see how many of the eight attack submarines promised by the Government in 2004 will be ordered and built there.
The outgoing Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (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 could overdraw from time to time but must replenish their resources. He also said that the bravest men would crack if they were not rested adequately, and yet, conversely, men who were exhausted but were rested adequately could go back and win the highest awards for valour.
Last night, I viewed a recording that I had made of a BBC3 programme from two days ago. It was about a lance-corporal in the Grenadier Guards who was described by his company commander as, “Fearless, occasionally to the point of recklessness, but a very brave young man.” The Army deserves great credit for allowing the BBC access, in Afghanistan and back home, to what was going on in that company. The BBC likewise deserves credit for its sensitive and objective presentation. The young lance-corporal ended up, on the self-same day, being congratulated on the mention in dispatches that he had been awarded for heroism under fire, and losing his rank for disciplinary offences that he had committed on his return home. He had done four operational tours in his five years in the Army—so much for the harmony guidelines. When service personnel return to the United Kingdom, they need understanding, support and conditions of accommodation that reflect the regard in which they are held by society. Great improvements have been made for those damaged in body, but not enough yet for those damaged in mind, particularly those who could become damaged in mind when subjected to inadequate facilities and unnecessary pressures on their return to the UK.
The lance-corporal I referred to has now left the Army, but I know of another 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.
I am sad to hear about the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Would he send me the details of it, so that I can take it up?
I am delighted that the Under-Secretary is getting off to such a good start. I shall certainly do that, and I will be very pleased to see if he is able to do something to put that situation right. My point is that bank charges of that sort are irrecoverable. 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 they have. The Minister says that most of the things in the commission’s report were already going into the Government’s report. We can argue about that until we are blue in the face, but we ought to be above such a tit-for-tat approach. The fact is that the Government have the responsibility to do things, and the Opposition have the responsibility to try to get them to do things, and when the process works as it has in this case, it ought to reflect credit on the Government and the Opposition for doing their respective jobs.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is in many respects a very fair person, and that he would want to pay tribute to the British Legion for its part in bringing about some of the changes. Pressure has come from all quarters. Does he agree with his fellow shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who as recently as 14 September said, of the few things identified as extra in the Forsyth report, that as far as the Conservative party is concerned:
“It’s a matter of priority within the budget”.
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 the Member for Aldershot (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.
I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. The all-party Army group organised the parade to which he refers, and it was fantastic to see the band of the Coldstream Guards marching from Wellington barracks. Does my hon. Friend know that, before the troops entered the gates, they were attacked by members of the so-called peace camp across the way? They got into the ranks of the soldiers and swore at and abused them, and there were not enough police to prevent that.
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), who organised the occasion. I am indeed aware of the matter, which has been raised on the Floor of the House previously. Although Parliament is ready to tolerate the presence of demonstrations in Parliament square, the idea that people should be able to camp there permanently and behave insultingly towards those who put their lives at risk shows a cock-eyed sense of values in our society today.
Most unusually, I want to disagree with my hon. Friend. He said that he hoped that the level of 79 per cent. support would endure, but that figure says something worrying about 21 per cent. of the population. I pay tribute to the new Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for his work on support for our armed services. However, I will begin to feel satisfied when it reaches 99 per cent.
I fully take the reproof from my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right on that point. Of course, we are not sure how many people in that poll did not express an opinion. I hope that a lot less than 21 per cent. did not have a positive view of the armed forces. Indeed, a considerable proportion might have had no view at all. There will always be some people who have no view about anything whatever, and I suspect that their views about the armed forces are no exception, strange though it may seem.
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.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving away. He is making some powerful remarks. Does he agree that the Falklands war, the first Gulf war and 9/11, which led directly to the Afghanistan conflict, were all completely unanticipated, in most cases even days before they happened and certainly months before?
Absolutely. Now is not the time for me to go back to one of my favourite themes, the folly of the 10-year rule, which was in place from 1919 to 1933, when defence planning was carried out on the basis that there would not be a war in the next 10 years. We all know what that led to. It is in fact an exception for a state-on-state war to have been predicted a significant amount of time before it breaks out.
I would rather not at the moment, because I am conscious that we have only a limited time for the debate, and I do not want to speak for too long. Also, the hon. Lady has had one go.
Moving on to the defence industry base, I should like to point out that Lord Drayson’s welcome return to government would perhaps have been a little more welcome if he had returned to the defence procurement field in which he was doing rather well when he felt it necessary to leave government. One can only speculate as to whether he was not invited back to that position, or whether he decided that he did not want to return to it for the same reasons that he decided to leave in the first place. I do not think that that decision was entirely to do with motor racing.
The defence industrial base is of great value to the economy. Of course, there are traditional problems relating to procurement, which I do not have time to go into in any detail today. However, I would like—in a constructive way, I hope—to take one case study as an example of the sort of thing that Ministers should be thinking about in relation to our shipbuilding industry.
We know that the Government started out with a commitment to build 12 new destroyers. The number then went down to eight, and it has finally been settled at six. We know that the 1998 strategic defence review lowered the number of frigates and destroyers from 35 to 32. The number then went down to 31, then to 25. It is now down to 22. We also know that Admiral Lord West, when he was chief of the Navy, said over and over again—rather courageously, I thought, as he was still in office—that the Royal Navy needed about 30 frigates and destroyers to discharge its tasks. If we are going to have only six Type 45 destroyers, we are going to need something of the order of 24 new frigates. It will be very hard to persuade the Treasury to finance that.
Believe it or not, I think that Defence Ministers—even in a Labour Government—actually want to get the best possible deal for the armed forces, just as defence spokesmen in the Opposition believe in the very same thing. I urge Ministers to urge the naval designers, the admirals and the Ministry of Defence, when they are designing the future surface combatant, to make the vessels as basic and economical as possible, and to get as many hulls as possible into the water. They should not make the mistake, which has so often been made in the past, of upgrading the specification over and over again, with the result that we end up with half the number of ships that we originally intended to have.
It is much more possible to achieve these aims in this day and age than it was in the past. Our naval shipbuilders—and, to some extent, aircraft designers—have now developed techniques that enable them to put a vessel into the water, or an aircraft into service, with spare capacity. Everyone knows that there is a rather large gymnasium on the Type 45 destroyers. Everyone also knows that, as and when the Government can afford it, they will acquire tactical Tomahawk missiles that can be inserted into that spare space in the destroyers.
There is another reason why the new frigates should be designed to be as basic and economical as possible, and that as many as possible should be built. It is not only to keep the shipbuilding industry alive, or to maintain the necessary number of hulls that everyone knows the Navy needs for escort vessels, but to give us a chance to export the vessels in their simpler form to other countries. When we build vessels at the top of the range from the outset, they are unsaleable to anyone else.
I wish to conclude my remarks as this is a truncated debate. I am well aware that the two conflicts abroad not only place pressure on our domestic situation, but do not exist in isolation. I alluded to the security threat at home, and the fact is that Government machinery has not kept pace with these matters. Last year’s debate on defence in the UK took place on 26 April and I welcomed the creation of the research, information and communications unit, which will be taking steps to try to get the message right about the threats to the UK that arise domestically, but which are interconnected with the campaigns we are waging abroad.
The trouble is that the machinery is still not properly co-ordinated in the sense that individual Departments are trying to defend the UK in individual stovepipe arrangements. The nearest thing we have to a security Minister is someone at Under-Secretary of State level, with primary emphasis being laid on the Home Office and local government departments. We face integrated and interconnected threats in the UK and abroad, and we need a national security strategy and appropriate machinery to implement it. That is why Baroness Neville-Jones has a seat in the shadow Cabinet as national security adviser. Under an incoming Conservative Prime Minister, she would hold that post and be at the head of an organisation—a national security council—that was truly cross-departmental.
I want to say a last word about communications. This is not a debate on defence in the world, but when we read headlines at home that Army chiefs are saying such things as, “The war cannot be won in Afghanistan,” it is easy to say that the Army chiefs ought to be more careful about what sort of words they use when they are discussing concepts that are nothing new at all. In reality, however, there is also a responsibility on journalists not to sensationalise things that are simply common sense.
Let me give a brief quote from the internal report produced at the conclusion of the 38-year Operation Banner—effectively the counter-insurgency campaign, if I may use that phrase, in Northern Ireland:
“Security forces do not ‘win’ insurgency campaigns militarily; at best they can contain or suppress the level of violence and achieve a successful end-state. They can thus reduce a situation to an ‘acceptable level of violence’…What is required is a level which the population can live with, and with which local police forces can cope.”
I have put it another way when talking about these problems: in counter-insurgency, the enemy has to be identified, isolated and, so far as is possible, neutralised; but at the end of a counter-insurgency operation there always has to be negotiation with part of the enemy—the part that has been forced to recognise that it is not going to win and that is pragmatic enough to reach a settlement. I do not believe that anything that has been said about this by the Army differs in any way from that traditional approach.
I also believe that it is important that the media realise their responsibility; when our military chiefs are making perfectly sensible comments, they should not be turned into headlines saying, “Our efforts are doomed.” On the contrary, our efforts are not doomed. The purpose of our efforts is to make the enemy see that they cannot win so that, eventually, the more sensible elements of that enemy can be brought into the political process.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful statement about one reason why we are spending so long in Afghanistan. Does he agree that the other aspect is the fact that our military is being asked to do far more than it was sent in to do? I now learn that it is working on counter-narcotics, which is far distant from what it set out to do. Most importantly, not enough reconstruction and development are happening under the security umbrella that it creates.
The situation is dangerous. The Department for International Development and the non-governmental organisations that are supposed to be operating are absent, and the international security assistance force is taking on all those tasks which are used to win over hearts and minds. That will, I hope, allow the locals to strengthen themselves and eventually allow us to go home.
I endorse entirely my hon. Friend’s comments, and I pay tribute to him for the interest that he has taken, at no small risk to himself, to ensure that he was closely acquainted with that campaign. In particular, if the environment is too dangerous for DFID to operate in, as it is, and if we are asking the armed forces to do more reconstruction, as we are, ought not the Government to consider taking some of the resources currently allocated to DFID and giving them to the armed forces to do the job?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government of Pakistan need to do all that they can to ensure that al-Qaeda does not link in with the Taliban, so that those parts of the Taliban that are prepared to negotiate, to which he perhaps alludes, are fit and able to do so at the earliest opportunity?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. As has been seen to happen as a result of the successful American grasp of counter-insurgency principles in Iraq, we will end up with a situation in which people who were formerly fighting against us accept that they will eventually get their country back, providing that they break with and eliminate the unacceptable elements. We have seen that at the end of all sorts of counter-insurgency campaigns, both those that have been fought to a draw and those that have been fought to the advantage of the Government side. Ultimately, we isolate the militants and recruit those who are perhaps of a more nationalistic than militant persuasion. We end up with a compromise, which is at the heart of most democratic, and certainly all counter-insurgency, solutions.
Defence in the UK certainly involves support for the armed forces and for the defence industry, but it also involves support for the cause for which our service personnel are fighting. While civilians talk, debate and write reports, soldiers take their lives in their hands day in and day out. We owe it to them to articulate the cause for which we ask them to fight, and to give them the backing here in the UK when they come home from their dangerous operations.
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, may I say to the House that a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches applies from now on? Clearly, time is running out, and a lot of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Therefore, if hon. Members can take less than their allotted time span, it would be most helpful not just to me but to other colleagues.
I am delighted to be able to participate in this debate following a year of silence as a Government Whip.
First, I pay tribute to those service personnel who have lost their lives in the past year, and to those—some of them severely wounded—who are recovering and trying to rebuild their lives. Some of them are my constituents. That is why the recent publication of the Command Paper setting out clearly what the covenant means, and significantly enhancing it, has been welcomed in my constituency by service personnel and their families.
However, I very much hope that the decisions relating to the increased payments set out in the armed forces compensation scheme are handled swiftly as well as realistically. There has been more than one example locally of service personnel who have suffered the loss of multiple limbs—two or three limbs—and serious trauma still not being considered for a maximum payment, or near-maximum initial payment, which has at times been difficult for people to understand. I noted the Minister’s comment that the MOD has not always got it right in some cases.
I thank my hon. Friend. My understanding is that the British Limbless Ex-Service Men’s Association has been lobbying hard on specific cases, and I can follow up with that. It was delighted by the Government’s announcements generally, but it still has concerns, and would welcome further guidance on the new scheme. I wanted to raise those concerns before proceeding to the main thrust of my speech.
The defence of the United Kingdom, and the associated industries and service personnel that support it, are essential to a city such as Plymouth, with its long and distinguished military links. Plymouthians are acutely aware of the demands placed on servicemen and women and their families, acutely aware of the risks that they take, and acutely aware of the wider importance of our industrial base and the budgetary pressures faced by the Ministry of Defence. As a result, they value and understand the nature of the work that is required to ensure that the country is kept safe and secure. My constituents none the less have concerns, which I should like to raise. I do not apologise for focusing, rather parochially, on Plymouth rather than raising wider strategic issues.
On the MOD website, Members will find three statements of aims: to be fit for the challenge of today, to be ready for the tasks of tomorrow, and to be capable of building for the future. How can Plymouth, as part of the United Kingdom defence infrastructure jigsaw, help and be assisted to meet those aims and requirements? There are—not least in the current climate, and given our commitment to operations around the globe, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq—heavy demands on personnel and budgets. In addition, the MOD is committed to finding value-for-money savings—some £2.7 billion—which are expected to be reinvested in defence. In the light of those heavy pressures on budgets, it is not surprising that Plymouth has been facing uncertainty about the future of both the naval base and the size and role of the industrial set-up within the dockyard. That is not good for my constituents, and I do not think that it is good for United Kingdom defence or for the Royal Navy and Royal Marines based in and around Plymouth.
Rather perversely, that uncertainty has been running in parallel with huge increases in Government spending in the dockyard on its facilities, nuclear and non-nuclear, and on the residences used by the Navy, as well as on the commercial purchase of the industrial interest by Babcock International. Babcock is continuing to grow, with revenue increasing by 57 per cent. in 2007-08. That makes it one of the leading suppliers of support to the Royal Navy, and we welcome its presence in the city.
Investment in the naval base has also included the replacement of some grim living quarters by two brand-new buildings that house over 1,600 personnel: 961 junior rates, 450 senior rates and about 250 officers. That is significant, and certainly reinforces the MOD’s comment in response to the 15th Select Committee report on defence estates that
“good quality housing is a fundamental part of the welfare package”
that it gives service personnel.
That investment has made a difference in Plymouth, but I should like to hear from the Minister, in the light of ever-increasing energy costs and wider climate-change concerns, how much emphasis is placed on ensuring that all new build in defence estates—accommodation and other types of building—meets the highest energy efficiency standards. The potential cost savings to the Department cannot be insignificant. I hope that the Minister will tell us that when contracts and tenders are being drawn up, the Department will, as part of its procurement process, set the highest standards to ensure that all its partners keep their energy use as low as is feasible, given the nature of the technology used. I should welcome his comments, but I hope he will not simply say—as is said in another part of the MOD’s website—that the MOD compares favourably with other Departments. I do not think that response is good enough, and I hope that the Minister can offer something a bit more positive and specific.
I suppose that all the improvements we have seen in the dockyard should have sent a signal to all involved that there was a real commitment to it on the part of all the major players. However, that is not how they were perceived, and when the naval base review was set in train and there was talk of surface work being removed from Plymouth, a few hares were set running. In response to the ongoing indecision about the dockyard’s future, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy)—whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber—set up a dockyard strategy group, drawing in all the city’s leaders, trade unions and Members of Parliament, as well as the regional development agency and other concerned parties, to ensure that Plymouth’s concerns about the future direction of United Kingdom defence and our part in it were clarified and the future of our work force was assured. The strategy group knew that Plymouth was “fit for the challenge of today”, but we needed to be sure that we were “ready for the tasks of tomorrow”, and that we could sustain the skilled work force that was required to meet those demands.
On the industrial side, Babcock operates very efficiently—as did its predecessor, DML—and for that reason it has continued, in a difficult economic climate, to win a steady stream of orders. In the last year, we have also seen major work, including the completion of HMS Victorious, which has already returned to sea after her three-and-a-half year refit. HMS Ocean, currently the Navy’s largest ship, is out on sea trials following maintenance at a cost of £30 million. The Royal Navy’s activity in Plymouth continues to fire on all cylinders to meet the demands placed on it in theatres around the globe. HMS Illustrious—which I was fortunate enough, as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, to join for a “Thursday war” recently—has just completed her operational sea training and will soon be back on patrol. For the uninitiated—I suspect there are not many of those in the Chamber today—a Thursday war takes place each week in the sea off Plymouth and involves assessments being carried out on every aspect of a ship’s company and their work under operational conditions by the expert team from flag officer sea training to ensure that the crew has reached a level of professionalism to allow them to perform in any type of scenario. If anyone has the opportunity of participating in one of these events, I recommend that they do so as they are eye-opening.
Even in the light of all this activity, we are still facing a pattern of future work subject to dips and troughs. That is inevitable given the improved reliability of modern warships and submarines, and so when the future of the naval base was called into question, the city and the work force wanted answers to a range of questions. We wanted reassurance that the Ministry of Defence really understood the implications of any decision it took in terms of socio-economic outcomes and the synergy that exists between the naval base, the MOD’s commercial partners and the city’s residents. We also wanted to be sure that the MOD was working closely with other Government Departments to—quoting again from one of its web pages—
“make a contribution in the regions”.
Had it closed Plymouth, its contribution to the regions would not have strengthened its position with other civil Departments; it would have made it a pariah, leaving others to pick up the tab for the trail of socio-economic devastation which would have followed. It would also have helped to destroy the skills base that Government and defence industries in the UK depend on.
I am delighted to say that that scenario did not come about, largely because of the extensive lobbying by MPs, unions, the council and others. We made a very sound case to all the Government Departments concerned, and I must thank MOD Ministers for taking on board those wider representations. We, like other cities in the UK that are dependent on defence industries, are, however, still in limbo while the MOD negotiates with its industrial partners the terms of business agreements—TOBAs—which will set the parameters for their future work programmes. This is an unbelievably complex process where MOD and the industry are seeking to get a number of ducks in a row. However, as far as I can see from a position well outside the negotiations, the ducks keep moving.
There is frustration in our city that there does not yet seem to be light at the end of the tunnel or any clear timelines on key decisions. I know, not least because of his work on the Defence Committee, that the new Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) understands this problem well. Indeed, he himself has raised it, most recently in the Chamber on 19 June this year—at column 1171 of Hansard—when, in a related context, he repeatedly asked the MOD what it was doing and emphasised the need for “clarity”. I therefore hope we can expect both swift decisions and clarity from the new Minister.
We have been told—and I have no reason to disbelieve it—that there is no intent on the part of the MOD or industry to keep Plymouth in the dark, but that does not help allay the natural concerns of those of us who are outside the process. I—and, I am sure, my colleagues—have great difficulty explaining to our constituents exactly what is happening, and although we are told that all will be well and that the dockyard’s future is secure, we really want to see it in black and white or as in as sharp a contrast as possible. The work force and the smaller suppliers on whom the dockyard depends have concerns about what type of model will follow on from the TOBA announcements. Where will the surface work go? Will base-porting continue in its current form or change because of the ability of the fleet to keep vessels at sea for longer makes the whole strategy change? We would like to understand the Minister’s thinking on this. Is his Department looking to change the model to meet modern strategic requirements? Surely he can indicate that without affecting the TOBA negotiations and the commercial sensitivities which surround them. If so, we would like to know so that we can understand how Plymouth fits into the wider UK picture in order to be able to consider how we can maintain the skills base we have developed to service the Navy’s needs.
The announcement on the carrier—the carrier vessel future—was of course very good news for Babcock and it will mean the shifting of some work from Scotland down to Plymouth in the medium term. That said, however, there are siren voices still unsure about the cost of this order and some who might even suggest the order could be reduced to one vessel or even cancelled. There is a lot of risk involved in reducing the order to one. All the conversations that I have had with Navy personnel suggest that they strongly support the announcement that these two impressive vessels will be added to the fleet, and that they understand that in the current global climate, we cannot rely on other countries to come forward and assist us in times of crisis. We definitely do need the safety of two such vessels, and we should not waver from our commitment to them.
Babcock, which is currently working on the CVF programme, employs some 5,000 people and the MOD and Navy employ just under 1,000—people with higher-than-average earning potential. We need and will welcome a firm decision on a range of concerns, including base-porting, once the outcome of the TOBAs has been reached. The visible presence of the submarines and warships—the grey stuff—tied up alongside, and the military personnel and their families living in and enjoying Plymouth strongly feed into the city’s identity; we do not want to lose this. Plymouthians, unlike the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, understand the importance of buying British and supporting British-based workers; it is not about supporting defence jobs in Plymouth for political reasons. His view is too narrow and is at odds with that of the Conservative council leader in Plymouth. Without those jobs, UK defence industries would lose expertise and the economic impact on the region could be devastating, with the Government having to pick up a much larger welfare bill. I am therefore hoping that my colleague can offer some reassurance, and that I can go back to my constituents with some good news from today’s debate.
I want to start by echoing the words of tribute and condolence to those who have lost their lives or been seriously injured since we last debated defence matters in this House in July. In also paying tribute to the Ministers who have left their post, I should like to welcome the two who are with us today. I am glad that manpower shortages and overstretch in the rest of the military family is not going to extend as far as the Government Front Bench. It will be useful to us to have the two of them here; both have been active participants in defence debates. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) produced a very worthwhile report on the relationships between the armed forces and the wider community. I hope that he will now have the chance to follow through some of the recommendations that he made in that report. The hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) is a very welcome addition to the Government Front Bench—one that is richly deserved and long overdue. As others have said, he brings with him a long list of past observations, which I hope he will be able to follow through.
I do not know what the new Secretary of State can have thought when the phone call came inviting him to take up his post. Despite the admirable researches that have been reported to us, he has not recently been a participant in these debates. However, I should think by now—six days on—he must have a pretty clear idea of the immensity of the headaches that he has inherited and taken on. I put those as being principally a financial crisis in his Department, a lack of strategic framework—or at any rate, a confused one—for Britain’s defence policy, and some decisions desperately needed on big procurement items.
I do not know whether the MOD still bothers denying that it is in a state of financial crisis; if so, it is largely wasting its breath. It is a wide open secret that it faces a very serious financial problem. The budget for the three years of the comprehensive spending review will have to go an awful long way, and various estimates reckon that there is a funding black hole. Some say that it is about £2 billion; others say that it is as much as £5 billion. It is certainly going to be a very difficult 18 months for the ministerial team in trying to make sense out of that situation.
Of course, we have the ongoing demands of two so-called medium-scale operations, in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have urgent operational requirements to meet the immediate needs there. There is also an enormous procurement shopping list looming, including carriers; the future rapid effect system; Astute submarines, the replacement, ultimately, of the Trident system; surface vessels; the joint strike fighter; another tranche of Eurofighters; and a new generation of helicopters. The list goes on and on.
It is clear to all observers that the budgets, as formulated, are not adequate to meet all those requirements; one does not have to be a mathematician of any great strength to realise that things simply do not add up. There is a tension between the immediate needs of our armed forces in theatre and longer-term needs, which must be planned for now if we are to avoid further problems building up in a relatively small number of years’ time.
I applaud the work, reported to us by the Minister of State, in getting armoured vehicles out into theatre as quickly as possible. I am not clear exactly where the acquisition of a further 600 vehicles fits in the envisaged framework for the future rapid effect system, and I do not know whether anybody else is either. That matter is raised with me by industrialists and members of the armed forces, and it will be interesting to know how it is reckoned to fit strategically into what is planned.
Equally, we read worrying newspaper reports that the joint strike fighter project is unravelling, and it is a mystery to me where that leaves our aircraft carriers, given that the joint strike fighters were what we were anticipating would fly from them. I do not know whether anyone views the idea of a marine version of Eurofighter as a serious plan B. Such a version would be costly and slow, and, judging by the answers given in previous sittings of the Defence Committee, I doubt that it is viewed as a realistic alternative.
Some of these issues can be postponed a bit longer, but given that an election may still be 18 months away, the Government will struggle to maintain that it is business as usual and that all these thorny issues can be put off until after one. The alternative is the tried-and-tested formula to which the Ministry of Defence has resorted again and again over the years: salami-slicing. That is the worst of all worlds, because things end up taking far longer than was anticipated, costing far more, and there are far fewer of them and they have less capability than was originally planned. We must avoid continuing a Heath Robinson approach to defence: adding things on and adapting them in a haphazard manner.
The new ministerial team will have to struggle with these thorny issues, and I believe that they will have to do so within some sort of renewed, or at least re-expressed, strategic framework. I have spoken before in this House of the crying need for a new strategic defence review. I accept that it would not be possible to conclude such a review this side of an election—it is debatable whether it would be wise to commence one this side of an election—but at the very least some of the initial groundwork for such a review should be taking place. If it were possible to secure any sort of all-party consensus on the questions that such a review needed to ask, they could be debated. If a consensus could not be arrived at, at the very least we should debate what questions the review needs to ask.
I believe that those questions are: what kind of forces should we build and maintain in the next 20 or 30 years? Are we committed to maintaining premier league forces in all three forces on our own account? What do we want from defence? What part will be played by our allies in NATO, including its European countries, and by the rest of the UN? How will we work together to achieve the aims and objectives that I hope such a strategic defence review would identify?
All parties in this House are probably committed to such a review occurring. I know that a defence of this line has occasionally been peddled by Conservative Back Benchers, but it is clear that there will have to be a strategic defence review. Whatever the colour of the Government formed after the general election, it would be immensely helpful if some of the spadework had been done now to ensure that such a review could crack on quickly straight after an election and not have to go through a period of hiatus before it could begin.
The new Secretary of State was a supporter of the defence industrial strategy in his previous job at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, and now more than ever in the light of the complexity of our operations abroad, we have to work with industry and ensure that we have a defence industrial base on which we can rely in times of conflict. We therefore need to breathe new life into the defence industrial strategy and we will have to achieve that within the strategic framework. I welcome the appointment of a director of strategy at the MOD, but it puzzles me that that has come seven years into our operations in Afghanistan and five years into our operations in Iraq. For all that the appointment is overdue, it is welcome, and I hope that it will provide a lead for the preparatory work that I have described.
I am very anxious about the issue of helicopters, which is frequently raised in the House. I was alarmed to see some projected figures that were elicited by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) for the helicopter fleet that the MOD anticipates sustaining every year from now until 2020. If one looks forward five years to 2013, it is expected that 50 per cent. of our already reduced and undersized helicopter fleet will have gone out of service. By 2020, there will have been a 60 per cent. reduction in the number of helicopters, even if the future Lynx programme comes about as anticipated according to the time scale.
We have to do everything we can to ensure that our troops are equipped with an adequate number of helicopters. Almost whatever the outcome of a strategic defence review, and the decisions that it might make about the size and shape of the Army, Air Force and Navy that we will need in the future, we can predict with certainty that we will need helicopters. They are fundamental to our success, not only in current operations, but in the long-term future. The number of helicopters that we can get into theatre is critical, as is their operational effectiveness in hot and high conditions, such as those in Afghanistan. In that country, it is clear that, given the increasing threat from roadside improvised explosive devices, we have to think afresh about the safe movement of our forces as they do their work. I welcome all that has been said about the new protective vehicles, but the quickest and safest way to travel is by air. New helicopters have many capabilities that old ones did not, but however highly equipped they are, they do not come with the ability to be in two places at once. Foremost among all the procurement headaches with which the new ministerial team will have to grapple will be ensuring an adequate number of helicopters in the future.
Battlefield helicopters provide the agility and comparative security that we must have. We need a mix, a balanced force of helicopters, some for large lift operations and some that are small and agile, and can move effectively around operating areas. In summary, we simply need more helicopters.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the number of helicopters that our armed forces will have in the future, but I am concerned by his remarks about moving everybody around by air. As General Petraeus said last week, in order to persuade the hearts and minds of people in Afghanistan and Iraq, we need a presence permanently on the ground, with soldiers from different forces living among the populations they are trying to help to move towards their own governance.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I am not suggesting abandoning completely movements on the ground or the broader role on the ground that he describes. I welcome the new vehicles that are going out and anticipate that there will probably need to be more in the future, but as part of the overall mix we need more helicopters. We need the best equipped and protected helicopters. We need to ensure that they are of the highest possible standard. We need to meet new crashworthiness requirements and we need a balanced mix. Above all, we need those helicopters quickly. Looking forward to 2013 and 2020, decisions will need to be made very soon if we are not to have a situation in the future that is even worse than the situation now.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made some points about communications. He was right to touch on some of the difficulties arising from some of the statements that have been reported about the situation in Afghanistan. Attention is increasingly turning to Afghanistan as our role diminishes in Iraq.
As the hon. Gentleman said, in the past week or two we have heard two interesting contributions from very well-placed people, one of whom was the most senior British commander in Afghanistan in recent months, who made the comments as he finished his time there. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that the British commander was not really saying anything very new, anything very different or anything particularly shocking. However, the way that his comments have been written up in the media is bound to confuse members of the public, who, regrettably, have not bought into what we are doing in Afghanistan as I would have liked them to do. That will not have been assisted in any way by those reports.
Similarly, the British ambassador in Kabul seems to have made some very interesting observations. Whether he had anticipated their being quite so widely circulated, I am not sure, but he has made some interesting observations about the difference between our approach and that of the Americans. In particular, I am thinking of the American actions within Pakistan’s border regions, which are clearly causing a great deal of trouble in Pakistan and, probably, a fair few headaches in Afghanistan, too.
Again, the Government have a real challenge on their hands. They must come out and explain afresh what we are doing in Afghanistan and clarify some of the confusions that will have grown up in the public mind. I say that in the knowledge that marines from the west country, including 1,000 or so from Chivenor in my constituency, have gone out to Afghanistan, taking over from the Paras. I worry about what their families understand to be the purpose, the challenge and the state of what we are doing in Afghanistan in the light of the reports that they must be reading in their newspapers. We wish them well, but I believe that the Government need to restate the case for what we are doing out there. I fear that we need to hear what exactly the British view of the new American strategy is. We need to join up defence and reconstruction, as has been said, to ensure that we can create a long-term picture of a viable state able to survive on its own.
The biggest problem for the new ministerial team remains that of overstretch. We could begin to address that if we were to get out of Iraq entirely. The sooner we do that, the sooner the team will be able to make any meaningful headway in tackling overstretch.
Finally, I pay tribute to all those in the armed forces at home and abroad, to those who have come back from their tour of duty and to those who are preparing to go, and to all who train, support and equip them. It is vital that they understand that in this House everybody very much appreciates what they are doing. There is a duty on us all to try to explain to the public what the troops are doing and to ensure that they succeed in these very necessary tasks, which they are carrying out in our national interests.
I start by welcoming the new Front-Bench team. I have known the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), for a long time in the House. He has great knowledge of foreign affairs and defence, which will stand him in great stead as he faces up to the difficult task before him. I am sure that hon. Members will give him our full support.
I have probably known the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for longer than any Member of this House—with the exception of the Chief Whip. We know what he is really like. His first deployment in my constituency involved homeland security in Newcastle upon Tyne, North, where he had to secure a bridgehead against an internal enemy at the time. He secured the bridgehead very effectively with great steadfastness under enemy fire, which will stand him in great stead in carrying out his tasks in his new post. We all welcome him to the Front Bench.
The subject of today’s debate is defence in the UK. The global world in which we now live is not new in terms of defence, because international inter-linkages have existed for hundreds of years. To consider defence in one’s own country, one must consider the impact of foreign policy and defence policy on a much wider scale throughout the world, and we must assess how well equipped we are to defend our own nation in that context.
I was involved in drawing up the final stages of the strategic defence review in 1998. When I refreshed my memory of what we put to the House and the country at the time, I found that paragraph 2 included a telling sentence:
“The Review is radical, reflecting a changing world, in which the confrontation of the Cold War has been replaced by a complex mixture of uncertainty and instability.”
We crowed a little bit in saying that “the review is radical”—all Governments say that—but it was radical. When that report was drawn up, we assumed that America was strong economically and a leader in foreign policy, that Russia was a weakened nation which had not rebuilt itself after the break-up of the Soviet Union and that China was relatively isolationist and very much concerned with its own internal affairs and economic development. None of us could assess India, although we knew about its economic failures over a number of decades, which began to turn around at the end of the 20th century. We used those assumptions in considering the strategic defence review.
I wonder how many of those assumptions are now valid. There has been the further development of the international terrorism of the early 21st century, but how many of those criteria still apply? Is Russia still weakened and passive in its approach to international affairs? Is China still looking internally? Is it still establishing economic power, or has it established significant economic power? Is India establishing itself as a main player in both economic terms and foreign policy terms? Is America as economically strong and influential in foreign affairs as it was then? If those assumptions do not hold, we need to look again at how our foreign policy affects the world, and how we draw up our defence strategy.
I agree that the questions that the hon. Gentleman poses are extremely important. I would add that we do not yet know what the consequences will be of what is happening in the global financial markets, and what it will mean to the real economies of countries across the world. Those consequences will affect our consideration of the issue. My recollection is that the strategic defence review was seen by many outside commentators largely as an endorsement of the policy that was inherited. Perhaps he might confirm that the strategic defence review took £500 million a year out of the defence budget—and that figure would have been £1 billion a year, had not the then Chief of the Defence Staff remonstrated with the Prime Minister.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to get involved in party political points, but I have no intention of engaging in party political bickering on this issue. One could look at the Conservative Government’s expenditure patterns up until 1997, but I do not want to go into that. There are much bigger issues facing the nation and the defence estate than minor differences of view among the political parties. It is the bigger issues that we have to address if we are to have a secure nation in future, and are to get our foreign and defence policy right.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Russia; is he aware of comments made by President Medvedev in the past 48 hours suggesting that Russia should be part of some new security pact with Europe? Does he share my concern that that would destabilise the Euro-Atlantic alliance and the NATO alliance, which, albeit imperfectly, has ensured peace in Europe and further afield for many years? Does he agree that we should continue to support NATO and try to reform it from within, and that there can be no moral equivalence between the Administrations in Washington DC and in Moscow as long as Moscow continues to stamp out democracy, freedom of speech and religion, and the independence of the judiciary?
I do not quite take the same view as the hon. Gentleman. I do not know how much of my speech I will get through in my 15 minutes, but the view that the American Government took in the middle east was, “We can establish western democracy, over a period, in the middle east, and then these guys will know how to play the game; they’ll be on our side and everything will be stable.” America argued that that should be the case in Russia, but what it predicted did not take place. If that argument were successful, the logic would be that the Russians should be part of the NATO pact. That is the ultimate logic of that foreign policy doctrine. We—and the hon. Gentleman—need to be clear in our mind whether we agree with that doctrine. He needs to be clear whether he accepts my view that there is a logical conclusion to the argument. If he does not accept that, and he thinks that Russia will always be on the other side, and therefore not linked up with our interests, other aspects of defence policy will need to be considered. I want to come back to that point later in my speech, assuming that I have enough time.
I shall have to speed up a bit to try to make my points. The question is whether one believes that the world has changed. I think that there is a need for another review of defence policy; the main thrust of that work should be done after the next general election, but in the interim, all of us have to do a bit of thinking on the subject. I completely agree with the view expressed by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), on that point. I am sure that many other colleagues, on both sides of the Chamber, see the need for such a review.
Let me set out some of the issues that arise from the changing international picture. Have we got the emphasis right when it comes to counter-terrorism? Should counter-terrorism be the main thrust of British defence and foreign policy? It is clearly a very important issue, and we must counter terrorism wherever we can, in whatever way is most effective, both militarily and in the civil sphere; civil action is needed too, as I think is widely recognised. However, is that the main issue? In 10 or 20 years, will that be the main priority for the nation? That question has to be examined, whatever our view. My view is that the world has changed, that new power groups are emerging and that an assessment of the impact of those groups must be a key part of British foreign and defence policy.
The second question that I want to address relates back to the point made by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) about NATO policy in relation to Russia. The Cheney doctrine, which was adopted in the middle east, could never be successful—in a sense, it was the absence of a doctrine after the end of the cold war. The doctrine during the cold war was that we had to have sufficient political and military power to make sure that potential enemies did not do anything stupid and that they recognised that. There had to be a balance of power to achieve that. That doctrine achieved relative stability for 30 or 40 years after the end of the second world war.
After the fall of communism and the end of the cold war, what was the doctrine? What was NATO’s purpose? A lot of us were asking that question, but we never successfully addressed it. That is why when there was a proliferation of terrorist attacks in different parts of the world over a period of 10 years, culminating in the attacks in New York and followed through by the attacks in Spain, Britain and elsewhere, we said that we must focus on countering those atrocities, but forgot about the doctrine of foreign policy and defence policy beyond that. We must return to those now, as we again see the emergence of major power blocks. That is a key issue.
We cannot persuade Russia, the middle east, the Indian subcontinent, China or other Asian countries to be like western Europe or north America. What can we persuade them to do? We can persuade them to co-exist, and it is in everybody’s interest that that stability is re-established. That should be the central part of our foreign policy; it follows that defence policy must reinforce that. I may be wrong on the issue. Some say that my view is over-pessimistic. However, I do not believe that in 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years’ time, China, Russia and the Indian subcontinent will look anything like what Marxists used to call “bourgeois democracy” in western Europe and north America. The danger is that those countries will end up in the hands of aggressive dictators; it is also possible that they will divide into different groupings. Our policies must be capable of dealing with that issue.
Are our current alliances appropriate to deal with those threats? Any review needs to consider these different issues. I am absolutely clear that NATO needs to move forward and change to adapt to new circumstances, but it has to be the cornerstone of British, European and north American defence. However, I also think that the European Union will play an ever-increasing role. I know that there are differences of view in the House about this, but I am thinking from a military point of view.
As a member of the Defence Committee of the European Security and Defence Assembly, also known as the Western European Union, I frequently meet military commanders. It is amazing—even military commanders who are broadly hostile to the European Union want more linkage with their colleagues and the organisations in Europe with which they associate. The EU needs a better defined defence policy and to work more closely with NATO. NATO and the EU need to know how they can get the best out of their strengths and eliminate their weaknesses. That has to be the core of the structure of future political organisation to counter the other power groups emerging in the world. NATO member countries must, under article 5, come to the assistance of another member country that is under threat, but the European Union does not have that provision—at least constitutionally, although it does have it implicitly in many other ways. That is inconsistent, and the extent to which the EU provides such cover needs to be clarified over the period ahead. If we all have the same values, we should have the same protection.
Then we need to consider the more practical questions as to whether we are properly equipped to face this situation. Intelligence—the foundation of successful military operations—is one of the key areas where there will be a need for a wide debate. There has recently been a move away from our intelligence services being focused on knowing what opponents—or enemies in the cold war era—are up to towards what terrorist organisations are up to. The ultimate conclusion must be that we need more resources and expenditure to defend the nation, and we might well end up in that position in the years ahead. The key issue is the need to decide on the allocation and direction of our intelligence forces.
We need to re-examine our sea power, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), as well as our air power. We need to think about our lift. Is it realistic for each country within Europe to have its own lift? Are we to be dependent on private sector contractors from Ukraine in that respect, and if so for how long? What are the implications of any changes in the relationship between Russia and the UK? What about our ground troops capability? We have already heard about the dilemma between air cover from helicopters and forward movements on the ground where local populations are closer.
Then there is the role of nuclear weapons. I support the modernisation of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which must be considered in this context as well.
Let me conclude with two points. First, I am a rapporteur at the ESDA on the question of how European operations should be headquartered, where there is a need for less duplication. Secondly, we need to examine the whole issue of aircraft carriers, including cover in the air and frigate defence. Can France and Britain continue to try to provide everything? Can some of the other countries in Europe help to contribute to the European capability? How does that link into the United States, where it is a NATO operation?
The new Front Benchers will be very busy dealing with day-to-day matters, but I hope that they will have a little time to reflect on some of the issues that I have mentioned. I agree that after the next general election there will inevitably be a defence review. Given the consensus in the House on that, progress should be made.
These debates always produce well-informed and interesting speeches from well-informed and interesting people, but the speech by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) was one of the best speeches in a defence debate that I have ever heard in this House, and we should be grateful to him for what he said.
I should like to echo the expressions of sympathy to the families of people who have died in Afghanistan. It is always an individual tragedy when any one soldier dies. There is, however, a degree of comfort in something that right hon. and hon. Members will have noticed—that it was in only one theatre of war that we had those casualties over the summer. That suggests that those who had previously died in Iraq on our behalf had achieved a real measure of success. Let us hope that those who have recently died in Afghanistan will eventually achieve, through their sacrifice, the same degree of success as those who have previously died in Iraq. We are very grateful to them and to their families.
I would like to echo the congratulations to the new members of the Ministry of Defence Front-Bench team. As I have said, what the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), said about the armed forces in his recent report achieved a real effect in the transformation of the way in which the armed forces are regarded in this country. I hope that we can achieve more, but I pay tribute to him, and he will no doubt have a great deal of work to do following on from the noble Baroness Taylor in the equipment and support role.
It is a real pleasure, though, to see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), removed from the Select Committee on Defence. That may not sound entirely right, but he brings to the Ministry of Defence a feisty—some might say verging on the belligerent—approach that is necessary. He has long experience of the Defence Committee, where he built up a huge degree of knowledge and asked some valuable questions. We will miss him; he performed a very valuable role.
The Defence Committee has carried out several inquiries recently. It recently produced a recruitment and retention report, and one of the things it concentrated on was the difficulty the armed forces have with manning balance. It was a worry to us that the Army will not find itself in manning balance until 2011, and that the armed forces have now identified 73 pinch-point trades where there is a shortage of personnel. We welcome the Command Paper produced by the Government, which the Minister of State mentioned at the opening of the debate. Who it was that produced some of these brilliant ideas, the Government or the Opposition, we do not need to fuss too much about. We should, as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, welcome such ideas from wherever they come.
Another report we recently produced was on medical care for the armed forces. I want to echo something said about the excellence of care provided at Birmingham Selly Oak. There have been a lot of newspaper stories about shortcomings at Birmingham Selly Oak, which we found were not borne out by our inquiries. The people who provide care there are to be congratulated and commended for the work that they do, unstintingly, for our armed forces. In September, I went to Israel in my role as chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and I visited the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. In Birmingham Selly Oak, we had found that the excellence of trauma care in our country was to be commended. However, I found that such care was even better in the Hadassah hospital, and by a considerable margin. I have just written a letter to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham, to ask whether we can learn any lessons from the way in which other countries deal with trauma care, and I hope that some interesting ideas will come out of that.
We are just about to begin the public evidence sessions of an inquiry into national security and resilience. Last week, we had a valuable visit to the counter-terrorism science and technology centre at Porton Down. We were very impressed by the wide range of work that is done there, from all sorts of disciplines, to counter terrorism. As we left, we felt that some improvements in communication between Departments could mean more joined-up government, so that more Departments could take advantage of the excellence of the work that is done in Porton Down. However, overall, we felt that it did a good job.
Parliament needs to consider a further matter—the parliamentary scrutiny of national security and resilience. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East said, it is a cross-cutting issue, and it needs proper parliamentary scrutiny. I hope that the Government will move ahead more quickly in getting some sort of Select Committee scrutiny of the matter—I know that they have had that in mind for a long time.
Let us consider military bases. The super-garrisons will come on stream from 1 April next year. There are benefits to super-garrisons, including much more stability in the populations that are based in them. For example, there will be much less turbulence in service children’s education, about which we did a report last year. Such benefits will be real. However, super-garrisons mean that members of the armed forces will find it increasingly tempting to buy their own houses, especially if house prices drop sufficiently to be within their reach. The trouble is that that will reduce the cohesion of the patch. As parliamentarians, we must be aware of that when introducing some of the changes. However, overall, I believe that the super-garrisons will prove beneficial to the armed forces.
There is a point to add to my right hon. Friend’s strong points. The last big study—in 1995, if I remember rightly—showed that, once a member of the Army had bought married quarters, he was 50 per cent. more likely to PVR in the subsequent few years. It is unfortunate that, although we need to encourage the aspiration of eventual home ownership, in the Army—the most mobile of the services—buying too early is a recipe for losing good people much more quickly.
I shall move on to this country’s defence industries.
As the Minister of State said, we need a strong defence industry in this country and we should be proud of what it produces. The industry should be proud of that and proclaim the virtues of this country’s defending itself with good, British-made defence industrial goods. It is this country’s right to defend itself with proper equipment, as it is that of other countries. Since we produce some of the best equipment in the world, we should be proud of our defence exports and proclaim their virtue in the face of those who denigrate us for being arms salesmen. We give other countries the opportunity to do their duty—to defend themselves. To achieve that, we need a defence industrial base that is strong and knows what the Government are doing. Unfortunately, there is currently a sense of complete paralysis in the defence procurement world. As the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said, people do not know what happens in the defence procurement world. There is a sense that senior officials in the Ministry of Defence are just trying, because of budgetary difficulties, to survive.
Somewhere, somehow, the Government need to take control and start making some decisions. We have been given a provisional decision about FRES; it needs to consolidate into a real decision, and soon. We have been given some sort of indications about the future Lynx, but when will we have a decision about it? The Chief of the General Staff needs both of those, and needs them quickly and in proper quantities.
I have been reflecting on the question that I asked the Minister of State about what the chief of defence matériel said last week. On reflection, I think that I may have misreported our conversation. I would like to apologise to him and to withdraw what he said, because I do not think that it went quite like that and, anyway, it was in private and I should not have said what I did. So, I apologise to him and withdraw my remark.
Having said that, I think that the defence industry in this country needs to know who is in charge of the defence industrial strategy. Of course, it is enormously reassuring to know that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford, is in charge of these things. However, we need to know who is in charge underneath him—who is in charge in military terms and in civil service terms—because the defence industry will not, frankly, be negotiating with him. It will need to know that somebody is driving things forward, but at the moment it has no sense that anybody is.
I want to make one final point, about the planning assumptions. As we know—as the Ministry of Defence tells us—the MOD has been operating at or above the levels for which it is resourced and structured for seven out of the past eight years. We can get away with that for two or three years, perhaps; we certainly cannot get away with it for seven or eight years.
All that is based on planning assumptions that have been routinely wrong. So, what the Defence Committee did in April this year was to write a letter to the then Secretary of State for Defence to ask when we would have the results of his review of the planning assumptions, which he announced last year. It would be right to read what the Secretary of State said:
“Of course the Defence Planning Assumptions are a core part of our planning process. As you know, we conduct a review of these assumptions on a regular basis”.
The trouble is that over the past six years or so that review has always proved to be wrong. He continued:
“Our latest thinking is that the next iteration DPAs will not present a radical departure from those issued in the last Defence White Paper.”
That is a real worry. In view of the comments in the previous speech, which I have just said was one of the best speeches we have heard in defence debates in this House, the issue is one that we have got to revisit. The planning assumptions are wrong. We cannot rely on them. We should not be sending the armed forces of this country into battle on the basis of assumptions that we know are wrong.
It is a great pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Defence Committee. I join others in welcoming the two new Ministers to the Front Bench, more of whom later in my contribution—all good, I can assure them.
I want first briefly to cover three issues, then I want to talk about the opportunities for Shropshire, and Telford in particular, to emerge as a key defence hub in the UK. I note that the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) is in his place. He will probably agree with pretty much everything that I have to say, but we shall see as we proceed. However, I know that we both want to see Telford and Shropshire flourishing as they make their contribution to UK defence.
I want to begin, however, by echoing the tributes that other Members have paid to our armed forces in these difficult times. The people of our armed forces are simply remarkable, and they deserve our thanks. Shropshire people have a particular connection with 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Regiment, which has barracks at Tern Hill. The regiment has done difficult work in all the major conflict zones around the world in recent years, and the county is paying tribute to its members as they return home at the moment. In fact, they arrived home yesterday. I understand that there is to be a march past in Shrewsbury next Thursday. Unfortunately, I shall not be able to be there, so I want to use this opportunity in the House to pay tribute to them for the work that they have been doing in Afghanistan. I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in doing that. Many people from Telford are serving in conflict zones across the world, in the armed forces and in the support services, and I want to place on record my thanks to them as well.
The first substantive point that I want to make is on the theme of renewing the connection between our forces and the communities that they serve. I know that the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), has been doing some work on this matter. I particularly want to make the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), smile. I did the armed forces scheme with him; we did a stint with the Royal Marines. He says that I say what I am about to say in every defence debate; I do not want to disappoint him. He knows what is coming.
I really believe that people used to feel connected with the armed forces when regiments or warships bore the names of specific towns or counties. We are now losing that linkage, and we ought to look into reinstating some of those connections. It would be great, for example, if we had an HMS Shropshire or an HMS Telford. The last HMS Shropshire was launched in 1928. She served in the south Atlantic, and was passed over to the Australian Navy in 1942. She was in Tokyo bay when the Japanese surrendered. We should have another HMS Shropshire, an HMS Telford and, perhaps, an HMS Wrekin. We need to renew those connections between our forces and our communities.
I should also like to call on Telford and Wrekin council to review what it is doing about offering freedom of the borough status to regiments that are present in the county. This applies not only to the regular forces but to the Territorials who are based in our towns and communities. I hope that the council will look positively at that proposal in the coming weeks.
My second point is to say how much positive feedback I have had about the veterans’ badges, which have not been mentioned yet today, and about the badges that recognise the contributions made by the Land Army and the Timber Corps. In Telford, the Royal British Legion and I have been promoting those badges hard, and we have held a number of presentation events at the Dawley Royal British Legion club. Albert Colley and the team there have been working with me to encourage take-up of the badges. I would also particularly like to thank Richard Overton, who works in my office, for his work in helping people with their applications. His reputation is spreading across the country; he gets calls from right across the UK because people know that my office is promoting the veterans’ badges and the badges that recognise the contributions made by the Land Army and the Timber Corps.
The British Legion has some excellent active branches in Telford, and it is always a pleasure to work with them. I have been having a dialogue with them for some time about the military covenant, and I welcome the comments that I have heard today from the director-general about the covenant being brought back into balance.
While I am on the theme of recognition for service, I want to take up my third point, and to press the minister on the campaign, which he will know well, for an award for those who have been injured or killed on active service. I have always thought that the medal system in this country was very good, because it does not make it easy to win an award. However, I think that we need to look at the system and at how we recognise people who have been injured or killed on active service. This is not about whether people do or do not support the principles behind a particular military operation and it is nothing to do with the politics of conflict. It is about recognising sacrifice. It would be helpful if the Minister said whether, in his new role, he will pursue the issue of whether a medal can be awarded to service personnel who are injured, or indeed whether an award can be made to their families if they are killed in action.
I want to move on to develop the main theme of my speech, which relates to the opportunity to create a strong and long-term defence hub in the town of Telford. We have a long tradition in the town of supporting our forces, largely focused on civilian staff working for the Ministry of Defence. In recent years, I have worked with the trade unions to protect jobs and we have had some notable successes. We campaigned to keep the Army Base Repair Organisation located at Donnington, in the Wrekin constituency, and the MOD recognised that the specialist staff there provide a flexible, responsive and cost-effective service in repairing and modifying armoured vehicles, and in developing new solutions for the protection of our front-line troops.
Alongside that, I campaigned with the unions to keep defence equipment support staff based at Sapphire house in my constituency. The Government—wisely, in my view—changed their mind and decided not to move those posts down to the Bath and Bristol area. They ultimately moved to merge the operation with ABRO to create the new Defence Support Group. I acknowledge that there have been some job losses in that process—about 100 will be gone by March next year—but thankfully most of the losses have been handled through voluntary redundancy, which is better than losing the jobs altogether and their moving out of the town. With the merger of those two significant organisations, there is a genuine opportunity for us to develop an exciting defence support initiative in Shropshire.
I understand that a capacity and capability review is under way in the new organisation. Here are a few suggestions for consideration as part of it. First, we should build on the recognised local skills base and develop Telford as a defence hub for the UK. Secondly, we should develop in-house skills and—I stress this point—partner with industry. We should not outsource as a matter of course through the industrial strategy. The existing teams work hard and provide the flexibility that we need to respond to the operational environment that we are encountering at the moment. There is an increased tempo as we have to repair armoured vehicles, get them back out on the road and on active service. That is important and we need to ensure that we preserve the skills that we have at ABRO.
Thirdly, we must ensure that arrangements with BAE Systems and others are structured to deliver that partnership. I stress the word “partnership”. Let us ensure that we procure the product that we need and that we are not led down routes specified by external organisations. At the start of the process, let us dictate very clearly what we want.
Fourthly, we need to evaluate the added value that existing staff bring to the table and ensure that we retain that good will. Sometimes, I do not think that we evaluate carefully enough contributions that people make that are not necessarily clearly defined on a cost-benefit sheet. Sometimes, monetary value cannot be put on service and loyalty provided by civilian MOD staff. I do not want us to lose those things, and we have them now in Telford.
Alongside the Defence Support Group, we have the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency—jobs that were won in a competitive environment some two and a half years ago. Cost savings have been made and the operation runs extremely effectively. I think that Ministers can see that we have a real opportunity in Telford to ensure that we have an effective defence hub looking at procurement, repair, supply and provision. It is an exciting opportunity that we should not waste.
At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for The Wrekin rightly pressed the Minister on the defence training review. I want to conclude on this point, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me. Many of us in the west midlands did not agree with the decision to move defence training down to St. Athan. We want some clarity now on the delivery of the scheme. When the announcement was made, there was a commitment to some continuing training facilities within Shropshire. We want to know that that remains so. We also heard about the relocation of 1 Signal Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade under the Barona programme. We understand that those units will be relocated to Cosford.
The programme has been delayed around St. Athan, and we need some clarity. We do not want to be in the worst of all worlds, whereby a Government decision about Cosford is delayed, and we find out that the Barona programme does not fit with the time frame for establishing St. Athan. In that scenario, we lose defence jobs from Cosford to St. Athan, and we take so long to make the decision that units are not transferred back to the Cosford site.
We must make sure that such decisions are taken quickly and effectively. I would welcome a further update from Ministers on behalf of my constituents who work at Cosford about what is happening at St. Athan. That statement might not be today, but in the coming weeks. However, it is important to nail down the programme effectively, so that Shropshire emerges as a place where we have a long-term commitment to the UK’s defence.
I, too, congratulate the three new Ministers in the Ministry of Defence. I shall be brief, as I am conscious of the number of Members who wish to speak.
I join all those who have said that in this dark time for the country and the world we should remember how much harder a time our armed forces and their families face than the rest of us. As the Member for Canterbury, I am conscious of the price that the 5th Battalion, the Royal Regiment of Scotland, has already paid in casualties, along with the 3rd Battalion, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, our local Territorial Army battalion, which also has troops serving in Afghanistan. Lieutenant-Colonel David Richmond, the gallant commanding officer of the 5th Battalion—or the Argylls, as we still like to think of them—is currently recovering at Headley Court from serious wounds. I was saddened too by the deaths of three members of the sister regiment of my old unit, 23 Regiment Special Air Service.
The figures given by the Minister in the interchanges between Front Benchers on improvements in recruitment and retention reflect some commendable changes in terms and conditions of service, but also the economic downturn. It is worrying that in certain key areas, especially the fighting elements of the Army and air crew, we are still extremely short of people. In that context, it is important to remember that the bare numbers conceal a large number of people who are temporarily physically downgraded because they are recovering from wounds or injuries—in some cases mental as well as physical injuries. It is also a blunt truth that the physical requirements for joining the Army have gradually lowered over the past generation; the present combat fitness test, for example, is of a much lower standard than a generation ago.
I do not intend to get into the banter as to who is bidding higher on improving conditions of service, but I am glad that there have been some improvements. Let me isolate one small item that would not cost any money, and which was raised with me by the wife of an officer in the Argylls—the issue of allocation of school places. Currently, schools are allowed to ask for the address of a family who want to place a child in a school. An army family being posted into an area can put down the date that they will arrive, but under the normal system of quartering do not normally know exactly what their address will be. So we have seen the absurdity of a soldier’s wife having to stay in a hostel for months before her husband’s posting so that she could get her child into a heavily oversubscribed local primary school. That problem could be fixed at the stroke of a pen, and should cost nothing at all.
I want, however, to go beyond the question of terms and conditions and touch on the issue of cultural isolation, about which the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) had a certain amount to say, and the gradual erosion of the links between the service community and the wider community. I pay tribute to the study conducted by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), and his team earlier in the year, although I think he would be the first to admit that recommendations of the kind that he produced can make only a modest difference to a situation that has been gradually deteriorating ever since the ending of national service.
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee, that 79 per cent. is not a good enough approval rating, but it is not just a case of whether the civilian community approves of the armed forces who are taking the risks in Afghanistan and Iraq; it is a much wider issue. People with very little exposure to the armed forces are much less likely to encourage a son or daughter to join, and, to put it bluntly, less likely to support necessary defence spending.
The position has been worsened by the concentration of our armed forces, which is happening at a much faster rate than the rate at which they are becoming smaller numerically. The Royal Navy, apart from the submarine force, is now concentrated almost entirely on the western end of the south coast, and the Royal Air Force has lost all regular contact with large parts of the country, including the whole of north-west England. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire mentioned the move towards super-garrisons. Another of its effects is that, while we may talk of homecoming parades and the like, there will be progressively fewer small market cities and towns like Canterbury with a single regular and a single Territorial Army unit where such events can happen. Visiting my sister near Catterick, I was reminded that it already has a super-garrison with virtually no civilian community.
That brings me naturally to the subject of our reserve forces, which form a much smaller part of the picture than the reserve forces in America, Australia and Canada—three countries which, like ourselves, do not have a conscription model, which face the same challenges, and which are engaged in the same theatres in much the same way. Part of the reason why I believe that the connection is so much better in all those countries is that, in ball-park terms, volunteer reserves in the other three countries constitute roughly half their land forces; in Britain, the proportion is only about a quarter. In America, more than a third of air squadrons are volunteer reservists, while the proportion of individual pilots is much higher. In Britain we have fewer than 30 pilots in the volunteer reserves, and only 800 trained Royal Auxiliary Air Force reservists. As for the naval side, in America an aircraft carrier has been set aside for the exclusive training of reservists, while in Britain we do not even have a mine warfare vessel for the purpose.
That is why I welcome the MOD’s review of reserves. I must pay tribute to the work of General Nick Cottam and his team: I think that the MOD has chosen an extremely good project manager. I am also extremely grateful to the Minister of State, who I know has had to leave us early for a good reason, for the way in which he has fostered a relationship between that team and our all-party group. I am pleased to see present the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), who is an active member of it, as well as serving on the Select Committee.
The Minister of State rightly drew attention to the huge role—quite disproportionate to their size—that the reserve forces have played in Afghanistan and Iraq, but I urge the House to bear in mind that, vital as that role is, it is not the first purpose of reserve forces. Their first purpose, when money is tight and the regular forces are overstretched in the here and now, is to provide a capability for the unexpected. Let us consider some recent events in which we have been involved. No one expected the Falklands war a week before it began, and no one expected that we would send armoured brigades to the desert of Saudi Arabia six months before we did so. We had no warning at all of 9/11, of course, but we would not now be in Afghanistan—or, arguably, Iraq—if it had not happened.
Reserves are a cheap way of keeping capabilities in place that might unexpectedly be needed. They are much cheaper than regular forces, but unfortunately, the one drawback is that they take much longer to build up than regular forces. It is possible to train an officer for the Regular Army in a year, but for the Territorial Army that typically takes three or four years. We cannot create them when we need them; if they are not in being, we have not got them. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the central theme of the two reports that our all-party group prepared has been the necessity of structuring reserve forces in a way that attracts good-quality men and women to act as officers and non-commissioned officers in them, so that we really have something usable there.
One of the most common remarks in debates before Afghanistan became a high-intensity war was that the Army could be structured so as to work in high-intensity operations and then go out and do an excellent job of peacekeeping, but if we ever designed an Army based around peacekeeping, it would ultimately fail in all its roles. A similar point needs to be made about volunteer reserves. If we design volunteer reserves to operate as formed units to provide a framework in which people have interesting and challenging work to do, with opportunities to take at least sub-units from time to time abroad on operations, we will produce an organisation that is also extremely good at producing quality augmentees for regular units, but if we allow some at least of the senior regular hierarchy to persuade us that we should just structure volunteer reserves to produce augmentees— spare lance-corporals and privates—to top up regular units, we will produce an organisation that not only cannot do the strategic job if the balloon truly goes up, but also in the long run, because it will have lost all its best officers and senior NCOs, is not training any quality augmentees either.
That brings me to a short list of a few of the things we pointed out in our reports. If the infantry and the Special Air Service and units such as 131 Commando Squadron Royal Engineers can provide formed sub-units that operate successfully, other parts of the TA should also be able to do so. However, in order for any part of the volunteer reserves to operate, they must have opportunities for interesting unit level exercises, but there are very few of those at present.
We must make more use of officer training corps and other university units for officer training. They are excellent organisations, but they are underutilised in a string of ways. Let me give one example: why cannot we have special-to-arm courses tacked on to the back of the Sandhurst courses in the summer so that a student who wants to can do what happens in America or Australia and undertake their whole officer training in one go?
I wish to mention two last points. One is a point made earlier about aviation. It is unforgivable that a country that has such a big, successful and dynamic aviation industry simply writes off the whole investment it makes in people who leave the RAF having trained as pilots. If the Americans can have reservists operating a whole range of aircraft, it is ridiculous that we cannot make more use of reservists on operations, at least for helicopters. The other point is about mine warfare. Mine warfare is either not needed at all—we do not use it in Afghanistan for obvious reasons, although we have naval pilots and Royal Marines heavily engaged there—or it is needed, in which case a hell of a lot of it is needed. The current arrangement whereby we have one expensive regular crew for each mine warfare vessel is ridiculous. It is both expensive and, by definition, has no surge capability; a mine warfare crew cannot be worked around the clock as their work is very exhausting. If we handed a couple of those over to the volunteer reserves and trained a large number of volunteer crews on them, for the same money we would be able to deliver a much greater capability.
At a time when our armed forces are increasingly isolated as well as overstretched, I am pleased that the Government are reviewing their reserve forces. I look forward to that review, and I urge the House as a whole and the Government to realise that volunteer reserves could play a much larger role in the defence of this country.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), and I pay tribute to him for his leadership of the all-party group on the reserve forces, which I may say a little more about in a moment. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) mentioned the deployment from in and around his constituency to Helmand, Afghanistan. From Plymouth and the surrounding area, too, there is a major deployment to Helmand, involving 29 Commando Regiment, 3 Commando Brigade and a lot of reserves, particularly medical reserves—people who in their normal lives work as medics at Plymouth’s Derriford hospital and other hospitals in Devon and Cornwall.
I am pleased that our lord mayor, Councillor Brian Vincent, is recognising the role of those people at the beginning of, throughout and at the end of that deployment. That is very much in accord with the recognition study undertaken by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), whom I welcome to his new position on the Front Bench. The lord mayor and his lady mayoress, Pauline, got up at 3 am to see the personnel off from the Royal Citadel, as they have done on a number of other occasions. Pauline has a son-in-law who is deploying, and events are planned for the many families who share the interests and concerns that go along with having military personnel in the family. The personnel will also be welcomed back with a parade, which should happen just before the end of the mayoral year.
I look forward to working with the new defence team, and I am very glad that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces remains part of that team. I welcome its new members, particularly the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), part of whose period of service on the Defence Select Committee I shared. Reference was made earlier to his robust and trenchant contributions, which we will certainly miss. He made many special efforts, including a visit to our dockyard in Plymouth when he had been unable to join the original Defence Committee delegation. He also made particular efforts to ensure that the needs and interests of new recruits and the ranks were well represented in our deliberations in Committee. I trust that he will continue to take that approach in his very different role as Minister.
I want also to pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, whom I always felt positively welcomed scrutiny. He had a listening ear and engaged with us fully—sometimes a little too fully for our liking—but he also took away ideas and put them into practice. When his period of office is examined, it will go down in history as one during which, with the assistance of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford and his recognition study, the various strands of personnel, families and service conditions that needed to be brought together were brought together, and were entrenched by making the external framework group permanent, so that it can ensure that such issues are not lost sight of.
I also welcome the new Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton). As the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) said, my right hon. Friend brings to the post a depth of experience and an industrial background, and he represents a constituency in which submarines and defence matter. I hope that he and his team will engage with the Defence Committee and with constituency Members of Parliament in the same measure as the previous team did.
The Chairman of the Defence Committee, who spoke earlier, discussed a number of the inquiries that we have been doing and that we have in hand. The recruitment and retention report was comprehensive, and we await the Government response, which is to be published next week. The report dealt with the important role that families play as gatekeepers to recruitment, and with the reserves. I should add to the points made by the hon. Member for Canterbury only by saying that in a world in which people’s lives have changed out of all recognition and people do not expect to have one job for life, the reserves have a much wider and bigger role to play, as he indicated is the case in other countries.
The Committee has also been examining national security and resilience, following the Prime Minister’s publication of “The National Security Strategy of the United Kingdom: Security in an interdependent world” in March. We are looking into the contribution that the Ministry of Defence makes to security and resilience, what it understands the nature and scale of the threat to be, how that threat affects the defence planning assumptions and what capabilities—maritime, land, air and personnel—we need to provide as a result.
The Committee will continue to undertake number of inquiries into the MOD’s performance and expenditure plans. A persistent theme of those has been the concerns about how the Government should resolve the tensions between supporting the high tempo of current operations, especially given the urgent operational requirements, and addressing how priority given to those has an impact on force structure and the forward equipment programme. Most commentators expect cost pressures to result in cuts and delays to the forward programme, and perhaps the cancellation of a major programme. The chief of defence matériel told the Committee that he suspected that that would be so, and the ongoing speculation on the matter is inevitable until we learn the outcome of the review that the MOD is undertaking in order better to prioritise its spending plans.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) discussed the concerns about the size and make-up of the fleet. They tend to preoccupy those of us who live, work in and represent big naval communities in a way that does not take account of the equally strong rumour mill that deals with similar scenarios for land and air forces, particularly the Eurofighter—reference has been made to that. Admiral Sir Jonathon Band’s warning that the fleet could lose its flexibility if the Government cut back too far on warships and manpower needs to be heeded.
Huge cost savings could be found across the naval and other procurement programmes. Their implementation across the activity that forms the maritime change programme is extremely complex, involving the terms of business agreement for the joint ventures with BAE Systems and VT Group, as well as the Babcock purchase of my local dockyard, and the surface ship support programme and the submarine enterprise collaboration arrangement. They are all taking an extremely long time to dot the i’s and cross the t’s, and that is proving particularly difficult for those who want to see and understand the shape of the naval defence sector in Plymouth and Devonport.
Since the end of the naval base review, which concluded that all three naval bases were required, I have met the Minister for the Armed Forces numerous times, often with trade union and council representatives, to discuss the long-term future of the dockyard and naval base. Each time, he has gone to great lengths to assure us of Devonport’s future and to give as much information as he can. The last meeting was followed by a letter, in which he stated:
“Our overarching strategy is to effectively smooth work across our three bases, to ensure that industry have a steady drumbeat of orders and that each base remains a viable hub for the future. This will inevitably involve optimisation at each location, in order to best deliver the most effective solution. This is not a threat, but an opportunity—in all of the scenarios that we are currently considering Plymouth is a net gainer in jobs.”
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to confirm that we are still on track to deliver that commitment in Devonport. I thank the Minister of State for all his patience in understanding the many representations that we have made in recent months on that matter. We will continue to make them, as the issue is so important to us in Devonport. We have accepted his reassurances and waited patiently, but that has not been easy, not least because we have watched the Government invest in orders for carriers, destroyers and submarines with high-profile and immediate benefits for shipbuilding dockyards elsewhere in the country, but not—at least as obviously and directly—for Devonport. That has led to a vacuum in which all sorts of stories can flourish. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport did mention the 57 per cent. increase in the revenue accounts, which suggests that Babcock is doing fairly well at the moment, and we hope that that continues long into the future.
Talk about confidence being sapped from our community, and the death of the dockyard and the naval base—the two are often confused—by a thousand cuts, will continue until we have greater clarity. Such talk thrives on recent decisions such as the one to switch the forthcoming refit of HMS Campbeltown from Devonport, its base port, to Rosyth. Such decisions are taken as symptomatic. I know that HMS Albion, HMS Westminster and HMS Monmouth will keep the yard busy for the next three years, but fears continue to abound about the strategic role for our naval base and the yard in the future.
Devonport is already of course home to the Navy’s three amphibious ships, the helicopter carrier Ocean and assault ships Albion and Bulwark. We want to become an amphibious centre of excellence, and the defence estates development plan, published earlier this year, said that a case could be made for regionalisation of the Royal Marines in the south-west, with closer proximity to the amphibious shipping. That has been costed, but is presently unfunded. The long-planned but unfunded aspiration to co-locate landing craft units from RM Poole and RM Turnchapel to Devonport naval base remains on hold. I hope that we will see some forward movement on that in the near future.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister understands that the background is not only about uncertainty or complexity, because it is also about the stories of disregard of, and decline in, the Royal Navy that are rehashed so often by the Opposition and the media. Such stories ignore the changing strategic environment in which the Navy operates and fly in the face of decisions taken by this Government, who ordered the two largest aircraft carriers ever sailed by the Navy. This Government are continuing the modernisation of our amphibious shipping so that it is now stronger than it has been for many decades. This Government equipped our attack submarines with land-attack missiles and are building the Type 45 destroyers and the Astute class submarines—[Interruption.] Yes, the Government are building fewer Type 45 destroyers, but they cost £1 billion each. Those investments are not modest. Indeed, they are part of the biggest shipbuilding programme for one or more generations. That is not to say that there are no issues that need to be addressed. Of course sophisticated anti-submarine and air defence frigates and destroyers will inevitably be built in smaller numbers as they become more expensive, but the Royal Navy still requires sufficient escorts to carry out the numerous and often unsung duties that it undertakes worldwide every day.
When the Minister announced the recent cancellation of the seventh and eighth Type 45 destroyers, he also talked about bringing forward work on the future surface combatant programme, which will succeed the Type 22 and Type 23 frigates, most of which are currently based at Devonport. He was not able to give any detail then, but I hope that it will begin to emerge soon.
I look forward to working with our defence team to ensure that they take the right long-term decisions for our country, both through continuing to scrutinise their work on the Defence Committee and through lobbying to ensure a full and proper role for the defence sector, especially for the naval defence sector in Plymouth, Devonport, for years to come.
It is a pleasure, of course, to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), whose knowledge of these matters is encyclopaedic. I will seek to be as brief as I possibly can, because I know that several colleagues are keen to speak. I may curtail some of the more interesting things that I had to say in the interests of brevity.
These debates, until a moment ago at least, are often notable for their sense of unanimity across the Chamber. We are all agreed about what a superb, professional and selfless job our armed services do. That unanimity was typified by the superb parade before the summer recess when 120 of the soldiers of 4 Mechanised Brigade, led by a guards band, marched into Parliament through the Carriage Gates. As chairman of the all-party Army group, I can say that we intend to repeat that experience. I hope that subsequent returning brigades will have similar parades. It was great to see all parties in the House, led by Mr. Speaker, welcoming the soldiers to the north door of Westminster Hall.
I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), to his place on the Government Front Bench. I well remember the very powerful speeches that he made when he was shadow Defence Minister, speaking from this side of the Table, and the way in which he criticised the Government so powerfully and extensively. He said that their defence approaches were dreadful. We have researchers at this moment looking into those wonderful speeches, which will certainly come back to haunt him for all his time on the Front Bench. None the less, he will doubtless advance those arguments now within the Ministry of Defence, and so once again that is an example of unanimity.
Parades are vital, and I look forward to one that will happen in Wootton Bassett, in my constituency, this Sunday. It is not a parade to welcome back soldiers from overseas, but a particularly interesting event. Wootton Bassett, in contrast with the fact that we have been hearing about, that only 71 per cent. of people support the armed services, is a unique town and its people have turned out in their hundreds, and in many occasions in their thousands, to welcome back the tragic number of coffins—I think the number is 147 so far—that are repatriated through RAF Lyneham. The mayor, the Royal British Legion and the townsfolk of Wootton Bassett turn out in their hundreds on every single occasion. I often go with them. As a mark of that particularly wonderful ceremony, RAF Lyneham has chosen to turn out to hold a parade not in honour of our servicemen but in honour of the town of Wootton Bassett, which has gone to such great lengths to respect our fallen. That is enormously important.
In the short time available to me, there are a couple of issues regarding RAF Lyneham that I would particularly like to bring to the attention of the new ministerial team. First, RAF Lyneham is to close in 2012 and the Hercules fleet is to move to RAF Brize Norton. As I understand it, Project Belvedere in the Ministry of Defence is considering what to do with Lyneham after the Hercules fleet moves out. The project is looking into how to bring all the helicopter fleets together in one place, potentially at RAF Lyneham. I would be interested to hear from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), when he winds up, to what degree Project Belvedere is alive, well, kicking and moving forward. There are reports that, because of the £2 billion shortage that the MOD is experiencing, the project has been shelved. If that is the case, I would very much like to know what plans the Minister has for RAF Lyneham.
If the helicopters come to RAF Lyneham, they will broadly be welcomed by local people—I would certainly lead the welcome—but there would be concerns none the less, particularly about the noise. I would like an assurance from the MOD that it will enter into useful discussions with the local community about the way in which we can control the flying hours and the flying patterns of the helicopters to minimise the environmental damage that might result for local people.
Another current issue with regard to RAF Lyneham is the inquest being conducted by David Masters, the Wiltshire coroner, into the tragic loss of Hercules XV179 in 2004 in Iraq. Initial evidence given to the inquest, which is happening as we speak, seems to indicate that had the Hercules fleet been fitted with foam suppressant in the wing tanks before now—it appears that reports were circulating in the MOD some years ago that suggested that that should happen—there might have been less likelihood of that appalling crash. I am certain that the Minister would not want to comment on an inquest that is happening at this moment, and I would not ask him to do so. Through the medium of this debate, however, I want to say to the excellent coroner, Mr. David Masters, that if he concludes that there were inadequacies within the Ministry of Defence, as he has done on previous occasions, he will lose no time at all in being robust and outspoken in commenting on those inadequacies, which have occurred under both parties. It is not a party matter—it is an MOD matter—and it is vitally important to RAF Lyneham.
I pay tribute to the other defence institutions in North Wiltshire. We have 9 Supply Regiment at Hullavington, 10 Signals Regiment in the town of Corsham, where 2,500 people provide communications for all three services, and 21 Signals Regiment at Colerne. They make a huge contribution together with the other Army bases across Wiltshire—half the British Army is based in Wiltshire.
We often hear two easy clichés about resources in these debates. The first is to stay that the resources that the armed forces, including the people in my constituency, have at their disposal are woefully inadequate. There are certainly inadequacies—we have heard about helicopters, Snatch Land Rovers not being replaced sufficiently quickly, and there are a variety of other shortages. Of course there are shortages, which have always occurred throughout the history of warfare. No general ever says, “I have got more than enough men and equipment. I am perfectly happy,” and we would not expect them to do so.
The second cliché, which is equally easy, was raised by the previous Prime Minister, who said that our troops will have whatever they need on the ground. That is demonstrably not the case, and it is a foolish remark that is too easy to say. Rather than the constant backwards and forwards between those two extremes, we should examine exactly what we are doing around the world.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). During my brief sojourn on the Council of Europe and the Western European Union, which are in my view two entirely useless organisations, my time was enlivened by his contributions to the debates. His remarks in this afternoon’s debate were precisely right. It is no good just talking about whether we have enough troops or whether we have the right equipment, because such debates can go on for ever. What we must do—I hope that an incoming Conservative Government will do this—is carefully examine precisely what it is that we are doing around the world and why we are doing it.
We have not done that on Afghanistan, for example. We do not know whether the mission is counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency or counter-narcotics. We do not know whether we are setting up a Guildford look-alike western-style democracy or whether we are simply helping people—there was a fantastic operation to rebuild the Kajaki dam, for example. We do not know what we are doing in Afghanistan. It would be right for an incoming Conservative Government to conduct a fundamental strategic defence review firmly based on foreign policy. The last SDR was not particularly based on foreign policy, and I hope that Conservative Front Benchers will do that when they take on this onerous duty in one or two years’ time. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North was right to say that debates such as this cannot simply be about troop numbers and equipment, and they should be much more fundamental.
Finally, we are short of time in this afternoon’s debate, which is regrettable. We have few enough defence debates, and the introduction of the topical debate earlier on a Thursday afternoon reduces that time even more. I also wonder whether the structure of these debates, which we have set up over the years, is the best possible. Given the way the world now is, defence in the UK, defence abroad and defence procurement are much more interrelated than they used to be. I wonder whether Ministers, the usual channels or whoever is responsible for such matters will have a little look at the structure of the debates.
We should fundamentally examine not only the way in which our armed services work—they do a superb job with the resources available to them—but what we are asking them to do. When we come to power in two years’ time, I hope that our SDR will do precisely that.
I am pleased for my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones), and for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who have joined the ministerial team, and I wish them every success in their endeavours. In our previous defence debate, I spoke in glowing terms about the glorious day on which we held a joint ceremony in Stafford to mark the granting of the freedom of the borough to the 22 Signal Regiment and the Tactical Supply Wing. Today, contingents from both are deployed in Afghanistan. The residents of Stafford and I hold all those soldiers in our thoughts and wish them the safest of returns home at the end of their tours. The mayor of Stafford, the local newspaper and I are in the middle of an appeal; we set ourselves the target of ensuring that the public donates at least one care package to each and every one of those soldiers while they are away from us, to show that we are thinking of them and working for them, even though they are not with us.
In the previous defence debate, I spoke about Operation Borona, which was mentioned recently, and the possibility of bringing up to 20,000 of our service personnel and their families home from Germany and basing them in this country. Over the next five years, it will be quite a job for us to find places to put those service personnel and their families, and to accommodate them comfortably. My short contribution to this debate will be about that task. Where shall we put them, how shall we accommodate them, and where will the money for the accommodation come from?
As Members have said, the previous Conservative Government gave us one lesson: they showed us how not to arrange accommodation for our military personnel. As others have said, the Annington Homes deal was disastrous. I would like to add one more point to the criticisms made of the deal: the capital receipts of £1.6 billion were not reinvested in the Ministry of Defence, to be spent for military purposes; they went straight to the Treasury. We must be much smarter in future to ensure that when we dispose of surplus assets in our military, we reinvest the money in our military and do not hand it over to the Treasury for other purposes. I point out to Defence Ministers that when they argue those points with Treasury Ministers, I will be on their side.
There are numerous ways in which we provide accommodation for our military personnel. The most obvious way is through direct provision by the Ministry of Defence. Project Slam is an example of that; it involves us paying either to renovate an unacceptable property or to build brand-new properties—single living accommodation—for military personnel. That direct provision will eat up about £5 billion of public resources over the next decade. Clearly, that is not enough to meet existing needs, never mind the needs of the extra personnel coming back from Germany, so we need to be smarter. There are private finance initiative contracts, and what we call prime contracts. They are an example of the Ministry of Defence taking that smarter approach. We need to look at the lessons to be learned from existing PFI contracts and prime contracts to see what more we can do along those lines.
There are also schemes to enable and assist military personnel to buy their own homes. As for service personnel leaving the forces who hope to rely on social housing for their future accommodation, this year we at long last changed the law to ensure equality of treatment for service personnel and local residents in the places to which service personnel retire, in terms of local connection. That is very welcome.
Once the Ministry of Defence has built or renovated a property, it must manage it efficiently. The two recent Select Committee reports on the subject, produced in 2007 and 2008, show that the Ministry has made a deplorable lack of progress as a manager of property, both in terms of successfully maintaining properties and carrying out repairs at the request of families and military personnel, and in terms of managing voids. Perhaps the new Ministers in the Department might wield a new broom and either sharpen up the Ministry’s act, or take away its responsibility for the management of property.
The question of where the military personnel from Germany should go brings us to an issue that has been mentioned at least twice in this debate: the future of super-garrisons. It was suggested in the last defence debate that the west midlands was a potential site for a super-garrison. As a west midlands Member of Parliament, I welcome that. Although the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) seemed to suggest that a super-garrison would be a new base in the middle of nowhere, it could be a combination of estates and could be added to existing places. I welcome the idea of Stafford being part of the home of a west midlands super-garrison.
We said earlier that we must be smart about contracts and the involvement of private partners in providing accommodation. How we raise money from assets and reinvest it in our estates leads me to suggest that, at Stafford at present, there may be opportunities for those things to be brought together. Stafford borough council, the local authority, is consulting on the local development framework for the area, so it will identify areas of land in Stafford for particular kinds of development; the Ministry of Defence, of course, owns a considerable amount of land in Stafford. It is certainly of interest to the Ministry how its land there is to be treated for planning purposes in future.
I sincerely believe that with the right discussions, land owned by the Ministry of Defence in Stafford can be released for redevelopment and have permission for the most valuable kind of development, and therefore release the greatest capital receipts for the Ministry of Defence. If we then overcome the objections of the Treasury and are able to keep the money in Stafford, we will be able to build the accommodation, as part of a super-garrison, to house the people who come home from Germany with their families. I hope that that is a neat enough trick for the Ministers to want to thank me for my contribution to this debate.
I associate myself with the remarks made by the Government and Opposition Front Benchers at the outset about those who have given their lives in the service of this country and those who have been injured, many of them very seriously. In the same breath, I should like to mention the work of the services charities such as the Royal British Legion, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, or SSAFA, and others.
I was tipped the wink the other day and looked at the Help for Heroes website. I hope that the House will forgive me this indulgence, but I should say that I was delighted to see on it a lovely photograph of our only granddaughter, Catherine, aged 10, at a fundraising event. It is good that the young and others are not only aware of the work of such organisations, but actually take part in such events.
It has been accepted by successive Governments and generations of British people that defence policy is not limited merely to the physical defence of the shores of the United Kingdom, but extends to the source of anything that might threaten the long-term peace and security of these islands or of our allies. Our armed forces have long operated around the world and are still called on to do so to bring calm and stability to areas that could threaten our nation directly or indirectly. Although we should not take our eyes off the potential for future conventional warfare and the threat that that would undoubtedly bring, it is highly likely that we will continue to be engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the foreseeable future.
I should like to pay warm tribute to the outgoing Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who during his watch oversaw the greatest transformation that the UK has seen for a long time as far as equipment, health care, accommodation and the general well-being of our armed forces—particularly the Army—are concerned. He should also be given credit for changing the basis on which our military vehicles were designed and procured, initially against much opposition from within and without the Ministry of Defence; he had the courage to go for the Mastiff and, more recently, the Ridgeback vehicles. The final act was to sign off a £500 million order for protected vehicles, for which all those who serve in the military and their families and friends will be grateful; lives will undoubtedly be saved as a result.
I welcome the two new Ministers and the new Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), to the Front Bench. I very much hope that we will hear him contribute to the next defence debate. I hope also that he can achieve in the field of aircraft provision what his predecessor did for vehicles. Having campaigned for the use of light aircraft for ground attack and surveillance, I recognise that Watchkeeper will be a tremendous addition to unmanned aerial vehicles when it comes into service in 2010.
There should have been no shortage of helicopters for our troops. Off-the-shelf medium helicopters could have been readily purchased but, as always, the crunch point is crew availability, because it comes down to hours per machine usage. If two or three crews are available, our aircraft can operate round the clock if necessary, whereas flying hours are severely limited when only one crew is available. That point was made forcefully by my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier), who also made an excellent point about volunteer reservists. It will not have escaped the notice of the House that the United States uses a tremendous number of pilot reservists in Afghanistan, and I cannot understand why we cannot train more in this country and think out of the box in order to help to provide the cover that is so desperately needed there.
Afghanistan has been a tremendous proving ground for equipment—it finds every weakness—but hard-won experience there has resulted in very different, but impressively more effective armed forces. It has, thankfully, changed the concept of the future rapid effect system in the nick of time, but I trust that the Secretary of State will not allow slippage back to the mistaken concept of blast absorption for mine and improvised explosive device protection to the now established and proven concept of blast deflection.
What has been proved to be highly successful in Iraq and in Afghanistan is the training of their respective national armies. The British Army mentoring teams have a tremendous track record of leadership on the ground, giving direction and training locals in the use of mutually compatible equipment. However, these newly established armies lack air power. That emphasises the need to use less sophisticated air craft in order that air power can be established in a similar way to the progress that has been established on the ground. Unless this simple “ownership” of defence expertise is acquired by these fledgling forces, the UK military will find itself overseas for ever, giving constant back-up and acting in a supporting role.
In Afghanistan, one of the greatest fears is that reconstruction work may fail in its aims and that, after their military success, UK forces may be dragged into a long, impossible, deteriorating holding situation. There is the problem of a weak central Government holding back provincial government advancement and success, with far too many UK and European Union organisations initiating, and supposedly supervising, aid. The idea put forward earlier that the armed services might play an enhanced role in reconstruction should appropriate funds be diverted to them has considerable merit. After all, the Kajaki dam project could never have been achieved without the military and, although schools and health care are vitally important, infrastructure is essential for the creation of wealth in order to support welfare projects. Otherwise, Afghanistan, like other difficult areas of the world, will become dependent on aid. That would in turn create a breeding ground for corruption and insurgency. We run the danger of going back full circle to where we started, and by allowing instability to develop further in hot spots, we fail the interests and defence of the United Kingdom and its people.
I would like to put on record my tribute to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). He was professional, courteous and honourable in all my dealings with him, and I am sorry to see him go. At the same time, I congratulate the new Secretary of State and I welcome the two new Ministers to the Front Bench. I would like to put on record my salute to the courage and bravery of all those in our armed forces who lost their lives over the recess period in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I pay tribute to the Royal Irish Regiment, which is returning to Shropshire, as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) reminded us, the Royal Military Police, who returned home some months ago, other constituents who serve in the Territorial Army, and reserves in other services and regular units.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) said, one of the best speeches that we have heard on defence in this place came from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) today. I was going to set out my thoughts on the global context, although I think that I will run out of time. One cannot have a debate about UK defence without looking at the global context, defence alliances, which the hon. Gentleman touched on, or defence equipment.
On the question of defence equipment, one of the greatest foreign policy challenges before us is that of failed states, rogue states or states that are infiltrated by terrorist organisations and radical groups. One country is causing particular concern: I heard a foreign policy expert speak recently on Iran. I hope that Iran and President Ahmadinejad will review their position with regard to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the international community, and that they will allow monitors back in to examine the so-called civilian nuclear programme and the so-called civilian space programme so that the current impasse with that country can be dealt with diplomatically rather than in any other way.
On how that situation may be dealt with, there are only two options if the diplomatic and peaceful route does not proceed as we all want it to. First, we have conventional intervention, which is quite unthinkable, whether it is possible or not—and who would be involved? Secondly, there is nuclear intervention, and of course, no one endorses or wants to see that. However, we have a difficulty from the point of view of geopolitical strategy and that of stability. We do not have the needed flexibility in our current defence equipment. Our military commanders do not currently have certain options available to them and in the future they might need to consider other means to deal with a threat.
If we are unable to use the conventional or nuclear option, what other options are there if diplomacy fails? During the debate on Trident last year, I mentioned hypersonic mass technology. As the hon. Gentleman said, we need to look again at defence equipment and at whether it matches the threats faced by our country and the NATO alliance. I hope that the Government will work closely with the American Administration and the great state of Alabama, which are developing conventional intercontinental ballistic missiles. These missiles are non-nuclear, but they have a far bigger and more powerful punch than any conventional missiles at the moment. Tomahawk missiles and cruise missiles would not be effective enough to deal with the threats in some parts of the world today, which is why we need to ensure that Britain is in the vanguard of developing such weapons. They are not fully developed at the moment, but they could come on-stream in two or three years. They can strike at any target within two hours, launched either from a submarine or a land site. I hope that the Government will consider such technology, and that the new Ministers will take a fresh look at whether we have the weapons to deal with current threats. They would cost fewer lives and less money than sending in a conventional army, or the use of nuclear weapons, which is completely unacceptable in my view.
Given the time, I will allow those on the Front Bench to conclude.
Before Front Benchers are given that opportunity, let me try to make the four points that I wanted to raise. The first concerns the reshuffle. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) on the merits of the outgoing Secretary of State. I regret his passing and I do not believe that the Prime Minister has done the Department a favour. The Government will hit the electoral buffers in 18 months and the entire Department is engaged in the process of getting a new Secretary of State up to speed. By all accounts from those whom I know who ran across him, the outgoing Secretary of State was respected and liked in the Department. The new Secretary of State is as talented as the previous one, and we now know that the previous Secretary of State shares the Prime Minister’s warm appreciation, which his successor has on record. That brings me to the rest of the reshuffle.
We now have 25 per cent. more Ministers. That means another ministerial salary and salaries for more ministerial staff. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), shakes his head. Is someone among the Ministers not taking a salary? That would be interesting. However, the increase in Ministers requires the involvement of many civil servants in administration. We all enjoy seeing our old friends and colleagues get on and succeed in Government jobs and, in that sense, it is nice to see the hon. Gentleman taking up his new responsibilities. He has a long involvement in defence dating back to before his election to the House. I think that I first ran across him in 1993 in the Swan Hunter shipyard.
I believe that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) mentioned the possibility of huge savings in the naval budget, and it struck me that we were in interesting times. I had an exchange with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) about what happened to the budget in 1988. I envisage a particular role for the hon. Member for North Durham as a trusty of the new regime to ensure that defence is not squeezed in what will undoubtedly prove to be a fierce battle between Departments about priorities in the coming disaster that is overtaking Government finances because of the economic situation and the Government’s management of it until now. That battle must be won. If the world experiences the economic conditions that everybody now expects, enormous instability is a likely consequence some years down the line. The crash of 1929 was followed by our being engulfed in the second world war and one can perceive the link between the events. Despite all the pressures on the Government’s finances, now is not the time not to invest in the United Kingdom’s security.
On Afghanistan, my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) was slightly unfair on Brigadier Carleton-Smith. I have known him for a long time—since university—and I believe that he knew exactly what he was doing when he spoke to the press. I do not think that the press should be blamed for the interpretation placed on his remarks. My hon. Friend was correct to say that they lay precisely within the bounds of military orthodoxy but that there had been a change of emphasis, accompanied by the reported remarks of Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles from Afghanistan. It is important to review what is happening in Afghanistan and I believe that there has been an outbreak of public good sense from those two fantastic servants of the United Kingdom in their respective roles.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall not give way because I have one more minute in which I want to make one more point, which concerns the Gurkhas.
Everyone in the United Kingdom feels warmly towards and has a soft spot for the Gurkhas because of their contribution to this country. Many will have welcomed their court victory the other day, but I just offer a note of caution on that. That victory may turn out to be pyrrhic. We need to remember that the Gurkhas’ contribution was based on their terms of service with the United Kingdom. They therefore produced soldiers for the United Kingdom who were adapted to a specific, rather more limited role than English or other British infantrymen would be used for, in the regiments of the Brigade of Gurkhas. Gurkhas of course came cheaply, too. Their conditions of service meant that they did not carry the same pension or other liabilities of other British servicemen.
I see that the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is still in his place. In the 1991 defence review, the Staffordshire Regiment and the Cheshire Regiment were going to be amalgamated, in order to keep a Gurkha battalion in the line of battle of the British Army.
Gurkhas will now be remunerated on exactly the same basis as other line infantrymen. They will come with an overhead to sustain an organisation in Nepal, in order to keep them in place, as well as an additional overhead to the United Kingdom in the costs involved in their families having the right come here. I fear that the victory that the Gurkhas have won may be pyrrhic, when we look at all the costs and the alternatives.
As is usual on these occasions, we have had an extremely well- informed debate, with some very interesting contributions. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) that it is disappointing that the House has not had more opportunity to hear some learned contributions. It is also disappointing that the press do not take more interest in reporting what we discuss here, but we all know that they are much more interested in the trivialities of what goes on here than in much of the substance.
Like my hon. Friends, I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). He initially arrived with no knowledge of defence and with the impediment of being a human rights lawyer, but he learnt hugely in the post. We all found him most congenial to deal with and we are disappointed that he has gone. He learnt in the post, and he made many friends in the Ministry of Defence and among our armed forces, as he became more knowledgeable and understanding. However, the Prime Minister imposed upon him the impossible task of performing the Secretary of State’s duties part time, having given him the duties of the Secretary of State for Scotland, too.
The hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) also served the House well, as well as veterans’ interests. He did a good job in that area and the Government can claim to have achieved some success, not least in the creation of a veterans’ badge, as the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) said, which we have all had the opportunity to give to our constituents.
I welcome the new Ministers, although I am perhaps not as charitable as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis). As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) pointed out, there are now four Ministers on the Front Bench. That is a 33 per cent. increase, and I am sure that the armed forces would welcome a 33 per cent. increase from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, although that is unlikely at present.
The reason why there are now four Ministers is that the Government have realised that they have been outdone by us. We have four spokesmen and they have had to match the formidable firepower from the Conservative Benches. The Government are going to need every bit of firepower that they have between now and the next general election, when we come storming back to victory.
As has been pointed out, apart from the Minister for the Armed Forces, the rest of the ministerial team are rookies, leaving him, a 12-month server, as the longest-serving Minister. There are challenges that those on the Front Bench will have to contend with, not least the Secretary of State, who will have to do some explaining, given what he told the House in December 1997:
“It is clear that the Royal Navy has borne the brunt of many of the reductions in defence spending in the past 15 to 20 years. That is a serious mistake.”—[Official Report, 3 December 1997; Vol. 302, c. 275.]
We all look forward to seeing how he will justify the slashing of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet, from the 32 frigates and destroyers in the SDR to the present 22. Apart from the huge increase in our commitments, what has changed to justify that reduction in the Royal Navy?
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and I are old friends and sparring partners on the Defence Committee, and I look forward to his doing something for me. He very kindly gave me an Afghan hat when he came back from Afghanistan, which I have worn, although not publicly. When I came back from Tunisia earlier this year I gave him a red fez, on condition that he was to wear it at the next meeting of his constituency Labour party. I look forward to seeing a photograph of him so clothed.
The hon. Gentleman has now signed up to the unenviable task of answering the innumerable criticisms of the Defence Committee, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). He is going to have to explain them to the House and to the public or, alternatively—as has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate—fight jolly hard within the Department for the things that he fought for when he was a member of the Committee. The hon. Gentleman enjoys a reputation for having subjected MOD witnesses to severe dressings down, and they will no doubt be thrilled to have him as their Minister now. I can hear the orders for the Château Lafite being given in officers’ messes across the land, and I am sure that he will get just as warm a welcome in the sergeants’ messes. He needs to start eating some humble pie before he tucks in in the officers’ mess.
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), having ratted, cannot expect us all to be as charitable to him as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East was. It is entirely true that our researchers are not even working overtime, because there is such a deep seam of his past quotes to mine. I shall content myself with producing only one of them. A few years ago, he said:
“The defence of the country is no longer in the hands of people who care about defence; it is in the hands of the new Labour Treasury. There can be no less safe hands for the defence of this country than that.”—[Official Report, 13 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 591.]
I think that the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) almost agreed with that latter point.
We have had a good debate today. In the time available to me, I cannot go through all the contributions that have been made, but I shall single out one or two.
It is good to see that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) has been unleashed from her Trappist vows and is now giving vent to freedom of expression, which, as a Whip, she would not have tolerated. She said that the Conservatives were not supportive of the United Kingdom defence industry, but that is not true. We are extremely supportive of it, and I refer her to my speech on defence procurement in the House on 19 June.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) referred to the budget black hole, and he was absolutely right. That is going to be a problem with which Ministers will have to contend. They are going to have to explain how £500 billion can be found for the banks, when a couple of billion pounds cannot be found for the hard-pressed defence forces of this country. The public certainly want to know the answer to that question.
There is much mention to be made of the contribution of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). What he said was absolutely right. He participated in the strategic defence review negotiations, and the House will undoubtedly have enjoyed his mini-review today. We shall want to study it in more detail.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire, who does a marvellous job commanding the Defence Select Committee, referred to the report on recruitment and retention, and I want to refer briefly to it as well, if I have time. He also said that we need a strong defence industry and strong defence exports. I entirely agree with him about that.
Next week, on 16 October, we shall celebrate the centenary of flight in this country. There will be a fly- past, which my right hon. Friend can watch, and I will be flying the De Havilland Canada 1—a Chipmunk sandwiched between a Hurricane and a Vulcan. That spectacle will be on view at Farnborough next Thursday, weather permitting. We will have the opportunity to demonstrate how Britain has made such a contribution to, and led the world in, the aviation business during the past century.
The hon. Member for Telford and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) drew our attention to the concerns about training in their constituencies. Both of them have been members of the armed forces parliamentary scheme, as, I think, has the hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport. I think that that speaks volumes for the value of the AFPS.
My hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) is an absolute expert on reserve forces, and he paid tribute to their role in his speech. He has also produced some excellent reports, which the House would do well to study. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) said that when the First Sea Lord warns about cutbacks to the naval programme he needs to be heeded. The last one made the same cuts, and he got a peerage, so this one probably can as well.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) referred to the repatriation of the fallen through his constituency. All of us will have been hugely impressed by the people of Wootton Bassett in his constituency, whom we have seen on television and who have given the fallen the dignity of a hero’s return, for which the entire nation ought to be grateful.
The debate clearly takes place against a background of the darkest possible economic conditions, the full fallout of which we must await and in turn assess in relation to future spending priorities, but we cannot allow those matters, however weighty, to distract us from attending to the needs of our armed forces.
Much mention has been made of the need to look at the new geopolitical situation. For the past year, I have been warning that we ignore what Russia is doing at our peril. While I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) said about the need to deal with the situation in Afghanistan—much of which task has been done, as she pointed out—it would nevertheless be foolish not to note how Russia is now behaving: invading Georgia, claiming the Arctic and rebuilding its military capability.
I am sorry that the Minister was insulting about our military covenant commission. We have some distinguished people on it and it would be good for him to apologise, because Simon Weston, John Keegan and Rear Admiral Iain Henderson are not people to be trifled with.
Much mention has also been made of Help for Heroes and other charities, which have done a fantastic job. They are much in tune with the public spirit, which is support for our armed forces. The high command has been slow to recognise the public support that exists for the armed forces.
By the Government’s own admission, the state of the armed forces is parlous and they have failed to resource the armed forces to meet the current international challenges. Those failings are fully annotated in the Ministry of Defence’s own annual report and accounts, but the nation has every reason to take pride in the courage, loyalty and commitment of our armed forces, which continue to set the standards against which other nations are judged. They are supported by a defence industry that is striving to ensure that they have the very best equipment, preferably sourced from the UK, to discharge the responsibilities imposed on them by us, the politicians. Our servicemen and women, together with their families, deserve the best support that the country can give them.
I start by associating myself with the expressions of sympathy for those who have fallen over the summer and those who have been injured in the service of their country. I thank everyone for their kind words during the debate, although I am not sure how long they will last, and for the cards.
As the hon. Gentleman says, it will be the only time. I also thank everyone for the kind letters that I have received, including one from a member of the Defence Committee, which said, “Your moving on is a little like toothache: you miss it when it’s gone.”
I also pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), and his tremendous work on behalf of veterans, and to the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). I thank the members of the Defence Committee, where I had seven and a half wonderful years, and the Chairman and Vice-Chairman for the work that they have done. I also thank the staff and the special advisers for their hard work.
Members will be reassured to know that I am now a fully trained-up member—I have just signed up this week—of the new Ministry of Defence poacher-turned-gamekeeper course. This has been an interesting experience and learning curve, but I must say that I have been welcomed and I acknowledge the enthusiasm and dedication of the staff and military personnel I have worked with in the last few days.
If I do not cover all the subjects raised, I will write to any hon. Members who brought up specific points. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) raised JPA—joint personnel administration. My predecessor commissioned a report on some of the problems and this week I met the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff and the three principal personnel officers. I have actioned that report and asked them to ensure that it is on the agenda for my monthly meetings; rest assured that I will be on top of it.
Mental health was raised, and members of the Select Committee know that it is an area in which I take great interest. I have had a meeting this week with the Surgeon General and Dr. Ian Palmer of the mental health medical assessment programme. I have asked for work to be commissioned on the issue to ensure that it is a top priority. I know that it is causing concern and I want to ensure that the armed forces get the best mental health care—not just while they are in service, but afterwards.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) raised the issue of Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith. I had the privilege of meeting the brigadier in July when I was in Afghanistan. I pay tribute to him and his men for their tremendous work on our behalf. The position is clear and not ambiguous: as the Prime Minister said on 12 December, we do not negotiate with the Taliban, but we will work with the Afghan Government in relation to those people who are prepared to renounce violence. As the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) knows, we sat down with some people who had done that when we were there. I do not think that the brigadier or the stabilisation team, whom we met in Lashkagar and are doing a tremendous job, would disagree with that approach. Anyone who tries to say that the military are doing everything should look at the stabilisation team working in Lashkagar, because it is a great joined-up effort.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) for their hard work on behalf of Devonport and the Devonport strategy group. I understand their frustration, but I reiterate the point made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces in his letter: there is no equivocation about the Government’s commitment to Devonport. With two such strong advocates, I am sure that I will get regular updates. The naval base review will deliver what is planned.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) covered a few issues, including the future rapid effect system—as the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) knows, I am a FRES anorak, along with her, and follow it in detail. She rightly paid tribute to the operational requirements delivered in Afghanistan, and I have seen the protection given to our servicemen and women on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I pay tribute to the team who have got those urgent operational requirements into theatre.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) made a fantastic speech. I have known him a long time. He and I worked together, along with Lord Robertson, and the GMB trade union is obviously a good breeding ground for Defence Ministers. My hon. Friend takes a great interest in European affairs, and I agree with him that we cannot insulate ourselves from the rest of the world. We need to emphasise that.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire will be pleased to know that this week I met the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff for personnel and three personnel officers and asked them to do some work on retention—not just in relation to pay, but to find out what else can be done. I received the right hon. Gentleman’s letter about his trip to Israel. Not only will I respond to it, but I would like to speak to him about it. I understand his concerns about affordable housing. That issue is on my radar screen, and a piece of work has been commissioned this week.
My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) is a strong advocate for his constituency. I think that he is trying to get me to name a ship after him or Telford, which would be difficult. Perhaps he should follow the example of Durham county council, which is proudly associated with HMS Bulwark. He mentioned the success of the veterans’ badge, of which 650,000 have been produced. They are valued and welcome in recognising the debt of honour to those men and women who have sacrificed their lives and worked on our behalf.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the situation of those injured and killed on operations. On 10 June the Secretary of State announced a scroll and emblem for the next of kin of those who have lost their lives in action on our behalf. I thank and pay tribute to the Daily Mirror for its campaign on that.
With time short, I apologise to other Members whose contributions I will not be able to cover. I find this an exciting brief, and I will ensure that the voice of veterans, and of the ordinary man and woman who serve on our behalf is heard loudly in the Ministry of Defence.
Let me also say, in the spirit of bipartisanship referred to by the hon. Member for New Forest, East, that I want to work with Members in all parts of the House to ensure that we secure not only the best possible conditions but the best possible recognition for our armed forces.
It being Six o’clock, the motion lapsed without Question put.