Skip to main content

Defence in the UK

Volume 490: debated on Thursday 26 March 2009

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of defence in the UK.

Tragically, we begin another defence debate against the backdrop of further loss of life in our armed forces. Two weeks ago, the 152nd member of the forces died in Afghanistan, taking the total fatalities there and in Iraq to 331. Closer to home, two lives have been appallingly lost on our own streets, with the murder of Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey in Northern Ireland on 7 March. I cannot imagine that they envisaged being gunned down in cold blood at their base as they bought a final pizza before deploying to Afghanistan. Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with the families of these brave people and with those rebuilding their lives after serious wounds. Those who sacrifice most are quite rightly at the centre of the agenda and of media coverage, but the armed forces do not view themselves as victims. They stand for far more than that: honour; duty; sacrifice; commitment. Oft mocked as unfashionable, but they are surely qualities to which the whole of society should aspire. It is a privilege from a personal point of view to work with these extraordinary people.

I would like to focus this afternoon’s debate on the essential relationship between the armed forces and society and the role that Government must play in that. Every day, the men and women of our armed forces are asked to do incredibly difficult things on our behalf in some of the most dangerous countries in the world. Tragically, some of them pay the ultimate price. It is therefore our duty to ensure that the balance between what they do for us and what we do for them in return is correct. We must look carefully at the interdependence that exists between the armed forces, the society from which they recruit and to which they ultimately return, and the Government who require so much of them.

When we think about what the military do for us today, the overwhelming image is of soldiers, sailors and airmen bravely fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Those operations have a direct bearing on the safety of our streets back here in the UK. Our people are defeating terrorism there to stop it coming here. Similarly, they will soon complete a magnificent job in southern Iraq, leaving Basra transformed from how they found it six years ago. Quite rightly, we regularly debate operations overseas in this House, and I want to use today’s theme of defence in the UK to spotlight the activities and the wider role that the armed forces play in the fabric of our society.

Operationally, it is worth reminding ourselves that the Royal Navy has provided a continuous independent nuclear deterrent at sea since 1969. That is the ultimate guarantee of our national security, and it involves a submarine under the sea, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I drifted on to the conservativehome website the other day, as I do from time to time, and I looked at the debate there. That is part of the democratic process, and I accept that parties have to have these debates, but it would be enormously helpful to the people who provide that service to our nation if Opposition Members clarified—they can do so now, if they wish, or in their speeches—their support or otherwise for that continued provision.

I am terribly disappointed. For a moment, I thought that the Minister was going to say that he had read my long essay on the vital need for the nuclear deterrent, which appears on the conservativehome website. I am terribly disappointed that he appears to have overlooked it.

I have read the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to that debate but, equally, I read what others say. There is a difficulty for Opposition Members, is there not? On the one hand, they are committed to a bigger Army—or are they? Clarification would be most welcome. On the other hand, I think they are committed—or are they?—to no increases in defence spending and, indeed, no promise to maintain the current level of defence spending. That is the Opposition position—not that of the hon. Gentleman, who is always careful about these things, but it is certainly the position of his hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor. The gap has to be filled somehow. The question of where the cuts would be made is an intriguing one.

Would the Minister like to set out his own party’s pledges for the next Parliament with regard to defence spending?

We do that, and we will continue to do that, and I am here in order to do that. However, I say to the hon. Gentleman that there is a duty on Her Majesty’s Opposition. Opposition Members have made statements that are clearly out of line with one another—there are commitments to increase defence spending in one way, but no explanation of how that would be paid for in another area, as would be inevitable—so I invite them now, or when they make their speeches, to enlighten the House as to where the cuts might fall to pay for the commitments that they desire to make.

The Royal Air Force continues to ensure round-the-clock air defence. I saw some of the Typhoon aircraft and crews that do that when I visited RAF Coningsby late last year. Those quick-reaction aircraft are ready to launch and intercept any aircraft approaching the United Kingdom that might pose a threat, which is not a task or responsibility to be underestimated.

The House will know of the niche capabilities, such as explosive ordnance disposal operators and search-and-rescue crews, who continue to carry out acts of supreme bravery and professionalism in support of the emergency services. More widely, I wonder where we would have been in the aftermath of the floods in 2007, or the foot and mouth outbreak in 2001, without military support. The armed forces helped save the day on each of those occasions. All this is possible because we have flexible forces, fit for purpose and with an indomitable spirit at their core.

The Minister will be aware that the safety deadline for upgrades to the Nimrod fleet is 31 March, five days away. Can he update the House on how many aircraft have had both sets of improvements made, on the hot air ducts and the fuel seals? On how many Nimrod aircraft will both of those improvements have been completed by the deadline?

I have written to hon. Members, making them aware of the action that we have taken to ensure that we speed up the work that is required on those aircraft. We are not prepared to fly beyond 31 March aircraft that do not have those vital fire breaks re-engineered and refitted, and we have taken the necessary action to do that. We are able to do that without the Nimrod stopping its vital mission in the UK. I think I have written to the hon. Gentleman making him aware of that, as well as to other hon. Members, so nobody can be in any doubt that we are holding to that 31 March deadline.

What we have done is intended to enable us to get on with that work as quickly as possible, and we anticipate that the entire fleet will be refitted by the summer, and that we will be back up to full operational capability by the summer as a result of the actions that we are taking. We will not allow the firewall work to go beyond 31 March, the date we originally stated. We will hold to the deadline for that work.

The armed forces provide more to society, though, than simply protecting it. They reinforce its strengths and values. Right at the heart of what our armed forces stand for are virtues such as respect, duty, discipline and a firm commitment to ensuring that talent is given the chance that it deserves. Many of us lament these qualities being less obvious in wider society, and it is this that I want to dwell on—the relationship between the armed forces and society, and Government’s role and responsibility in that.

The armed forces recruit from society and, in doing so, provide a springboard for men and women from all backgrounds, offering them opportunity, training, skills and, most importantly, a sense of belonging and self-respect. My military assistant characterises that as the ordinary man’s way of escaping the ordinary. I view it as enabling so many people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, to improve themselves and make their way in life.

I very much agree with the aspiration that the Minister describes for the Army and, on the whole, that is how it is. Does he agree, nevertheless, that those values were sorely lacking at Deepcut Army barracks, and that the death of four recruits there in the most unusual circumstances was the antithesis of what the Army should be about? Can he explain why, even now, 14 years after the death of Cheryl James, we still have not had the release of important information, such as the report by Devon and Cornwall police on the Surrey police investigation into her death? Does he agree that for the Army to achieve exactly what he says, we must have transparency, the absence of which suggests to me that she was murdered and that this is a cover-up?

The hon. Gentleman must believe in his conspiracy theories if that is what he wishes to do, but he knows, as he has been told by me, by my predecessor from the Dispatch Box and by others as well, that we are not the owners of that document. It is not a matter for the armed forces to release the results of police investigations. He must take the matter up with the relevant authorities. I have no ability to tell the police what to do, and no desire to do so. He can keep on raising the issue in defence debates and keep on suggesting that in some way the Army or the MOD is responsible for the report not being released, but that is not true. I think he knows that, in his heart of hearts.

I am grateful to the Minister and I do not seek to distract him from his core narrative. I understand what he said, and it has been said to me many times before. I simply observe that if the Minister or the Ministry of Defence indicated that they felt it was in the public interest and in the interests of the image of the Army for that report to be published, I am sure that would have a significant effect in motivating Devon and Cornwall police to do that.

The hon. Gentleman is free, as are others, to raise the issue with the police. It is not for us to tell the police how to do their job. It is their report, their investigation and their decision. He has been told so often, as he rightly acknowledges, from the Dispatch Box.

The values that our armed forces represent start early through the cadets, which is probably the best youth organisation in the world and it continues to flourish. Whatever their background or their future careers, the young people who join the cadet forces leave better equipped to face the future. They also participate in more worthwhile activities than they would otherwise be able to do.

I was speaking about cadets, not training, but I suppose I had better give way to my hon. Friend.

I am listening with interest to find out about the extra capital to fund the extra large Army. Is it possible that the Army might have access to Train to Gain funding to train some of our soldiers, thereby releasing money to fund the extra Army units that some of us would like to see? Are we looking for extra money anywhere?

The Government pot is as big as it is, no matter where it comes from. The point that I was seeking to make earlier is that a party which, on the one hand, tries to tell the country that we are profligate and spending too much, repeatedly tries to pretend, on the other hand, that it can pull rabbits out of a hat for additional spending on defence and elsewhere to which it knows it is not committed. That is a pretty dangerous thing to do in a democracy, and it will get its come-uppance sooner or later.

I was speaking about cadets. We should recognise and be grateful for the supreme dedication of the volunteer instructors who do so much for the Sea, Army and Air Cadets in our communities. Similarly, the reserves bring a range of unique skills to defence and play a vital role on operations. They also bring transferable skills and standards learned during their service back to their civilian lives and their civilian jobs. The House will be aware of our ongoing strategic review of the reserve forces. The review will ensure that we have reserve forces that meet defence needs now and into the future. It will also recognise their fundamental role in society. We will announce the findings of the review in an oral statement to the House shortly.

(Kensington and Chelsea: The Minister will be aware that it was originally announced that the conclusion of the current review of the reserve forces would be announced about six months ago. Will he share with the House why it has taken so much longer to conclude the review? I hope he will be able to say that part of the reason is that the terms of reference do not preclude those carrying out the review from examining the gross misuse of the reserves over the past few years, as the current Government have sought to use them to make up for the very serious lack in regular forces during that period.

That is a travesty of the facts, if I may say so. Yes, we are behind on our original desire in respect of the review’s time scale. But I have never been in any doubt that it was better for it to be done correctly than quickly, so I have never put the people involved in the review under any pressure to meet those deadlines and we have allowed the review not to meet the original times. Yes, the reserves have increasingly augmented our activities on operations, and when I meet and talk to them, I see that they do not mind that at all. What the reserves want is for their increased involvement to be reflected in their training and support, so our strategic thinking needs to some extent to catch up with what they have been delivering.

It has not been an abuse, but the good, efficient use of reserve forces. They have volunteered and are damn good at their job. We need to make sure that, as far as we can within our resources, we train and support them appropriately so that they can play the role in which they have been so effective and for which they have been prepared to volunteer.

Will the Minister confirm that the review was conducted by Major-General Cottam, who left the Army months ago and now serves as the registrar at St. Paul’s cathedral? That suggests that the review was completed, but that the Government are uncomfortable with its findings.

The hon. Gentleman will find out pretty soon, when we release the reserve forces review and enable him and others to participate in discussing it. I do not know whether he recognises this, but I have tried to make sure that the debate has been pretty inclusive. General Cottam has talked repeatedly to Members from both sides of the House; we have used the vehicle of the all-party group on reserve forces to make sure that that has happened. I have given the commitment that despite the fact that there will be an oral statement in the House on the day when we release the review, we will go back to the all-party group because of the contribution that it has made and the interest that it has shown. We will give it a more detailed opportunity to give its critique of the review when it comes out.

On behalf of the whole all-party group, I should say that we are grateful for the way in which we have been used as a sounding board on this issue. I echo the comment made by the Chairman of the Defence Committee at our last meeting: it has been a model example of adding value to a review by drawing on parliamentary opinion. I thank the Minister for that.

I agree. General Cottam himself was extremely grateful for the sounding board of the all-party group; he could properly capture where people were on some of the issues and make sure that he had that information tucked away as he did his work. He has expressed his gratitude personally, but I am happy to repeat it in the House.

This country must leave no stone unturned to ensure that the remarkable people of our armed forces and their families, and veterans, are appropriately recognised and supported. That work can and must never be finished; it must be a work in progress to which we are all committed. To do otherwise would break the crucial relationship. The public’s generous recognition of the armed forces in the past year, including fundraising and welcoming people home from operations, proves that fulfilling that relationship is squarely in society’s consciousness. I applaud the efforts made by all of our citizens, and in particular by the people of Wootton Bassett, whom I visited earlier this month. I thanked them for the way in which they ensure that our fallen are properly received back in their country.

I am grateful for the Minister’s kind words about the people of Wootton Bassett, which is in my constituency. Some 2,000 of them turned out last Saturday for the tragic return of three bodies.

The Minister will understand that the people of Wootton Bassett are deeply concerned about the future of RAF Lyneham, which is just down the road from them. We are awaiting an announcement on that, following consideration of Project Belvedere. Can the Minister give us some idea of when that announcement might be made?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the armed forces and the encouragement that he gives us to continue to use RAF Lyneham. It is good to see that the community there is very supportive of our continuing to do so. However, he knows that we must try to get the best that we can from the estate and that we must use money efficiently. If we waste money on the estate, we cannot spend it on kit and equipment and the health and welfare of our service personnel.

As I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, I am trying to bring the issue to a conclusion as soon as possible. I cannot promise that he will be on the good end of that news. We have not yet made any decisions, but we will inform the House as soon as we can about the outcome of Project Belvedere and the potential reconfiguration of our helicopter force basing priorities. The hon. Gentleman is worried about that and wants to try to take the opportunity to keep Lyneham alive. I cannot say whether he will be successful or otherwise.

The central plank of Government efforts is the service personnel Command Paper, which was published last summer. That unprecedented piece of cross-Government and devolved Administration work is designed to optimise the support that we provide to our armed forces. It is based on two central principles: first, that no disadvantage should flow from service in our armed forces; and secondly, that in certain circumstances it is right and proper for our armed forces to be treated in a special way, particularly when people have been injured in the course of their duty.

I will not rehearse the 40-plus pledges in the Command Paper, but let me give one example. By most assessments, British military training is the best in the world, offering a broad range of high-quality education. I am amazed by the amount of technological know-how that is required of our servicemen and women and how quickly they learn it. We must reinforce that aptitude as they retire from service. That is why the Command Paper now entitles all those who have served six years or more to free education up to degree level on retirement from the forces. That is a tremendous package to help our people to transfer successfully back into civilian life. The extraordinary opportunities offered during a services career now continue beyond it. Veterans, society and British businesses are all beneficiaries of the proposal.

I am sure that the whole House supports the offer in the Command Paper to which the Minister referred. However, does the Minister agree that the new training regime to be introduced by the defence training rationalisation programme, which will ensure that all technical qualifications in the military will also be recognised civilian qualifications, will greatly enhance the recruitment and career prospects of our young men and women when they leave the forces?

I agree. It is vital that we invest in new training programmes and facilities. My hon. Friend never misses a chance to tell us that the greatest opportunity to do that is in St. Athan in his constituency. We need to take on defence training and to make sure that we stay at the cutting edge and get the new methodologies and equipment. The way to do that is through the defence training review, which will hugely benefit my hon. Friend’s constituency. I hope it goes well and that we proceed to a final decision in the required time scale; I know that my hon. Friend supports that.

There seems to be slippage on the defence training review and the move to St. Athan. When it was first announced in 2007, it was all going to be done in 2011, but in a written answer to me yesterday, the Minister said that the date was now 2015. I understand that the contracts are still in difficulty. Will the Minister give us some idea of when we will have some really firm dates?

The hon. Gentleman must accept that the proposal has its detractors, who seek for good reason to protect the status quo and jobs in their own areas and are worried about change; I do not criticise them for that. He should not listen to every bit of propaganda that is put out about the defence training review; he would find that, despite the economic situation, it is in nowhere near the difficulty that those detractors try to suggest. He should listen to a balanced view, not just one side of the argument.

Has the Minister read today’s National Audit Office report on the Red Dragon project, which tells us that it has cost the taxpayer £113 million—

I was about to acknowledge that I had not read it—I am extremely grateful for the intervention by the Chairman of the Select Committee.

Each year, 20,000 highly trained, motivated and disciplined former service personnel leave the armed forces. They are a fantastic national resource. By the time they leave the forces, individuals are better educated, fitter and more skilled than when they joined. In my view, though, the most important thing is that service life moulds people who leave with values such as integrity, leadership, responsibility and dedication. Those qualities are as welcome in society as they are with employers.

The essential relationship between the armed forces, society and the Government will never be undermined by mindless extremists. This was brought into clear focus three weeks ago by a group in Luton who abused the Royal Anglian Regiment as it marched. We must not confuse that disgraceful abuse as being remotely representative of colour, religion, kith or kin. It is not: it is the action of thuggish yobs, and it certainly does not reflect the views of the wider Muslim community. I was enormously pleased to listen to a radio show in which Muslims in Luton condemned the actions of this minority, and I heard the same last weekend from Muslims in my own constituency. We should never forget that. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in our country are prepared to participate in debate and politics rather than abuse the servants of the state.

Far worse than what happened in Luton are the killings of Sappers Quinsey and Azimkar. We must not let this deflect us from our path in Northern Ireland. It was a cold-blooded atrocity, wholly abhorrent, which was properly condemned across the political spectrum. I went to Northern Ireland last week to visit 38 and 19 Brigades and found a palpable sense of outrage wherever I went. Indeed, Martin McGuinness, not a man with whom I have agreed often over the years, summed up the views of the majority of the republican movement by denouncing the perpetrators of these shocking and callous acts as “traitors”.

We must remember that Operation Banner is over. The Police Service of Northern Ireland takes the lead on security there, just as other police services do elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The armed forces provide support as required to the PSNI—again, as per the remainder of the UK. Our people are trying to live normally in Northern Ireland, no differently from elsewhere. This normalisation will not be derailed by a tiny minority. The House should be assured that we will afford the security of our people the utmost seriousness, and that we are doing everything that we can to protect our people from the mindless thugs who seek to attack them. We will provide them with a firm and secure home base—nothing less is acceptable. Both in Luton and Northern Ireland, and across the UK, we must ensure that respect and tolerance are the bases of our society as opposed to extremism, whatever its guise. As so often, the armed forces are on the front line of this fight to protect our basic values, and we must be grateful to them for the job that they do.

Before the Minister moves on to his peroration, will he tell us when the Government intend to make known their response to the recommendations of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body?

The hon. Gentleman should be patient. We are almost ready to make known our response to the review body, and we shall do so as soon as we are able to. [Interruption.] He says from a sedentary position that it is overdue, but I am not aware that there is a set date for its release. We will make the House aware of our response soon—that is the only answer that I can give him. I urge him to be a little more patient.

The relationship between the armed forces and society has to be a two-way street. Each complements the other; one cannot exist without the other. Government’s responsibility is to ensure that that remains so, and that the armed forces are treated appropriately. This work in progress is something to which we remain wholly committed—our people deserve no less.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Corporation Tax Act 2009