I am announcing today changes to the defence programme, which will enhance the support to our personnel on operations in Afghanistan, worth £900 million over the next three years, and reductions elsewhere to make these enhancements affordable and to match our expenditure against available resources. In doing so, I have made every effort to ensure that we balance the priority of supporting our forces in Afghanistan with our commitment to maintaining the capabilities necessary for the future, and that we do not take decisions on major changes that should properly be made in next year’s defence review.
As I have said repeatedly to the House, support for our operations in Afghanistan is our main effort. I saw for myself last week the contribution being made by our forces across Afghanistan—taking on the Taliban and beginning to train and partner with the Afghan national army. I pay tribute to their bravery, their professionalism and their dedication.
The defence budget has had the longest period of sustained real growth since the 1980s: it is now £35.4 billion—over 10 per cent. more in real terms than in 1997. As the Chancellor confirmed at the pre-Budget report last week, not a single penny is being cut from the defence budget in 2010-11, but despite this significant investment, acute cost pressures remain. There are a number of reasons for this, including rising fuel and utility costs, increases in pay and pensions and, above all, cost growth in the equipment programme. A number of major projects, while providing superb military capability, have cost more than twice their initial estimate in real terms.
All of this presents us with a significant challenge both in this financial year and as we look forward. The National Audit Office’s “Ministry of Defence: Major Projects Report 2009”, published today, describes the result of these pressures. Going forward, I am determined that we take action to deal with these pressures and to address the challenges head on. That is why we commissioned the hard-hitting Bernard Gray report, why we are taking steps now to implement his report and why we are reforming defence acquisition better to match our priorities to our spending. Getting this right is critical; tough choices are required. We will be publishing in the new year the strategy that will provide a planning and management framework to produce an affordable equipment plan.
I am determined to ensure that those who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf remain properly supported and resourced. Our priorities in Afghanistan are to provide the best levels of personal equipment and protection to meet the fast-changing threat and to increase investment in key capabilities, including helicopter capability and our strategic air bridge.
I am therefore pleased to announce a number of capability enhancements to support the mission in Afghanistan. They are in addition to the operational costs paid for from the reserve, which continues to increase year on year and has risen from £738 million in 2006-07, when we deployed to Helmand, to over £3.7 billion this year. By the end of 2009-10, the reserve will have contributed over £14 billion to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, including some £5.2 billion on urgent operational requirements.
My decision to fund these enhancements from the core defence programme reflects our determination to ensure that the Ministry of Defence is supporting the current campaign, and our belief that we expect such capabilities to feature in a range of future conflicts that our forces may face. The enhancements total £900 million over three years. They include an improved dismounted close combat equipment package, making equipment such as state-of-the-art body armour and night vision goggles available to 50 per cent. more troops so they can train with it not only before deploying to Afghanistan but before they embark on pre-deployment training; more Bowman tactical radios and patrol satellite systems to improve communications between troops and commanders; an additional £80 million for communications facilities for special forces; increased funding for our intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities; and a doubling of Reaper capability.
As the Prime Minister announced yesterday, there will be further improvements in our counter-IED capabilities, particularly intelligence and analytical capability to target the networks that are doing so much damage to our troops and to Afghan civilians. There will be an additional C-17 aircraft to strengthen the air bridge, and improvements to defensive aids suites and support arrangements for the Hercules C130J fleet so that we can maximise their deployability and use. There will be 22 new Chinook helicopters, with the first 10 arriving during 2012-13, as set out in the future rotary wing strategy which I also announced today.
In addition to that package, the Treasury has signed off the latest funding from the reserve—over £280 million—to support a range of additional equipment for Afghanistan. It will include more new vehicles—for instance, there will be a 31 per cent. increase in the number of Husky tactical support vehicles and a 40 per cent. increase in the number of Jackal fire support vehicles for deployment in Afghanistan—and additional equipment to combat the threat of improvised explosive devices, including over 400 hand-held mine detectors, robots, and other items of kit. That one-off package is in addition to the resources already allocated for urgent operational requirements for the current financial year, and in addition to the protected mobility package that has already been announced.
The pressure on the public finances means that we need to prioritise carefully within our resources. We need to make reductions in lower priority areas to fund these enhancements, and to better match the defence programme to available resources. That has meant stopping or slowing spending in other areas, and pushing down hard on headquarters costs and overheads. Inevitably these measures will have an impact on some capabilities, but we judge that it will be manageable.
We will continue to reduce the number of civilians working in the Ministry of Defence. We recognise the importance of the civilian work force and the critical outputs that they deliver. That is why in the pre-Budget report we announced an independent study of the shape and size of the civilian work force, including the distribution of tasks between civilian and military personnel. This study will be undertaken by Gerry Grimstone and will inform the defence review. Without prejudicing its outcome, we would expect to be able to continue reducing the overall size of the civilian work force, above the 45,000 reduction already made since 1997. This is not just about doing more with less; we will need to make some hard decisions about what we can stop doing altogether, and about how we can bear down on other costs.
The other key adjustments we are making to the current programme are as follows. In line with our current aspirations to reduce to two fast jet types—the Typhoon and joint strike fighter—we will pursue without delay the Typhoon future capability programme phase 2. This is fundamental to the development of its multi-role capability and integration with the latest weapons. We will reduce now the size of our Harrier fast jet force by one squadron, close RAF Cottesmore and consolidate the Harrier force at RAF Wittering. This will maintain our joint carrier-based combat air capability. We plan to reduce our Tornado and Harrier force by a further one or two squadrons; decisions on the make-up of our future force will be taken in the defence review.
We intend to withdraw the Nimrod MR2 force 12 months early and slow the introduction of the MRA4. This will have an impact on our use of RAF Kinloss, but there is no change to our assumptions on the future basing of the MRA4 at this stage. The decision to withdraw the MR2 has been taken for financial reasons and is unconnected to the report by Mr. Haddon-Cave on the circumstances that led to the tragic loss of the Nimrod XV230 in Afghanistan. Mr. Haddon-Cave was very clear in his report that the aircraft remains safe to fly. I will make a further statement on Mr. Haddon-Cave’s report in the House tomorrow.
We intend temporarily to reduce some aspects of Army training that are not required for current operations. We will also take one survey ship and one minehunter out of service early, and cancel the current competition for unprotected utility vehicles and defer the programme for two years. We will bring forward the planned reduction in some of the older maritime Lynx and Merlin Mk 1 aircraft prior to the transition to the more capable Wildcat and Merlin Mk 2. We will spend less next year than previously planned on the wider defence estate but will continue to prioritise investment in both service family accommodation and single living accommodation.
The measures I have set out will also have implications for service personnel numbers. The details have not yet been finalised, but the emphasis will be on prioritising our manpower for operations in Afghanistan. Changes will be targeted so as to avoid affecting personnel involved in current operations. Reductions in service personnel numbers will mainly be managed by slowing recruitment and releasing some personnel, in accordance with their contracts. I appreciate that these changes will be difficult for many service and civilian personnel, their families and the communities in which they are based. I am fully aware of the consequences, and we will support those affected.
In making these choices, I have had to consider that the Government and the Opposition parties are committed to carrying out a defence review after the next election. A Green Paper explaining the Government’s vision of what that review should encompass will be published early in the new year. The measures reflect our stated priority of support for the Afghan campaign, and continued investment in new capabilities with enduring military benefit. This is a difficult balance to strike, but I am confident that we have got that balance right, and that that will be demonstrated where it matters most: on the front line, where our brave servicemen and women, supported by MOD civilians, are fighting for the future of Afghanistan and the security of our own country.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his statement and for prior sight of it, although we read much of it this morning in the media. It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the Secretary of State, whom I know to be personally very committed to our armed forces. However, despite the sweeteners, making cuts to our wider defence capability when we are fighting a war in Afghanistan only strengthens the perception that we have a Government who do not give a high priority to the armed forces.
The Government who were willing to waste £12.4 billion on a pointless VAT cut when they had to salvage their own reputation do not seem to have the same resolve when it comes to the country’s national security. The Ministry of Defence’s internal instructions were clear: allow for standing military tasks and do not prejudge the strategic defence review; and there is to be no capability removal but some shaving off. In other words, this is about numbers not fleets.
What will be the effect of the pre-Budget report on the MOD’s core budget, given that the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that non-protected Departments in the settlement will have to bear cuts of 16 per cent. over three years? By how much does it increase the £6 billion black hole highlighted in the Gray report? Is it true that the new Chinook aircraft will be funded from the cancellation of the future medium capability helicopter programme, not from savings arising from cuts in the RAF’s Tornado and Harrier fleets? If so, where has the £1 billion of savings from those cuts gone? What impact will the reduction in Tornado and Harrier squadrons have on the RAF force elements readiness strategy? What does the Secretary of State mean when he says that decisions on the make-up of our future forces will be taken later? Does the Treasury intend further cuts? Although more Chinooks will be welcome, we have to accept that we will not get them until 2013—12 years after we went to Afghanistan. Does that not indicate the sheer stupidity of the Government’s decision to cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004? When we get the new Chinooks, will they have a standard US army fit or will they incorporate the Thales Julius cockpit upgrade being applied to current RAF aircraft?
How will our submarines be protected following the withdrawal of the Nimrod MR2 next spring? How will the requirement for long-range rescue and maritime reconnaissance be provided once the Nimrods are gone? What aspects of Army training does the Secretary of State intend to reduce? Will he be specific about that? What implications does his statement have for the defence training review and RAF St. Athan?
Why are we cutting minehunter capacity when tension in the Gulf is rising? The Secretary of State is well aware that our minehunter capability is one of the capabilities most valued by our US army allies. We need to ensure that we maintain that capacity at a time when there are rising fears and tensions about what Iran intends to do. There is a real possibility of the Gulf being mined, so will he think again about removing a minehunter at an extremely sensitive time? In particular, will he consider the impact that that will have on the confidence of our allies?
There are many questions to be answered. The Secretary of State says nothing about the current carrier status and the possible downgrading of our facilities in Cyprus—again, that has been widely trailed in the media. The important thing for the House to consider is why cuts are being made to our defences at all. This is not about reprioritising spending for Afghanistan. He told us on television at the weekend that the Treasury reserve is paying, mostly, for the extra costs in Afghanistan. The Government say that they have maintained defence spending at about 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product during their time in office, but that is only if spending in Iraq and Afghanistan is included. In other words, by their own definition, they are trying to fight wars on a peacetime budget. Our defences are being cut not as a response to a diminished threat—if anything, the threat is going up out there—or to a reassessment of our strategic needs, or in order to reshape our armed forces. A Government who have had four Defence Secretaries in four years, one of whom was part-time, and no defence review for 11 years are now cutting the capability because of their own catastrophic economic management.
Overspent and over-borrowed, in a worse economic mess than most of our competitors, last out of recession and with a shrinking wealth creation sector, the Prime Minister in his bunker is still living out the fantasy of what a great Chancellor he was, while all the time his Secretaries of State are having to make real cuts to their departmental budgets. This is the end—the final pathetic chapter in the new Labour project. After 12 wasted years, in debt up to our eyeballs, barely able to finance the Government’s borrowing and worried about our credit status, we are now having our national security cut as a consequence. Who is paying for the Government’s incompetence? Our brave armed forces, at least until we get a general election, when the real culprits will pay.
I did explain to the hon. Gentleman—he knows the true facts—that no cuts in our budget are proposed this year. None whatsoever. We have enjoyed a steady rise in the defence budget that has made it 10 per cent. higher in real terms. He says repeatedly—I have heard it before—that we are fighting wars on a peacetime budget, but the Opposition supported our operations in Iraq and in Afghanistan and do not offer a single penny more for defence. He can go round all he likes trying to undo the public statements of the shadow Chancellor by ringing up members of the defence industry and saying, “It won’t really apply,” but the Opposition have to tell one story in public and the same story in private. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) does not offer a single penny more for defence, despite his allegations.
On the withdrawal of Nimrod, I do not take these decisions without consulting the Chief of the Air Staff and the First Sea Lord. Other platforms are capable of providing the maritime patrol responsibilities. They have done so before—they are Merlin and Hercules, and we can meet our obligations with those other platforms. We will continue to support the cost of current operations through the reserve, but it is quite ridiculous of the hon. Gentleman to suggest that the only thing that ought to pay for anything that is usable in current operations is the reserve. Of course we need Chinook in theatre in Afghanistan, but we will use Chinook elsewhere. Chinook is a considerable uplift in our helicopter capability not only for Afghanistan but for elsewhere, too.
The hon. Gentleman has nothing to complain about. He offers no additional money for defence and he really should stop pretending that he does.
I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it. Nobody will argue against the new equipment that will go to our front-line troops in Afghanistan and the additional capability that it will give them, but one must inevitably ask some questions about the details. The most eye-catching is the order for 22 new Chinook helicopters, of which the first will arrive in 2012-13. But how many will really arrive in 2013, when will the others get there and how does that fit in with President Obama’s timeline of beginning the withdrawal from July 2011? Would it not have helped if this decision had been taken a good deal earlier? Does this not prove the folly of the 2004 cuts in the helicopter budget?
We will all feel sorry for the Secretary of State because the Treasury has made him come here today, raiding core defence budgets to pay for these additional orders. What sense does it make for these decisions to be taken outwith the strategic context of the strategic defence review, which everybody is signed up to after the election? What will be the additional cost to the long-term defence budgets, and what will be the diminution of our core capability?
In 2001, we entered Afghanistan, and in 2003 we entered Iraq. The fact of the matter is that the fighting has been done on the cheap ever since. It is true that the Treasury has supplied UORs, but the fact of the matter is that the core defence budget has been creaking under the strain of these engagements ever since they began. The Secretary of State and the Ministry have tried to put off painful decisions until after the general election, but today harsh reality has caught up with them.
As I said in my statement, 10 of the 22 Chinooks will become available in the financial year 2012-13. It is all right for Opposition Members to talk about it being too late, but they know that we have doubled the helicopter hours available to our troops in Afghanistan and that there are 79 per cent. more helicopters. We have just put the Merlin into theatre, and the new Chinook capability not only will be greatly welcomed, but will come on top of all the enhancements that we have managed to achieve in the current fleet.
The hon. Gentleman talks about us cutting core capability, but how is providing twice as much Reaper capability in theatre, as we have at present, and providing additional Chinooks cutting core capability? Yes, these decisions are being taken ahead of a strategic defence review, but can he tell me what sensible person believes that ISTAR, unmanned aerial vehicles, helicopter lift in theatre and the kind of strategic airlift capability provided by C-17 are not what will be needed in the future? I do not believe that any of these decisions are cutting across decisions that will quite properly be made as part of a strategic defence review.
Order. Thirty-two right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As the House knows, there is another statement to follow. I should like, as usual, to accommodate as many Members as possible but, to do so, short questions and—I gently say to the Secretary of State—short answers will be required.
I listened to my right hon. Friend’s statement with interest, and I require reassurance on two quick points. First, will he reassure me that the cut to the minesweeper and survey vessel will not impact on Plymouth and the work carried out there? Secondly, when looking at the defence estate, will he, as I assume that he will, do everything he can to speed up the sale of significant parcels of land that have been hanging around for some time and need to be moved on?
The detail of my proposals has to be worked through, but I will talk to my hon. Friend and any other constituency Member about the consequences of the withdrawal of the minesweeper and the survey vessel. Of course, if there are opportunities to release capital receipts by disposing of land that is not required, we will try to do that as quickly as possible. I know that the city of Plymouth wants us to do that so that reshaping can happen and people can get on with their development plans for the city.
Several of the announcements will be very welcome—not least the wonderful announcement on Chinook, which will fly into and out of the equally wonderful RAF Odiham, which is in my constituency—but others will be less so. Precisely what aspects of Army training will be reduced, and by how much?
We will prioritise the training that is required for current operations. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a big shift towards using facilities in Kenya, which are very suitable for current operations. However, we must consider other aspects of Army training, for example regarding Challenger 2 tanks. We will not require the Challenger in Afghanistan because it is not suitable for that theatre. There are therefore reductions that we can make so that we can focus and improve our concentration on, and support for, current operations.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government intend to continue building two aircraft carriers? Furthermore, will he confirm that it is in fact only the Government who are committed to building carriers at all?
We are committed to the carriers. Nothing that I have said today affects the carrier programme in any way. I am sorry to tell my hon. Friend, however, that that does not mean that we can provide the three or four carriers that he has on occasion asked for.
Does the Secretary of State begin to understand the very dangerous precedent that he has created by giving in to the Treasury demand that Afghan expenditure should be funded from the core defence budget and not from the contingency fund? Does he not understand that there is hardly an example in living memory of that being done? How will he resist future demands from the Treasury—and they will come—that Afghan expenditure should be at the expense of the core defence budget itself?
It is right and proper—and the principle remains in place—that the additional costs of our operations in Afghanistan will be paid for out of the reserve and not the core budget. Everything, from the bullets and bombs that are used through to the additional allowances paid to our troops, comes from that source, and will continue to do so. Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman seriously suggesting that we should not be interested in using the core defence budget on major upgrades, such as a whole new fleet of helicopters? Is he saying that we should not buy anything that is relevant to our current operations out of that budget, but that we should expect the Treasury to buy anything and everything that is usable in theatre in Afghanistan? That really is unsustainable, and I think that he knows it.
This time last year, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Alison Seabeck) and I had just returned from Afghanistan. My right hon. Friend’s announcement today of enhanced capabilities for our troops in Afghanistan includes many of the things that they were asking for, but I want to ask particularly about close combat. Is he listening to what the front-line troops are saying about how we need to evolve our close-combat gear to give them additional agility and to improve their effectiveness?
Absolutely. I have had, as my hon. Friend will have had, repeated requests from troops. We know that there have been considerable improvements in personal kit and equipment for our operations in theatre, but we want to train as we will be expected to fight. We have enough close-combat equipment to provide for our troops in theatre, and overwhelmingly for their pre-deployment training before they go into theatre, but this package will allow people to get the kit and equipment that they will be using in pre-deployment training and in theatre before they begin their pre-deployment training. They will therefore be able to train with it for longer, and thus be more familiar with it and more capable as a result.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the number of RAF recruits going through basic training at Halton is due to fall next year, compared with this? Does that imply that the Government expect the RAF to become smaller in size over the next few years?
Our recruitment to all our armed forces has been very effective in the last couple of years, to the point that the Army is now fully manned. The detail of the impact on personnel is yet to be worked out, but I do not envisage the kind of effects that the hon. Gentleman talks about.
I welcome the measures announced by my right hon. Friend, but does he not think that it is time to reflect on whether we can avoid a reduction in non-operational training, for example, by determining whether we will get good value for money from the replacement of Trident?
The Government’s position on the nuclear deterrent is clear. We consulted widely on the White Paper that we published in 2006, and our view has not changed. I do not think that any sensible person would say that we should not prioritise the kind of training needed for the current operations at the expense of lower priorities at this time. We have 9,500 people in theatre and, as we have sadly found out, it is a very dangerous theatre of operation. That has to be our main priority and our main effort.
Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that, while the deployment of the 22 Chinooks in Afghanistan is much to be welcomed, many of us believe that they should have been ordered many months ago? Does he understand that that omission was culpable and negligent, and that men have died needlessly as a consequence?
As I have said to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, he stands as a member of a party that supported our operations, yet does not offer and has not offered a single penny more for defence. He has to square that with the kind of comments that he has just made.
I know why my hon. Friend asks that question. A statement was made in his Committee this morning. That was an erroneous statement. There is not a problem of a gap. There is an issue of training that we need to look at and of which we are fully aware. We are examining it and mitigating it. There is no gap in the programme between the existing carriers and the future carriers.
Does the Secretary of State understand that many of us believe that he is a victim of the serious misjudgment of the military action against Iraq, compounded by the parsimony of the Treasury? What are the foreign policy and military implications of such a substantial reduction in the offensive capability of the Royal Air Force in advance of a defence review?
There is some £3.5 billion from the Treasury reserve this year—the figure has gone up from £700-odd million in 2006—so if that is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman calls parsimony, they are pretty big figures and they have covered the additional costs of our operations in Afghanistan. When he talks about the effects on the RAF, to some extent the future of the RAF lies with unmanned aerial vehicles, and there is a proposal for a very substantial increase in unmanned aerial vehicles in the package that I am announcing today.
In August two lightly damaged Chinooks—one of them damaged by small arms fire—were destroyed by our own forces because the security situation is so dire that we could not guard them for the 36 hours that it would have taken to lift them to a place of safety. Because of the deteriorating security situation, is it sensible to order more Chinooks that are vulnerable to small arms fire and to surface-to-air missiles?
The Chinook is far, far from a vulnerable aircraft. Those two will be replaced, and the replacements for the two that were damaged in theatre will be paid for by the reserve in line with the principles that underpin what should be paid for by the Treasury reserve and what should come from the core defence budget.
What plans does the Secretary of State have to explain to the British people and to his colleagues in Government the direct relationship between the excellence of Her Majesty’s forces, which comes at a price, the security of this nation in terms of energy, food, water, all the goods that they buy to fill their kitchens and their fridges, their cars and their computers, and the ability of Her Majesty’s forces to have global reach to protect this country, all of which comes at a price worth paying?
The principal vehicle for doing that is the Green Paper that we will publish in the new year, which will raise all those questions, and I hope inform the debate about the future of defence. We have co-operation from all the parties that are part of the defence advisory board that is looking at the Green Paper and should provide a good intellectual underpinning for the strategic defence review that will be necessary and come after the general election.
The whole country will agree that my right hon. Friend has taken the right decision in focusing entirely on the important activity in Afghanistan. He referred to a survey vessel. Will he ensure that in working through the details of the withdrawal of that vessel, there is close integration and discussion with the broader scientific community to make sure that the valuable work that that vessel has done is not lost?
We have to try to maintain oceanic survey capability to the maximum degree that we can, but we have to prioritise our current operation, so the answer to my hon. Friend is yes—of course we will try to look at the detail and make sure that we still have the necessary minimum capability.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the chief of defence materials told the Defence Committee this morning that he is willing to consider building the Chinooks through AgustaWestland under the existing licensing agreement with Boeing. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he will instruct his officials actively to explore that option, if it can be done on time and on budget?
I would not turn my back on that option in principle, but, on the costs and the time frame, I do not believe that we will be able to get the Chinook capability via that route. If somebody were able to convince me otherwise, that would be absolutely fine. I can say, though, that in our remodelled helicopter fleet, AgustaWestland will have a very important role. It will still provide two of the four helicopter platforms that we plan to continue into the future—the Merlin and the Lynx Wildcat.
Will the Secretary of State explain why the statement did not include anything about Britain’s nuclear weapons? Would it not have been a good opportunity to announce the cancellation of the Trident replacement programme, thus saving a great deal of money?
Most of the capabilities that the Secretary of State has today announced will be sent to Afghanistan have been flagged up over the past year by the military in Afghanistan, as many hon. Members have said. Why has it taken so long for those capabilities actually to come into play? Is it because the Treasury and the Prime Minister delayed them?
It has not taken so long, and the hon. Gentleman knows that we have made repeated announcements of capability uplifts in all kinds of areas. I heard some so-called expert on the television today say, “Why are we only getting IED capability now when we have been in Afghanistan for eight years?” Well, we have not been in Helmand for eight years, and the threat changed. If we care to remember, a couple of years ago the big problem was head-on assaults, small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
There is an overwhelmingly responsibility on any British Government to protect and support British manufacturing and British jobs. Following the question from the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws), could I, as joint chair of the Unite parliamentary group, ask what discussions my right hon. Friend has had with AgustaWestland, as part of its strategic defence agreement with the MOD, to build the Chinook helicopter under the existing licence agreement? Will he consider—even at this late stage—a British bid and meet Unite representatives so that they can put forward their case?
I have said that I would not rule out in principle such an option, but in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, where budgets are tight and we need to have that capability as quickly as possible, I am not prepared to enter into an arrangement that delays and increases the cost of those aircraft. I want those Chinooks; I want them as quickly as I can get them; and I want them at an affordable price. I do not think that we are breaking our long-term relationship with AgustaWestland, which will continue to be a major supplier of helicopter capability to us.
The Secretary of State mentioned the cost growth in equipment programmes, and we understand from this morning’s report that the Government delay in pursuing the carrier contracts has caused an uplift in the price of more than £600 million and had knock-on effects on the work forces of Rosyth and Devonport. How is that value for money?
Look, difficult decisions have to be taken in order to prioritise the equipment programme. I heard a Conservative spokesman today describe how things might be different, but the Conservatives would have ordered the carrier, wouldn’t they? They would also surely—or would they?—have prioritised the things that we have prioritised, so if they are going to make the allegation that we did something wrong, they have to be prepared to spell out what they would have done differently, and they have singularly failed to do that.
My friend said a few moments ago that Government policy on Trident had not changed since 2006, but that is incorrect; the Prime Minister has floated the possibility of going down from four boats to three boats. If that were to happen, how much would be saved?
My hon. Friend needs to look at the White Paper, because the possibility of going down from four boats to three boats was floated at the time. I have to say to him that that would not save money in any near year because, as I am sure that he will appreciate, all the costs of the fourth boat come pretty late in the programme.
Given that the Tornado force is being reduced, RAF Marham in my constituency will be affected. The Secretary of State will appreciate that it is an extremely busy base that could not function without its dedicated local staff. What impact assessment have the Government undertaken to assess the effect that the cuts will have on local unemployment and unemployment as a whole?
We will obviously have to look at that. The operation at Marham is particularly impressive—I have been there myself—and we do not want to do anything to undermine the good work that is being done there. However, we have to prioritise the kinds of kit and equipment that are needed for our current operations, and that will lead to a reduction in the number of fast jets that we have. The decision on the breakdown between Harrier and Tornado will have to be taken as part of a strategic defence review. Considerations of the kind that the hon. Gentleman is talking about will of course be part of that evaluation.
The counties of Rutland and Leicestershire will be alarmed at the proposed closure of RAF Cottesmore, which is, inter alia, a significant contributor to the local economy. Will the Secretary of State, as a well-regarded trade unionist in a former life, indicate to the House what plans he has to consult the local work force and, indeed, the wider local community about the impact of this suggested closure?
We will be consulting them through the chain of command, and helping them in any and every way that we can. All I would say to my hon. Friend is that if we are to pay for the kind of enhancements that we need, and that are and should be our priority, there has to be something on the other side of the balance. We will try to help the people affected.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement. He will know that Government statistics show that, since 1997, 9,500 defence jobs have been lost in Scotland, bases have closed, regiments have been amalgamated, and in recent years £4.3 billion less has been spent on defence in Scotland than has been contributed by taxpayers in Scotland—and today the cuts have continued. RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth in my constituency will be significantly affected. The MOD must have worked out the manning and spending implications of today’s announcement. Will the Secretary of State confirm the staffing implications of the announcement for RAF Kinloss and RAF Lossiemouth? What are the projected cost savings at both bases? Taking into account the changes in the statement, how many service personnel and civilian MOD staff will be based in Scotland? How much will the defence underspend in Scotland grow by?
All I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that if the policies of his party were pursued, short of his policy of independence, there would be massive reductions in MOD-related jobs in Scotland. If he then got his own way on independence, one can only imagine the calamity in terms of the defence footprint north of the border. We are not going to close Kinloss, but obviously Nimrod MR2 activity there will cease, and that will have a significant impact on the levels of activity out of the base.
A few moments ago, my right hon. Friend said to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) that if the Chinooks came in on time and at the right price, he would not turn his back on British workers. Will he agree to meet my hon. Friend, with Unite colleagues, to talk about that issue?
The Secretary of State deserves respect for taking some very tough decisions that his predecessors should perhaps have taken many years ago. Nevertheless, he said in his statement that from the £900 million to be raided from the core budget, he is funding body armour, night vision goggles, Bowman tactical radios and counter-IED capabilities. By no stretch of the imagination is that justified, because he is raiding future defence capability to fund current operations, which the Treasury should be paying for directly.
The close combat support package needed for our operations in Afghanistan is already in place and being provided, and we have additional capability for pre-deployment training. What the Army would ideally like is that suite of capability right throughout the Army, and this change takes us a step towards that so that it has equipment such as night vision goggles before pre-deployment training. We cannot reasonably ask the reserve to fund that and to re-equip the Army completely.
On behalf of the 2,000-plus workers at the Scotstoun yard in my constituency, may I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement about the carriers? Can he allay some of my concerns about servicemen and women who come back from Afghanistan or any other theatre, and those who retire? I am concerned that they may not receive the help, financial support and training that they sometimes need when getting back into civilian life. Will he assure me that the cuts will not affect those people?
First, carriers are a very important capability that we remain committed to. With regard to the ongoing welfare needs of our armed forces, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), is looking seriously at how we can enhance the situation and protect people. We take the matter very seriously.
It is a central tenet of military life that time spent in training saves lives on operations, even if that training is of a more generalised nature, as the Secretary of State said in reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). What precise cut in the training budget is he looking for?
I am looking to maintain all the training necessary, if at all possible. That includes both pre-deployment training for Afghanistan and the kind of training that we undertake in perfectly relevant theatres such as Kenya. There has been an emphasis on Kenya, and therefore we have done less training elsewhere in recent years. We have to give priority to the kind of training that is necessary for our current operations, and that is what we will do.
When will the Secretary of State be in a position to make a statement to the House about the future of HMS Endurance? Is he aware of the debilitating effect that the continuous drift of the carrier programme is having on the work force in Portsmouth dockyard? They were led to believe that dates for the carrier build would be given this year, but they are now going further and further away and jobs are at risk. Is he certain that there will be no further drift in the carrier programme as far as the Government are concerned?
I do not know about “continuous” delays to the carrier programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows and as we have acknowledged, we delayed the programme, but there is not a continuous delay, and there will be no further delay as a result of my statement today. We are cutting steel now for the carriers, so work is progressing. We are still assessing the situation with regard to HMS Endurance.
As recently as 28 October, the Secretary of State came to the House under considerable pressure and claimed that he had attracted some additional ring-fenced money from the Treasury for Territorial Army training. Since then, we have heard of cuts and a lack of finance getting through to the Army Cadet Force, the officer training corps at universities and the TA itself. Will he look into that and confirm that there will be no cuts to the reserves’ training, as he articulated as recently as October?
Will the Secretary of State think again about withdrawing the minehunter from the Gulf? Does he remember the signals that were sent out and what happened when the survey ship Endurance was removed from the south Atlantic?
Of course, I will bear in mind the points made by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). However, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) should not exaggerate the situation. We have minehunters active in the Gulf area, as we have had for a considerable time. They are very valuable assets that a lot of nations appreciate.
The need for this statement and the shambles around the TA statement in October are signs that the management of defence is in the most desperate straits. The price of that is being paid by service personnel as well as by the equipment and training budget. Will the Secretary of State give more details about the reductions in service personnel numbers? The statement says that that will involve “releasing some personnel”, but how many is “some”?
The details are still being worked on, but I find it hard to square the hon. Gentleman’s allegation with an announcement that pushes another £900 million in the direction of our forces deployed in Afghanistan. How on earth can he square what he says with that?
I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of his statement. He describes helicopters and the strategic air bridge as key capabilities. Can he outline what beneficial difference there will be to troops on the ground within the next two to three years before the first Chinook arrives?
We continue to deploy the Merlin fleet and I believe that there are now five or six Merlin in theatre. They have given us a considerable uplift—we have more than doubled helicopter hours. We will continue to try to be as efficient, and to get as many of our existing helicopters into theatre and as much use from them as we can. Of course, the Chinook will provide yet more in-theatre lift, which will be very valuable. As I have said, we will get 10 of them in the financial year 2012-13. The additional C-17—the seventh—will be a real boon to the strategic airlift, which is so important to getting troops and supplies in and out of theatre.
Nobody is fooled. This announcement is about very serious and possibly savage cuts in our overall defence capabilities, and indeed downgrading our armed forces. That is a direct result of the antipathy towards defence funding and the appalling economic stewardship of the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. When the Secretary of State read the National Audit Office report today that talks about a possible defence deficit of £36 billion in this decade, who did he blame?
There has been a 10 per cent. real-terms increase in the core defence budget since 1997 supplemented by £14 billion for our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan from the Treasury reserve. Not a single penny has been cut in the defence budget this year, but we are dealing with the pressures that exist and redirecting money towards current operations.
My constituents at RAF Lyneham will no doubt welcome the extra defensive aids suites for their C130Js, and indeed the extra C-17, but it is very hard to imagine how, when they are fully stretched, as they are at the moment, they can possibly get any more out of the very limited C130J fleet. Is it not time that the Secretary of State cancelled the A400M and the ridiculous closure of RAF Lyneham?
Will the new vehicles being deployed to Afghanistan include tracked versions of the Mastiff family of vehicles to provide greater flexibility and manoeuvrability, not least because the Mastiff has saved the lives of hundreds of British service personnel?
Will the Secretary of State now answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) about how hollow this announcement sounds in relation to the announcement in 2004 about a £1.4 billion cut to our helicopter fleet?
The situation in 2004 was very different from the situation today. If the hon. Gentleman recalls, our operations in Iraq had only just begun and we were not even present in southern Afghanistan—[Interruption.] We were not even present in southern Afghanistan. The decision today will be very welcome as an appropriate shift of priorities in favour of current operations.
MOD civilian staff give loyal and long service, which is not always very well paid, in places such as the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency in Bicester in my patch. Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking to the House that those employees will be properly briefed by the line of command about what will happen to them, and about who will be retained in core functions and who might be at risk of being privatised? There is a lot of uncertainty around, and the very least that is owed to them is that the MOD—as a good employer—should tell them what is happening.
We will seek to do that, and that is in marked contrast to some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Woodspring about massive cuts in civilian headcount in the MOD which could, if not properly structured, lead to uniformed staff doing civilian jobs at increased cost, not at a saving. We will look at this, plan properly and consult our staff.
The Secretary of State’s announcement of 22 additional Chinooks will be very welcome, and it gives this House an opportunity to praise the professionalism and skill of the Chinook pilots and their aircrews, who risk their lives day in and day out in Afghanistan. Is the Secretary of State planning to increase the number of pilots and aircrews who fly Chinooks, or will he ask the existing pool to fly more often and make more visits to Afghanistan?